Mary Wakefield 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

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.

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