Jewish Dharma, By Brenda Shoshanna

Posted on February 28th, 2009 | Filed under In Print: New Books

This article is based on Jewish Dharma (A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen).



As a long-term student of Zen and practicing Jew, who has been unable to let go of either practice, I have struggled for many years with what appear to be the completely different teachings of Zen and Judaism. Gripped by these two powerful, ancient practices, I have finally come to realize that despite all logic, each is essential to the other. Engaging in Zen practice deepens Jewish experience, and helps one understand what authentic Jewish spiritual practice is; Jewish practice provides the humanity and warmth that can get lost in the Zen way.

Fortunately, I am not alone in this conundrum. There are many “JuBus,” as they are now often called, Jewish individuals engaged in Buddhist practice – by some estimates as many as one million within the United States. What is drawing them? How do these two practices shed light upon one another? Do Jews need to leave their own religion to embrace Zen? Or is Zen able to make their own traditions come alive to them in new, important ways?

Today a powerful spiritual hunger is arising as many seek comfort, support and meaning in a world that has spun out of control. There are endless paths to take, yet most modern Jews, and non-Jews as well, have little knowledge of what authentic Jewish practice and authentic Zen practice actually are or the ways in which each of these practices illuminate, challenge and enrich one another. Zen practice, improperly understood, can lead to unexpected difficulties. Zen students need the warmth, grounding, balance and life perspective that Judaism provides. And clearly, Zen is offering many Jews something that they feel a need for.

In a sense, Judaism and Zen represent two opposite ends of a continuum: Zen is based upon radical freedom, individuality, being in the present and non-attachment. Judaism comes rooted in the family relationships, love, prayer to a Higher power, and the injunction to hold on and remember. A Jewish heart is warm, giving, human, devoted to family and friends, and filled with longing for the well being of all. A Zen eye is fresh, direct, spontaneous, planted in the present moment. It is unencumbered by ideas, beliefs, tradition, hopes or expectations. These practices are like two wings of a bird: both are needed if we are to be able to fly.

It is too easy to lose sight of the true purpose of any practice we do. Even with the best intentions, blind obedience to forms, obsession, and group pressure to conform can and do lead many astray. Anger, judgmentalness, and domination can easily replace the kindness, generosity, and wisdom that are at the heart of all true practice. The practice of both Zen and Judaism together is a protection against this. It creates a balance, which clears away the weeds and allows your practice and life to bloom. In order to experience this, it is important to know what each practice consists of, and then to try it for yourself.

The need to combine zazen with Jewish practice and teachings of Torah always felt very important to me, and I am aware of many individuals, both Jewish and Christian, who feel as I do. The practice of zazen creates an atmosphere of love, acceptance, respect, clarity, kindness—it not only illuminates one’s original teachings, but provides a deeper experience of them. And conversely, one’s religion of origin brings a dimension to zazen practice that is beneficial, grounding it in the reality of who you are and where you come from.

Ultimately, you cannot taste the real fruits of a practice until and unless you take some of it on and apply it in your life. Certain practices will feel natural and inviting, while others may seem dissonant, or impossible to take on. That is fine. An ancient rabbi, Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz, made this a primary point in his teachings. He said it is impossible to tell men what way they should take. Instead they should find that which speaks to them, that which they can integrate and which is uplifting. For one the way to serve God is through the teachings, for another through prayer, another for another through fasting, and still another through eating. Everyone should carefully observe which way his heart draws him and then choose this way with all his strength. If you fall into guilt, pressure or condemnation of yourself or anyone else, you have lost the purpose of both practices, which is to bless, awaken and heal the entire world.

Our Zen Center, The Mishkan, is dedicated to combining Jewish and Zen practices. Both Jews and non-Jews participate. We do zazen practice as usual, but also include special sittings for many Sabbath afternoons. We also offer retreats in preparation for the Jewish holidays. At that time we usually hold a three-day retreat, which goes on for eight hours each day. During the retreat we dedicate ourselves to our deepening connection to God and the holiday, do zazen for many hours, chant Hebrew prayers, and study the teachings of Torah and the Sages regarding that particular holiday. We may also combine Zen teachings on a particular point as well.

As we sit in zazen, concentration grows, stray thoughts lessen, defensiveness dissolves, the heart opens. This deeply uplifts and enhances the study, prayers and blessings. After the study or prayers, we return to zazen to digest all that has gone on. 


Drawing Spiritual Nourishment through Prayer


Prayer, or Tefilah, is the heartbeat of Jewish practice. All times of loneliness, pain or confusion come for a powerful reason—so we can stop our usual way of being and discover where true strength, connection and understanding lie. These difficult times are actually a blessing, removing us from preoccupation with externals and inviting us to embark upon a journey into the heart and meaning of our lives. In the Torah, it states, “Come to me directly, not to man whose breath is in his nostrils.” We are told not to go to God through a messenger, angel, relationship or fantasy. Our help will not be found there.

Prayer is a powerful way to dissolve loneliness and confusion by turning to that which is greater than yourself, opening your heart, and learning to see with new eyes. Not only do prayers affect the world within, but also the world around you. Prayers for others can heal and uplift them, prayers for mercy draw forth merciful, loving energies. As you pray for healing for others, healing energy will return to you as well. Forgiveness is always a profound prayer. It heals the world and lifts the one who offers it. As you forgive others, you are forgiven.

From morning until evening, through light and dark times, the greatest prayer is to continually praise God. True prayer breaks the heart open, crushes the false sense of self and allows light and understanding to shine in. A heart that does not, or cannot pray, is often closed, numb and hurting. Prayer opens the heart. soothes, heals, instructs and connects us with wisdom and kindness from both above and within.

Observant Jews gather together to pray twice a day, morning and early evening (for late afternoon and evening prayers) in a minyan, a group of at least ten men. The power of community is essential, not only in lifting the prayers and strengthening them, but reminding us that we are not alone. Being present for others in the minyan and helping them at times of need are forms of prayer as well.


Zazen Practice: Returning to Yourself


Whether or not we subscribe to prayer, all have a need to bring a vital experience of aliveness, connection and meaning into their lives. Zen Practice cuts through all religions, denominations and systems of thought. As I see it, Zen is not a religion but a practice that enhances and enlightens all activities. This practice can be done anywhere, by anyone, at any time. Zazen reaches right into the core of who you are and brings forth that which is healthy, sincere, creative and heals loneliness and separation.

In many ways Zen meditation, or zazen, seems to be the opposite of Jewish prayer. During zazen you do not pray for help daily, in fact you do not pray for help at all. You sit, back straight, legs crossed, eyes down, facing the wall. You do not speak, reach out, touch, or listen to the troubles of others. Certainly, you do not offer consolation or turn to others for support. In fact, what you thought of as support is taken away. If someone is having trouble on the cushion, experiencing sorrow or pain, you do not interfere. Their experience is precious and they are now being given the opportunity to face it fully. The support you offer is silent and profound, just sitting strongly besides them, facing your own experience, and not moving.

Zazen is a core, daily practice, much like daily Jewish prayer. It focuses the mind and heart, allows you to gather your scattered energy and be in touch with your essential self. As you practice daily, your life becomes rooted in its original source. Soen Roshi, former Abbott of Ryutakaji Monastery, used to say that when most of us want to see beauty in a room, we bring in fancy paintings, furniture, precious objects. In Zen, when you want to see beauty in a room, you take everything out, one thing after another. Then when the room is empty, you can see its original nature. Its beauty shines by itself. In Zen practice you do the same, take everything out of your life that causes clutter, static, confusion, greed. Then, your own original beauty shines by itself as well.

Dr. Brenda Shoshanna, psychologist, long term practitioner of both Zen and Judaism, is the author of award winning, Jewish Dharma (A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen), Perseus Books., upon which this article is based. A radio show host of “It’s A New Day With Dr Shoshanna,”, she has offered over 500 talks workshops on all aspects of personal and spiritual growth and developing authentic peace of mind. She is the founder of The Mishkan Center for Jewish and Zen Practice. Some of her other books include The Anger Diet (30 Days to Stress Free Living), Zen and the Art of Falling in Love and many others. Contact her at:,


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