Buddhism: Oy Vey (Except For That One Time)

It’s such a shame that I don’t relate to Buddhism. So many of the cool kids — and adults pretending to be cool kids — love it, and find community within it. At least once a week, I’ll meet some intriguing person who tells me they meditate at the Cambridge Zen Center, the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, or whatever.

It’s also one of the most Jewish things a person can get involved with… other than Judaism, of course. So often, when talks on Buddhism are offered, the lama or Rinpoche in question is named Weinstein or Rosenbaum. The first few times this happened, I laughed when the guy in the robes introduced himself as Larry Cohen, or whatever, but now I almost expect it. The social hour at the Cambridge Zen Center is sure to have a few Jewfros kicking around, and a few telltale Brooklyn/Bronx/Queens accents among the older crowd.

Buddhism seems sophisticated and chic, and offers an easy chance at a multicultural experience. I’m guessing many Jews like it because it’s a chance to explore something other than Judaism without worrying that Jesus will come up, or the God who turned them off of Judaism to begin with. A non-theistic philosophy, Buddhism suits Jewish atheists and agnostics quite well, offering community and meaning without ramming new holy texts down the throats of people who might be trying to escape the first ones they knew.

Buddhism’s emphasis on suffering also seems key. Jews are big on trying to avoid suffering — to escape persecution, prejudice against them, and related problems. Their entire history is bound up in hardship at the hands of other groups… and overcoming it. Meanwhile, Buddhism’s most central goal is to escape suffering entirely, forever.

But — and it’s a screamingly huge but — Buddhism’s orientation towards overcoming suffering seems anathema to everything I value most. I may well be missing a lot here. All I can do is share my personal impressions. When I ask most Buddhist teachers about the most pressing spiritual question for me — the fate of the soul after death — they’ll tell me that, first of all, the soul is an illusion, and, second of all, they’re too busy “being present in the moment” to worry about such questions.

If I ask whether they worry about their ability to “be present” in a thousand years, they say no, they don’t, and smile. Can you believe it? Maybe you can, but this is all pretty much the opposite of who I am. Being present is key for me. I’ll take a half hour to eat a small cookie, taking small bites and meditating on the taste and texture. But will I be enjoying cookies in a thousand years — even in some metaphorical way that my current mind could never understand or even touch? To me, that question is everything. To Buddhists, usually, it’s pointless even to consider it.

Why is the soul an illusion within Buddhist thought? Because everything is impermanent, including our basic personalities and the souls we think we perceive in ourselves and others. We’ve fundamentally transformed since age 8, or whatever, and any sensation of sameness is grounded in false impressions. Every aspect of existence is in constant flux, and we should embrace these changes.

Thing is, I hate impermanence. I mean, I really despise it. I cry when restaurants close, when I see people who have obviously aged, when I finish the last bite of cheese and wonder if I’ll ever recreate that level of deliciousness. I loathe death and wish people could hold onto their ideal states of health, pleasure, strength, perception, and ability forever. And I’m the same basic person I was at age 8. Really. I will fight you to the death on that.

Well, maybe not to the death, at least not in a Buddhist context. Buddhism’s ultimate sense of death often seems horrifyingly close to… nothing. Here I am, desperately seeking evidence that our ultimate fate is not nothing, that our conscious selves somehow survive bodily death and move on to new adventures, and there Buddhism is, aligning its ultimate goal of nirvana with concepts like no self, emptiness, and the absence of mind-created activity. In other words, it seems, Buddhists hope to achieve exactly what I most abhor and fear. In their view, all this cessation and nothingness translates to no more suffering.

Many Buddhists would say that my problems would shrink if I embraced the goal of non-attachment — also a central Buddhist concept. But I bet you can guess by now: non-attachment horrifies me, just like most of Buddhism. When anything positive comes into my life, I love it and want to keep it within my orbit: family, friends, places, favorite clothes, even $3 cases for my sunglasses. When I lose something, no matter how seemingly small, I go nuts. When people or even things enter my life and give me pleasure, see me through hard times and great ones, and, in the case of people, allow me to do the same for them, I start to see them as being entwined with my energy, my soul, my fundamental existence. I don’t see any happiness or lightness in letting them go. I’ve always hated those movie scenes that show someone encouraging some bird that she has nursed to fly off into its own form of freedom. To some this seems exhilarating, but I just want to sob. What if the bird gets into another accident and dies?

There is a concept of rebirth in Buddhism, though what, exactly, gets reborn has always baffled me when there’s no self involved, just a “life force” that could animate a mouse after it no longer animates your complex, thoughtful Uncle Jacob. If brilliant Uncle Jacob can become a reflex-driven mouse, I start to lose interest. I’m sorry, but I just do. Aside from which, the goal is not to come back, even as a human with a seemingly splendid mind and life. Returning to this world is seen as a negative sentence. The goal is… well, it kind of seems like the goal is absolutely nothing, and I just can’t get behind that. I’ll take some suffering if it comes with some joy, growth, learning, and even challenge.

Now, nirvana is an exceedingly complex concept, and some seem to suggest that it’s not just nothing in the sense that human minds perceive it. There’s something more to it. I don’t want to knock nirvana; maybe it would be an astoundingly wonderful state to reach. Though… I can’t imagine how I could reach it if I — my self — won’t even exist after I die. Would my life force reach it: the same life force that could animate a cockroach? What can I tell you, I just can’t dredge up much excitement about this possibility. Much as the Cambridge Zen Center serves lovely snacks (once they even had homemade apple crisp!) and is always sure to attract warm, friendly characters, their basic philosophy chills me.

As with so much else, there are exceptions. Buddhism, like most philosophies that attract many adherents, has many schools, branches, interpretations, and orientations. And I’d like to clarify once again: I am no expert, and can only speak to my own experiences.

Several summers ago, I spent a few weeks in Lily Dale, New York: a rural enclave filled with spiritualist mediums. Survival of personality and soul after death is a fundamental tenet of spiritualism, and I didn’t expect to find any Buddhists among the many mystics and seekers who offered classes and workshops in this setting. But there was one — a friendly middle-aged guy who introduced himself as Sensei Tony. He created one of my favorite Lily Dale experiences: a welcome break from the many quacks who did little for me beyond lightening my wallet and making me laugh at my own dashed hopes that their powers were real. My sense was that he was born into a somewhat Christian background and chose Buddhism on his own, at some point during his life path.

Sensei Tony seemed to have a clear belief that something akin to personality and soul survived death. He and I bonded over our distaste for the common attempt, among Buddhists and others, to transcend ego. According to him, only psychotics can exist with no ego. This made me giggle… and feel a kinship with this man who directed the Blue Mountain Lotus Society in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania… and had previously led the Harvard Buddhist Fellowship. Our paths in Cambridge had probably crossed, but I never knew him when he was here.

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In Lily Dale, Sensei Tony taught a class called “The Buddhist Guide to the Spirit World,” and “spirit” in Lily Dale tends to mean “deceased soul.” In this class, he explained his belief that we keep growing and learning, even beyond our current lifetimes. “We” clearly implied the soul, the personality, everything I love about the self. According to Sensei Tony, when people die, those who remain among the living can approach their deceased counterparts’ “true selves” as opposed to the “ego selves” that are ideally transcended. (This transcendence can happen both during life and afterwards, but it seemed that “true selves” are somehow more accessible in afterlife states.) The “ego self” is focused on helping us survive and feel good, while the “true self” can engage with ultimate reality. In other words, some measure of transcending ego is a good thing, but “ego” does not mean “overarching self.” Rather, it seems to imply the part of the self that keeps our deepest, truest, most fundamental self from achieving its full potential.

At the end of class, Sensei Tony asked for a volunteer for a “Buddhist communion exercise” that attempted to connect a person in the class with a deceased loved one. A genial woman in her 30s gave it a try. She asked her mother whether she was on the right track with her life, and listened to Sensei Tony’s advice to honor the first thing that popped into her head as the answer, as long as it came from a place of compassion. While I had no particular reason to believe that a real connection between the dead and the living had happened, the woman seemed peaceful and happy after her supposed contact with her mother.

Sensei Tony offered to lead these exercises for others who wanted to try them, at some point after class. He didn’t ask for any money: his motivation seemed to be pure sharing of something that he believed was deeply valuable. I have no problems with charging money for spiritual activities; I well understand that spiritual facilitators and such need to support themselves just like everyone else. But let’s just say that the pecuniary aspect of this trip had begun to grate on me. Mediums, mystics, alleged guides into our past lives… they all wanted their cut.

Combined with their typical lack of skill in bringing me the signs and evidence I was hoping for, it began to irk me after a while. So Sensei Tony’s free offer felt… freeing, in a deep, personal sense. I asked if he would work with me later that afternoon, and he happily agreed.

My book-length manuscript about my quest for insight into the fate of our selves/souls/consciousness after death includes a detailed description of my time with Sensei Tony. If I were a Buddhist, I wouldn’t mind describing it again here, but, ardent non-Buddhist that I am, I worry that divulging too much of my manuscript in advance might harm me when I try to sell the book. You know, the unchanging me, the soul me, the me whose essence is exactly the same now as it was when I first wrote about Sensei Tony, thinking in terms of my book project. The me who smacks Buddhist impermanence right in the kishkes, and pulverizes it.

So I’ll write in general terms, without sharing too much. I worked with Sensei Tony on a beautiful summer afternoon; we sat on a bench overlooking Lily Dale’s small beach. The session’s concerns were up to me: Sensei Tony’s job was to facilitate and help me along, clarifying the process at crucial times. The key to it all was looking into my own mind for answers, while communicating with Sensei Tony. I asked where I’d be heading after my death. The answer was inconclusive and slightly jarring at first, but, ultimately, filled with peace and hope. It wasn’t nothing, and the something I intuited gave me a feeling of immensity, and a glimpse into a realm I couldn’t yet process or understand.

Then I sensed the presence of my grandmother: my mother’s mother. I couldn’t decide who to ask for: I felt guilty picking one deceased relative over another. But then Grandma came, easily and intuitively with no direct request, and it all felt right. Her personality was there — her humor, her love of fun and pleasure, her hope that I should be calm and feel connection and love.

There were no miraculous fireworks. I didn’t divine any facts or situations I couldn’t have accessed through standard, this-worldly means. It’s possible I connected with my grandmother, and it’s possible I simply accessed my own imagination. This I can say for sure: the experience filled me with a deep sense of peace, and also with admiration for Sensei Tony, who struck me as gentle, loving, and completely behind my desire to connect with my grandmother’s discrete, unmistakable soul.

My sense for and openness to Buddhism expanded in a profound way. But when I returned to Cambridge and decided to give Buddhism another chance, checking out some of the Buddhist centers around me with renewed openness, it was the same old thing: impermanence; no soul; attempts to shut down mental activity, because active minds lead to suffering; transcending attachment; nothingness as the ultimate virtue; no interest in afterlife questions. Buddhism still gave me the willies, still felt like the antithesis of me.

Recently, a friend and I laughed hysterically about it all, marveling at how perfectly Buddhism valorized everything we feared and disliked. We were at Harvard Square’s Café Algiers. In front of me was a warm chocolate croissant with whipped cream; in front of her was a tantalizing cup of coffee with whipped cream. (Yes, I was the bigger pig here, but this was my dinner.) Café Algiers is slated to leave by the end of next month. We savored our surroundings — the glorious dome on the roof, the Middle Eastern art, the special wobbliness of Café Algiers’s tables, the particular delicacies we’ll never taste again once the café leaves this world. We saw no beauty whatsoever in the impending doom for this wonderful Harvard Square refuge for intense students and professors, curious travelers, and local residents who craved a place to hang out, chat, and enjoy special treats.

Impermanence… no, thank you! Buddhism, you offer nothing comforting here, no hope, no sense of peace. But you helped us isolate exactly what bothered us about this café’s demise, exactly what we don’t believe about the world, how it works, and what kinds of ideals we should aspire towards.

I won’t speak for my friend, but I feel safe in saying that I am the opposite of a Buddhist. And yet… I won’t forget my fabulous Buddhist teacher in Lily Dale, one of the few truly inspired souls I met while there. Every law has its exceptions, every worldview, its proponents who push against it from the inside, trying to expand it into something more fulfilling, more excellent, more true.

There are Jews like this, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, existentialists… and, yes, Buddhists. Though I never fit into any camp, I deeply admire those who do identify with a camp, but who try to push it towards being the best possible home and guide towards life. I despise impermanence, but I love improvement when all that is good about a situation remains and thrives.

Now, excuse me while I pray that the core beliefs of most Buddhists I know are untrue. May the soul be real, may it be immortal, and may our ultimate fate be shining, unmistakable existence — the inverse of nothingness — filled with bright, active, exhilarating consciousness: no quieting of the mind or dimming of the self. Also, allow me to thank my Buddhist pal in Lily Dale for offering me a rare moment of peace.