The Book of Joy

9780399185045When a friend told me that she was reading a series of dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on joy, my first thought was "I need to read that too." Their dialogues are published in a book attributed to the two luminaries along with Douglas Abrams, called The Book of Joy.

Here's the first place in the book that drew forth my impulse to make marginal markings. This is the Archbishop speaking:

Discovering more joy does not, I'm sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.

We may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too -- that feels right to me. Joy is not the antithesis of sorrow. It doesn't cancel sorrow out, or make one less prone to the sorrows that come with human life. But joy can help us face our sorrows in a different way.

Abrams seizes on this, and brings it back to the Archbishop: "The joy that you are talking about," he says, "is not just a feeling. It’s not something that just comes and goes. It’s something much more profound. And it sounds like what you’re saying is that joy is a way of approaching the world." The Archbishop agrees, and adds that as far as he is concerned, our greatest joy arises when we seek to do good for others.

Coming from anyone else, that might sound insincere, but from Desmond Tutu I am inclined to believe it. Reading his words made me aware that I fear I don't spend enough time seeking to do good for others. But then I realized that he could be speaking not only about vocation or community service, but also on a more intimate scale about trying to do good for people I love. Doing something to brighten the day of someone I love brings me intense joy. (Maybe the real work is figuring out how to broaden the sphere of those whom I love.)

The Archbishop also says some things about hope that resonate deeply for me:

"Hope," the Archbishop said, "is quite different from optimism, which is more superficial and liable to become pessimism when the circumstances change. Hope is something much deeper..."

"I say to people that I'm not an optimist, because that, in a sense is something that depends on feelings more than the actual reality. We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic. Now, hope is different in that it is based not in the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction. I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless. Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable..."

"Despair can come from deep grief, but it can also be a defense against the risks of bitter disappointment and shattering heartbreak. Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope. To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one's chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass."

I love his point that optimism depends on feelings, and it's the nature of feelings to be malleable. Often I know that the way I feel isn't necessarily correlated with how things "actually are" -- intellectually I can see that things aren't so bad, but emotionally I feel as though they are. (Or the other way around.) If my optimism depends on feeling good about the situation at hand, it will necessarily falter sometimes.

Hope, for the Archbishop, is something different. Hope is a choice, a way of being in the world. Hope is an affirmation that whatever challenges, or grief, or sorrow may be arising will pass. Hope says: there is more to life than this, even if we can't see that right now. In a sense, it requires a leap of faith. It asks us to operate on the assumption that there is more to life than whatever we are experiencing right now.

Abrams writes:

We try so hard to separate joy and sorrow into their own boxes, but the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama tell us that they are inevitably fastened together. Neither advocate the kind of fleeting happiness, often called hedonic happiness, that requires only positive states and banishes feelings like sadness to emotional exile. The kind of happiness that they describe is often called eudemonic happiness and is characterized by self-understanding, meaning, growth, and acceptance, including life’s inevitable suffering, sadness, and grief...

"We are meant to live in joy," the Archbishop explained. "This does not mean that life will be easy or painless. It means that we can turn our faces to the wind and accept that this is the storm we must pass through. We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin."

I'm struck by the Archbishop's assertion that we are meant to live in joy -- and that this doesn't mean that life can be, or even should be, devoid of pain. Joy and sorrow are so often intertwined: at the happy occasion when one remembers a loved one who has died, at the celebration of a joyous milestone when a loved one is struggling. We shatter a glass at every Jewish wedding to remind us that even in our moments of joy there is brokenness. Authentic spiritual life calls us to hold this disjunction all the time.

Archbishop Tutu is right that authentic spiritual life also calls us to begin by recognizing what is, and sometimes what is is painful. But we can hold that painful reality loosely, alongside awareness of the gifts we receive from loving others and aspiring to sweeten their circumstance. As the Archbishop also notes, when we seek to do good for others, we open ourselves to some of life's deepest joy. And that's a joy that is rooted not in what we have, but in what we give away -- in the love and caring that comes through us. And because it comes through us, rather than from us, it has no limits.

The Psalmist wrote, "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning."  The "night" in question may be long. It may be personal, or national, or global. But we can live in hope that morning will come and will bring joy, even if we don't know what that will look like, even if we don't know when or how that will be.



Joy, 2009

Jay Michaelson's "The Gate of Tears"

GoT-220x300Have you ever felt that a book's arrival in your life was a perfectly-timed gift? That's how I felt when I received my copy of Jay Michaelson's The Gate of Tears, new this month from Ben Yehuda Press. As I delved into the book, that sense deepened.

This book was not easy for me to read, but I am grateful for its presence on my bookshelves, and I know that I will read it again.

"Joy and sadness are not opposites. Sometimes, they coexist, like two consonant notes of a complex yet harmonious chord," Jay writes. Most of us would probably prefer joy, and probably try to avoid sadness. Sadness isn't something we want to focus on. That's part of the backdrop against which the book is written:

At our contemporary moment, the ordinary sadness that is part of a life richly lived is often stigmatized, shamed, deemed a kind of American failure... Perhaps counterintuitively, it is the surrender to sadness that causes it to pass -- not the suppression of it.

I know that I have shamed myself for my sadness. I so value gratitude that when sadness arises I can feel like I'm failing. Sometimes my mental monologue has demanded, what's wrong with me that even with all of these gifts in my life I still feel sad? But I've come to see that being aware of sadness is not a sign that something is wrong with me -- rather that something is right.

I try to cultivate gratitude: first thing in the morning, last thing before sleep, and a million moments in between. And that doesn't cancel out the fact that learning to sit with sadness can help me connect with God. As Jay writes, "The art of being with sadness, and other unwanted houseguests of the mind, brings about an intimacy with what is -- what the mystics call the One, the Divine, the Beloved."

The book is clear that there's a difference between sadness and depression:

[A]s someone who has experienced depression at times in my life, I feel qualified to say that sadness is not the same thing. Depression is a medical condition, a function of brain chemistry. It can be crippling, devastating, bleak. It makes it hard to live one's life. Subjectively, I experienced it as a dullness, a kind of lessening, or graying, of all emotion. Sadness, on the other hand, is part of being human. So is loss, pain, and loneliness. These are not veils in the way of feeling; they are feeling.

A thousand times yes. Longtime readers know that I experienced postpartum depression in the months after our son was born. I have experienced depression in other ways at other moments in my life. Sadness and depression are not the same, at all. Depression flattens me and makes life feel un-livable. Sadness is not like that.

Sadness hurts, of course. Sadness can come in waves so intense they take my breath away for a time. But sadness passes, and in its wake I feel the joy of being alive. And sometimes I can feel that joy even while the sadness is present. That's the experience at the heart of this book, for me.

Or, in Jay's words, "When the desire to banish sadness is released, sadness cohabitates with joy, and gives birth to holiness. More moments merit being named as Divine. After surrendering the fight to stay afloat, I drown, but find I can breathe underwater." There can be release in letting go.

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Jew in the Lotus - on film

In preparation for Getting It... Together, the coming weekend's gathering celebrating the 25th anniversary of that historic trip taken by a group of rabbis and a poet to Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama, I finally watched Laurel Chiten's film The Jew in the Lotus, which arose, of course, from Rodger Kamenetz's best-selling book of the same title. (Here's Patrick Sullivan's review of the film: Spiritual power blossoms in 'The Jew and the Lotus'.) Here's the first minute or so of the film:

The film and the book overlap in obvious ways. The filmmaker became interested in the story after reading the book, and there are moments from the book which appear in the film -- much to my delight. But in many ways the film's project is the telling of a different story, a story about personal loss and how the trip to Dharamsala marked a turning point for healing. I hadn't known that story, nor that it would be so central. It moved me deeply, though it wasn't what I was expecting to see.

For me the greatest joy was in glimpsing the footage of the dialogue in Dharamsala. Because I just reread the book, its images and scenes are alive in my memory. In rereading, I was particularly struck by a description of joyful morning prayer -- which the film offers me the chance to briefly witness. And of course there's the amazing scene where Reb Zalman z"l is talking about the angel of the Jews and the angel of Tibet, about which I wrote a few weeks ago; to my delight, that scene is in the film, too.

I wasn't blessed to meet Reb Zalman in person until he was 80, so I only knew him during the last decade of his life. But on the trip to Dharamsala he was a hale and hearty 65, and when the film was made he wasn't much older. I loved having the chance to witness him as he was then. His voice and his demeanor and the sparkle in his eye are all familiar, but this is a younger Zalman than I ever knew. It's a little bit like seeing old movies of one's parents or grandparents -- the past, once again made life.

I know that next time I reread the book I'll have some of these visuals in mind alongside Rodger's descriptions. And now I'm even more excited about the Sunday session which will serve as the culmination of the weekend -- "Tracing Reb Zalman’s Vision, from Dharamsala to the Future" -- where we'll hear from several of the trip's participants. I'm looking forward to hearing how they reflect back on that journey now, and their hopes for how its values can be carried forward in years to come.


If you won't be able to join us in West Chester but are interested in the Sunday program, go to and click on the "Live-streaming and yahrzeit tributes" link. If you make a donation there, you'll receive a link to the livestream of Sunday's program.

Revisiting Jew in the Lotus after 20+ years

25 years is a long time. Some of the things I loved 25 years ago -- the books, the ideas, the certainties -- don't necessarily speak to me now. Then again, some of the things which were formative for me two-plus decades ago are every bit as central in my life now as they were then -- maybe more so. Rodger Kamenetz's book The Jew in the Lotus is in that latter category. It was my doorway to Jewish Renewal. It's how I first "met" Reb Zalman, and Reb Zalman is the reason I became a rabbi.

I read the book when it was new, in March of 1994, when my dear friend David handed it to me saying "You really have to read this." (He was right.) This book was the door which led me to Jewish Renewal and ultimately to both my adult spiritual life and my rabbinate. (I wrote about that a while back: How I Found Jewish Renewal, And Why I Stayed.) I've dipped into the book countless times in the last twenty-plus years. But it's a long time since I've sat down to read the whole thing, cover to cover.

In a few weeks I will spend a weekend in West Chester, PA, at ALEPH's Getting It...Together, a Shabbaton (Shabbat retreat) and Sunday event which will celebrate the historic journey taken by those diverse rabbis to Dharamsala to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama 25 years ago. (If you're free the weekend of July 4, join us -- you can register for the full weekend, for Friday night only, or for Sunday only, and the retreat schedule and registration information are on ALEPH's website.)

What better time to reread the book which set me on my life's spiritual journey?

1148312Part of what's remarkable for me, rereading the book now, is how some of the things which seemed radical and almost unimaginable to me 20 years ago are simply parts of my life now -- not taken for granted, exactly, but no longer surprising. "Reb Zalman...told me he saw himself as 'doing Jewish renewal, not Jewish restoration,'" Rodger writes. I suspect that reading those words was the first time I ever encountered the phrase "Jewish renewal."

"Reb Zalman, the Matisse of religion, rearranged Jewish thought with decorative freedom...At sixty-seven, he was our loosest, freest spirit -- heir to the joy and zest of the legendary Hasidic masters." That's Rodger's prelude to the story I love so much, about how one evening-time Reb Zalman asked their driver to pull over so that he could daven ma'ariv (pray the Jewish evening service) alongside Sikhs saying their evening prayers. When I first read that story, I marveled at his openness. When I read it now, my heart beams with knowing fondness alongside the admiration.

One of the things which moves me most now, rereading this book after so many years, is recognizing that this book sparked in me yearnings for a kind of prayer I had never experienced... which is now a regular part of my life, especially any time I am together with my Jewish Renewal hevre (friends.)

Each morning before breakfast, the Jewish group assembled outside Kashmir College for shakharit davening -- morning prayers. The men strapped leather tefillin on the left arm and just above the third eye. In our brightly colored tallises and our headgear, which ranged from knit kippahs to sateen yarmulkes to Blu Greenberg's gray silk scarf to my own neo-Hasidic Indiana Jones fedora, we were quite a sight to the Tibetan kitchen workers, who always managed to break away for a glimpse. The davening was delightful: vigorous, lusty, witty and raucous, quiet and joyful.

This was all new to me.

I remember when this was all new to me, too. I remember when I couldn't quite imagine the kind of davening Rodger describes. I remember what it felt like the first week I experienced this kind of davening, and how my heart opened like a flower coming into full bloom. And I remember how it felt, when I did DLTI (the Davenen Leadership Training Institute), to discover that I too could participate in co-creating this kind of enlivening prayer. Holy wow, what an amazing journey this has been.

Continue reading "Revisiting Jew in the Lotus after 20+ years" »

Getting excited about Getting It Together


Last summer it occurred to some of us in the Jewish Renewal world that this year, 2015, would mark the 25th anniversary of the trip to Dharamsala chronicled in Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus. Wouldn't it be neat, we thought, if we could bring together people from that trip for a celebratory weekend which could enliven us spiritually and would galvanize us in the holy work of being in community with each other across Jewish denominations and across religious traditions?

From that spark, Getting It...Together was born.

July 3, 2015, will be the anniversary (on the secular / Gregorian calendar) of the date when Reb Zalman z"l (may his memory be a blessing) left this life. I remember last year feeling alone in my sadness because many of my friends and colleagues were together in Oregon when he died and were able to pray and mourn and celebrate him together right then and there, and I was not with them. This year, at the one-year anniversary, I will remember him together with my extended Jewish Renewal community (and with many others) at what promises to be an extraordinary weekend:

The Fourth of July weekend this summer will be a weekend of learning, worship, music and ritual offered by followers of all faiths, culminating in a summit of faith leaders and artists promoting the vision of deep ecumenism through various expressions.

Reb Zalman was fond of saying “The only way to get it together... is together.” An innovator of ecumenical dialogue with practitioners of a wide variety of spiritual paths, Reb Zalman leaves us a legacy of Deep Ecumenism. His deeply personal approach to dialogue led to significant friendships with many of the world’s great philosophers and spiritual teachers.

This summer, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the remarkable journey of Reb Zalman and a small and varied group of Jewish leaders to Dharamsala, India, at the request of the Dalai Lama, to help Tibetan Buddhist leaders learn how a People survives (and thrives) “in a diaspora.”

Special guest presenters include: Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, Rodger Kamenetz (author of The Jew in the Lotus, which chronicles the 1990 journey), Rabbi Leah Novick and spiritual leaders from many faith communities.

There's special resonance for me in being able to gather with my Jewish Renewal community and also with a multi-faith community as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Jew In The Lotus -- since, as I recently wrote (How I Found Jewish Renewal, And Why I Stayed) there's a direct link between that book and my rabbinate.

The Getting It...Together weekend will run from Friday July 3 through Sunday July 5. We'll begin with some pre-Shabbat activities, including an opportunity for mikveh (ritual immersion) before Shabbat as well as some learning and contemplative practice. Shabbat services will be lively, musical, and intentionally inclusive (especially so, given that this will be a multifaith gathering) and will be facilitated by some of Jewish Renewal's leading lights. I think one of the best ways to experience Jewish Renewal is to daven (pray) with us, and this promises to be fantastic davenen!

Over the course of the weekend, our special guests and others will offer teachings honoring Reb Zalman's vision and contribution to the renewal of Judaism and to the ongoing work of deep ecumenism. Plans call for a concert of Middle Eastern music after havdalah, the ritual which brings Shabbat to a close. Sunday will be a day of art, music and dance performances, and stories from the trip to Dharamsala, culminating in a closing summit which will feature our Jew In The Lotus guests as well as some next-generation visionaries.

It's going to be an amazing weekend, and participants of all faiths are welcome. (And the weekend is followed by a week-long retreat called Ruach Ha-Aretz which I'm not able to attend but which I know will be wonderful, and which will continue the learning about deep ecumenism in some lovely ways.)

Register for Getting It...Together today.



There is something satisfying about the tangibility of the beads. I like the way they feel in my hands, the smoothness of them beneath my fingers. I like the feel of one clicking against the next.

They sit in a coil on my desk. Every so often I pick them up, holding them in my left hand. I take one bead between thumb and forefinger, and in my mind I chant Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Adonai Echad.

The melody is one which I learned for a Sufi-style zhikr practice many years ago. In that practice, we chanted the words of the Shema over and over, leaning left (shema Yisrael) and right (Adonai Eloheinu) and then forward (Adonai Echad) and forward again (Adonai Echad.) I'm not moving my body now, any more than I'm singing aloud, but I am remembering the movements along with the melody and the words.

And then I click the bead down the string and take the next one under my thumb and mentally chant the lines again.

And again.

I do this while I'm on the phone, sometimes. Or while I'm reading. When the beads are under my thumb, the prayer just keeps repeating itself, a subroutine running automatically in the back of my mind while my forebrain is focusing on my reading or my conversation.

Listen up, you Godwrestlers! The Infinite is our God; the Infinite is One.

No matter what I'm doing, no matter what's happening in the world, everything is part of a deeper unity. God is One. And God is everywhere; as we read in Tikkunei Zohar, leit attar panui mineih -- there is no place devoid of the Presence. Everywhere, everyone, everything, is part of that unity. Ein od milvado: there is nothing else but God, in the end.

I can't walk around all day in mystical awareness of the Oneness of all things. In order to live in the world, I have to be an individual -- a single person, with a single mind and heart and soul. And I love being this person, in these relationships, doing this work in the world. But deep down, I'm not separate from you. Or from her, or him, or them. None of us is separate. We're all part of the One. We're droplets of water falling over the waterfall, and when we reach the bottom we rejoin the Oneness from which we came.

And with every bead I click along this string, I recite a line of prayer which reminds me of that.

Are mala beads an "authentically Jewish" practice? Nope. This is a practice borrowed from Buddhism. (Actually a lot of traditions make use of prayer beads, among them Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. This particular string of beads was a gift from a dear friend who is Buddhist.) But this piece of borrowed spiritual technology adapts well to the Jewish ideal of praying constantly. As Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (of blessed memory) wrote, "Prayer comes into full bloom only as we become aware that the soul-breath / the neshamah is always praying."

Moving the beads between thumb and forefinger is a little bit like winding the fringes of my tallit around and between my fingers while praying. I remember winding the silken strings of my grandfather's tallit between my fingers when I was a kid. There's something satisfying about the tactile experience of drawing the fringes between the fingers. Having recently learned how to tie tzitzit, I am extra-conscious of the fact that the windings and knots represent the phrase Adonai Echad, "God is One." Fingering my tzitzit is a reminder of that Oneness.

And because the Shema is my current mantra, fingering these beads is a reminder of that Oneness, too. A way of infusing my workday with a little bit of contemplative practice.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Adonai Echad.




How to be sick well: Toni Bernhard's guide for the chronically ill

How+To+Be+SickThis book is written for people who are ill and aren't going to get better, and also for their caregivers, people who love them and suffer along with them in wishing that things were different. It speaks most specifically about physical illness. In the largest sense, though, I feel that this book is for all of us. Sooner or later, we are all going to not "get better."

That's acclaimed Jewish-Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein in her introduction to How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard.

The book was recommended to me by one of my congregants who cares for a chronically ill loved one. She described Bernhard's book as "How to be sick well" -- how to achieve emotional and spiritual wellness even when one's body remains sick.

Bernhard became ill in 2001 and has suffered from chronic illness ever since. The first two chapters tell the story of her illness. Beginning in chapter three she shares how her Buddhist learning offered her a way of approaching her illness as a spiritual practice. She wanted to know "how to live a life of equanimity and joy despite my physical and energetic limitations." This book offers her answers to that question.

Early in that third chapter she writes about the power of "just being" with what is:

Just "being" life as it is for me has meant ending my professional career years before I expected to, being house-bound and even bed-bound much of the time, feeling continually sick in the body, and not being able to socialize very often. [Drawing on Buddhist teaching,] I was able to use these facts that make up my life as a starting point. I began to bow down to these facts, to accept them, to be them. And then from there, I looked around to see what life had to offer. And I found a lot.

I struggle a little bit with her language of "bowing down to" these facts. And yet I recognize that there is wisdom in accepting what is, instead of getting caught up in wishing that things were different. I know that in my own life I get into trouble when I get attached to my expectations of how something will be, and I feel more open to blessings when I can simply be with what is.

Continue reading "How to be sick well: Toni Bernhard's guide for the chronically ill" »

A glimpse of Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma

Evolvingdharmacover3"The Western world is on the cusp of a major transformation around how we understand the mind, the brain, and what to do about them. Meditation and other forms of contemplative practice, once the provenance of religion, then later of 'spirituality,' are now in the American mainstream, in corporate retreats and public schools, as a rational, proven technology to upgrade the mind and organize the brain, buttressed by hard scientific data and the reports of millions of practitioners."

That's the opening of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment, by Jay Michaelson, due out in October 2013 from North Atlantic Books. Jay writes:

"The original source of these cognitive technologies is the dharma, an ancient word meaning the way, the path, or the teaching. In the most general sense, it can simply refer to the truth of how things are: the laws of the universe, and of the mind...

What was once a monastic tradition of meditation, virtuous action, and wisdom teachings (samadhi, sila, and panna) is now, depending on where you encounter it, a technology of brainhacking; a way to build insular thickness in the brain; a way to lower stress; a mystical path filled with unusual peak experiences; a way to grow more loving, compassionate, and generous; a method to get ahead and gain an edge on your competition; or any number of other things. Love it or hate it, the dharma has evolved."

This new book aims to explore the evolution of the dharma through a variety of lenses. There's history here; there's neuroscience; there's personal experience. There's also a straightforward narrative voice which is unsentimental and occasionally quite wry.

This is a story of monks and soldiers; a history as well as a tale told from my own cultural position, conditioned by my age, gender, class, race, sexual orientation, and all the rest; a narrative of maverick teachers, online communities, Occupy, self-loathing, stress reduction, religion, sex, power, and Google.

Who wouldn't want to read that?

Full disclosure: I've been blessed to work with Jay off and on for a number of years. He is the founding editor of Zeek, "a Jewish journal of thought and culture," where I used to serve as a contributing editor. I come to this book as a colleague of the author's, as a rabbi, and as someone whose own spiritual life has been strongly shaped both by Judaism and by the import of Buddhism to these shores. Those are some of the lenses I bring to bear on reading this book.

Continue reading "A glimpse of Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma" »

A squirrel who wants to meditate

I clear my throat in the silence of the sanctuary. Eyes closed, I offer the following:

The Baal Shem Tov -- regarded as the founder of Hasidism -- offered the following teaching about what to do when you are engaged in prayer and foreign thoughts bubble up in you. When this happens, he said, don't castigate yourself for having these thoughts. Rather, recognize that the thoughts ultimately come from God.

He would say: if you are distracted from prayer because you've been caught up in fantasy about a beautiful woman, remember that the woman's beauty comes from God, and so does your desire. Don't think of it as getting in the way of your prayer; make it part of your prayer. Lift it back up to God.

The same is true for us. Whatever bubbles up in us, whatever thoughts or distractions -- whether about a beautiful woman or beautiful man, or about politics, or whatever it is -- we can just recognize what comes up, without judgement, and recognize that it comes from God, and lift it back up.

Some moments later, I am distracted from my meditation by a sound.

Scrabble scrabble thump. Scrabble scrabble thump.

Thump thump thump.

I open my eyes. A squirrel is peering into our sanctuary through the glass door. He takes a few steps away, then flings himself at the door, scrabbling to get in.

Then he tries the next little window. Scrabble scrabble thump.

And the window beside that. Scrabble scrabble thump. Scrabble thump. Thump.

Squirrel with churro. Photo by Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries.

By now I am holding back giggles as silently as I can. The squirrel is trying diligently to enter our sanctuary, poking and scrabbling at every single one of our small low windows, taking a few steps back and then flying through the air to bang into the glass again. THUMP. THUMP.

Our other meditators have also opened their eyes. We are all laughing. We have been sitting here in silent meditation every Friday morning, some of us for years on end, and we have never seen anything like this at all.

"Obviously he wants to meditate too," one of the women offers. "Their little lives are so busy."

Scrabble scrabble thump. THUMP.

A second squirrel has appeared on the patio and is watching the first one, head cocked. I imagine that he is thinking: what on earth are you doing? Why do you want to get in there?

Then the two squirrels run away. I close my eyes again and return to silence, but the silence is different now, charged with our laughter.

Sometimes thoughts bubble up. Sometimes it's squirrels. It all comes from God.

If this makes you grin, don't miss The squirrel said to the Buddha.

Teacups and Torah

Ceramic teacup by Chris Warren.

Back in the days when Ethan and I studied Isshin-Ryu with Sensei Steve Buschman, we learned the parable of Nan-in and the teacup. (I heard it again at some point during my hashpa'ah training.) Here's how it goes:

A zen student came to the zen master Nan-in seeking wisdom, and they sat down to tea.

Nan-in poured tea into the student's cup. And then kept pouring. And the tea overflowed. Eventually the student could not contain himself, and exclaimed, "Can't you see that the cup is already full?"

"Just so," said the Zen master, "You are already full of opinions and certainties. I can't teach you until you first empty your cup."

In spiritual direction a few days ago, I re-learned that the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, taught that it is necessary to "give over" Torah -- to teach Torah to others -- in order to open oneself up to receive more Torah. When one teaches Torah, that act stimulates the flow of more Torah from on high.

(This is what kabbalah calls itaruta di'l'tata -- Aramaic for "arousal from below." When we give over Torah, when we give over blessings, our action "arouses" the divine will, and God pours more Torah and more blessing into the world.)

In order to receive more Torah, one has to give over the Torah one has already received. In order to receive the wisdom of zen, one must first empty one's teacup: relinquish preconceptions in order to receive that which is new.

They're not quite the same teaching. Nan-in was interested in clearing the mind of preconceived notions and assumptions in order to make space for new learning, new insights, new understandings. The BeShT was interested in the act of teaching, of giving-over Torah to students, as a mystical stimulus which would open the divine spigot and cause more Torah to flow into creation.

But I love the way that, in each of these paradigms, it's important to notice when one's teacup is full, and to share what one has with others, in order to make room for more. If one hoards blessings, then new blessings can't flow. If one maintains a full teacup, then there's nowhere for new tea to go. The only way to receive more is to give what you have.

With whatever is best

The Holy Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) teaches us that our every intention and acton changes the whole world, either driving us away from God or bringing us closer, either healing the world or harming it.

So writes my teacher Rabbi Shaya Isenberg in his essay "Blessings in the Darkness" (in Writings from the Heart of Jewish Renewal, a publication of ALEPH, 2003.) In that essay he introduces something he calls the Chesed (lovingkindness) Meditation. He and his wife Bahira adapted it from Rabbi Jeff Roth, who adapted it in turn from a Buddhist metta meditation. I first experienced this meditation at a Tuesday afternoon mincha service on retreat at Elat Chayyim in 2005.

Reb Shaya writes:

This is how we do it:

Begin with yourself. As you inhale, say internally, "May I be blessed with..." As you exhale, imagine yourself as you finish the blessing, "shalom, peace and wholeness."

Continue that breathing/imagining pattern. "May I be blessed with...simcha, joy. May I be blessed with...r'fuah, healing. May I be blessed with...whatever is best."

Why begin with yourself? It is the airplane principle: before you help someone else with her oxygen mask, put yours on first. If I am under-blessed, how can I bless? So resist the temptation to skip that part. Don't feel it's too egocentric, but rather that we all deserve to be blessed! All of us!

After going through this with oneself, Reb Shaya teaches, one can offer this meditation with someone else in mind. Imagine a loved one, and as you breathe, think to yourself: may this person be blessed with wholeness. May they be blessed with joy. May they be blessed with healing. May they be blessed with whatever is best.

If that's easy -- and it may be -- stretch yourself a little. Imagine being at the grocery store, in traffic, at a gas station, and seeing someone you don't know. Can you find it in yourself to say these same silent blessings for a stranger? (I would add: imagine interacting with someone online: a blogger, a commenter, the people who comment on news articles. Can you offer these blessings for them?)

Reb Shaya doesn't stop there. It's our obligation, he writes, to offer these blessings even for those we actively dislike:

Because someone who feels fully blessed would not do the things they do! We want those who play the role of the enemy for us to be truly happy. Happy people don't intentionally harm and destroy. It's critical that when I'm blessing someone difficult, I am not hating them. When we bless we channel the holy energy of blessing through us. In the very act of blessing another, especially one whom we feel the least like blessing, the intensity of blessing required to overcome our own inner resistance spills over into the world.

Maybe my favorite part of this practice is the final line: "...with whatever is best." I may not know what's best for me. I may not know what's best for you, or for the stranger in the check-out line at the grocery store, or for the person I can't help finding challenging. When I offer this blessing, it's an opportunity for me to relax gratefully into the humility of not needing to know what's best. I'm not in charge. At best, I can try to make myself a conduit for blessing, but the nature of the blessing -- that's not up to me.

We offered this blessing this morning toward the end of our Friday morning meditation minyan. I hadn't looked at this essay in a while, so I didn't remember that one of the lines is a blessing for healing; now I'm not sure what I offered this morning, though I think it was the quartet of peace, joy, wholeness, and whatever is best. (Same general principle, anyway.) It was a really sweet practice, and when it was over, after the closing niggun and the closing meditation bell, we sat in the sanctuary and beamed at each other. What a lovely way to begin the ending of my week.

A rabbi and a nun walk into a bar

It ought to be -- it probably is! -- the opening line of a joke: a rabbi and a nun walk into a bar...

Okay, it isn't a bar; it's a restaurant, though I do have a beer. (Who could resist a brew named Rapscallion Blessing?) And we begin our wanderings hours earlier, at Thorne's marketplace, where Drew -- happily chatting with everyone in the mall as he shows off his small wooden robot and his box of raisins -- accepts the presence of mommy's friend in the grey Buddhist nun's robes without blinking.

All afternoon we roam Northampton: from Look Park (an ice cream despite the chill, dashing about from the blue playground to the red one and back again), to Cup and Top in Florence (tea for the grown-ups, a snack for the toddler, a small indoor slide and assortment of toys, and surely every other toddler family in town), to my in-laws' apartment (where Drew demonstrates both his love of Thomas the Tank Engine and his skill at knocking down towers of blocks.) In between entertaining Drew we snatch snippets of conversation. Parents and parenting. The monastic life and how it both is and isn't similar to my householder existence. Clothing as religious signifier.

And then, thanks to my sister-in-law's willingness to babysit, we nip out to the aforementioned restaurant, where there is glorious food and even more glorious uninterrupted grown-up conversation. About what it's like to weave the words of a second language into one's own -- words for prayer or for practice, words for ideas which aren't neatly expressed in the tongue we share. About gender and the rabbinate, gender and the monastic life. About life and travel, New England and Korea, Hebrew and Tibetan, silence and chanting.

We could have talked all night. (Well: more properly, all morning -- we're neither of us night owls anymore, not given Seon Joon's responsibilities to her temple family and mine to my congregation and toddler and spouse.) As it is, we savor every moment we are given, and we part with a hug and a promise.

There is something incalculably precious about friendship between people committed to different spiritual paths. The glimmering shift between one set of lenses and the other: this is how we do it, and oh, that's how you do it, how wonderful! The same and not the same. We speak in terms of God (though, as I quipped last night quoting my beloved teacher, "the God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either") and you speak in terms of Buddha. Before meals I bless this way, and you bless that way. The differences sparkle because they're set against so very much common ground.

Equally precious, I think, is friendship cultivated over distance and time. First via blog and email. Then in person. Then via blog and email. Then via paper letters, envelopes adorned with foreign stamps and creased from long travel. Then via blog and email again. Then by -- well, walking into that proverbial bar.

Having had the thought, I can't help wondering whether this actually is an extant joke. A quick googling reveals that there are several jokes which begin "a rabbi, a priest, and a nun walk into a bar..." No offense intended to our brothers on our various spiritual paths, but we can have a good time on our own, thank you kindly. And we do. We really do.


I've linked to this before, but it bears rereading: Seon Joon's post Bhikkuni Ordination, April 3, 2012.

Thanks, brother Thầy

This week I've brought a few more of my books to my office at the synagogue. As I add each one to the bookshelves, often I am tempted to open them and remind myself why I wanted to bring them in the first place. This afternoon I picked up Thich Nhat Hanh's Being Peace, and the page to which it opened told me this:

Even though life is hard, even though it is sometimes difficult to smile, we have to try. Just as when we wish each other, "Good morning," it must be a real "Good morning." Recently, one friend asked me, "How can I force myself to smile when I am filled with sorrow? It isn't natural." I told her she must be able to smile to her sorrow, because we are more than our sorrow. A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn the Buddha on, we are the Buddha. If we turn sorrow on, we are sorrow. If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile. We cannot let just one channel dominate us. We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty. When we sit down peacefully, breathing and smiling, with awareness, we are our true selves, we have sovereignty over ourselves.

I'm struck by the notion of smiling to one's sorrow: not despite it, not through it, but to it. And I'm moved by his suggestion that each of us can choose to which emotional channel we turn. I think he's right that we are "more than our sorrow" -- and that even in the midst of sadness or anger, one can choose to try to tune in to the channel of compassion and kindness.

I am not a serious student of Buddhism -- not in the way that many of my friends are -- but I have learned so much from the Buddhist teachers who I have encountered, both in person and in print. I haven't read this book in years, but I'm glad it remains on my shelf. What a lovely teaching to carry with me for the rest of the day and into tomorrow morning's meditation minyan. Thank you, Brother Thầy.


Worth reading: Seon Joon Sunim on ordination

Probably the most evocative and powerful post I've read recently comes from Buddhist nun Seon Joon Sunim: Bhikkuni Ordination, April 3, 2012. With words and with images, Seon Joon opens a window into her experience of being ordained as a bhikkuni, a fully-ordained female monastic, after years of study and training.

In this post, she writes about her decision to study to ordain in Korea:

People ask me why I came to Korea, why I chose to ordain, why I chose to ordain in Korea. I am not singularly a Zen practitioner. I freely describe my practice as a hybrid between Korean and Tibetan practices. I also feel the Tibetan canon has much to offer that the Chinese canon (the one which is authoritative in Korea) cannot. I am more of a Madhyamakan than a Tathagatagharban; big trouble in East Asia. Given all that, Korea is not the logical choice for me. It was a choice among others, and I made it partly because I was told I could study the sutras and sit Zen if I wanted, but even more so, because I could receive precepts from the double platform. As a woman and an American, I cannot tell you all how important this was to me. From the day I met the Buddha-Dharma, I also met the sangha; and from the moment I met nuns (Tibetan-tradtion nuns, in Nepal), I wanted to be a part of their community, in the widest sense of “female monastics.” I also felt that ordination in America would be very difficult. I did not have a strong relationship with any one Tibetan teacher, and didn’t know how to forge one to seek ordination. I didn’t find any large communities of bhikkunis in the West at that time. I did not have a connection with Thich Nhat Hanh’s community, even though the Plum Village and Deer Park Monastery communities are among the most stable and structured large-scale monastic communities in the West. Other than going East, I just did not know what to do. Something just didn’t feel right for me in the States.

And she also writes beautifully about the experience of the ordination itself:

I’m not sure how much I can talk about the details of the ordination ceremony. Sometimes ordination ceremonies are public, sometimes they aren’t; in Korea, outsiders are not permitted in, and certainly no non-monastics or monastics who are not of the correct monastic age (a novice nun who hadn’t received her intermediate precepts would not be allowed to even observe the ceremony, for example). But it was beautiful to me. The liturgy, a mixture of classical Chinese and formal high Korean, was intelligible to me for the first time ever; I understood only the Korean of my novice ordination and only bits of my intermediate/probationary ordination two years ago. The call-and-response, the swell of voices, the ritual of requesting everything three times; calling all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to witness us and be our teachers and guides; the array of senior nuns on the platform, their severity, their grace; the sear of the precepts’ burn, the piney smell of the mugwort and incense as they smoldered; the hummingbird-beat of the moktak while we chanted the great dharani; the weight of the seven-patch robe of a dae kasa, the kasa of a fully ordained bhikkuni, the stiffness of the new material, the way I couldn’t untangle mine enough to give me space to properly fold my feet under it while we knelt, and so I kept tugging and tugging at while tucking my feet into a small ball so they wouldn’t peep out from under my robes; the nuns intoning in the dark and then the monks several hours later, “You will now receive your precepts-body;” the injunction to only use our Dharma names. Hearing that the Buddhas of the ten directions, the protectors, and all beings rejoice when someone receives precepts. Being told that our practice, as bhikkuni, is to “cease all wrong-doing, cultivate all good actions, and benefit all beings.” Hearing and feeling, truly and deeply and with incredible gratitude and joy, that as of this moment, I have a new life.

Different from my rabbinic ordination -- and yet I can see overlap, too.

Seon Joon also takes beautiful photographs, and this post is no exception. Anyway: I commend it to anyone who's interested in Buddhism, monasticism, or the examined life writ large. I was blessed to meet her in person seven years ago this month; how amazing it is to reread my account of that meeting, and to reflect on how the seeds we were both nurturing in 2005 have so beautifully flowered.

"Without Ceasing" reprinted in Running Tide

I just received in the mail my print copy of Running Tide issue 26 (spring 2012) -- also available online: Running Tide 26 at issuu -- and am enjoying it deeply. As the inside cover notes, "Running Tide offers a voice for faith and practice, as well as critical, existential and socially engaged enquiry within the broad framework of Pureland Buddhism." I'm honored to be able to say that one of my poems, "Without Ceasing," which originally appeared in the Worship issue of Qarrtsiluni (co-edited by Fiona and Kaspa of Writing Our Way Home), is reprinted in this issue of this Buddhist journal.

What is Pureland Buddhism? Wikipedia offers an answer, though it's a bit challenging for me to parse; the main thing I take away is that the Pureland practice involves repeating the name of Amitābha Buddha. For a more personal take, I dip into the pages of the journal. Anthony Pilling writes a bit about this in his essay in this issue, which is called "Pureland, Beginners Mind." He describes moving to Malvern, beginning to practice with Fiona and Kaspa's Malvern sangha (community), and grappling with the shift from "just sitting" in silent meditation to what I take to be the more chant-based Pureland practices.

(By the by, if you want to know more about Pureland Buddhism, I recommend the What is Pureland? page on the Malvern sangha's website -- clear, comprehensible, and lovely.) Kaspa notes in his Editorial introduction that my poem reminds him of the Pureland practice of calling to Amida. I'm delighted by this area of overlap between my spiritual tradition and his.

There's much in this issue which intrigues and moves me. Gregg Krech's essay "Relationship as Spiritual Practice" offers insights into how, when one relinquishes the desire to control or "fix" one's partner, one can relax into a more loving paradigm of relationship. And in "Endings," Caroline Screen meditates on leaving Australia after twelve years and on the very human temptation to soften a goodbye into "see you soon" -- whether it's the goodbye of leaving a place where you have lived, or the goodbye of burying a loved one.

Thank you for reprinting the poem, Kaspa! And thank you for introducing me to this journal and to this glimpse of a different set of practices and ideas, both similar to and different from my own.

On meditation

The subject of meditation came up in conversation recently with one of my loved ones. They asked whether meditation is difficult, whether it's something one needs to go to a class in order to learn how to do. Or, they quipped, can one learn it on the internet?

What I said -- or at least, what I think I said; what I meant to say -- was no, meditation is not difficult (not in any technical sense, anyway), and classes are not necessary. Of course, I added, there are many different kinds of meditation. But here is the kind I try to practice:

Sit still. Take a few breaths. Try to focus on your breath as it rises and falls, as it comes and goes. Try to notice each breath: now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out. Now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out.

The mind will wander. That's what minds do. My mind wanders all the time. Whenever I notice it wandering off somewhere -- worrying about something that hasn't happened yet, or rehashing something that is already over -- I gently bring it back to this moment right now, this breath. In and out. And in. And out.

I try to be attentive to what arises in me as I sit and breathe. This is a very good way for me to figure out what I'm anxious about, or why I'm feeling wound-up, or what emotions exactly are roiling in me -- joy, pride, sadness, fear, whatever the case may be. Meditation isn't about tamping down my inner clamor, per se; it's more a practice of noticing.

Often there is some anxiety or worry or sadness tickling my consciousness somewhere. As I sit, eventually I notice it. I mentally say to it: I see you. I hear you. I recognize you. You've done your job. You can go now. And then I exhale and try to let it go. Whatever it is, I try to name it and let it go.

Sometimes I sit with a mantra, a word or phrase which I repeat in my mind and heart. Sometimes it's "Right here, right now," which I learned from Lorianne years ago. Breathing in: right here. Breathing out: right now. A reminder to be in the moment, this very moment. Resist the temptation to return to yesterday or anticipate tomorrow.

Sometimes I use "Heart, open." Breathing in, I say to my heart, heart? And breathing out, I ask it to open. With each breath, I try to open up: to myself, to whatever is arising in me, to whatever I am feeling and experiencing. To whatever comes my way today. The first two words of the shema work well in this way, too. Shema, Yisrael. "Listen, O Israel." Listen up, self. Listen and remember the unity of all things. And now, again, listen. And now. And now.

Sometimes, before I stop, I spend a few moments setting the conscious intention of being kind and compassionate. I envision compassion and kindness as a kind of soft light, and I imagine enveloping in that light first myself, then the people around me, then people further away. To people I love, and then to people who push my buttons. I see how far I can imagine extending that sphere.

And then I return to my day.

It's not difficult in the sense of having an elaborate process or lingo one needs to master. One needn't be able to sit in any particular position. What's difficult, often, is making the time to do it. Reminding myself that this is important and that I am calmer and more awake when I manage to do it regularly. And being compassionate toward myself even when I don't manage to do it as often as I would like.

There's no way to "fail" at meditation except not to do it. I do feel honor-bound to mention that if this kind of practice leads to enlightenment, I have yet to "get there" myself; this is not a practice which will turn you into someone who is instantly wise and serene! But I do find that this practice makes me more attentive. Sometimes it gives me a sense of perspective. And I think both of these help me get closer to being the person I most want to be.

I lead a weekly meditation group at my shul on Friday mornings at 8:15am. If this interests you, and you live nearby, all are welcome; no previous experience with meditation required.

Meditation resources:

An encounter with the Dalai Lama

Photo courtesy of the NY Daily news; found here.

The Dalai Lama is the reason I'm in rabbinic school.

Well, kind of. Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus -- the true story of a group of rabbis from across the denominational spectrum who went to India to meet with His Holiness, to share the Jewish people's secrets of Diaspora survival -- is the reason I'm in rabbinic school. Or at least, the reason I'm in this rabbinic school. Lotus is where I first encountered the Jewish Renewal teachings of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Wanting to learn more brought me to the old Elat Chayyim. And the rest, as they say, is history.

My friend David gave me The Jew in the Lotus my sophomore year of college. (Yes, the same David who gave me my set of tefillin a few years ago. We go back a ways.) So it seemed eminently appropriate that when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama came to Albany, I should get to go with David to see him speak, at the Palace Theatre, an easy walk from the Capitol.

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Zen psalms


Because I call
You answer
For you are fitting
Because I am small
You enlarge me
For you are gracious
You hear my song

( -- from psalm 4, as rendered by Norman Fischer)

In one of my last posts of 2006, I noted that I'd been meaning to pick up a copy of Opening to You, abbot Norman Fischer's Zen-inspired translations of the psalms. A copy arrived for me in the mail recently, and after reading it and letting his versions soak in for a while, I can affirm that this is a beautiful and thought-provoking piece of work.

Fischer's renditions aren't strict translations. He's not a Hebraist, so while he referred to the original Hebrew in creating these, he primarily worked with a variety of English translations. "[I]t may be that all translations, especially the best, are versions," he writes in the introduction. "It may even be that all poems are only tentative versions of something so intimate it can never be written down." That quote gets at something else I really like about this book: these are recognizably the psalms as they have been handed down to us, but they are also contemporary poems.

Specifically, they're contemporary poems that arise out of a Zen understanding of things. Fischer gives a lot of thought to how his Zen training and sensibility permeate these poems -- and how his Western upbringing, grounded in Biblical text, shapes both his Zen and his poetry:

[A]lthough my way of life and understanding have been thoroughly saturated by Zen, I am still a Westerner, so I have found in the Psalms a very familiar music that seems to express my own approach to enlightenment: the passionate, prickly, and lively noise that naturally seems to rise from the silent depths of my own heart.

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[PFBC] Buddhist meditation

The morning began with breakfast at the hotel, and then with a Buddhist meditation experience -- is it appropriate to call it a "service," I wonder? -- led by Lorianne from Hoarded Ordinaries.

She began by offering a few words about Buddhism and meditation. We learned that in Zen meditation, perhaps particularly in the Korean-style Zen she practices, the goal is not to silence the mind but instead to be attentive to the body (sit up straight, maybe be barefoot, relax), the mind (be aware of thoughts as they arise), and the breath which connects them.

She talked also about having a mantra, a phrase (usually a two-part phrase which can be used on inhalation and exhalation) which helps one focus. The mind will run away, will think about the past or the future, and one shouldn't castigate the mind for doing that -- just realize, "oh! Time to bring my attention back," return to the phrase, and keep going. (Arguably this is one definition of what enlightenment is: that moment of "oh!")

She told us that one of her teachers told her that with appropriate mindfulness, even the phrase "Coca-cola; Pepsi" can work in this way. Christians often use the Jesus prayer; Jews often use the Shema; she often recommends the phrase the Buddha is said to have used, "What am I; don't know." (I tend to use the four-letter Name of God -- pause at the letter yud, inhale at the letter hey, full breath at the letter vav, exhale at the second hey.)

Then we sat meditation for 20 minutes, which felt great. I love the energy of sitting with a group of people, and being here in this beautiful room with windows on the world -- and also being here temporally, at the cusp of what I already knew would be a fantastic day -- really helped with that.

And to wrap things up, chanting! First, the Heart Sutra in English  (a really neat text, by the way; I first encountered it in Thich Nhat Hanh's annotated rendering, which introduced me to the notion of "interbeing.") Lorianne explained it a little bit, especially the "no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue" section and how that fits into a larger tradition of the Via Negativa or apophatic discourse, and then we chanted it.

And then we chanted the Great Dharani, which is a string of nonsense syllables even to speakers of Sanskrit. (Here it is translated by Suzuki Roshi if you want to try to make sense of it; here it is in syllabics, like what we used.) Lorianne told us it was created for a disciple who was so in-his-mind that he couldn't sit meditation, so the Buddha gave him something nonsensical to chant as a way of breaking through that kind of over-intellectualization. (How very Abraham Abulafia, eh?) We chanted that, and then read the Four Great Vows together, and then we bowed to each other.

And that was how we began our morning.

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Encounter with Enlightenment

We've been reading and discussing Robert Carter's Encounter With Enlightenment: A Study of Japanese Ethics in my Deep Ecumenism class. It's an occasionally dense read for a student unused to thinking in philosophical terms, but for a reader willing to devote some time offers worlds of insight into the relationship between ethics and enlightenment in Eastern thought -- and into the ways in which Buddhist teachings about enlightenment might be understood to mesh with Jewish teachings about encountering God.

Earlier this fall I posted some thoughts on Sufism (arising out of our study of William Chittick's excellent book Sufism: A Short Introduction) which sparked fascinating converstion here; I thought I'd do the same with my response to reading Carter. In this post I'll draw out some of the ideas that interest me most in his book, among them thoughts on dualism and non-dualism, assimilating one tradition into another, self and no-self, and connection with ultimate reality.

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