By Alexa Singer-Telles
The following stories were shared at the Jewish Roots dharma discussion group at the October 2005 Deer Park Monastery retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The richness of the sharing of this Jewish sangha touched us deeply and inspired us to share a few of our stories with the wider community. As we explored the ways that we feel connected to—or disconnected from—our Jewish roots, our practice supported us to see each other with greater understanding, and to embrace our experiences of both suffering and joy. With deep gratitude we hope to continue this kind of sharing in special affinity dharma discussion groups at retreats in our tradition.
Lyn Fine, True Goodness, Dharma Teacher
This morning, a friend and I stopped at a bridge while walking along the Sacramento River Trail. The small creek had just filled with water from several days of autumn rain. As we quietly reflected on the moving water and the colorful falling leaves, I heard a loud splash. Three large salmon were working their way up the shallow creek. Two had succeeded in getting to a fairly deep pool while the third was turning its body sideways and undulating to make its way through a shallow rocky channel. I experienced both wonder and determination in the way that salmon travel far into the ocean and then turn and return home to the place of their birth to spawn and die.
Witnessing the salmon, I contemplated the mystery of how one finds the way home.
I had such a homecoming experience at the Deer Park retreat in September. I chose to be in the Jewish Roots dharma discussion group. That first evening, I made my way in the dark to a long picnic table, candlelit, filled with “family,” initially strangers yet at the same time Sangha friends and mishpucha (Yiddish for family). Here were Jews from all over the globe, with different life experiences and relationships to Judaism, yet our connection was palpable. I found the group to be a touchstone, as we gathered around the table, nourishing the deep root of our Jewish heritage. The particularity of the Jewish stories that we told reflected a collective history of suffering, exile, chutzpah, love, tradition, and wisdom. I felt a deep respect for both the challenge and the gift of being Jewish in this world.
Enjoying the Interplay of Traditions
The topic dear to my heart was how people integrated their Jewish roots and Buddhist practice, since that has been a challenge for me. In 1991 when I met Thich Nhat Hanh and began practicing mindfulness, I also met an open-hearted rabbi and began my first exploration of Jewish spirituality. Fortunately, both teachers encouraged embracing both traditions. Though it was complicated at times trying to decide when to keep them separate or weave them together, I eventually let go and learned to enjoy their interplay as it manifested in my teachings and sharings. I drew comfort from the words of Natalie Goldberg, a Jewish Buddhist writer, who explained that the longer she meditated, the more Jewish she became.
Two recent experiences have brought me peace and a sense of integration. This spring our Sangha held a retreat at our tiny local synagogue; temple members who saw the sanctuary transformed into a zendo were inspired to begin a beautification project. I explored the property and discovered a grassy creekside area for walking meditation that I hadn’t seen before. Sangha eyes transformed my perception of the synagogue I have attended for more than twelve years.
The Jewish Roots group completed my journey home. Both a rabbi and a Buddhist monastic from a Jewish background were in the dharma discussion group; their presence and deep wisdom were my vehicle for witnessing interbeing and letting go of any perceived separation. I experienced the mystery and wonder of knowing how to find my way home, just like the salmon.
Alexa Singer-Telles, True Silent Action, co-founded the River Oak Sangha in Redding, California in 1991. She has been creating rituals that weave Buddhist practice together with the cycle of the seasons.