Confessions of a Zen Jew

By Max Roth

Death is a visit wasted upon the living. The wisdom and the depth it should impart to our lives are innocently swept aside by our mourning for the departed, who on other shores mourn neither for themselves nor for those left behind because the soul is as it is, being wise in its suchness.

Standing on a grassy, sloped Los Angeles hillside, I feel my ankles strain as the morning sun covers us in its warm blanket. For a Jewish funeral, women are separated from men, and today they sit in a small group while we men stand slowly baking under our yarmulkes, managing a smile now and again and shaking hands with family members unseen, never telephoned, and usually forgotten.

The nomadic blind passing of one another in the steel-beamed, high-rise desert after this funeral will continue because we're self-involved in our interests and material goals. This is what our ancient history of war, cultural exclusivity, and death has been reduced to.

While I watch my grandmother being interred on the grounds of Hillside Memorial Park, I wonder if I'm also witnessing the end of a prideful, questionable history. We are not so exclusive after all. We're part of creation, a result of the universe's original statement: an allowance for the space-time to become. We use what the living universe possesses--virtue, the propensity to evolve along certain bioscapes, as a single raindrop contains the virtue to become a magnificent rain forest.

As I ruminate and study the backs of all these covered heads, another soul, my grandmother's, is freed, and I believe I am looking at the result of a violent, beautiful, profane history of which we are all a part and product.

* * *

I am a Jew. I'm proud. Though I question where my pride comes from. Perhaps it isn't pride, but the fear of knowing that in a Christian nation I'm an outsider who must stand resolute. I have also some small degree of discomfort, knowing that although the Zen community makes no distinctions and asks no man to leave his tribe, by my own race I'm considered a deserter because I choose to practice zazen instead of davening, and take my sustenance from Philosophical Taoism rather than the Torah. It has been asked of me why I deserted my religion to practice Zen and Philosophical Taoism, and why I write—the assumption being that I have deserted and have the chutzpah to advertise this infidelity to my Jewish god.

I don't perceive myself as born again into Philosophical Taoism or Zen--especially when that is stated as an accusation--but simply as a man who has well used the better part of a wondrous life’s journey searching for that truth which binds me to the living universe. My search was spawned into perpetual motion by an intuitive, vague assumption connected, I'm certain, to a monotheistic upbringing; the universe, known and unknown, must be nourished by a single principle.

Meaning? President Clinton, the drug dealers on Hollywood Boulevard, L. A. Police on bicycle patrol, the suburban housewife in Encino, prostitutes and coochy dancers on Western Avenue, you, and myself are all driven and thrive by one and the same principle: creative process. We are shadows of that process. The President, the hookers, and I are all works in progress.

Abraham and Moses failed to sell me their vision of God: a powerful, vengeful male entity, a real estate magnate hurling the universe at humankind with grave contractual obligations attached.

I have discovered a principal source which borrows the feminine and whose universe is given freely as a gift with no strings, no morality save nature's. The universe teems with a ceaseless yielding quality--the "allowance" for evolution, the fact of transformation. This allowance, called Tao, is the quantum gesture of the universe. It is our first principle, our original statement. Tao manifests and functions in the material world, not through a man-made moral code, but with natural virtue, the virtue of an event developing along its intended path. Lao Tzu, that old Taoist, describes Tao as the "Valley" or the "Great Mother," the "Womb of the Ten Thousand Things." I am a man, and what man in his right mind will keep loyalties to a burning bush when he can keep company with a mysterious, amoral womb bearing gifts?

Philosophical Taoism explains this creative source, and Zen provides the philosophical and physical discipline to know the source concretely through body and mind. In Judaism I could never know God, I could only know about God.

The best way to understand Tao is witnessing it everywhere, but especially reflected in one's self; a clean mirror presents the truest reflection. The less one's mind is cluttered with preconceived notions of right and wrong, positive and negative, this and that and the other, the more clearly one reflects Tao. At age forty-five, I don't know if my understanding of Tao and Zen koan should be spoken of as correct or wrong; however, it works for me.

Unlike other inaccessible higher truths, my Zen is not to be studied; it is to be lived. Zen forms are not merely a learning system, they are an expression of the Tao, a dynamic, thriving principle to be used. Talking, writing, and thinking are all expressions of intellect, a human virtue, and certainly part of living--thus this essay--but analytical activities are overrated, and that is another reason I instinctively cringe, pulling away from practicing Judaism. A large portion of a Jew's life is expected to be spent in the sedentary pursuit of Torah study and analysis. Climbing the mountain and shouting at God directly, for me, is more rewarding than arguing over the word of God in a book. I've always been a troublemaker.

The Zen of life is in the living of it. To write it in Zen vernacular is to tell the story of the student who repeatedly implored a monk to clue him in on the secret of Zen.

Have you eaten breakfast?" the monk inquires.

"Yes," answers the student.

"Then wash your bowl."

Zen is the practice of realizing what we are about at this moment, how important our actions are. I value the practice because our "destiny stream" originates from this moment. In this way we realize the Tao of an event, yet do not sacrifice our journey to fate. Zen commands that I jump into the stream now, as a happy--though sometimes confused and frustrated--city dweller, becoming an active participant today in the future.

The need to sequester oneself behind the walls of a temple is in no way compelling. In the light of "engaged" Zen practice, to separate from the balance of humankind is even undesirable. Nothing metaphysical or esoteric is waiting here to confuse us. Philosophical Taoism is practical hands-on stuff. Zen practice is hands-on practice whether it is zazen posture and meditation or koan Zen, a mental and emotional changing of perception through working a mental puzzle.

The Zen koan is a dynamic exercise in polishing our mirror, forcing us to leave behind our convoluted thinking about reality and to confront reality directly. None of the habitual ideas we view the universe through can aid in answering a koan. Every moment is an original one, therefore, every action, reaction, thought, impulse, and notion cannot come before its time but must be fresh and original to meet the moment.

Torah is not met with genuine, spontaneous enthusiasm, but is venerated as an aged study entombed by an environment and with an attitude duly respectful of an ancient artifact. The Torah is interpreted, but it is not open to interpretation. It is analyzed, but only by the exclusionary light of its own Noachian code. In the eye of Zen, using a preconceived or old idea to meet an original moment is ludicrous. A koan, like the one below, is an original moment.

Upon meeting his master, a Zen adept tapped his staff on the ground and circled the master three times.

"Correct!" shouted the master.

The same Zen adept, later meeting a different master, tapped his staff on the ground and circled his new master three times.

"Wrong!" shouted the master.

"Why?" asked the adept.

The new master struck the adept in the face three times, and the adept was enlightened.

Some may think of Zen as nonaggressive, but on the contrary Zen demands to know "What now?" and the only answer is to summon all of one's forces and live. The above koan is understood in terms of an original action needed to partake in a genuine life. Three slaps in the face add the exclamation point to the question "What now!" That is only the understanding, not the answer. The answer is a change within the student who contemplates the koan. For this reason, a koan is not studied in the traditional sense of the word, but rather serves as a point of focus while one lives one's life. The student approaches the roshi with a perfect understanding of his koan. However, he's turned away as only half-baked because the roshi knows his student's change has not yet taken hold.

* * *

The Rabbi tears my mother's scarf and my uncle's lapel. Opening his small black book he reads: "The Lord is my shepherd...He restores my soul...."

A group of men have rolled up their white sleeves, loosened their neckties, and perspire under their yarmulkes, shoveling dirt into the grave. It is not a dark event, but a highly energized tribal ritual under the new day's sun. The shoveling picks up speed. Dirt flies. Men cast off shovels to other men waiting in line, a line of energy sending Grandma on the next leg of a journey I know not where, though I'm culturally inundated with theories. Armani sport coats are tossed into the air, on the lawn, wherever--they don't matter. It is the kiss of death, the send-off, the journey to the Promised Land or the Pure Land. It is almost a congratulation.

Grandma experienced eighty-odd years of finite life before she earned her infinite reward. Life, when lived fully, exacts an extended, supreme effort. Life is damned important! I must hand it to Our People; we know how to live. Our living gives rise to a recognition of the spirit through the bioscape, our propensity to express our spirits via politics, art, religion, philosophy, healing, and justice. The Tao gives rise to the spirit.

Lao Tzu's little book, the Tao Te Ching, is not an end in itself, but it is a finger pointing. It's a fine place to begin. Today, having gone to my grandmother's funeral, having touched base with my Jewish roots, it is a good day to pause momentarily, consider the Tao, and move along.

The Tao is perfect yet indefinable.

Only the Tao is at the beginning and knows how to complete.

—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, ch. 41

The last shovel rests. We walk in small groups down the hill to our waiting cars, talking small talk, ignoring our own pressing feelings of mortality.

* * *

A triangular relationship exists between the Tao, Zen koan, and everyday life. For as many years as we live, we build our castles, fill our moats, and train our guards. Only that point of view allowed past the guard enters our kingdom, and that point of view dictates everyday choices and patterns. Because of this defense, the ideas presented in Philosophical Taoism may not sound applicable to our own lives. However, through working koans we force a changing of the guard. Life will still be as it is, though we will view it differently.

Does this changing of the guard mean a Zen Jew can become a Buddhist? Ostensibly, yes! The Los Angeles Buddhist sangha swells with Jews who now refer to themselves as Buddhists. But as a Jew, I feel deeply, knowing what all Jews know: being Jewish is a history, a culture, an ethnicity more than a religion. Once a Jew, always a Jew. A Zen Jew will view life differently, though life will be what it is, and life is historical. The Zen canon says, break with the past, now is now. But it continues by tempering itself, saying Zen is a transmission beyond words, even its own words. The spirit of the matter for me, this feeling I have for Our People, is beyond words.

I was raised a Jew. And as my wife has mentioned, while nothing else in my life appears to reflect that upbringing, my writing often takes on a distinctly L. A. Jewish voice. It should. It is not my virtue to be a Zen Buddhist, but to be a Zen Jew. Buddha is not my god, though his words are eternally wise and have furthered my understanding of life and duhkha. Buddha never openly proclaimed the existence or non-existence of God. His concern was this life, here and now. Neither did Lao Tzu speak of God in the Tao Te Ching.

However, these men did speak of living a life engaged in accepting responsibility for our actions and helping others to rise above suffering--two principles also heavily practiced in Judaism. I have experienced a changing of the guard, and for me no conflict exists between being an ethnic Jew and practicing Zen or Philosophical Taoism as an aid to spiritual sustenance. All life in the universe is born linked and nourished by Tao--the way and its virtue.

No Jew is allowed to mention God by his true name, such is God's omnipotent power. Lao Tzu says, "That which can be named is not the eternal Tao." Spiritually the lines of exclusivity tend to dissipate; differences become cosmetic or approachs from different directions to the same end--to become wise in our suchness, to know our souls.

A Zen Jewish Glossary

Yarmulke: The traditional Jewish soft cap worn by males on the back of the head.

Torah: The Jewish canon.

Zazen: Zen style meditation, literally "sitting Zen."

Davening: The Jewish style of praying in which prayer becomes a meditational liturgy.

Nirvana: Final death of limitations and suffering, literally "extinguishing (the flame)."

Chutzpah: Audacity.

Roshi: A trained Zen master or teacher.

Duhkha: The suffering that is a part of life.

Sangha: The Buddhist community or congregation.


Max Roth is a free-lance writer and literary editor who has practiced Zen meditation for more than twenty-five years. He has received three awards from the National Writers Association for fiction, most recently for his novel manuscript "Promises from the Garden."


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