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Yom Kippur in a Buddhist Monastery

I thought I’d left Judaism behind during my spiritual retreat in India. Think again.

Yitzhak Bronstein
September 22, 2015

I settled into my cushion on the floor of the gompa—meditation hall—as my intensive course in Tibetan Buddhism was about to begin, a month into my second backpacking trip to India in as many years. The previous day was Rosh Hashanah, but that wasn’t on my radar. I was here to move forward and delve into a new spiritual practice, something entirely unrelated to my Orthodox Jewish upbringing.

Hours earlier, 80 of us arrived at the meditation center and confirmed our willingness to adhere to the center’s monastic-like guidelines, including forfeiting all electronics, non-religious literature, and the right to speak for 23 hours each day. A nun in maroon robes oriented us to the course’s daily schedule—three meditation sessions, two lectures, and a single hour-long discussion group—and read off various miscellaneous policies from worn printouts.

When it seemed like the orientation had concluded, she lifted her eyes from the list of guidelines and asked us the last question I could’ve anticipated: How many participants would be observing the Jewish festival (“was it Passover?”) and fasting on the last day of the course? Remarkably, in this room full of Buddha statues, Tibetan art, and translated texts, a quarter of the participants—mostly Israeli backpackers—unabashedly raised their hands. Even more remarkably, I surprised myself by lifting my own, too.

So much for leaving Judaism behind.

After nearly two decades of Orthodox upbringing, I spent two years studying at a yeshiva in the West Bank. Soon after returning to New York for college after yeshiva, however, I became disillusioned with Orthodox dogma and turned off by the community’s public stances—and at times its even more telling silences—on social, political, and environmental issues about which I felt strongly. In short time, I came to see Orthodoxy as something judgmental, untrue, and irrelevant. Still thirsty for a spiritual outlet, I turned to unorthodox alternatives: environmentalism, meditation, Eastern-influenced mystics, and traveling abroad.

Last year, my spiritual quest led me to Dharamsala. Nestled in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, the town is most famous for being the home of the Dalai Lama and headquarters of the exiled Tibetan parliament. The stunning scenery and laid-back vibes make the district a definite highlight on the “Hummus Trail”—the unofficial list of destinations on the Indian Subcontinent to which Israeli travelers flock after completing their stints in the military—compelling restaurants, guesthouses, and travel agencies in the surrounding villages to advertise bargain deals in conspicuous Hebrew letters.

Many local businesses cater to tourists’ spirituality-seeking bent, and amateur painted signs offering courses in meditation, yoga, and Buddhism are plastered on walls everywhere. Far from the Orthodox home in which I was raised and in the midst of a seven-month solo journey of self-discovery, I felt inspired to sign up for an intensive eight-day course at a Buddhist meditation center in a nearby village. Attracted by both Buddhist philosophy and a desire to immerse myself in contemplative spirituality, I had barely noticed how the course overlapped with the Jewish calendar—beginning the day after Rosh Hashanah and concluding on Yom Kippur itself.

Waiting anxiously in the gompa, I reflected on how far I had come from the sense of absolute certainty that defined me during my two years as a yeshiva student in Israel. The world of right and wrong, of true and false, which was so intuitive to me several years prior in the yeshiva’s study hall, now seemed not only lost forever, but undesirable.

Over the next several days, we studied the foundations of Buddhist dogma and sat in meditation focused on our breathing and practicing visualizations. But within my own mind seasoned with years of studying in traditional American and Israeli yeshivas, I couldn’t help but notice parallels and contrasts between Tibetan Buddhism and Orthodox Judaism.

While other students recorded the Buddhist definition of karma dictated by our teacher into their notebooks, I wondered whether the Jewish notion of teshuva signified a competing paradigm that granted more self-empowerment to those seeking a fresh start. When we were instructed on how to meditate in the lotus position and the importance of maintaining awareness of our posture, I couldn’t help but think of the years I had spent hunched over the Talmud without giving a moment’s notice to my physical body. And no one who has spent time in a yeshiva could observe energetic duos of Tibetan monks debating without associating the practice with the unique chevruta system in which yeshiva students study in pairs. It fascinated me how both Jews and Tibetans had blurred the lines between their religious and cultural identities over the centuries, and how language, food, festivals, and land had all necessarily become intertwined with spiritual practice.

Perhaps the most attractive element of Tibetan Buddhism, as explained to us, was its remarkable sense of religious pluralism. In large measure due to the Dalai Lama’s ironclad adherence to pluralistic principles, Tibetan Buddhists insist on the truth of all major religions and urge Western spiritual seekers to try reaching fulfillment through their original spiritual traditions rather than adopting Buddhism. Much more than insincere posturing, the center’s commitment to religious pluralism became palpably apparent when Yom Kippur rolled around.

The monk leading our course announced the day before Yom Kippur that dinner would be rescheduled so that those of us fasting would be able to eat the traditional last meal before sundown. It was a heartwarming gesture by itself, and we noticed upon entering the dining room that a table laden with falafel, hummus, and Israeli salad had been sponsored and prepared for us. Given the meager assets of the resident clergy, this humble offering was rightfully perceived as a stunning display of generosity and respect.

We were repeatedly told that we could do whatever was necessary to observe Yom Kippur, and the center bent over backward to ensure that we were comfortable. When a participant asked about ways to observe the festival, our teacher responded humbly, “It’s your day; it’s your ritual,” and that we shouldn’t do anything that would make us feel uncomfortable.

One recurring theme that struck me throughout the course was the constant reminder by the teachers that our attitude to their tradition—or any tradition, for that matter—shouldn’t be take-it-or-leave-it. After all, there may be certain concepts that seem foreign to the point of outlandish, but that shouldn’t stop us from integrating the principles that do speak to us into our lives. Over the eight days, I began to see the wisdom of this perspective, stretching the application of the concept to my attitude toward Judaism.

Unsurprisingly, in the context of a Buddhist meditation center, situations did arise that could have compromised one’s observance of Yom Kippur. For example, on the last evening of the course there was a ritual in which each participant lit a candle and placed it on one of the stupas, dome-shaped shrines dedicated to the Buddha. A young Israeli woman expressed her discomfort with lighting a candle after sundown on Yom Kippur, and a discussion began on how we could be accommodated. One participant suggested that rather than kindling a flame, we could write a note instead, but, alas, that wouldn’t work—writing is forbidden on Yom Kippur, too. Maybe we could just say an oral prayer instead of lighting a candle, another proposed.

While suggestions were raised and rejected, the irony seemed to be lost on everyone. Here we were, a roomful of Jews and gentiles sitting in northern India and having a Talmudic discussion on how to worship an idol of the Buddha—in clear transgression of one of Judaism’s cardinal sins—without violating any of the legal minutiae of Yom Kippur. The obvious contradictions were ignored as we struggled to create a sense of harmony between two ancient religions and within our own hearts. (Ultimately, we decided on lighting candles and offering them to the Buddha shrine before sundown.)

The course ended the following day with several hours still left before the conclusion of Yom Kippur. With a Chabad house just a short distance away from the meditation center—this is what it means to be on the Hummus Trail—I decided to walk over in time for the afternoon service. The red robes of the monks were replaced with black-and-white Hasidic garb, the Buddhist architecture swapped for an exact replica of 770 Eastern Parkway, and the portraits of the 14th Dalai Lama were switched to similarly oversized photographs of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. In classic Chabad style, I was immediately given a yarmulke, called up to the Torah for an aliyah, and made to feel at home. I was an insider once again, far more familiar with the texts and rituals in the Orthodox synagogue than I had been while sitting in the Buddhist meditation hall.

My familiarity allowed me to notice subtleties that I otherwise might’ve missed, such as how the mechitza separating men and women created a constricting feeling that had been absent from the egalitarian meditation hall; and how the rabbi’s boisterous children running around were more distracting—and even somewhat refreshing—given the childless, monastic environment from which I had come. Differences between the prayers were even more apparent: All week I had been uttering universal prayers for the benefit of all sentient beings in line with the Tibetan tradition—but the liturgy was now uncomfortably centered on the well being of the Jewish people. That traditional Jewish liturgy is particularistic is true throughout the year, but it’s even more manifest in the prayers added on the High Holidays.

When the sun went down and the stars came out, the concluding shofar blast echoed off the surrounding Himalayan peaks. And as we danced in a circle and sang “next year in Jerusalem,” the Dalai Lama’s opinion that spiritual seekers should first aim to preserve the religion of their ancestors started to make more sense.

This Yom Kippur experience turned out to be the most powerful of mine in recent memory. Observing the holiday in the context of another religion allowed me to see Judaism not through a prism of truth or falsehood, but as something operating on completely different planes: beautiful, alive, unique.

Walking back to my room from the Chabad house, I realized that I was neither here nor there, that I hadn’t left Orthodoxy to simply adopt another organized religion nor would I ever feel completely at home in a traditional synagogue. Feeling a sense of resentment toward Westerners who blithely adopt Buddhist practices hook, line, and sinker, I understood that while I’m attracted to ritual and spiritual meaning, I was not interested in trading one system of thought for another. For good or for bad, I am a wandering Jew and destined to forge my own way forward, incorporating the teachings that feel meaningful from wherever they come.

Yitzhak Bronstein is a master’s student at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a regional Jewish educator for Moishe House.