Land of Identities

An American Jewish Tibetan Buddhist Nun Visits Israel

Raised as a Jew, Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron became a Buddhist in 1975 and two years later was ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. A student of the Dalai Lama, she currently lives and teaches Buddhism at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle. Her books include Open Heart, Clear Mind; What Color Is Your Mind?; Taming the Monkey Mind; Transforming the Heart: The Buddhist Way to Joy and Courage; and the forthcoming Ancient Roots, Modern Blossoms: Living as a Buddhist Nun. Recently she was invited to teach in Israel where she had to confront that country’s many identities—as well as her own.


The headline of the article in the major Israeli newspaper read, “My Name is Hannah Greene and I’m a Tibetan Nun.” Interesting, I thought, those are two labels I don’t usually apply to myself. “Hannah” is my Jewish name, not one many people know me by, and I’m not Tibetan. At least I was able to answer when the journalists asked, “What is your Jewish name?” Their second question stumped me. “Are you Jewish?”

What does being Jewish mean? I remember discussing it in Sunday school, and when the rabbi asked that on a test, I managed to pass. Am I Jewish because my ancestors were? Because I have dark curly hair (or at least used to before it got shaved twenty-one years ago when I ordained as a Buddhist nun), brown eyes, a “noticeable nose” (as my brother politely puts it)? Am I Jewish because I was confirmed and Rabbi Nateev no longer had to face my persistent questions?

But now I was stumped. I hadn’t thought about whether or not I was Jewish. I just am. Am what? The interviewer tried another tact, “You’re American. What does being American mean to you?” I couldn’t answer that satisfactorily either. “I’m American because I have an American passport.” They looked at me quizzically. Am I American because I grew up with “Mickey Mouse” and “I Love Lucy”? Because I protested the Vietnam War? (Some would say that made me un-American.) Because I was born the grandchild of immigrants who fled the pogroms, on a certain plot of land called Chicago?

How could I not know my identity? They were puzzled. As my fifteen days in Israel unfolded, the issue of identity became a recurring theme. I realized how much my views had changed. I had been studying and practicing the Buddha’s teaching and thus had spent years trying to deconstruct my identity, to see it as something merely labeled, not as something fixed, not something I truly was. So many of our problems—personal, national, and international—come from clinging to these erroneous, solid identities. Thus in Buddhism, we are not trying to find out who we are but who we aren’t. We work to free ourselves from all our erroneous and concrete conceptions about who we are.

My Israeli host understood what the journalists were getting at: “If there were another Holocaust and you were arrested for being Jewish, would you protest saying you’re not Jewish, you’re Buddhist?” I was baffled. “There is so much suffering in the world right now,” I responded, “and I’d rather focus on doing something about that than on thinking up and solving future problems that may not even occur.”

“Your mother is Jewish. You could go to the immigration office and within an hour be an Israeli,” I was told. “Would you want to do that?” What does being an Israeli mean? I wondered.

Everywhere I went people wanted to know my identity; they cared deeply about the labels I attached to myself, thinking that if they knew all the labels, they’d know me. Israel is a land of identities. At the Ulpan Akiva, a unique language school in Natanya where Israelis can learn Arabic and Palestinians can learn Hebrew, some Palestinians said, “We’re Muslims. We hope you can come to our new country, Palestine, someday.” More identities. When they heard I follow Tibetan Buddhism they said, “The Tibetans’ situation is similar to ours. We sympathize with them.” This startled me because in the Jewish-Tibetan dialogue I had been involved with until then, we had focused on the commonalties of two peoples in exile trying to maintain their unique religions and cultures. But the Palestinians were right: Their situation is like that of the Tibetans, for both live in occupied lands.

In a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem, I participated in a Jewish-Buddhist dialogue. A rabbi and I began to discuss meditation, but the subject changed when the moderator asked, “Can one be Jewish and Buddhist at the same time? Or must one be either a Jew or a Buddhist?” The Orthodox rabbi on my left said, “There are various Buddhist schools and yours may not be one of them, but in general, Buddhists are idolaters.” My eyes opened wide. Being an idolater was not an identity with which I associated myself. The Reform rabbi on my left, an American, said, “I agree; Buddhists worship idols.” I was stunned. Calling someone an idol worshiper was about the worst insult a Jew could give someone, something tantamount to a Christian saying to a Jew, “You killed Christ.” The Orthodox rabbi on my right added his view: “The various religions are like the colors of the rainbow. They all have their function. Many Jews are at the leading points of new religious movements, and it must be God’s wish that there are many faiths.” He turned to me smiling, and sincerely wishing me well, he said, “But remember, you’re still Jewish.”

By the time the moderator asked me to respond, I was so shocked that I was almost speechless. “To me, Jewish and Buddhist are merely labels. It is not important what we call ourselves. It is important how we live, how we treat others.” Some people applauded.

I asked my Israeli Buddhist friends what they’d thought of the dialogue. “Oh, it was great,” they responded. “We were afraid that the rabbis would be really judgmental and argumentative, but they were more open than we expected. It’s remarkable that the two Orthodox rabbis came to the Reform Synagogue. Many won’t, you know.”

Some people who thought one could be a Jew and a Buddhist told me, “We have a Jewish soul, and we use Buddhist mindfulness meditation to bring out the best of it.” Perplexed, because the Buddha refuted the idea of a permanent soul, let alone one that was inherently Jewish, I had asked what they meant. “We are part of the Jewish people. Our ancestors lived and thought in a particular way, and this culture and this way of looking at life are part of who we are.” I wondered: Does their perspective mean that if you’re born with “Jewish genes” in a Jewish family that you automatically have a certain identity? That you cannot escape some fixed place in history as the descendant of everything that happened to your ancestors before you even existed?

As a child, I was aware of aspects of Jewish culture that I loved and respected, such as the emphasis on morality and treating all beings with equal respect. But I was also acutely aware of how the Jewish identity was shaped by persecution: “We are a unique group—look at how many times throughout history others have seen us as singular and have persecuted us even until death because of it.” From early on, I had reflected on having an identity based on others’ hate and injustice. I refused to be suspicious of people in the present simply because of experiences that my ancestors had in the past. Even as a child I wanted to have a positive view of humanity and not be shackled by keeping history’s ghosts alive.

A ghost that haunts the Jews today is the Holocaust. They are a traumatized people, and the Holocaust seemed to permeate almost everything in Israel. As a child I’d read a lot about the Holocaust, and it had taught me compassion, morality, being fair, not discriminating against an entire group of people, sticking up for the persecuted and downtrodden, and living honestly and with a clear conscience. Learning about the Holocaust had shaped many of the positive attitudes that eventually led me to Buddhism.

But I could never—either as a child or now as an adult—think that Jews had the corner on suffering. In the Galilee, I led a week-long meditation retreat. In one session, we had a spontaneous, heartfelt discussion about the Holocaust. One woman spoke about attending a gathering of second-generation Holocaust survivors and children of Nazis. When she listened to children of SS officers talk, she came to understand the deep guilt, suffering, and confusion they carry. How can you reconcile the memory of a loving father who cuddled you with the knowledge that he sanctioned the murder of millions of human beings? We talked about the parallels between the genocide of Jews and the more recent one of Tibetans by Chinese Communists. As Buddhists, how did the Tibetans view what happened to them? Why do we meet many Tibetans who experienced atrocities and do not seem to be emotionally scarred by the experience? Does forgiving mean forgetting? Shouldn’t the world remember so that we can prevent genocide in the future?

Yes, we need to remember, but that remembering does not necessitate keeping pain, hurt, resentment, and anger alive in our hearts. We can remember with compassion, and that is more powerful. By forgiving, we let go of our anger, and by doing that, we cease our own suffering.

That night, as we did a meditation on Chenresig, the Buddha of Compassion, out of my mouth—rather, out of my heart—came the words, “When you visualize Chenresig, bring him into the concentration camps. Imagine him in the trains, prisons, gas chambers. Visualize Chenresig in Auschwitz, Dachau. And as we recite the compassion mantra, imagine the brilliant light of compassion radiating from Chenresig and permeating every atom of these places and the people who were in them. This light of lovingkindness purifies the suffering, hate, and misconceptions of all beings - Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, Nazis, ordinary Germans who turned a blind eye to save their own skin - and heals all that pain.” We chanted the mantra together for over half an hour, and the room was charged. Very few times have I meditated with so concentrated a group.

The next day a young man asked, “Most of the people who operated or lived in the concentration camps died many years ago. How could our meditation purify all of them?” There was a pause, and I responded: “We are purifying the effect that their lives have on us. By doing this, we let go of our pain, anger, and paranoia, so that we can bring compassion to the world in the present and future. We are preventing ourselves from living in deluded reaction to the past. We are stopping ourselves from creating a victim mentality that draws others’ prejudice to us. We are ceasing the wish for revenge that makes us mistreat others. And although we cannot understand it intellectually, in a subtle way we do influence all the prisoners and Nazis in whatever form they are currently born in. We have to heal.”

One day I went to the Wailing Wall to pray. For a while I recited the mantra of Chenresig and visualized purifying light healing the centuries of suffering in the Middle East. From a Buddhist view, the cause of all suffering lies in our minds and the disturbing attitudes and emotions that motivate us to act in destructive ways, even though we all long to be happy. From my heart, I made strong prayers that all beings, and especially people in this part of the world, be able to generate the three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment - the determination to be free from the cycle of constantly recurring problems, the altruistic intention to benefit all living beings, and the wisdom that realizes reality. I then put my head to the Wailing Wall in concentration. Suddenly I felt a “plop!” as something damp hit my cap. A bird was flying overhead. Recounting the episode to my friends, they informed me that it is said that if a bird poops on one’s head at the Wailing Wall, it indicates one’s prayers will be actualized!

Thubten Chodron graduated with a degree in history from UCLA, traveled extensively, taught elementary school, and did postgraduate work in education before meeting the dharma. She helped facilitate the Jewish delegation’s visit to Dharamsala, India, in 1990 that became the basis for the book and documentary The Jew in the Lotus. She returns to teach in Israel again this year.

Image 1: Courtesy Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron
Image 2: Chenresig, eighteenth century, bronze with silver, gold, and gemstone inlay. Photo © John Bigelow Taylor.

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