Tricycle Q & A: Sylvia Boorstein's Answers

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.

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Kesho's picture

I appreciate this "Jew Bu's" concept. I was active in the Black Radical Left during the 60s and I could not be considered a "Black Bu" who turned to Buddhism, then because there were many very bad things happening in the black movement I did not criticize. And now, I turned to practicing because there is no unity in the black movement, as of yet. Thanks.

Dyonna's picture

I suffer from a form of schizophrenia that at times causes me to be "emotionally insane." Sitting meditation does help, nevertheless my mind is like a jungle.
After years of meditation I tend to panic even when faced with something totally unreal.

Do you have any comments or suggestions?

pj.pushkar's picture

One of the main teachings of Buddhism is to go along with whatever comes and completely accept it, rather than trying to make things happen your way.

1. My first question is - should we really go along with whatever comes, OR try our best to change things for better without worrying about the results? e.g. if my flight is 6 hours late, should I just sit at the airport for 6 hours, or see if I can find an alternate flight to my destination? Whether I actually get booking on this alternative flight is irrelevant, as I am only trying to act to the best of my ability and not attaching myself to a particular outcome (get the booking on alternate flight)

2. My second question is - As a budding practitioner, I need some time daily to meditate and reflect. But suppose if after leaving from office, my friends insist on me to come along with them to a club, should I comply because I am going with whatever is coming, even though i want to get home and meditate? Similarly, if it takes me 3 hours daily in traffic to-and-fro from office, should I try to be calm and composed during that drive (going along with whatever comes) and keep up the drive or try to look for a home nearer to office so the time saved can be used for meditation, reading etc.?

Any insights would be greatly appreciated.


jackelope65's picture

My daily commute to a hospital had been 3 hours with no time for family, meditation, or exercise. Enlightenment does not come when the body and mind are totally abused caught up totally in worldly matters. When I changed my commute to 20 minutes daily, I made less money, but I could focus on family, exercise, and not only meditate daily but attend Sangha twice weekly as well as attend teachings. I found that i became more able to be fully open to each moment and really live.

billito's picture

the way I approach this is not sweating what i can't control.your commute time is out of your hands;you could make yourself crazy worrying about it,or...
when i travel i tell myself that whatever happens,by the end of the day i will be relaxing at my destination and the inconvenience will be a thing of the past.And i could have despaired but what good would it have done?raised my blood pressure?If something interferes to make the time longer,well, what can i do? i can get "bent out of shape" or take a deep breath and deal with it.what are my choices? anger is a waste of time and energy and like cancer, its a disease/dis-ease that feeds on the host (you).You do have choices when it comes to going to the club with coworkers--going with the flow doesn't mean being a "victim" do what is healthy for you.

mds's picture

Thanks for that, billto.