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The Literatures of the Two Easts

Are Hasidism and Zen Buddhism kindred movements?

Joshua Cohen
July 16, 2009
The Sixth Patriarch Huineng Cutting the Bamboo by Liang Kai(The Sixth Patriarch Huineng Cutting the Bamboo by Liang Kai, via Wikipedia.)
The Sixth Patriarch Huineng Cutting the Bamboo by Liang Kai(The Sixth Patriarch Huineng Cutting the Bamboo by Liang Kai, via Wikipedia.)

Reading Israeli writer Yoel Hoffmann’s newly published autobiographical novel Curriculum Vitae (New Directions) caused me to think about the Two Easts, about Zen Buddhism and Hasidism. Hoffmann’s books, five out of nine of which have been translated from Hebrew into English, represent a polyglot’s synthesis: his commingling of these two mystical traditions begins with a delight in paradox, and darkens as both Zen and Hasidism concern themselves with life’s futility and human powerlessness.

I didn’t, however, think about the beliefs of these disciplines, but about their similar writings—their literatures. Indeed, while the theological differences between Zen and Hasidism appear irresolvably stark—Hasidism believes that the self is effaced by approaching God, whereas Zen holds that a denial of self also must mean a denial of God; Hasidism’s belief in Messianism appears to nullify Zen’s transmigration—the literary relationship between the two seems undeniable.


“The essence of wisdom is silence. If a word is worth a sela, silence is worth two. When I speak I regret, and if I do not speak I am not regretful. Until I have spoken I am ruler and master over my speech, but after I have spoken, the words master me.”

The above transgression of silence was not transcribed on a scroll by a monk, or delivered to an acolyte by a Zen Master from atop a Himalaya. It is, instead, the 86th section of the Sefer Hasidim (The Book of the Pious), attributed to Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg, known as Judah the Pious, founder of Ashkenazi Hasidism in the late 12th and 13th centuries. That collection of folk wisdom is also responsible for instructing its readers not to write notes in the margins of books—a proscription that covers, one would think, the margins of the Sefer Hasidim—and for forbidding the killing of lice at a table where meals are to be served.

Not just style and subject, however. Zen and Hasidic stories also share a handful of forms: a question-and-answer format reaching its highest expression in the Zen koan, which is a senseful question given an answer whose seemingly nonsensical aptitude confirms the student’s capacity to apprehend a Zen principle; a type of anecdote pertaining to a famous personage—in Zen a Master, in Hasidism a rabbi, known in Yiddish as a rebbe—often related after that person’s death by a student, or relative-disciple; and, most literarily, the miniature tale whose miracles can be taken either at face value, or in a spirit of allegory.

A monk asked, “What is the depth of the deep?” The master said, “What depth of the deep should I talk about, the seven or seven or the eight of eight?”—attributed to Zen Master Zhaozhou, 778-897, China
The Baal Shem said: “What does it mean, when people say that Truth goes all over the world? It means that Truth is driven out of one place after another, and must wander on and on.”—attributed to Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Russian Hasidism, 1698-1760, Polish Russia

Tellingly, in Zen, most questions are asked by one person to another, by Master to disciple or the other way around, whereas in Hasidism the rebbe tends to ask his own questions to and of himself; this rhetoric should give a sense of the explicit didacticism of Hasidic literature. This is absent from the writing of Zen, which, neither poetry nor prose or catechism, reads as rawer, more naturalistic, or less mediated—and this despite the linguistic distance between Chinese and Japanese and the translations read by the rest of the world.

Another attribute uniting these literatures might be called authority: literature gains authority from its authors, and from the publishing houses and outlets that publish them. But in an oral tradition, authority derives directly from the Master or rebbe. The text is what the text is because the Master or rebbe said it was that; it is up to the disciple to interpret the meaning. Then, when the disciple himself becomes the Master or rebbe, those interpretations will become simplified into primary texts whose meanings must be decrypted by subsequent disciples, and this is the way a tradition works—a tradition, which is continual, as opposed to a culture, which is reactionary.

A disciple told: whenever we rode to our teacher — the moment we were within the limits of the town — all our desires were fulfilled. And if anyone happened to have a wish left, this was satisfied as soon as he entered the house of the maggid [Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, 1710-1772, Poland]. But if there was one among us whose soul was still churned up with wanting — he was at peace when he looked into the face of the maggid.
The Master [Ryōkan Daigu, 1758-1831, Japan] never displayed excessive joy or anger. One never heard him speaking in a hurried manner, and in all his daily activities, in the way he would eat and drink, rise and retire, his movements were slow and easy, as if he were an idiot.


While noting aesthetic affinities between the two literatures, it should be remembered that the two languages of Zen’s codification, Chinese and Japanese, have no relation to Hasidism’s Yiddish and Hebrew; and, as if to disorient with obviousness, between them confounds the entire continent of Asia. However, Zen and Hasidic writings were separated not only linguistically and geographically, but also by centuries, nearly a millennium: Zen distinguished itself as a separate Buddhist school in sixth century China, before disseminating to Japan five hundred years later, just as European Jewry was afflicted with the first of the Crusades; while Eastern Hasidism arose in pogrom-ridden Polish Russia in the early part of the 18th century, by which time Zen literature had been widely anthologized.

But their origins bear many similarities. They both began as oral literatures of the peasantry, of the village and town as opposed to the city; they are literatures of the poor and uneducated (Hasidism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, was an indifferent Talmudist; Zen’s Sixth and last Patriarch, Huineng, was an illiterate woodcutter when he began studying under the Fifth Patriarch, Hungjen); they both grew out of a revolt against intellectualism, Zen as a meditative response to the increasingly elaborate tenets of Mahayana Buddhism, Hasidism as an ecstatic rejoinder to the rote primacy of scriptural interpretation; they are the oral musings of wandering peoples, or of peoples whose leaderships developed a habit of itinerancy, in order not just to attract adherents but also for the sheer sake of experience. They are both literatures of functional hierarchies: transmitted to novices from teachers serving as intermediaries between a public and the ineffable; and, they are both literatures of peoples politically compelled to withdraw from the world or, better, to create an ideally ascetic world within their own communities, in monasteries and rabbinic courts, and then, failing that, within private cenacles — within their own selves.

About their codifications. The Blue Cliff Record and The Book of Equanimity (also known as The Book of Serenity) were collated in 12th-century China, while The Gateless Gate was compiled a century later toward the decline of the empire’s hyperliterate Song Dynasty—at the time of the fragments of Kalonymos ben Isaac the Elder, Samuel the Pious, his son Judah the Pious, and the latter’s apostle Eliezer ben Judah of Worms, whose Ashkenazi Hasidism, centuries before that of the Russian Pale, was a consequence of the destruction of the Crusades, and the tragic conduct, commerce, and sumptuary laws that followed.

Hasidism’s canonical stories were assembled from their diverse sects for translation only at the turn of the 20th century, however, when the German-speaking Jews of Berlin and the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s three cities, Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, became involved with, because more alienated from, the ethnicities of their ancestors, and were negotiating their returns to the wilds of a modernized Hebrew, and Yiddish. Coincidentally, perhaps, this Jewish dream of a comprehensible patrimony emerged just at the apex of Europe’s interest in the Orient—in the folkways, literature, and esoteric philosophies of that other East.

European artistic penchant for the Orientalistik grew out of the design style known as “chinoiserie,” whose motifs were brought to the continent by emissaries of the Dutch East India Companies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its manifestations included the decoration of porcelain vases with ostensibly Asian tableaux, and the erection, on British and French and German noble estates, of pagodas of a theoretically Buddhist architecture. In literature, this vogue culminated with Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, the bildungsroman of a boy’s spiritual progress in India during the reign of the Buddha, though its elements resound throughout all of the arts and are evident in the background patterning of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh and Gustav Klimt, and in the use of that imported percussion instrument, the gong, in the First Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

At the same time, Jews of the great European cities who’d become changed by what they considered to be the more authentic lives lived by their Pale coreligionists included not only Buber, amassing his landmark Die Erzählungen der Chassidim (Tales of the Hasidim, from which the selections in this essay are excerpted), but also friends Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, who immersed themselves in the contradictory doctrines of Messianic redemption (which early Hasidism was fascinated with) and Zionism (with which later Hasidism has maintained a skeptical relationship).

Foremost among those artistically converted by experience with Judaism’s East was Franz Kafka, who befriended Yitzchak Löwy, an actor of the traveling Yiddish theater, and the writer and dilettante Hasid Jiří Langer, an assimilated Jew but an occasional disciple of the third and fourth rebbeim of the dynasty of Belz. Kafka recounts in his diaries numerous tales told to him by both Löwy and Langer, Talmudic anecdotes and folk midrashim—and he manages to get many wrong, or confused—but aphorizes in a letter: “Langer tries to find or thinks he finds a deeper meaning in all this; I think that the deeper meaning is that there is none and in my opinion this is quite enough.” (Kafka also admixed the Oriental. His The Great Wall of China is a kabbalistic parable in Asian guise—its wall could just as well be Jerusalem’s Kotel, with each reader sharding together the meaning of the text made his own reduced Herod.)

By the time a warring Europe had become thoroughly existentialist – which is a philosophy that complicates the tenets of Zen with nihilism – West’s codification of East was so influential that it itself had become a kind of original: not an authentic thing to be sanctified, but a quality of hybridism to be emulated. Writers, after all, are readers, too, and though they might be cut off from an oral tradition, they do have recourse to regretting that estate by misrepresenting the oral in books. After Kafka there derives a host of Jewish, and especially Israeli, writers occupied with such conscious rewrites and blunt manipulations, with the free excavation of the overtly antiquarian in the hopes of finding whatever style next—and style has always stood as a proxy for life; the search for it being, at depth, the search for a meaningful future.


Which brings us back to Yoel Hoffmann and his Curriculum Vitae, gracefully translated by the American-born poet Peter Cole. Hoffmann’s story begins at the end of Jewish Europe with its twilit escapes into other forms of being an Other; his is the tale of a life lived globally not in imagination but in actuality, his globalism a product of both historical circumstance and his own affinity and will.

Born in 1937 in Hungarian Romania, an infant immigrant to Palestine, Hoffmann is considered Israel’s most accomplished Nipponist, having translated a score of works from the Japanese: scholarly texts, and collections of poetry, including an important anthology of Zen Buddhist Death Poetry, or jisei, comprising the tanka and haiku Zen Masters write before dying naturally, or committing ritual suicide. Already in his forties, evidently obsessed with his family—who’d been dispersed if not murdered in the very fields and thickets in which Hasidism arose—Hofmann began writing a kind of poetic novel that is sentimentally affecting by way of memoir or confessional verse, yet recklessly fragmented in structure.

No such interpretations or even facts are to be found in this memoir-as-résumé, however—this Life of Hoffmann as Hoffmannesque fiction.

Instead, in Curriculum Vitae we find only quicksilver, gnomic glimpses of the author’s studenthood, love, and marriage; of his growth as an Israeli son, husband, and father whose nostalgia for a Judaism lost is satisfied only outside the borders of Israel—in an irresistible attraction to the foreign, and to the foreign’s conversion into intimate terms: “We’re reading Buddhist texts with master Hirano,” he writes. “The sound of one hand (he says) when there is nothing to strike. Everything strikes itself. If you see a flower—you don’t think of eyes. If you hear a sound—you don’t think of ears. It’s like a man who comes to Kiev and at the train station has his wallet stolen. Now he’s in Kiev and has no wallet. He wants to call the police, but there is no phone.”

This is the style of all Hoffmann’s books: They are composed of brief, joking remembrances that take the sorrows of origins’ Judaism, and offer them, in reparation, as hope, the detachment of Zen. The result is a fusion that doesn’t even need to take the Buddhistic as its deliberate subject to attain a sort of trancelike transcendence—a zazen whose silence still speaks with the accent of the shtetl.

Take this, from the novel The Shunra and the Schmetterling (Shunra is Aramaic for “cat,” Schmetterling German for “butterfly”; in this book, each vignette stands lonely on the page, as if in contemplation of the white that surrounds):

“At night the moon stands over the head of Andreas my father. He wants to depart from what he is and meanwhile writes “Y-H-V-H” on the display windows of a store for electric appliances.”

While Hoffmann’s father graffities the Tetragrammaton—a name of God that Hasidim spell in their minds in order to address the presence of God and so, to forget their own names—he does so not in any sacred context, but on the dingy plateglass of a Tel-Aviv shop. In Kyoto we still long for Kyoto; while in Israel, we are in Zion and yet still we crave Zion, and will for as ever long as Israeli literature is written.

Hoffmann’s is an exile literature in exile from itself: self-conscious, and humorously historicized, yet with none of its homage preserved obviously. In his pages, the oldest of folkish tropes are wryly revivified into a third literature, that of a new and Third East—an undiscovered continent of exotically compelling fictions.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. His first essay collection, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, will be released in August. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.