[Here are the basic talking points I used in a talk I gave yesterday in Kyoto, Japan.}
First, may I express my gratitude to Shinnyo-en and the
Global Peace Initiative of Women for sponsoring this important gathering and
for inviting me to Kyoto to participate in it.
Second, let me offer two warnings. Warning one: Judaism has
no fixed or official theology. What we have are the experiences of Jews
articulated through the limited medium of words which leads to a culture wildly
divergent in its philosophies and beliefs. As we put it: “Two Jews. Three
opinions.” What you will hear from me is simply my opinion.
Warning two: words are maps and never the territory they
claim to represent. Whatever we say about the soul, Atman, or Buddha–nature is
only a finger pointing to the moon and never the moon itself.
More importantly, from my
understanding—personal as well as Jewish—there is no moon at all, only mooning,
as I hope this brief talk will explain.
Each morning observant Jews recite this short affirmation: Elohai neshamah sheh natatabi t’hora he
“My God, soul manifesting as me is pure.” It is not a prayer, but a statement
of fact. I am not thanking God for my soul, I am reminding myself of the nature
Notice, as the ancient rabbis did, that “God” is qualified
by the word “my,” but “soul” is not qualified at all. Why is this? We speak of
“my God” because God in and of itself cannot be spoken of or about. As Lao Tzu
wrote in the Tao te Ching: The tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao.”
Any god about whom we can speak is not God. In this prayer when we call out to
“my God” we are to realize even in the moment of our calling that our idea of
God is insufficient. In the Book of the Prophet Micah something similar happens
when we are told to “walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In other words we
should not cling to any theology, especially our own, but hold all such notions
humbly, lightly, for no notion of God is God.
No such qualifier is attached to the word “soul,” however.
Why? Because, having admitted the limitation of language, we are now challenged
to step beyond language into the state of pure transparency, t’hora
, a state beyond all words and
concepts. When we know soul is t’hora
we know that soul—my very sense of “I”— is pure, without conditions, without
limits, without boundaries, without anything that would in fact make it “me” or
“my soul” at all. When I understand that soul is pure, my sense of separate and
conditioned “I” dissolves for a moment, and there is a knowing (though not an
“I” to know it) we call da’at d’vekut
a knowing of the nonduality of all in all.
A simple word–play found in kabbalistic or Jewish mystical
teaching will, I hope, make this a bit more clear.
The Hebrew word for “I,” the first person singular, is ani—aleph, nun, yod
or “a,” “n,” “I” in
English. The Hebrew word for the formless and yet ever–forming God is Ain
— is comprised of the same three letters in different order: aleph, yod, nun
or “a,” “i,” “n.” The
fact that both words are comprised of the same three letters suggests to the
Jewish mystic that “I,” “soul,” “self,” and “God” are different expressions of
a singular dynamic, an endless dance of birthing and arising, and dying and
dissolving that is the very nature of reality.
Focusing on the letter yod
or “i” which stands for the Hebrew word yadah
attention, the Jewish mystics teach that when our attention is focused
outwardly—when the yod
/i is at the
end of the word as it is in the word ani
have a sense of distinct self and soul. When our attention is focused inwardly—when
/i is in the middle of the
word as it is in the word ain
separate self or soul is seen to be transparent, pure, t’hora
, and thus empties into a greater reality we call YHVH.
As I understand it, the unity of Ain
is a teaching
similar to that of the Prajna Paramita Hrydaya Sutra (
Heart Sutra): “form
is emptying, emptying is forming.” Again I avoid the use of nouns in this
translation to help free us from any notion of permanence, even a temporary
one. God is, if you’ll pardon the paradox, permanent impermanence. God doesn’t
change from one moment to the next, God is the changing moment this moment and
the next. And, again, we call this process YHVH.
The soul, the self, is the extending of YHVH the way
sunlight is the extending of the sun, and a wave is the extending of the ocean.
I am not saying the soul is an extension
of YHVH as if the soul were a thing, but that the soul is an extending of YHVH,
an activity of YHVH, pure activity.
This word YHVH, sadly rendered as Lord, is a verb and not a
noun. YHVH is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” YHVH is a dynamic process and
not a static something. In the biblical book of Exodus we are told that YHVH is
Ehyeh asher Ehyeh
, not the static “I
am that I am” of most translations, but the dynamic “I am becoming what I am
becoming,” of the literal Hebrew. God is not a being, or even a supreme being,
but the endless process of being/becoming itself. And because we are YHVH
extending, we are this process as well. There is no fixed “Rami,” only YHVH
“rami–ing.” And the realization of this is the promise offered by the chanting
of Elohai neshamah sheh natatabi t’hora
My chanting does not make this so, it only awakens me to
what is already so. D’vekut
unity of ani
, of self and God, is not achieved or earned, it is a given. The
wave cannot be other than the ocean. The awareness of what is we call da’at
, knowing. My chanting of Elohai neshamah
creates nothing new, it
only opens my eyes to that which is always and already there.
Though the goal of Jewish contemplative practice is to become
aware of this dance, to achieve da’at
the knowledge of what is already so, we can say nothing of the
moment of knowing or awakening because at that moment that is no one to
experience it, and only experiencing itself. At the moment of knowing there is
, there is no ain
, there is only the ineffable
happening we call YHVH.
While we cannot say about this experience, we can sense that
something happened. Somehow we are less afraid, more loving, more just, more
compassionate. In Hebrew we call this reshimu
the fragrance of something no longer present but something no less real.
Imagine purchasing a bottle of expensive perfume, removing
the stopper, and allowing the oil to evaporate over time. Eventually the
perfume is gone, but even so the fragrance remains. I suggest that while none
of us can articulate the deepest truth beyond language, we are all smelling the
same fragrance, the aroma of the dynamic dancing of YHVH that arises as ain
over and over and over again.