Mary Wakefield

You don’t look Buddhist

More Jews than ever are converting to Buddhism. Mary Wakefield finds out why they make the leap of faith

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There is a joke in the Jewish community about a typical Jewish mother who travels to a remote Buddhist temple in Nepal. Eventually granted an audience with the revered guru there, she says just three words: 'Sheldon, come home.'

The first trickle of Jews began to convert to Buddhism about 50 years ago. The beat poet Allen Ginsberg was among them, and wrote, 'Born in this world/ you got to suffer/ everything changes/ you got no soul.' By the 1970s, there were enough Jewish Buddhists for Ginsberg's guru, Chogyan Trungpa, to talk about forming the Oy Vey school of Meditation. Now Jewish Buddhists – or Jubus – are the largest group of converts in the West, with all the hallmarks of an established movement. Armfuls of literature pay tribute to their conversion experiences: The Jew in the Lotus; One God Clapping and That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist!

On the face of it, the rituals and the belief systems of Judaism and Buddhism couldn't be more different. So why, and at what point in a young Jew's religious life, does he fling off his phylactery and attempt the lotus position? How do you move comfortably from life with a paternal divinity to one in which there is no judgment or judge save yourself?

The London Buddhist Centre gave me the number of a monk with a Jewish background, called Kulamitra. I dialled with a clear mental picture of an orange-robed Tibetan lama. 'Hello, yeah?' said a voice that sounded much more as if it belonged to someone called Dave. Kulamitra's story is typical. He grew up in an orthodox family, but found no spiritual satisfaction in the synagogue. 'I still think of myself as Jewish, but my childhood impression of orthodox Judaism was that it is all about superstition and the law,' he said. 'No one was even sure why those laws were there in the first place, nor was it a subject that could be brought up for discussion. It's not the right environment to be looking for religion as a seeker.' Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, of Maidenhead synagogue, agrees. 'It is true that an enormous number of Jews are converting to Buddhism,' he said. 'I think they feel weighed down by the laws and rituals. Judaism is very good at camaraderie and community, but it doesn't leave a lot of space for the individual or for spirituality.'

But surely Judaism has its own mysticism in kabbalah? 'The average religious Jew in the synagogue hasn't a clue about kabbalah, so it's not really an option,' said Kulamitra. Romain added, 'The kabbalah that is fashionable among celebrities right now is just superficial; a fad. Real kabbalah, though, is equally unhelpful to the average young Jew, because it is incredibly esoteric and limited to a select number of educated and usually Hasidic Jews. You have to know Hebrew and study the scriptures in depth to even begin to understand it.'

Kulamitra's colleague, Vagsavara, explained the appeal of Buddhism to me at the London Buddhist Centre above their shop, Evolution, in Bethnal Green. Evolution sells a lot of mirrors, incense and crystals, as well as sea-grass CD-holders. Once you convert to Buddhism, she said, you follow the path towards enlightenment recommended by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama. Gotama was a member of the Nepalese royal family in 563 bc, who realised that wealth and luxury did not guarantee happiness. He explored different teachings and eventually came up with four 'Noble Truths' which, horribly condensed, seem to be 1) that life is suffering, 2) that suffering is caused by craving, 3) that suffering can be overcome if we 4) give up useless craving and follow the 'Noble eight-fold path'.

'The eight-fold path is basically about being good and being aware of all one's thoughts and actions,' said Vagsavara. 'Converts from all religions to Buddhism are taught not to take the life of anything living, not to take anything not freely given, to abstain from sexual misconduct, not to lie, and to avoid intoxication. It's all difficult at first, especially the body-awareness,' she said, shifting in her chair and looking down at her gold-painted toenails. 'Changing my name wasn't entirely easy either. A lot of my male friends asked if it would be OK to call me Vag. Which it wasn't. It gets easier, though,' she said, smiling. 'And through meditation I have become a much softer, kinder person.'

The books all say the same thing: that Jews who convert to Buddhism and follow the eight-fold path are, as a result, happier. Although, by and large, they still consider their cultural and ethnic 'Jewishness' important, it is easier, they promise, to find the meaning of life in atheistic meditation than in a relationship with an omnipotent Creator.

Despite this, Jews who convert to Buddhism are encouraged to explore their Jewish identity, so it is natural for them to make much of the similarities between their two religions. The Jewish history of persecution and displacement is, they say, echoed by the treatment of Tibetan Buddhists at the hands of the Chinese. Other claims about the compatibility of the two religions are a little more tenuous. According to Nadav Caine, who gives lectures on the subject, 'Both Moses and the Buddha had a life-changing experience that caused them to flee the royal court. Both wandered – Buddha as a yoga practitioner, Moses as a shepherd.' At the bottom of the list is the similarity between the tree of knowledge in Genesis, and the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha was first enlightened. Both are trees.

Some Jubu groups seem to go a little too far in trying to assimilate the two parts of their lives. 'It is important for many Jubus that they don't relinquish Judaism, and Buddhism is an excellent spiritual path that allows a spiritual search while still holding on to religious traditions,' says one Jubu website. 'In Judaism, God is often thought of as an abstract figure, imageless and non-personal. This image is close to Buddhist Emptiness.'

But as airy and vague as you make God, surely either he's there or he isn't. Vagsavara is clear about this. 'It is crucial that followers of Buddhism reject the notion of a father figure,' she said. 'Buddha was a human being. He didn't have a divine origin but was special because he discovered the path to enlightenment all by himself. It is very important to realise that there is no Big Daddy figure to turn to in Buddhism, as there is for a Jew. If you are a Buddhist, you are your own judge.'