While Buddhism has been popular in the West for quite some time, it must be noted that it was Jews who were the trendsetters of its importation. Specifically, Allen Ginsberg and his beat cohort became enamored of Zen Buddhism after WWII and all their individualist non-conformist friends fell into lockstep with the new movement. Following those free-thinkers was the inevitable pack of rebel celebrities, like Goldie Hawn and Robert Downey Jr, contributing to this sixty year old tradition.
What makes the Jewish Young Adult appropriation of Buddhism today different is that JYAs, while adopting a new religion, don’t leave their original faith. They sit zazen at the local Zen Center and go to silence meditations in the Negev, but come back reading The Jew in the Lotus or doing Passover with the Buddhist Haggadah. They even refer to themselves by the catchy nomenclature “Jubu”, or “Buju” if you are on the West Coast.
“Yeah, it’s like, Buddhism isn’t really a religion,” said JYA “Sara” explaining the intersection of the two faiths, “It’s more like a philosophy or like a practice, you know?”
When informed that millions of people worldwide including the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and every thinking person consider Buddhism a religion, “Sara” responded, “Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
The philosophical gloss covers a multitude of differences, significantly, monotheism versus polytheism; the belief in God as the primary director of morality versus either a self directed process for Therevada Buddhism (popular in India and Bhutan) or a morality directed by a multitude of Buddhist style saints in Mahayana Buddhism (popular in Tibet and China). Needless to say the relegation of these essential beliefs to the realm of philosophy does nothing to assuage Jewish mothers. Still, “Phyllis”, a Jewish Adult and also Sara’s mother, purchased a full set of Yoga clothing from LuluLemon in order to attend an introduction meditation class with her JYA daughter, where she noted encouragingly “So many nice Jewish boys for my daughter! But I think they might all be the gays”.
A common source of confusion for JYA JuBus is the doctrine of karma. Perhaps because of an essential lack of patience, JYAs misunderstand that karma, both good and bad, is accrued over the course of every lifetime, and its results are unlikely to be seen for millennia. The confusion seems to stem from a belief that karma is roughly equivalent to schadenfreude or logic. “My ex cheated on me all the time,” JYA “Adi” recalled, “And after we broke up I heard from Aaron whose cousin is best friends with the girl he’s dating now that he got Mono. That’s total karma coming back to bite him.”
Jews typically first encounter Buddhism in high school or early college. Unlike in their religion, which pretty much demands you get it right the first time around, the do-over aspect of Buddhism is appealing to a group struggling to negotiate identities and trying out different ways of being, or not being religious. Most JYAs outgrow this phase and look back with a little embarrassment even as the remains of “Free Tibet” bumper stickers are still glued to their cars.