The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
A Jewish Buddhist In India
A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.
For many years I have considered myself a Jewish Buddhist, or what is now commonly referred to as a JuBu. To be honest, I found the Bu part far more compelling than the Ju part. Growing up Jewish, I found synagogues lacking in spirituality and during services experienced myself more as an observer than a participant. As secular Jews, my family strongly identified with a cultural Judaism and took pride in both Jewish accomplishments and in Israel. Though we never lit the Sabbath candles we ate matzo ball soup and noodle kugel, enjoyed bagels on Sunday and cheered for the contestants with Jewish names on Jeopardy. As I sought greater connection to a spiritual tradition, I discovered a Buddhist path one could travel toward self-transformation and enlightenment. Brown rice and tofu spoke to me in whispers of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, while my Jewish roots spoke to me of oven-roasted brisket breathing down my neck with onions and heaviness.
When I was in my forties, I had the great fortune of living out my dream of traveling to the Himalayas on several occasions, visiting both Nepal and Bhutan to trek in the midst of 8,000 meter peaks, meditate in Buddhist monasteries, and spin prayer wheels at sacred stupas.
When I turned 50 in January 2011, I went on a pilgrimage to India called: In the Footsteps of the Buddha. I had come to savor my solo travels across the world, and this trip felt like a celebration of both my birthday as well as a celebration of the “birth” of the protagonist in my novel, Syd Arthur, that was being published in April 2011. This book is based on the historical Buddha, born Prince Siddhartha, who left his life of extravagance behind the palace walls to embark upon a spiritual journey. He ultimately attained enlightenment and became known as the Buddha, which means one who is awake. He then spent the rest of his life teaching that all have the potential to awaken.
My novel begins 2,500 years later in the cloistered world of suburbia where we meet Syd Arthur, a middle-aged Jewish woman who is potentially awake, but likes to start her day with a strong cup of coffee, just in case. We had spent many hours together, me writing her, and in a way, she writing me. I figured what better way to celebrate our “birth” days than traveling to the land of Buddha’s birth and enlightenment.
The colors in India are vibrant, insistent—demanding to be seen, held and absorbed. They are alive with both stories to tell and secrets that remain hidden, in shades that transform the brilliant landscape. My trip to India took me first to Varanasi, known as “City of Light,” and one of the most important towns for Hindu pilgrims who come to bathe in the sacred Ganges River. Rowing along the river, the dark sky slowly awakening to the brush strokes of a pink/orange dawn was the perfect way to greet the magnificence of a new day coming alive.
We spent time in Kapilavastu where Siddhartha Gautama spent his first 29 years of life as a prince before leaving in search of a spiritual path. A pond with lotus blossoms reminded me of the Tibetan mantra of compassion: Om Mani Padme Hum: The Jewel is in the Lotus. This mantra highlights the fact that just as the lotus blooms in the murkiest of water, so too can we blossom even in the darkest of circumstances or time. Each and every moment is an opportunity to open our hearts and find the jewel within.
As we hiked through mustard fields to a cave in the Dungasiri Mountains where the ascetic monk Siddhartha practiced severe austerities in search of enlightenment, my mind slowed down. Placing one foot in front of the other, I was aware that the deep yearnings that led the Buddha to seek are the same that propel seekers 2,500 years later. I was reminded of the quote from Matsuo Basho, the great Japanese poet who said, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old, seek what they sought.” When we reached the cave and entered to sit in meditation, I felt connected to seekers everywhere—past, present and future, experiencing the interconnectedness and oneness of all things.
In Bodh Gaya, we celebrated the site where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment while sitting in meditation under the Bodhi Tree and hence became known as the Buddha. Displays of devotion from monks dressed in maroon and saffron robes along with women in their colorful saris and pilgrims from across the world infused the Temple area with sacred intention. In Sarnath we spent the day at Deer Park where the Buddha gave his first sermon after his enlightenment to the five ascetics with whom he had practiced during his search. He gave a teaching on the Four Noble Truths, the Middle Way and the Eightfold Path and his five fellow seekers became the first monks of his order. We circumambulated the Dhamekh Stupa and saw statues and pillars dating back to the 5th Century BC, along with remains of monasteries from the 3rd Century BC.
We visited Rajgir, where we meditated and had a teaching in the bamboo grove that was given to the Buddha by King Bimbisara, and where the first Buddhist monastery was established. We hiked up Gridhakuta hill to Vulture Peak at sunset, enjoying meditation and the reading of the Heart Sutra, relishing the space and beauty that the Buddha also loved. In Kushinagar, we spent time in the Saal forest where the Buddha died at the age of eighty and attained Mahaparinirvana, which is the ultimate state of Nirvana—of everlasting peace. We viewed the large golden statue of the reclining Buddha at the Nirvana Temple, and saw the Nirvana stupa built over the spot where the Buddha died along with the Makutabandhana Stupa marking the Buddha’s cremation.
What I haven’t mentioned is that over the past few years, while I was writing a book of fiction about a Jewish woman discovering Buddhism, I was finding that my Buddhist practice was leading me back to a rediscovery of the religion of my birth.
There is an old Liza Minnelli song that I remember from my youth called, Ring Them Bells. One of the verses sings:
Gather around, I’ve got a story to tell,
About a Manhattan lady that I know very well.
She lives at five Riverside, her name is Shirley Devore,
And she traveled ‘round the world to meet the guy next door.
Okay, what does this have to do with me? I’m not from Manhattan, and the man I married lived across the hall from me in college where we met on the first day of school.