Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 8 Fall 2015
Opportunities and Actions: How I Reconciled
the God of Judaism with Being a Buddhist
By Dr. Arlette Poland
Arlette Poland, Ph.D., J.D., is a university professor whose specialty lies in Buddhism, Judaism, and Science and Religion. She is also a Dharma student, bodhisattva and feminist. Dr. Poland lives in Palm Desert in Southern California. For
questions or comments she can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I was adopted. When I was in my mid-30’s I met my birth mother and because of that experience I learned I was born Jewish. My mom (NOT my birth-mother) was raised Catholic in Europe. She was not a fan of the Church, however. My dad was raised Baptist. He was not enamored of that discipline, either. His experience led him to see it as rife with hypocrisy. Despite those basic attitudes, both my mom and dad were convinced that there was a God of some sort. They just never talked about it. They just prayed to it, usually in private.
I was one of those nerdy types who asked deep questions. I did not laugh at the same things as my peers did. I was not even a big fan of the Beatles when everyone was. I preferred Henry Mancini. Needless to say, I was a reject of even the so-called reject group in high school. No senior prom here!
In my adolescence, I pondered questions about self and the nature of a something greater, if there was something at all. I did not have books to review. I had no one I could ask. So, I turned within (this might be part of why my ministry is Listen Within Ministries). I developed my own answers based on my inner thoughts and intuitions, some music I listened to and what I heard, saw and felt from the world around me.
One of the first answers that came from within that I felt sure about was reincarnation. I was certain that reincarnation was the way our world worked and that I had had past lives. Years later, I was able to remember some of them. I learned that information from past lives could be relevant and informative for my current life. I also experienced hypnotherapy in order to more clearly view a past life. This was useful, too.
I did not, however, in those very early years, understand how reincarnation worked. I also did not know, as I do now, that there are different ways that it works for the different spiritual pathways that hold it as reality, like Hinduism and Buddhism. I learned more about that in graduate school many years later and even more about reincarnation as a university professor and now also a practicing Buddhist – or more accurately a Jew-Bu (born Jewish so always a Jew, but my practice is more centered around Zen Buddhism).
As life unfolded, I found Ashtanga Yoga and Raja Yoga (The Eight Limbed Yoga or Yoga of the Ksatriya or Royalty) and began to study with a Yoga master and a swami. Even as I entered law school and then later completed it and began to practice law, I was teaching Raja Yoga and studying the yoga philosophy of Patanjali. For fourteen years, I taught yoga and yoga philosophy to others in private or semi-private sessions. All during these years, I knew that reincarnation was real. I never doubted it since I first realized it as a pre-teen.
What I was never sure about was whether there was a god or not. And if there was a god - what is it like, really?
At some point, after meeting my birth mother, I began an intense study of Judaism. When I found out I was born Jewish, I told an actor friend of mine who was also Jewish (I was involved in acting and SAG or Screen Actors Guild at that time). In his deep and scratchy voice he said: Welcome to the Tribe! Then he arranged for me to meet with a Rabbi and thus began my education in Judaism. I learned that Judaism requires that one accept the truth of a creator God, usually called Adonai. Initially, I skipped over the matter of deity. It seemed that since we live in a country that allows us to believe what we wish regarding a deity, there was no pressure on me to decide at first. Also, neither of my parents told me I had to believe in a deity. We just celebrated Christmas like everyone else – thinking it marked the birth of baby Jesus – with presents, tree and lights.
At first the only rub with my own yoga philosophy and personally developed belief system was the matter of reincarnation and karma. That little rub did not slow me down in my thirst to learn about my birth right in Judaism. I felt strongly that this knowledge and practice was stolen by the Nazis. It seemed right that I should learn about my people and our history.
The more I learned, the more I realized how vast and deep Judaism is. There are branches within branches and each one had something that I liked and yet another thing that I could not blindly accept. My training as a lawyer required that whatever my belief system, it must be logical, based in science, and fit with a world view that acknowledges reincarnation and karma.
My first holiday with my people was awesome and confusing, all at once. I attended a Jewish Community Center Yom Kippur service. I had no idea that it was the Kol Nidre service, one of our most holy nights. I sat when they sat and stood when they stood. I watched and copied as they turned the pages the other way. I did my best to imitate what they were saying. I figured, “Hey. I am with my people. It is all good.”
I took classes at a local Jewish University. I joined a synagogue and loved learning the songs. I realized that when a Jew is singing, we are also praying; and when we are praying, we are singing. I found friends in the synagogue and when I married my husband, he wanted to convert, he loved it so much. When I went to graduate school after deciding to drop law, one of the areas of specialty for me was Judaism. The other became Buddhism.
After years of Yoga Philosophy as my first real spiritual home, I began to realize that Buddhism resonated with me more in terms of truth and logic. Thus, another spiritual shift began as this realization crystallized into action in my life. With this shift, began some deep challenges that I share with you here.
I studied with a Tibetan refugee who was a lama for a few years. I soon found that I needed to reconcile how to relate to a god and yet still be a Buddhist. Eventually, after about a year of meditating and looking deeply within, I realized that my notion of what is called ‘god’ is really a quality of energy. That energy is about care and connection. This led me to understand that sunyata, (translated as ‘emptiness’ but referring to both impermanence and interdependence as the true nature of all existence) is actually the expression of a god-like energy in my understanding and so could be the bridge between Judaism and Buddhism.
Here is how God or Adonai in Judaism was reconciled with this Buddhist who is also a Jewish feminist of the 20th century.
Everything is a quality of energy that has manifested. Some cultures call this the 10,000 things. All of existence is an expression of a quality of energy. Some religions say that the causal energy of the universe is a creator god. Most religions that say there is a god, also hold that this god must be all good. That describes the quality of the energy of this deity: All good. If this energy or deity is all good, it is also caring and compassionate. In some religions, that also means the deity or god is a judging energy. This leads to the presumption that any evil that has expression in the world will be judged by this deity or god and punished at some point in time.
These classical or traditional ideas about god never worked for me, even as an adolescent. First, without reincarnation the world made no sense. It is illogical that a deity or god would create a being and then give that being only one chance to ‘get it right’ or be judged harshly and end in an eternal hell. Second, it was not logical that an all good deity could create evil. Yet these religions argue that this creator god created everything, and some even argue that this deity knows all the future. Maybe because I am a retired lawyer and need things to be logical, or maybe because I remember teachings from a past life, or maybe both, this judging deity made no sense to me, either.
As I progressed through my graduate studies for a Ph.D. in Philosophy in Religion, the seed for my answer was inspired by a book by another Jewish feminist, Melissa Raphael, author of The Female Face of God in Auschwitz. She wrote that the female aspect of God was present even in the profanity of the death camps in Nazi Germany as the energy of opportunity. And, she told of how some of the women had taken up the opportunity. Every story showed how even in the face of death threats for touching or looking at each other, these women reached out, cared and connected. Now I could see that the real energy that was this God was the energy of opportunity for greater care and connection in any moment and in any relationship: that energy is everywhere present and always available, even in the most dire of circumstances.
With that realization, I could eventually reconcile being a Jewish feminist with being a practicing Buddhist who has taken the Bodhisattva Vow among other vows. I still do not believe there is a creator deity. I do, however, experience that life is all about opportunity. The opportunities abound in every direction and are of every kind. The energy of opportunity for greater care and connection is the energy that feels like God in Judaism to me. That is the energy that I watch for and choose to act upon.
In Judaism, Mitzvah is a combination of a commandment mixed with equal amounts of a good deed. Judaism commands that we look for the opportunities for greater care and connection in all relationships. It is a mitzvah to act on this energy. As a Jew and as a practicing Buddhist, the point and maybe even the reason for this life is always to look for and act on the opportunities for greater care and connection.
In short, as a feminist, a citizen of the U.S., and as an educated woman, I have the right and maybe the obligation to decipher what if anything a deity is for me. In the course of that journey, I came to understand that it is an energy that is woven into all existence. It is as true as Sunyata is The True Nature of All Existence. This energy of opportunity presents itself to us individually in a manner that is consistent with our understanding and level of thought. Therefore, in true Buddhist practice, I work every day to release trishna (Sanskrit) or tanha (Pali), attachments and desires in order that I might be more open and flexible. In that openness, I am ever more aware of the energy of opportunity for greater care and connection. As both a Jew and a Buddhist, I then act on those opportunities fully and with abandon, always grateful to the 10,000 things and the interwoven factors that have presented the opportunities.