Sylvia Boorstein has been teaching since 1985 and teaches both vipassana and metta meditation. She is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center and a psychotherapist, wife, mother, and grandmother who is particularly interested in seeing daily life as practice. Her books include It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness; Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: A Mindfulness Retreat; That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist; Pay Attention for Goodness' Sake: The Buddhist Path of Kindness; and Happiness Is an Inside Job.
1. Sven asks, "I understand there is a connection between how angry I am and how I treat others. But if no one else understands this I am exposed to their anger. When others are so out of control it makes me despair."
Questions about anger seem to me to be among the questions most frequently asked. Perhaps that’s because anger is so uncomfortable. The Buddha likened it to “a toxin in the veins.” My intention to establish peace in my mind is strengthened every time I re-experience the end of suffering that accompanies the disappearance of anger in me. Tom, a friend of long ago, once told me, “Remember, Sylvia, forgiveness is the price you have to pay for freedom.” I am clear that forgiveness does not mean forgetting or condoning. It just means, “This is how things are. And I have a choice in how I respond.”
This question addresses the particular feeling of distress that arises in the presence of other people’s anger. I’ll assume the questioner means anger that is directed at them. There is a list of antidotes the Buddha suggests for countering anger with compassionate forbearance. One is apologizing, if amends are in order. Another is reflecting on the pain the angry person is experiencing. Another is showing the other person some kindness. Another would be directing Metta (Loving) blessings toward the angry person (which would surely be soothing to oneself in the doing.) Finally, the Buddha suggested, you could stay away from angry people.
2. telemark asks, "Do we have political obligations as Buddhists? We must, if we have moral obliations, right? I know I have an obligation to do no harm -- but what if no candidate meets my values at all? Am I obligated to vote?"
I think of Buddhist moral precepts for behavior not as obligations but rather as guides that can be brought to mind as we make decisions guiding our actions. I like the Buddha’s instructions to his son Rahula, “Before undertaking any action, one should reflect thus: is what I am about to do for my benefit and for the benefit of all beings?” He goes on to include making that reflection in the middle of actions, “Is what I am doing…?” and after acting, “Is what I just did…?” And, of course, acting, or not-acting, when it is for everyone’s benefit and making amends when they are called for.
Voting is an action, but so is not voting. I think that examining one’s intentions as one decides to vote or abstain would be important.
3. Jimmi asks, "Can you explain the prevalence of “Jew-Bu”s? Maybe we Jews are more open to other traditions and cultures but I do not remember my childhood that way. Thanks. Love your work."
The term “Jew-Bu” (a natal Jew with a serious interest or commitment to Judaism who still feels connected to Judaism) was first coined, I believe, by Roger Kaminetz in his book, “The Jew in the Lotus,” a chronicle of the visit of American rabbis invited to Dharmasala by the Dalai Lama in the early 1990s to discuss the challenge of keeping a religion alive for a people in exile. At that time the presence of Jews, especially at teaching levels, in western Dharma communities did seem unusually conspicuous: Glassman, Goldstein, Salzberg, Kornfield, etc. there was, in fact, a level of concern in the Jewish community about “Where is everyone going?” My own sense is this:
Young, thoughtful Jews in mid-century, post WW2 America were looking for a spirituality that was modern (rational), one that equated spirituality with personal growth and offered a path for transformation. They wanted a spirituality that promised peace of mind in a time of important social change such as the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the challenging of long-held views about sexuality and gender roles.
It was a time when young people, in general, embraced service to others as a spiritual path and joined voter registration campaigns, and the Peace Corps, and Teach for America. ( Buddhism presented itself as being for the benefit of all beings was very attractive.)
People were ready to do something other than go directly from college to graduate school and settle into the same lives as their parents had had.
And all during that time, Buddhism was coming to America: Zen teachers, who influenced Thomas Merton and many others; The Beat poets who carried the Zen idea into the wider culture. Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco, and other Japanese teachers; Thich Nhat Hahn, not only with his extraordinary wisdom but with his background in Vietnam, very much part of the consciousness of that generation. Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield who came back from the Peace Corps with particular experience in teaching Mindfulness and Lovingkindness. Sharon Salzberg who had gone to India as her third college year. Tibetan teachers.
It was exciting for young people in general, and perhaps, especially for Jews at that time because:
1) On the most positive side, 20th century Judaism was generally more ecumenical than previous generations had been and had encouraged both respect and interest in other religious traditions. So, young people felt freer to investigate.
2) Also, for many young people, Judaism had become either archaic and irrelevant in a modern world, or so modern and rational that it neither offered (nor provided) spiritual direction or solace. Jews who may not even have explicitly been looking for something, were captivated by the idea of a spiritual practice that promised peace, that seemed rational, that required effort but not fealty and indeed did not challenge any religious identification they may have had.
3) Part of the culture of the 60s and 70s emphasized “mystery”, “transcendence”, and, as an outcome of a decade of exploration of altered states through drugs, the beginning of interest in altered states through meditation. Transcendental Meditation, taught by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi but introduced to the greater culture by the Beatles made the cover of Time magazine. People in general started wanting to meditate and among them, at the time, the numbers of Jews seemed disproportionate to the population of meditators.
As a post-script update to this overview, I might add that it seems to work for many practicing Jew (and Christians) to study and practice at Buddhist practice centers and continue their religious affiliation. They report that Dharma insight, itself non-parochial, enriches their religious experience. It is also true that some people find that they are attracted to Buddhism enough as a total religious path to adopt it as their family practice and identify themselves as practicing Buddhists.