A Jewish boy in a Buddhist monastery? Or a church? Sounds crazy, right?
Six years ago I would have agreed. My life was on such a different path. My mother died of brain cancer that year. Her death released a flood of conflicting emotions in me. I had just landed my dream job as a suit and tie” in the financial securities field in San Francisco. Yet my mother’s death drove me to re-think my approach to life. Money and material possessions lost their importance. There had to be more to life than just being a success.
After a couple of years I quit that job and went off to Asia. Eastern ways of life and philosophy fascinated me. Over the next few years I immersed myself in its teachings. I was impressed to find so much truth. Many of my thoughts and feelings could be reflected in it. I reasoned that my own will and desires were the cause of so much of my suffering and inner struggle. I grew in my resolve to try to live in accordance with the Eastern philosophy of life. The more I understood, the more true it seemed. I thought I was seeking wisdom, and that seemed a lofty ideal.
Eventually, my travels took me to Thailand, where I spent time in a Buddhist monastery. (The monastery had some American monks, so the instruction in Buddhism and meditation was in English.) I shaved my head. I slept on a concrete pallet. I went two weeks without speaking, waking up to gongs at four in the morning to go to meditation. My daily routine was to spend time deep in silent meditation, with folded legs. I also began to study yoga. I was finding true contentment.
After eight months of a “monastic” life-style on the Thai-Malay peninsula, my father convinced me to come home to San Francisco and go with the family to Israel. We had not taken a family vacation since I was a child. I thought that this might be our last opportunity inasmuch as my father’s health was shaky. I mused over how he had told me, “I want to go to the Promised Land once in my lifetime.”
My dad grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Vienna. They left Europe just following the Nazi occupation in 1938. My grandfather’s family was killed during the war. I was very proud to be a Jew; I was bar-mitzvah and I enjoyed the traditions surrounding the faith. Yet in my meditation and yoga, I had experienced many other things. I did not see God as a doting grandfather. I would tell people that I was an atheist. I proudly set myself apart from those I regarded as weak or insecure. I believed one’s spirituality came from within. This made me feel powerful. I thought I had great insight into the true nature of life.
When my family returned to the States, I remained in Israel. I had no particular plan, but I didn’t worry. I figured that if I didn’t fight life, doors would just open up for me. I was loosely following the Taoist approach to life-viewing life as a flowing river. The less I fought the current, the easier I would flow. I was confident that I would just kind of flow toward my destination, and that is what happened. I hitched a ride and was let off right in front of a Christian youth hostel in Haifa. The manager let me do some odd jobs for my room and board.
It was at this place that I began to read the Bible. I saw it as a book of wisdom that could broaden my thinking. I was familiar with some of the stories, yet I had never read it. I began at the beginning—Genesis. By the time I got to the end of the book of Exodus, the reading got a bit dry. Someone suggested I try the Gospel of John in the New Testament portion of the Bible. I got excited over finding out who this Jesus guy was anyway. As I read through John and then through the narrative account of Jesus’ life in Luke, I could agree with the things Jesus was saying. He seemed to be an enlightened guy like myself.
However, some strange things happened to me as I read on. Here is a typical dilemma: philosophically, I had a commitment to be an extremely moral person. Yet, my tongue would slip, and I would be disappointed with myself. My reasons for acting morally were not Bible based-they came out of a natural human necessity. However, when I opened the Bible, the first verse I read spoke of condemning the evil that comes out of the mouth. My heart skipped a beat. It had to be more than coincidence. I began to consider the possibility that God just might be there, but it still never occurred to me that the Christians could be right.
I knew the volunteers in the hostel were all Christians, yet it didn’t bother me. They were honorable and I enjoyed their company. I felt that they were finding their own way to peace; however, it seemed to me they took the Bible too literally. Then again, I figured it gave them security to do so. On the other hand, when I read the Bible, I was just expanding on my own enlightened spiritual awareness. I even tried praying alone in my room one night, but it seemed silly, talking to oneself.
I will never forget the night I was to depart the hostel. While I was in conversation with one of the workers, I was overcome with a strange tingling sensation all over my body. It startled me. I hunched over in my chair. The feeling intensified until I was shaking all over. This went on for three hours. I found myself falling to my knees, thrusting my head and hands to the ground. Then words appeared in my head like a blinking neon sign: “The Lord Jesus Christ is my Savior.” Now, I was a nice Jewish-Buddhist boy. I’d never heard this Christian rhetoric before. I felt as if the words wanted to burst from my mouth, but I was fighting it. Then I just said it, repeatedly. When it was over, I was covered with sweat.
From that night on, I could not stop talking to God. I couldn’t explain it, I just knew that God was there and somehow Jesus was the key. Paradoxically, I would not call myself a Christian, nor could I ever see myself going to church, and I still regarded the Bible as merely a book. But that also changed. My questions about the Bible, faith, and anything to do with what had happened to me were more like argumentative objections. Even though deep inside I knew it was true, I was plagued with severe doubts. One time as I was reading the Bible, it seemed to come to life right in front of me. I recognized that it was really God’s truth and that it applied directly to my life.
From that moment on, I immersed myself in the Bible. It seemed that God was teaching me something new every day. If I ever had a question, I would just pray, then open the Bible, and I would get some insight. The spirituality I received was not coming from within, but from the Creator—God. He was the objective truth as to who I was and why I was here. It no longer was just a matter of opinion.
I had thought that I understood so much about life before, but I was missing the main point the whole time. God had lifted me out of the flowing river and set me upon his solid rock.