Torah encounter follows sojourn into Zen meditation

I recently had myself a true blue Jew-Bu weekend, a weekend that was equal parts Judaism and Buddhism. That's not an unusual occurrence in these parts, of course. The Bay Area is brimming with Jew-Bus — Jews who embrace Buddhist practice to varying extents, sometimes at the exclusion of their native faith.

Jew-Bu-ism encompasses a broad spectrum. Last year, for example, I dated a guy who was born and raised Jewish, but immersed himself in Buddhism so wholeheartedly as an adult that he spent months studying in Thai ashrams and once seriously considered becoming a Buddhist monk. I decided he'd surpassed the Jew-Bu label and could safely be called a Bu-Bu.

Now I'm by no means a full-blown Jew-Bu — in fact, those who know me would say I'm a Jew-Jew through and through. Still, lately I've found myself increasingly drawn to Buddhist concepts. There's simple wisdom, for example, in the notion that most human suffering is caused by the resistance to accepting our lives just as they are right now.

Because of ideas like that one — and because my mind sometimes feels about as calm as BART at rush hour — I found myself at the San Francisco Zen Center on a recent Saturday morning, sitting in a half-lotus position in a beginner's meditation class.

A number of people I know derive great benefit from regular meditation. My Chinese acupuncturist, a devout Buddhist who exudes the kind of genuine serenity many of us can only aspire to, tells me that sometimes when she meditates she feels so huge and open she can touch the heavens.

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I must admit it felt a little odd to be at the Zen Center on a Shabbat morning, since I generally try to attend services at that time. But, instead of donning synagogue garb, I threw on a pair of baggy hippie pants and a loose T-shirt and headed for the Haight.

I've tried Jewish meditation once or twice, but I lack knowledge of meditation fundamentals and figured the Zen Center would be a good place to get them. In class, we learned basic terms and postures before diving in and attempting to sit still for 10 minutes (that's harder than it sounds). Then we attended a lecture by a Buddhist priest.

He talked about adhering to Zen practice and precepts even when life wears us down. The idea, he said, is to approach everything — the good, the bad and the mundane — with awareness. Buddhism teaches that we spend so much time obsessing about the past and worrying about the future that the present virtually eludes us.

I like the traditional Buddhist vows (among them: "Beings are numberless — I vow to save them," "Delusions are inexhaustible — I vow to end them"), but when the group started chanting them, I felt out of place. Usually when I chant in a group, after all, I'm chanting Hebrew.

Yet I'm sure I was far from the only Jew there.

The man who taught my meditation class revealed himself to be a Jew-Bu. And as I looked at the roster of teachers at the center, I saw other Jewish names as well.

I've heard some Jew-Bus say that Judaism fails to offer the spirituality they seek. Many say they grew up with a Judaism that felt dogmatic and rote. I've certainly sat through my share of services that left me cold.

Yet I've also experienced tremendous spiritual awakening in Jewish venues ranging from Reconstructionist to Orthodox, and I'm glad to live in an area that's particularly encouraging of Jewish inquiry and innovation. Sunday night, I rounded off my Jew-Bu weekend at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot (an all-night celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai) that blended exuberant song and dance with quiet reflection and insightful discussion on the experience of studying Torah.

All that's not to say I can't weave ideas from other faiths into my tapestry of belief. I recently read that in order to avoid stepping on insects, Jains brush the ground clean before walking on it. I'm still going to kill scary spiders crawling across my kitchen counter, but the idea of respecting other living entities so consciously gives me pause.

Similarly, Buddhism, which focuses more on day-to-day human experience than on one's relationship to a deity, is not antithetical to Judaism. One local rabbi, Alan Lew, wrote a book about his path as a "Zen rabbi" and subtly integrates Buddhist-inspired philosophies into his teachings.

I aspire to that sort of balance. Because for all of its wisdom, Buddhism can only complement, but never replace, my Jewish core. Judaism offers me a rich history, a sense of community, a set of lifecycle rituals keenly in tune with the psyche, and ancient texts that if mined correctly, offer profound guidance for modern life.

In other words, it gives me plenty to meditate on.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.