One of the many outstanding things about leaving Arizona to spend the summer in Aspen is the opportunity to meet, talk to, and learn from the amazing people who come to speak and teach at the Aspen Institute.
Last week was Aspen at its best. On Monday we got to hear King Abdullah of Jordan and a few days later I participated in a three-day symposium that featured His Holiness the Dalai Lama and several of the most highly regarded masters of Tibetan Buddhism in the world.
What better place for me--a self described student and proponent of Jewish wisdom--to put the notion of pluralism to the test. As my readers know, I have identified pluralism as the key to addressing virtually every religious, political, and personal problem in the world.
I came into this group knowing absolutely nothing about Buddhism other than the fact that I have come to resemble Buddha physically to a distressing extent in recent years.
But that changed very quickly. During the first day and a half before the arrival of His Holiness I had the opportunity to study with two amazing Buddhist masters.
The first was Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche--one of the foremost scholars and meditation masters in the world who has written books including "Mind Beyond Death--Penetrating Wisdom." Rinpcche (pronounced "rin-po-SHAY")is a Tibetan term that literally means "precious jewel" and is a title of honor given to only the greatest spiritual teachers.
He explained that Buddhism is the science of the mind and its goal is to help us to free our minds of the external influences that cause us stress and confusion. He explained that our Perceptual Mind enables us to see what is actually going on around us. It is our Conceptual Mind which brings our preconceived notions and prejudices into the equation that causes a lot of the problems. The rest of the problems he said are the result of the influence of the Emotional Mind which keeps us from thinking clearly.
He said the road to happiness can only be traveled by those who can control their prejudices and emotions and find inner peace. While that sounds easy, he said it requires many years of hard work and mediation to clear the mind.
That set the stage for my sessions and conversations with Sogyal Rinpoche. a world-renowned teacher and author of the widely-acclaimed "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying." Sogyal studied comparative religion at Cambridge University and has studied with and taught masters of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He is considered by many to be the reincarnation of the teacher and master of the previous Dalai Lama.
He taught that most of us make the mistake of over-thinking situations. He had a mantra which he repeated frequently:
Water, if you don't stir it, becomes clear.
He taught that what "stirs" the water for most of us is our thoughts. Meditation is designed to remove those thoughts from our minds. As we get better at it, it takes longer and longer before another thought pops in. In other words, the less we think, the closer we get to nirvana and complete happiness. Multi-tasking is our worst enemy, he said, as I checked my BlackBerry to see if I had any emails and what the stock market was doing.
Eventually I raised my hand.
"Rinpoche," I said. "As a Jew I am taught that I am commanded to think all the time and to try to solve the problems and relieve the suffering of the world. If everyone in the world was Buddhist, then millions of people would still be dying of polio and small pox. None of the great political problems--including those of your own people would be addressed."
His face broke into an enormous smile. "Buddhism is not a religion," he beamed. "It's a way of life. If you are Jewish and have a different world view, there are still ways in which you can benefit greatly by gaining control over your mind. Water, if you don't stir it, becomes clear--even for a Christian or a Jew."
"That's amazing," I said. "Because I believe that Judaism is also a way of life. Let me make a sports analogy. If a person is a swimmer or a runner, he will perform better at his chosen sport if he doesn't just swim or run. He or she would do better if they also lift weights, stretch, and do yoga or Pilates. So it is with life. The more wisdom traditions we can learn from and incorporate into our game plan, the better person we will be."
After the class, Sogyal came over and gave me a big hug "Thank you." he said. "No," I responded. "Thank you."
Over the next two days I spent five hours listening to the teaching of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It's always wonderful and exciting to see and learn from extraordinary people. Getting to see and hear His Holiness in person was very special. But the personal contact and Buddhist wisdom I was able to learn from the Rinpoches is what I will always remember about this conference.
As a committed Jew, I came away from three days of study and conversation with Tibetan Buddhist masters in possession of new tools from a wisdom tradition that can only help to make me a better person and a better Jew.
There are many of my Jewish friends who would say that my attitude and the fact that thousands of American Jews are studying Buddhism shows how Judaism is being watered down and how Jews are assimilating. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What is happening, in fact, is that many Jews are looking for wisdom wherever they can find it. My guess is that only a handful of Jews who study Buddhist wisdom end up referring to themselves as Buddhists.
They just end up as better, smarter people and more effective Jews.
Who is truly wise? He who learns from all people.
Shimon Ben Zoma
Water, if you don't stir it, becomes clear.