Rodger Kamenetz. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994. x, 304 pages. $20.00, cloth.
In 1990, the Jewish poet Rodger Kamenetz traveled with a group of Jewish delegates to Dharamsala, a remote hill town in northern India, in order to dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The Jew in the Lotus describes his experiences on this journey.
The Dalai Lama, often referred to by his followers as Your Holiness,” is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist sect of Buddhism. He and his followers have been in exile from their historical homeland of Tibet ever since Chinese Communist forces annexed Tibet in 1959. Memories remain of the bloodshed and destruction that took place as the Chinese troops massacred Tibetans, including Buddhist monks, and destroyed thousands of monasteries and holy places.
What does this have to do with Jews? The Dalai Lama saw a connection: he was interested in learning how the Jewish people have been able to survive in exile for the last 1900 years while maintaining their identity, religion and language. He hoped to glean from this dialogue insights into how his own people could survive in exile while maintaining Tibetan Buddhism as a viable religion. The Dalai Lama was also interested in learning about Judaism and finding parallels between Buddhism and Judaism.
In the course of chronicling this journey, Kamenetz talks about the existence of Jewish Buddhists—whom he calls “JUBUs”—here in America and in India. He describes at length the phenomenon of Jews who have found fulfillment in practicing Buddhist meditation techniques, adapting a Buddhist philosophy, or in some cases becoming celibate Buddhist monks and nuns. Accordingly, several chapters are dedicated to in-depth interviews with JUBUs. Many had negative experiences with their own Jewish heritage. Others stated that Buddhist philosophy and meditation “fulfilled” their Jewishness.
There are certainly good things to be said about The Jew in the Lotus. It is nicely written, sprinkled with Yiddish and Hebrew phrases and lightly spiced with humor, Jewish-style. It offers insights into contemporary Jewish religious expression: Kamenetz reports that the number of Jews participating in Eastern religions is large and out of proportion to their relative population in society. He gives examples of leading Jewish pioneers of Buddhist philosophy in the Western world. Additionally, he provides a rare insight into the Dalai Lama’s personality, interests, humor and ways in which he responds to new concepts.
Nevertheless, I was greatly disappointed in the fact that God was completely left out of the dialogue. Early in the discussion, the Dalai Lama stated that Buddhism does not accept a creator or an almighty God, only the concept of God as truth, reality or emptiness.
In contrast, the God of the Bible is clearly a creator with personality who is involved in the lives and history of the Jewish people. Yet not once did any of the rabbis or Jewish delegates give any credit to God, not even when the Dalai Lama asked how the Jews managed to prosper economically and intellectually in exile. Kamenetz notes that no one gave the “religious” response that God has blessed the Jewish people (p. 221)!
In fact, the Judaism that was presented was mostly in the mystical realm of Kabbalah or in the area of Jewish liturgy in the home setting. The Kabbalah becomes the topic of many chapters, relating how the dialogue participants noted its parallels to Buddhist mysticism. Jewish views of reincarnation were discussed as a matter of fact.
In the end, the Dalai Lama had his own advice for the Jewish people: we need to make our Kabbalistic mystical teachings and meditation techniques more mainstream so as to capture the interest of Jews who become secular or who turn to other religions.
As a book, The Jew in the Lotus is well written, but as religious philosophy it is far from the faith of the Bible where we encounter a personal shepherd, redeemer, and everlasting God.
David Feinberg is a geologist working in Southern California.