Thursday, August 30, 2007

Why Did Jesus Have To Die?

[This is a conversation I had recently with a delightful Christian minister.}

“What I don’t understand, Pastor, is why. Why does God need to kill Jesus in order to save humanity?”

I was speaking to a very kind and thoughtful minister of a local church. The topic was Jesus and my lack of faith in him. “If you explain to me why God needs to send His Son to earth to be murdered, then perhaps I can better understand how Jesus is my savior.”

“It is clearly stated in the Gospel of John: God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son…”

“But why?” I interrupted. “When Abraham was to show his love of God by sacrificing Isaac, God stopped him. Why is God willing to do what he demanded Abraham not do?”

“That only shows God’s love is greater than Abraham’s. God just could not stand the idea that people would suffer in hell for their failure to live up to His Law. So He sent Jesus to suffer punishment for us. Jesus died for your sins.”

“And I am grateful for that, but none of this explains why the Almighty God could not find a less bloody way to carry out his aims. In the Prophets God wants compassion and justice rather than blood and barbeque. Yet with Jesus, at least as you understand Jesus, God has gone back to the older sacrificial model. Why?”

“I don’t think there is an answer to this,” the pastor said. “To know the answer is to know the mind of God, and we humans cannot do that. You simply have to believe.”

“And that is where I fail,” I said. “I can’t believe. I can’t believe in a god who sets laws we can’t fulfill. I can’t believe in a god who is only satisfied by blood. I can’t believe in a god so angry that only murder will mollify him. Nor do I believe Jesus believed this either.”

“Well now you are speculating. Jesus knew why he was sent to earth. He came to die as a way of ransoming humanity from sin and the consequences of sin.”

“Again, this is why I can’t be a Christian. The Jesus I meet in the Gospels, official and Gnostic, is a prophet, a spiritual genius who confronts the powers of domination and exploitation both religious and political, and is willing to die to make his point that we must not collaborate with evil, that we can defeat evil by noncollaboration, and that we must cease to do evil and do good. It isn’t Jesus’ death that saves us, but his life. Jesus offers us a paradigm for living that is intrinsically holy and redemptive.”

“The fact that you are willing to explore Jesus is a start and I pray that in time you will come to see Him as I do.”

“Thanks, Pastor. I will pray the same for you.” Amen.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Our Father Who Art in Eggplant

What are the odds of finding the seeds of an eggplant spelling out the word “God”?

If you are Felicia Teske of Pennsylvania they are damn good. While slicing an eggplant for her family’s dinner, Felicia discovered just that. Not to be deterred, she actually fed the holy plant to her family, saving only a single slice to auction off on eBay.

Clearly Ms. Teske is not Jewish. I would have taken the plant to my local deli, asked them to slice it into as thin a pile of God–inscribed eggplant as they could, and sell them one at a time on eBay.

The more I thought about this, and I admit to thinking about it way too much, the more I wondered why, given all the foods I eat, the Creator never gifts me with such a revelation. Then again, He might be writing messages to me all the time and I never look. I rarely prepare my own meals, and I eat them in such a hurry that even if God wrote “Rami, You are the Messiah” by the time I would notice any letters all I would have left would be “iah” at best. “Iah,” by the way, fetches nothing on eBay; I checked.

So I have decided to change my ways. No, I’m not going to cook for myself or slow down when I eat; I’m going to go to the supermarket and start slicing eggplant to see what’s inside.

I spent a couple of hours doing this at my local Kroger store this afternoon and discovered three exclamation points, fourteen ellipses (…), a Big Dipper, and half a dozen or so “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” But no “God.”

I sought council from a rabbi friend. “What good would the word ‘God’ do you anyway?” he said. “You need Hebrew words like Adonai or HaShem. God assumes you remember a bit of Hebrew and talks to you in His native tongue.”

Of course! I was looking for English when I should have been looking for Hebrew or Aramaic. In fact the seeds of a couple of eggplants looked a bit like Uggaritic’s arrow shaped script; maybe I intercepted messages meant for Canaanites.

Actually this troubles me. Not mail to Canaanites, I think we killed all of them years ago, but intercepting divine messages meant for other people. I imagine that God is very busy and has limited time for writing with vegetable seeds, so it isn’t as if He sends out divine bulk mail. If I cut open an eggplant with a message of hope meant, say, for a women dying of cancer, I would feel horrible. In fact I did come across some seeds that seemed to spell out, “Margaret it’s Me, God. I’m here,” but I thought nothing of it.

So I am not going back to the supermarket to read other people’s veggie mail anymore. God, if Your are reading this blog and You want to send me a message, You are going to have to carve it in a rice cake. Hey I just bought a bag, let me go look….

Low Point for High Point

Cecil Sinclair, a 46-year-old veteran of the first Gulf War, died recently of cancer. His family arranged a memorial service for him at High Point Church in Texas. Twenty-four hours before the service, however, High Point cancelled. High Point’s minister, Rev. Gary Simons discovered that Cecil was gay. (No, a guy named “Cecil” gay? Unbelievable!)

The decision to renege on Mr. Sinclair’s memorial service was, as Rev. Simons said, “not based on hatred, not based on discrimination, but based in principle.”

What principle might that be, Reverend? Love thy neighbor? Do unto others? Or God hates fags?

I have no problem with religious bigotry, after all what would western religion be without its pet hates? But let’s keep our bile directed at the living.

If Christians want to believe that all those outside the Body of Christ are doomed to an eternity in hell, that’s OK with me. If Jews want to believe that only they are Chosen, fine. If Muslims want to believe that nonMuslims are infidels, be my guest. But once a person dies, have some compassion.

Is a dead homosexual still a homosexual? If you believe, as I imagine Rev. Simons does, that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice (it has to be a matter of choice if one is to condemn it as a sin), and Cecil can no longer make choices seeing as how he is dead, in what way is he still a homosexual?

And then there is the matter of Jesus. No, Jesus wasn’t gay, but if Jesus died for our sins, and homosexuality is a sin, then didn’t Jesus pay the price for that? Did Luke hear Jesus clearly when Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do?” Or did he miss the part where Jesus said, “But not the gay ones”?

So, again, couldn’t High Point have had a little mercy on this guy and his family. After all, as Rev. Simons says (I couldn’t help myself, and yes making bad jokes is a lifestyle choice and hence unforgivable), “It’s not that we didn’t love the family.”

Wow, there’s a love I could do without. Look, if you want to hate gays, go ahead. Just hate live gays; live gays that are bigger than you; live gays that are bigger and stronger and meaner than you, and that happen to be right in front of you when you spew that hate so that they too can act on divine principle. Like “an eye for an eye.”

I love gay men (true I love lesbian women more, but still…). It is sanctimonious clergy I can’t stand.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

It's My Penis and I'll Cry If I Want To

[WARNING: The following blog entry contains many old English words some of which may be offensive to you. If you are the type of reader who will write me and chew me out for being offensive please do not read this blog entry. Or, if you do read it, do not write and complain. You have been WARNED.]

James Bolt is the custodial parent of twelve¬–year–old Ploni Bolt (his real name is a secret to all but those who know him; Ploni is an ancient rabbinic version of John Doe). He is also a recent convert to Judaism who, ala Abraham and Ishmael, wants to chop off the foreskin of Ploni’s penis in deference to his foreskin hating god. Ploni’s mom, the ever-so-Gentile Lia objects and is fighting to save her son’s foreskin. [You can buy bracelets embossed with “LiveWhole” at her website,] Lia has nothing against circumcised penises per se, but she argues that her boy Ploni would like to hold on to his intact penis a little longer (yes, yes, pun intended, he is twelve after all), but he is afraid to tell this to his dad.

This is an old story. In the midrash to the Abraham and Ishmael snip–fest in Genesis we find the following exchange:

Abraham: My son, giveth unto me thine penis that I might hacketh off thy foreskin with a flint rock that we might risketh terrible infection in service to our God.

Ishmael: Sure dad, and giveth me thine friggin’ head because methinks thou art mad!

Abraham: Nay, my son, for God spoketh unto me saying, “Abraham, Abraham, removeth thy foreskin and the foreskins of thy son and thy man–servants for I disliketh these skins which I madeth a few chapters back.

Ishmael: And thou art listening to this madness? What if God toldeth thee to taketh me up a mountain and sacrificeth me on an alter, would thou doeth this as well?

Abraham: Hmmm, now that thou doest mentioneth it… No, of course not. I will protecteth thee from all manner of harm except the potential wrath of my wife who mayeth at some future time seeketh the death of thee and thy mother…

The dialogue goes on, and as you know Ishmael is snipped which is supposed to make him one of the Chosen, but when he is banished into the desert (where he will certainly die) his status is de facto revoked. He then fathers his own people many of whom delight in killing their still Chosen cousins. Karma’s a bitch.

Anyway, back to Ploni. Does dad have the right to do what he wants with his son’s penis? Marc Stern general counsel for the dad-supporting American Jewish Congress says yes, “We have to win this case, and win it big.” He is talking about the case.

I say, leave the poor kid alone. If he chooses to become a Jew then he will deal with the issue of circumcision on his own. My own sense (based on nothing but the desire to write the next line) is that Dad is using Ploni’s penis to screweth his Mom one more time.

Friday, August 24, 2007

God's Warriors

I was watching God’s Warriors on CNN, Christiana Amanpur’s six–hour special on religious fanaticism. I missed the Jewish segment and caught only those dealing with Islam and Christianity so this isn’t a detailed critique, only a quick observation.

During the Muslim show the emphasis was on killers and people who justified killing in the name of Allah. We did meet some Muslims who rejected violence or were the victims of Muslim violence, but the focus of the show was on terrorists and their supporters and apologists. There was nothing new in this, nor should anyone be offended by it. This was, after all, a special on God’s Warriors.

What troubled me was that we never saw anyone remotely violent in the Christian segment. True, we were reminded that there were Christians who killed doctors who performed abortions, and bombed clinics where abortions were performed, but we never met anyone who supported this behavior or excused it. On the contrary, all I saw were clean cut, middle class white folk whose only weapon was the ballot box.

Where were the Christian terrorists like the Army of God, the Christian Identity Movement, Tim McVeigh, the KKK, Rev. Fred Phelps, or the Christian Reconstructionist movement that would create a true American theocracy?

Sure, I don’t want the Christian Right to run the Supreme Court (too late), the schools, or the government, but there is a huge difference between violence and votes. And I understand that Hitler was elected to power in Germany, and that Hamas was elected to power in Palestine, and that something similar can happen here, but this is not illegal or immoral. Getting out the vote for your cause is not terrorism. And if the Christian Right wins at the ballot box then the rest of us simply get what we deserve for not fighting harder for our cause.

What troubles me is that by placing law abiding Christians with strong conservative values, views, and politics side by side with fanatics who sanction murder in God’s name “God’s Warriors” blurs the line between the ballot and the bomb.

While not one to cry “War on Christianity” every time someone stands up for free speech and the separation of church and state, I do think thoughtful Christians and others should be outraged that CNN seems to have lumped Jerry Falwell in with Osama bin Laden.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

20/20 Torah

I am a sucker for what’s cool. Lucky for me I get to define “cool” for myself, and “cool” at the moment is pecha-kucha, the Japanese word for “chatter.”

As used by Tokyo-based architects Mark Dytham and Astrid Kelin, pecha-kucha refers to a hot new trend in presentations where each presenter is limited to 20 slides displayed for 20 second each. That makes for a six minute forty second talk. Businesses are using the model as are artists of all kinds who have turned to pecha-kucha competitions to showcase their work.

How does this apply to religion? I have always thought that if you can’t say what you mean in ten minutes or less, or ten pages or less, you were bullshitting. Given that I talk for hours on end and write books much longer than ten pages I admit to using a lot of bs. The truth isn’t that complicated. We make it seem complicated so we can excuse our own bs.

So here is my thought for the moment: why not host a pecha-kucha Torah-festival were commentators are invited to come and explore Torah in the 20/20 format. Images, sound, would have to work with your words, enhancing what you say and deepening it. No point in wasting your 20 seconds by reading a slide. The slide would have to build on what you say ala Stephen Colbert’s The Word.

This would be fun, funny, and insightful.

I imagine holding this in LA. Why? I have no idea, it just seems a lot sexier than Middle Tennessee, and there are so many creative types there. It would be a one day event, probably on a Sunday. People could vote for their favorite pecha-kucha presentation in several different categories, and we could present the winners with statues of Oscar holding a Torah scroll.

And why stop with Torah? The pecha-kucha Gospels would be next. And then the Gita, Lao Tzu, and Kor…. Well, I’ll the Danes worry about that one.

If you have any suggestions as to how to host a pecha-kucha Torah festival next Simchat Torah (a little over a year from now) let me know.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Welcome to Lake Woebegone

Welcome to Lake Woebegone. A recent Business Week poll of middle and senior managers found that 90% of people surveyed felt they were in the top 10% when it comes to performers. Everybody is above average.

What does this mean? First of all it means that most of the people polled are deluded. If my math is right, only 10% of the people can be in the top 10% bracket, which means that the other 80% fall elsewhere. Second of all it means that we have no idea where we really fall when compared to others. Is that good or bad?

I’m not really sure. On the one hand, if you think you are in the top 10% bracket when in fact you really suck at what you do, you will never get better. On the other hand, if it seems to you that 90% of the people with whom you work are even worse than you your whole industry is about to crash.

It is good that people feel good about themselves. And its bad that they think so highly of themselves that there is little room for improvement.

Anyway, I tried to imagine what I would say if asked by a pollster how I felt I performed vis a vis others in my field. First I would have to figure out what my field is. I often see myself as an entertainer or, better, a Stand-Up Philosopher. Compared to other entertainers I admire— Alan Watts being chief among them, I am mediocre at best.

Maybe I am a spiritual leader, I get called that lots of times. Then I get to compare myself to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. I don’t compare all that well.

I could list myself under “writer,” but then there is Ms. Rawlings, and my stats just crumble.

So I would have to say I am in the middle somewhere. Let’s say in the top 40% of people who do what I do.

I don’t mind being in the middle. It reminds me that I have a lot of learning to do, and lots of room to grow. I am not certain I would ever want to be at the top of my game. I would hope someone who raise the bar as I got close to reaching it. I like seeing people who are smarter, more nimble, better read than I am. I learn from them.

So it is troubling all these business people are topping out. It doesn’t bode well for the country. We can’t grow if we think we are already at the top.

And if we really feel this way about ourselves woe be not gone. On the contrary, woe be comin’— big time.

Monday, August 20, 2007

I'll Be Baaack (Part Two)

Yesterday I wrote about the reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama. I was thinking more about this and mentioned it to a Christian friend of mine who said, “That’s silly.”

“Silly?” I said. “No more silly than Jesus coming back for the Second Coming.”

“That’s biblical fact,” he said, “not heathen speculation.”

“What about the coming of the Mahdi, the final Imam in Islam? Or what about the return of the Lubavitcher Rebbi, Peace be upon him? And what about the coming of the Messiah Ben David, who, Jesus not withstanding, we Jews are still waiting for?”

“Only Jesus is coming back,” he said. “It’s in the Bible.”

OK. Maybe so, but can we really be sure? Here is what I think is going to happen. God is going to line up his boys like racehorses at the starting gate. There will be Jesus, the Rebbe, the Messiah ben David, the Mahdi, maybe some others. Then God will set off a not so big bang, and the would–be saviors will race to earth as fast as they can.

Wait a minute, you might say. This isn’t fair. Jesus may still suffer from the beating the Romans gave him, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe is an old man suffering from a stroke. They won’t have a chance. But, I would say, God has repaired Jesus and the Rebbe and both are in top physical condition, so not to worry. OK, you say. Back to the race.

Given that the world is round and not flat, it will be impossible for any of these saviors to be seen by the whole world at the same time. If Jesus drops in over Jerusalem, Christians in New York won’t see him. But if Jesus opts for a New York landing he will have to race farther since Heaven is in a straight line over Jerusalem. So all of them are going to race for the Jerusalem landing. The problem with that is this: whoever arrives first will be denounced by followers of the other saviors. If the Rebbe lands first the chances of the Christian and Muslim communities admitting he won is nil. So they will have to race to a more neutral winning circle. But where?

Here is my suggestion. They should race to my house. I really don’t care who is the real messiah. If it’s Jesus, I’ll become a Christian. If it’s the Rebbe I’ll become Lubavitch. If it’s the Mahdi I’ll become a Muslim. If it is Ben David, I’ll become an Orthodox Jew.

I don’t care who wins, I just want to be on the winning team. So God, line ‘em up and let ‘em go! I’m ready. Just don’t make it a photo finish, I’m not that good with a camera.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

I'll Be Baaack (Part One)

There are few things the Chinese government fears more than people who return from the dead. Especially when the returnees are Tibetan Lamas.

In order to curb the power of the 14th Dalai Lama, the Chinese have banned His Holiness and other living Buddhas from reincarnating without official government permission. This is especially odd given that the Communist government in China is atheist and doesn’t believe in reincarnation in the first place. This would be like the Chief Rabbis of Israel banning Jesus from returning for the Second Coming without their permission: “Look, we don’t believe in him, but just to be safe, let’s ban him… after all what could it hurt.”

Of course the real issue has nothing to do with whether or not reincarnation is true, only whether or not people in China think it is true. It seems that enough do believe to worry the government. So let’s say this makes sense. How does it work?

Pretend you are a living Buddha who dies. So, really you should pretend that you are a dead Buddha. Now you have taken Bodhisattva vows and promised not to enter Nirvana until you have brought all sentient beings there ahead of you, so you have to come back to earth to continue your task, but you need a pass from the Communist Hall Monitor. So where do you find this guy?

Imagine that the Chinese government has set up an Office of Reincarnation Affairs on a lotus plant just three lotuses (lotai?) to the left of the Forbidden City Wal-Mart, but to get there you have to reincarnate which you can’t do without a pass. So you are stuck in limbo, which the Catholics have recently banned, so you are really screwed.

But wait. You are a Buddha and you know that samsara (this world) is nirvana (the other world) are one, so you really don’t have to come back because you never really left because in reality there is no place to go and no time to go there.

So here you are, where you were, dead, but sort of alive, just without a pass saying it is OK for you to be alive. If you walk into the Office of Reincarnation Affairs and say you are back they will kill you because you don’t have a pass, but then you are already dead so that won’t change things and you will still be standing in line in need of a pass. This should totally freak out the apparatchik behind the counter and he will die right there and then of a heart attack. Since he has no idea that samsara is nirvana he won’t be back, so you can take his papers and reincarnate as this guy. Now quit your, no his, job, and get back to saving sentient beings.

A bit complicated, but it seems to work. Who wants to bet that the Dalai Lama comes back before FEMA fixes New Orleans?

Friday, August 10, 2007

My Religion is Humor

Last night I dreamt that the Dalai Lama came to hear me talk at a synagogue. It was a surprise visit and I was not prepared. Despite extreme nervousness, I welcomed His Holiness, and addressed the congregation:

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that his religion is kindness. In this he is my teacher, but not my mentor. While I admire his faith and am infinitely challenged by the sacred arts of lovingkindness, kindness itself is not my religion.

My religion is humor. It has been since I was a child. Humor was and is the way I get through my day. It was and is the means by which I make sense out of life. It was and is what I bring to the table. Whenever I teach there are always people smarter than I, more involved than I, more holy than I. Rarely are there people more funny than I. It is for this reason that the Dalai Lama’s friend, Sister Jose Hobday, has blessed me with the title, Holy Rascal.

The art of the Holy Rascal is to pull the rug out from under certainty by showing how funny and absurd our surety really is. When we laugh at our beliefs, we laugh at ourselves on a very deep level. We cut the mooring ropes and set ourselves adrift on the sea of uncertainty.

For some this is frightening, for me it is liberating. If I have no idea where I am going I can’t get lost. If I have no final destination, wherever I am is just fine—no matter how awful it may be.

When I speak about religion and spirituality, I find it funny, and share the humor of it with my listeners. I don’t tell jokes; I see them. I don’t try to be funny; I just don’t hold back the silliness that passes not only for formal religion, but new age spirituality as well. For the life of me, I just cannot take God and religion seriously. I don’t think God does either.

As a Jew humor–as–religion is part of my culture. It is not insignificant that the namesake of my people, Israel, was first called Isaac, “laughter.”

What my religion lacks, yours (I am leaning across the podium and clearly addressing the Dalai Lama personally) provides. My humor often lacks compassion. When faced with the choice between kindness and the joke, I will all too often go for the joke. I have much maturing to do. And in this I look to you, sir, for guidance.

But for now: A rabbi, an imam, and a Buddhist priest walk into a bar…..

And then I woke up! Not spiritually of course, just physically.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

First Koan, Last Koan (3 of 3)

[My Zen Master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, turned 100 years old this past April. I sat with him when he would travel from his center on Mt. Baldy, outside of Los Angeles to Smith College where I was studying Buddhism under Professor Taitetsu Unnu. I am sharing this with you in honor of Roshi’s birthday. He doesn’t remember me, but I will never forget him. This is the third and final installment.]

That's it! No more sanzen for me. How embarrassing; the old guy tossed me around like I was a sack of flour. My butt hurt; my ego was bruised; and I was through with Roshis and Zen forever.

Except I couldn't leave. No one left sesshin. So what? All I had to do was put in my time on the cushions, take a couple of slow laps around the zendo and wait the whole thing out. So what that I can't get enlightened. It isn't as if it will go on my permanent record.
I returned to zazen with simple annoyance. I sat there and nursed my shame until I could turn it into anger at Roshi. And why stop there? It wasn't his fault Zen was stupid. Bodhidharma brought it to China from India, and from there it made its way to Japan and from Japan to Massachusetts. Why not blame Bodhidharma? I mean here is a guy who cut off his eyelids to keep from falling asleep during zazen. Is this a role model?

After awhile I stopped fuming. I was bored. I just sat there. Hours passed. I knew I was getting drowsy but wanted to avoid drawing the attention of the guy with the keisaku. There is a name for the guy, but I can't remember it. I could look it up, but telling you this story has rekindled my annoyance at the whole thing and I don't feel like getting up and looking for the right book. Look it up yourself if you want to know.

A keisaku is a long thin wooden slat used to slap the fatty part of your back around your shoulders. The slap wakes you up. It hurts like hell. Three quick strikes to each side of the body. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Then you turn a bit and expose the other side: Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Then you bow in gratitude. The stinging relaxes the knotted muscles and facilitates wakefulness. It works, but I would rather avoid it.

During the next round of kinhen, walking meditation, Roshi rings the bell signaling sanzen. Just in case I forgot, my mind starts yelling at me: We are not going in there! No way in hell are we going to submit ourselves to the embarrassment of trying to answer that stupid koan. Where is God when the stick hits— HITS— the floor. Who knows? Who cares? Certainly not I.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

Roshi was right in front of me, sitting on his cushions, tapping his stick on the floor. I have no idea how I got there. Without any sense of volition or self consciousness, I must have walked out of the meditation hall, bowed correctly to take my place in the sanzen line, moved up chair by chair, and performed the intricate bowing the now plopped me face to face with Sasaki Roshi. One mistake in the ritual and I would have been sent back to the meditation hall. No mistakes, save one: what was I doing back in sanzen.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

I don't know exactly what happened next. I can only reconstruct my actions based on where I found myself afterward. It seems that at the instant Roshi's mahogany stick touched the well polished wood floor of the sanzen room I straightened out my elbows, made a club of my hands, and flung myself on the floor next to roshi, screaming at the top of my lungs: God is here!

I suspect this because when I regained self-consciousness I was lying next to Roshi, my body stretched as long as it would stretch, my hands clasped, my throat raw, and my ears still ringing with the scream "God is here".

I scrambled to my knees, retook my place across for Roshi and waited for be banished from his presence forever. The old man was laughing hysterically. I'd like to believe he was laughing with me, except I wasn't laughing. I was embarrassed, red faced, and on the verge of tears. Roshi thought that was funny as well.

"Goodah ahnsa," Roshi laughed. "Goodah ahnsa! Seventy five percent. Now, more zazen." Roshi rang the bell, I bowed myself out, walked back to the zendo and took my place on my cushion.

Seventy five percent! That’s it? A “C”? I haven’t gotten a “C” since Freshman German. I wonder what it would take to get a “B” out of this guy?

I never found out. Despite additional sesshin with both Roshi and others, when it comes to enlightenment, I am average. It is the best I have ever done.

• • •

As fierce and formal as he can be during sesshien, Sasaki Roshi can be just as relaxed and jovial after it is over. I watch enthralled as one after another of my fellow zen students hugged Roshi and thanked him for the sesshein. I wanted to do the same. After all, I had not gotten enlightened, but I didn't flunk out either.
I waited for an opening, and slipped in close to hug Roshi and say good–bye. I should have known better. Once I got within reach, Sasaki Roshi shot out a hand, pinched my butt hard and said square into my face: "Roshi or Rabbi— choose now!"

I hate that. Not the pinching, though that hurt, but the choosing. Roshi had commented on the size of bottom earlier in the sesshein. He was using my rear end as model as to how to sit, or rather how not to sit, on the meditation cushions. One time he lovingly (I guess) made a comment on the fact that my bottom covered so much of the cushion that it was hard for him to use me as a visual aid. Now he was telling me that, as wide as my tuchus is, it is not wide enough to sit in both the zendo and the shul. I would have to decide where to park my butt if I was to get anywhere with my religious training.

He was right. I had been waffling back and forth for months. Not rabbi/roshi, I had no illusion about become a Zen Master, but davvenen or zazen, Jewish prayer or Buddhist meditation. The way of mitzvot/holy deeds or the way of metta acts of compassion. I was drawn to both. Yet there was something powerful in each that kept me from committing wholeheartedly to either.

Three things drew me to Zen: its simplicity, its practicality, and its nondual understanding of reality. Sit and see that Buddha was right. At the time I had not come across the equivalent Jewish teaching "Taste and See that God is good" (Psalm www). To me Judaism was very complicated and legalistic. You lived as if you knew what was going on, you were never expected to figure it out for yourself. At least that is how Judaism had been presented to me as a child.

Nondualism was a tremendous draw. The idea is that all the opposites are actually polarities. Rather than viewing the world as black or white, sacred or profane, Zen (and Buddhism in general) said it was black and white, sacred and profane, and that you could not have one without the other. Further, you could discover that since each needed the other, neither was real in and of itself. And, if you got that down, you could step beyond the whole system and live in harmony with everything as a manifestation of sunya, the emptiness that is the essence of reality.

This made so much sense to me. Not that I understood all its ramifications on a philosophical level, but that on a very deep gut level I knew this nondual understanding was true and that the dualistic world view of conventional Judaism was wrong.

Conventional Judaism teaches that God and nature are separate. God fashioned nature the way a potter makes a pot. The world is an artifact of God. While the pot cannot help but reflect some of the genius of its maker, it is in no way to be identified with its maker.

This made no sense to me at all. I knew I wasn't an artifact. I sensed an overwhelming unity with God. Not a simple connection, but a deep oneness. My rabbi thought I was delusional. To me the delusion was that we could be anything but at one with God.

Of course Buddhism doesn't use the word God, and rarely gets caught up in these kinds of theological wrangling, but I was not yet a Buddhist, and could not let go my God–centered feelings or vocabulary.

Three things drew me to Judaism as well. First, my family. Judaism is nothing if not family. My family, on both sides, has Jewish roots going back to Abraham and Sarah. The thought of severing that tie was hard to think.

Second, I loved the language of Judaism: both the God-talk and the holy days. While my understanding was limited, I could not escape the intuition that there was something very powerful and transformative being taught and practiced here. How could I let it go if I did not even know what I was holding?

Third, I respected the humanism of Jewish teaching. Here was a religion for householders, parents, and families. Judaism had thousands of year’s experience trying to help people be holy even as they earned a living and made mortgage payments. The mitzvot between people: learning to practice generosity, healing speech, and kindness— these things tugged mightily at me.

I had thought I could integrate the two. That was my hope and my goal. And here was Sasaki Roshi, my ass in his hand, telling me to choose.

I looked Roshi in the eye and smiled. "I am going to be a rabbi," I said, with a conviction that comes from somewhere other than my conscious mind. "Thank you, Roshi, for showing me that."

Roshi smiled, pinched my tuchus even harder and hissed: "Good. Be Zen rabbi!"

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

First Koan, Last Koan (2 of 3)

[My Zen Master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, turned 100 years old this past April. I sat with him when he would travel from his center on Mt. Baldy, outside of Los Angeles to Smith College where I was studying Buddhism under Professor Taitetsu Unnu. I am sharing this with you in honor of Roshi’s birthday. He doesn’t remember me, but I will never forget him. This is the second of three installments.]

The practice routine during a Zen retreat is pretty straightforward. Up at 4:00 AM; chanting for thirty minutes; sitting meditation for thirty minutes; walking meditation for fifteen minutes; sitting meditation for thirty minutes; breakfast, clean–up, showers and personal hygiene; then hours of sitting and walking meditation. Twice each day, once during the morning and again in the afternoon, there is the opportunity for sanzen, personal dialogue with Roshi.

Sanzen always comes during kinhen, walking meditation. That way you can gracefully exit the sitting room and make your way to the roshi's sanzen room. In this particular retreat a line of chairs were assembled outside the sanzen room. Moving up the row, chair by chair, was a highly ritualized process. As the person sitting in the forward most chair left to enter Roshi's room, the rest of us would stand, bow, and advance one chair.

Upon entering the san–zen room there was more elaborate bowing. You bowed from the waist, then get down on your knees, and then fall on your face, lifting your hands, palms up, off the floor three times. Then you stand, move forward a bit, and repeat the process. It took three complete bowing cycles to reach Roshi. Done right you ended up sitting on your knees directly in front of him. Your knees only inches from his own.

We practiced before hand so that if we chose to see Roshi in san–zen we would not insult him or centuries of tradition by bowing incorrectly. This was not the Zen I had read about in Alan Watts. His Zen was far looser, spontaneous, and iconoclastic. I expected to go in their, flash a big smile, give Roshi a hug, and share with him some of my deeper thoughts on the meaning of life. But tradition was tradition, and I didn't mind. In fact it seemed to make the whole procedure more powerful for me.

Most likely this is because I didn't grow up with it. As a Jew I know from tradition. Once my sister's boy friend joined the family for dinner. My mother made brisket. The boy friend, thinking we had forgotten to supply the obvious beverage, got up from the table and brought a carton of milk out from the refrigerator. Sensing immediately that he was about to violate the law about strict separation of meat and milk, we all started shouting at him, waving our hands furiously, as if to warn him of an on–coming car about to crush him against the wall.

But that was Jewish tradition. Narishkeit. Silliness. After all what does it matter if you have a glass of milk with a piece of brisket? Did Moses know from brisket? Jewish law is tedious, tiresome, and basically beside the point. That is why we have Reform Judaism to knock some sense into the tradition.

But Zen was another matter. Screw up the bowing and get tossed out on your ear? No problem. After all it was tradition. And there is no such thing as Reform Zen.
So I didn't mind the tradition or the routine of Zen. The only thing I did mind was having to see Roshi one on one.

The man was intimidating. Short, round, and fierce. I have a photograph of him; it looks like the 8 x 10 black and white photo country western stars send to their fans. In the photograph Roshi has his hands tucked into his belt and he is laughing. At least I think he is laughing. He could be about to spit fire.

Time after time I would make my way into sanzen hoping to impress Roshi with my Zen knowledge. I mean he was talking with a kid who was working on a 4.O GPA, at least when it came to courses on religion. How hard could this koan business be?
"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

It really is quite simple: God is here. God is everywhere. Didn't Roshi get that?
Now Zen folks don't talk a lot about God. Roshi was doing this for my sake. He knew I was Jewish. He knew I was considering going into the rabbinate. So, being a master of upaya, skillfully teaching Truth from the illusions at hand, Roshi spoke to me of God. Or, better, asked me where the Hell He was when the farschtunkenah stick hit the goddamned floor.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

I tried Haiku, that ought to impress him: Stick in hand. Stick on floor. Sunlight slips through slatted blinds.

"More zazen."

I tried Nargarjuna's fourfold negation of reality: There is a stick. There is no stick. There is neither stick nor no stick. There is, I couldn't remember what came next.

"More zazen."

I must have visited the guy a dozen times and couldn't figure out what the hell he was looking for. At last, I gave up.

While sanzen is mandatory in many sesshin, Roshi made concessions to us and made it voluntary. I did not have to see him if I did not want to see him. And I certainly did not want to see him. But then it hit me! I was telling him where God was. I had to show him. OK. One more time.

Kinhen, walking meditation. Hands clasped to our chests, eyes aimed downward, gaze resting lightly a step ahead. One foot raised, another placed. The next foot raised, the other placed. Fully conscious of each movement of my body, I moved at a snails pace around the room. No point, no destination, the journey is all. Boring.

Then the bell announcing sanzen. All right! Now I'm ready.

I bowed myself out of the room and took a seat in line to see Roshi. I rehearsed what I would do. Do, not say. There was nothing to say. Zen is the transmission from mind to mind beyond words and scriptures. I had read that someplace. It was my Jewish head so trapped in words that was causing me all these problems. This time, though, I'd nail it— no words.

Here was my plan. Thus far I had focused my answers on the universality of God when the stick hit the floor. But this time I would show Roshi that the stick itself was irrelevant. God was, is and will be whether the stick hits the floor or not. How would I demonstrate this deep insight? By grabbing that little stick and ripping the sucker out of the old man's hand, that's how. My stick. My God. My answer. My God, I'm brilliant!
Roshi rings in the next person. I am in the on deck circle. I calculate the precise distance between Roshi and the door. I figure out just how far I need to step and pace my bowing so that I end up in comfortable reach of the stick with enough leverage to wrench it out of his hands. Roshi is small, plump, and old. I've got height and youth on my side. And the element of surprise. I mean no one would ever have tried this before. Roshi rings me in.
Bow, stand, step. Bow, stand, step. One more time: bow, stand, step. Bow, kneel, and wait for that unsuspecting little stick.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

Hits, hits the floor. I am a stickler for grammar, but it doesn't matter— here comes the stick. I lunge for the wood, wrap my fingers around it, and yank. Roshi's grip is to be broken, I'm to sit back triumphant with stick in hand calling out to the amazed and humbled Zen Man: No stick, no sound, just God! As I dance my way between the goal posts to pick up my Super Bowl Enlightenment Ring. At least that is what was supposed to happen.

Short, round Zen masters are often stronger than they look. I did managed to grab the stick, but Roshi did not let go. Instead he grasped my wrist and flipped me over his shoulder. I let him keep the stick; I was too busy tumbling onto the floor behind him.
"More zazen," he said as I bowed and left.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

First Koan, Last Koan (1 of 3)

[My Zen Master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, turned 100 years old this past April. I sat with him when he would travel from his center on Mt. Baldy, outside of Los Angeles to Smith College where I was studying Buddhism under Professor Taitetsu Unnu. I am sharing this with you in honor of Roshi’s birthday. He doesn’t remember me, but I will never forget him.]

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"
"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

The question was repeated over and over. The questioner was Sasaki Roshi, my Zen Master. I was sitting across from him, our knees almost touching, his eyes staring intensely into my own.

Unfortunately, I wasn't listening.

This was the second day of a sesshin, a Zen meditation retreat, and my first opportunity to experience sanzen, a one on one meeting with the roshi. The purpose of sanzen is to work on a koan, a Zen puzzle designed to break down your discriminating mind and open you to the profound simplicity of ordinary reality. After an elaborate ritual of bowing, standing, walking, and bowing again, the student makes his way to the master, ending up sitting on his knees directly across from the roshi. In this intimate setting the roshi challenges the student to answer the koan the roshi had assigned the student. I knew all this as I prepared to meet with roshi. What I didn't know was that roshi spoke English.
All my previous encounters with Sasaki Roshi had been through a translator. Roshi lectured in Japanese and the translator relayed his words in English. I assumed that was because Roshi spoke no English. So, as I sat across from him in sanzen I had no expectation of actually speaking with the man.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

Roshi simply sat in front of me, his right hand tapping a gnarled piece of mahogany on the hard wood floor exposed between us. His lips moved, sounds emerged, but I heard no question.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

My mind wandered. I had signed up for this retreat because I was a Zen–o–phile. I loved everything zen. I had begun to read about Zen a few years before, and could not get enough of it. I had read every book by Suzuki, Blyth, and Watts that I could find. I purchased a set of brown zen meditation cushions and sat zazen everyday. All I cared about was enlightenment. While my friends were experimenting with drugs, I was inhaling the dharma. While my dad kept encouraging me to date the Cohen girl down the street, all I wanted to do was spend my evenings with the koan.

This sesshin was going to be great. A real Zen Master, authentic Japanese chanting of Zen texts, long periods of sitting, little sleep, simple vegan meals. Man, this was the fast track to enlightenment. The Buddha pulled it off in eight days sitting under a tree; no way I couldn't do this in a zendo (zen center) with hot and cold running water.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

What was this guy mumbling about? He must know I don't speak Japanese. With the exception of the translator, Tai Unno, my Buddhist Studies professor from Smith College who arranged this retreat, none of us speak Japanese. So why bother talking at me?
My knees were getting a bit stiff supporting my weight on the hard wood floor. Nice floor. Well-polished, real smooth. The light shining in from the window to my right played in lovely patterns around my knees. This was cool. Sitting across from a Zen Roshi. Right out of one of my books for class. "What is the sound of one hand clapping? What was your original face before you were born? Does a dog have Buddha nature?

Where is God when stick hits floor?"

Oh my God! Roshi spoke English! In fact he had been speaking English the whole time. His Japanese accent was so thick that I didn't recognize it. I must look like a fool. How many times had he been asking me this question? He's giving me a koan for God’s sake, and I’m ignoring him. Ignoring the Zen Master!

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

"Uh. God is here?"

For a second I thought Roshi was going to nod, say the Japanese equivalent of "good boy" and give me a gold zen sticker for pulling my rear end of out the fire. Instead, he slapped my forehead lightly with his palm as if to say: "Mesheguna! Have you learned nothing from all I've taught you? From you I get no nachas." Or that is what he would have said if he had been my rabbi, who found me equally as dense and inattentive.
The second passed. Roshi scowled, picked up a brass bell— the kind I imagine schoolteachers rang to start and end class decades ago— and rang me out of his room. "More zazen!"

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Do No Harm

Are doctors and other health care providers bound by law to provide all services to all clients, or can they allow their consciences to dictate what services they offer and to whom?

When my mother was carrying me in her womb, she and my father had to choose a hospital in which she would give birth. The issue was not simply cost and quality of care. They were also concerned about the religious aspects of the care they would be offered, specifically around saving my mother’s life in the case that giving birth to me would threaten her life.

Not knowing me well, my mom and dad chose to save my mother’s life over my own in accordance with Jewish law. I assume today, based on decades of parental self-sacrifice, if they had to make the same choice, they would choose my life over her life, but that is beside the point. The point then and now is this: can doctors withhold care based not on medical principles and practices but on religious ones?

For example, according to recent articles in the news some doctors are refusing to prescribe Viagra to gay men, refusing to artificially inseminate lesbians, and refusing to provide assistance to single adults seeking to adopt. The issue for the doctor is that doing these things violates the doctor’s sense of right and wrong.

The doctors feel they are within their rights to follow their conscience. Their patients feel that they are being discriminated against. Both are correct. A doctor who has no problem prescribing Viagra to a man who intends to lawfully and one would hope lovingly insert his longer–lasting erection in his wife’s vagina, may refuse to proscribe the same drug to a man who intends to implant his penis in a difference orifice of another man because the doctor opposes sex between men. Should the doctor be forced to enhance gay sex, or risk being sued if she or he doesn’t? I don’t think so.

Doctors and other healthcare providers should be able to perform their jobs as they see fit within the ethical and legal guidelines of their profession. But these guidelines need not force the healthcare provider to violate conscience.

The solution is simple: First, allow patients to go anywhere they want for any procedure they want. Laws and insurance policies that limit access to doctors may be forcing patients to live by religious standards not their own. People must be free to find like–minded medical professionals. Second, healthcare providers should be obligated to provide all patients with a brochure that clearly states what they won’t do. Doctors who protest such disclosure are tacitly admitting that their discrimination is wrong. If you believe in what you say you believe in, then spell it out and let people choose in advance whether to come to you as a doctor or not.

Friday, August 03, 2007

A Fatwah to Remember

So often the critics of Islam demand that Muslim clerics speak out against the atrocities done in the name of their religion. The assumption is that Muslim clerics do not speak out, and that their silence means either that they agree with the violence, or that they are afraid to counter that violence because to do so would mean their own demise. Either rationale supports the picture that Islam is anything but a religion of peace.

The fact is Muslim clerics do speak out against violence, but their words rarely make it into the mainstream media. So whenever we hear a cleric counter the madness that passes for Islam in some parts of the world, it is vital that we share it as widely as possible.

With this in mind I want to simply note, support, and give thanks to the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the senior Shiite Muslim cleric in Lebanon, for coming out against honor killing, the practice of murdering a female family member for supposed sexual misconduct. The Grand Ayatollah issued a fatwah against honor killing saying, “I view an honor crime as a repulsive act condemned and prohibited by religion.”

It is important that you remember this fatwah. It is important that when you hear people attacking Islam as a religion of violence that you bring up this fatwah. Yes Islam (along with Judaism and Christianity) has within it seeds of terrible evil and violence, but these need not be planted, watered, and nurtured. We can allow these seeds to dry up and die out from neglect, but only if we support the voices of justice and peace that are all too easily drowned out by the screams of ignorance and fear.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Onvertcay the Ewsjay

I love Pope Benedict XVI. He isn’t afraid to say what he thinks, and what he thinks is so refreshing: Islam is evil, Catholicism is the best religion, Protestants are doomed. Of course if he were head of the Holy Roman Empire with an army in the thousands instead of leading the tiny state of the Vatican with an army in pantaloons, he would scare me shitless. But he isn’t, so he doesn’t, and I get to blog on.

On July 7th His Holiness issued an “Apostolic Letter in the Form of Motu Proprio.” I have no idea what that means, but what it says is that Catholics can now choose to celebrate Mass in Latin using Pope John XXIII’s Tridentine Mass published in 1962. No, this doesn’t allow Catholics to substitute chewing gum for the Body of Christ (yes, I thought this too, but I looked it up), but it does have them pray the following on Good Friday:

For the conversion of Jews. Let us pray also for the Jews that the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they also may acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, you do not refuse your mercy even to the Jews; hear the prayers which we offer for the blindness of that people so that they may acknowledge the light of your truth, which is Christ, and be delivered from their darkness.

Wow. This is great stuff. The Jew’s heart is veiled, the Jew’s eyes are blind. Yet God’s mercy is so vast that He might be persuaded to have compassion even—EVEN!—on the Jews. O, thank You, Jesus!

Is this offensive? Some Jews are outraged by it. Others see it as a chance to separate good Catholics from bad Catholics, those choosing to pray in Latin being the bad Catholics.

Not withstanding the fact that for centuries Jews often found themselves under murderous attack by Catholics exiting church on Good Friday, I am not going to call this Mass anti-Semitic. Rather I will simply offer a prayer that Jews might insert into their liturgy on Good Friday Night which just happens to be the Jewish Sabbath:

For the conversion of Catholics. Let us pray also for the Catholics that the Lord OUR God, Chooser of the Jews and only the Jews, may take the veil of ignorance from their hearts that they also may acknowledge OUR Lord, Chooser of the Jews. Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, do not refuse your mercy even to the Catholics whom You didn’t choose and who think You had a baby with one of our girls so that You could kill him and use his blood to soothe Your wrath. Hear the prayers which we, Your Chosen People, offer for the blindness of that people so that they may acknowledge the light of Your truth, which is Torah, and be delivered from their darkness, and know that Your Mercy is greater than Your Anger and that no one need die to be saved from going to Hell in which even the worst stay for but eleven months anyway so what is the big deal? Help this people, Lord, and don’t forget us, Lord, the people You chose to choose.