It started six months ago at a hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. Prior to meeting with a doctor I had to fill out some paperwork, and there it was, the last question on the form before my signature.
Seems simple right? And on the other 21,000 days of my life it would have been. I would have written Jewish, signed the paper and moved on.
But that day was different…
I had first visited Thailand in 2014 and what started out as a simple 10-day vacation, turned into a 2-year spiritual journey.
It began with a chance encounter with a Zen Master from South Korea, which blossomed into an ongoing email conversation. After a year of back and forth emails, he suggested meeting again in Thailand. He didn’t have to ask twice.
I went into that meeting not knowing what to expect, what to discuss or why he had asked me. And my knowledge of Buddhism was rudimentary at best.
What followed was a magnificent four days of learning, laughing and clarity. For the first three days my wife Jan and I sat with the Zen Master and his interpreter discussing life, karma, perfect emptiness, observing your mind and how our collective actions would lead to peace on earth. We also shared many belly laughs, as well as his observations on drinking, diet, sexual activity and whether I would need to shave my head in order to be a Monk, (I would). The education, the spirit, the heart-centered beauty of it all enthralled me. And it aligned perfectly with my Wingman philosophy. I was hooked.
On our fourth day together, the Zen Master asked if he could give us a gift, the Three Jewels of Buddhism. His interpreter explained that this gift was about committing one’s life to a path of awakening and bringing liberation and peace to ourselves and to everyone around us. Receiving the Three Jewels in no way requires one to renounce their own religion but offers an opportunity to commit to the principles of taking refuge in the Buddha-the Buddha himself and his principals, the Dharma- the teachings and truths, and the Sangha-the teachers who teach and guide us.
I was moved and honored. As a friend of mine states, attempting to seriously study and live the principals of Buddhism, without accepting the Three Jewels is akin to being a window-shopper, and not really stepping inside. I was done window-shopping. I was ready for more.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
And I embraced them.
It’s been 6 months since then, and today, the day after Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish year,
I’m reexamining the moment of my hesitation over that hospital form, and how it came to be.
Yesterday I revisited the traditions of my Jewish upbringing. Jan and I went to synagogue in Birmingham, England, as strangers in a strange land. We were not only accepted, but were invited to participate, break the fast, have dinner and celebrate the New Year.
The kindness and generosity that was shown to us, as strangers, brought me feelings of warmth, love and appreciation. A feeling of belonging.
Yet as I sit here basking in that sensation, I can’t help but rethink the question on the hospital form. What is your religion?
Maybe the better question is why someone who grew up Jewish, was a Bar Mitzvah and confirmed, and have always identified with the cultural, social and historical aspects of Judaism, would be open to the idea of Buddhism?
It’s a simple one-word answer. Spiritualism.
It turns out I’m not alone. Thirty percent of all western Buddhists are of Jewish heritage. With such a large influx of people, there’s even a name to identify with these Jewish Buddhists, JuBu’s, or JewBu’s.
As with me, many Jews have longed for a more spiritual component with which we could connect. While there is a deep, spiritual practice through the study of Kabbalah, a mystical component of Judaism, it unfortunately has never been very accessible through our synagogues and/or normal teachings. It’s become more popular as of late, but for many, including me, it’s been “a day late and a dollar short”.
I think what really drew me in though, is not only the internal nature of Buddhism, but also the accepting of all who would like to join. While my Jewish upbringing certainly spoke of helping others, doing good deeds, and performing acts of kindness, it came from an external source.
With Buddhism, the ideas are the same, helping others, doing good deeds and performing acts of kindness, but instead of being commanded to do them, or else, you come to them on your own, by quieting your mind, and finding your purpose from within.
It was that philosophy of mindfulness and meditation that was, and is, so compelling to me. The differences between the two may seem insignificant, but for me it was transformative. I no longer felt the need to perform acts of kindness. I became kindness.
The fact that they were so inclusive and did not require me to abandon my Judaism, or compromise many of my beliefs also helped.
There is no way I would have ever “converted”.
Which brings me back to the question of my religion.
There is no question I am Jewish. I practice Judaism and look forward to the traditions and rituals of my people. During this New Year in England I made certain to attend services last week and yesterday, and even kept “the fast”, while repenting, atoning and praying in synagogue.
But I also continue with my Buddhist practices.
I have found much peace, comfort, joy and spiritual connection in my practices, and although I view them more from my “Wingman” vantage point, my philosophy and practices align perfectly with those espoused by the Buddha.
The feeling of Judaism runs deep within me. They are my roots and I love the comfort that comes from having a strong sense of where I came from.
I also love the feeling of my Buddhism. I took those vows seriously. I embrace my opportunity for growth and the expansion of knowing all that I can be. I am also certain that my continued study and practice will impact not just me but the lives I touch.
Jewish roots, Buddhist wings. JewBu.
It’s who I am.
Love your roots, find your wings and have a wonderful year filled with much love and positive energy,
Btw… the practice I did on Yom Kippur is seen below. It’s one of forgiveness, not just for others but also to forgive yourself. Just say over and over, “I forgive you, and I forgive me” while thinking and feeling about being forgiving, and forgiven.
PS… You can practice with me every morning, either on Facebook, at Be Your Own Wingman, on Twitter, @wingmanmichael, or on YouTube, at beyourownwingman.
PSS… If you want to improve your positive energy, increase your level of success, and begin living the life you desire, feel free to contact me for Skype sessions with both Janet, an LCSW and Psychotherapist for the past 20 years, and myself.
The Laughing Practice
Michael Gross “The Wingman” demonstrates his 1-minute laughing practice.
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