The high holydays this year have passed, and it was a time of deep introspection and re-thinking of life for me and my family.
I particularly enjoyed hearing my rabbi's sermon this year, and I wanted to share it with anyone interested. It's a lot more wisdom than religion, and I think it has something for everyone. Below are my main takeaways from it; the full speech can be read here.
The last class of the three-part Zen miniseries I was attending took place yesterday. It was an emotional evening because I had really started getting into and enjoying the discussions and presentations. The cantor told us that any teacher is biased and incendiary, and he admitted wholeheartedly that he hoped his teachings would inspire in us a flame to want to learn more.
There are two parts of this last class that really stuck with me.
The first part came from this quote:
"Through all my teachers I have become wise."
-Song of Songs
The cantor said that there are several interesting things about this quote. First, it points to how one can learn from all one's teachers, not just the most obvious or most acceptable/easy ones. In addition, the quote says "all teachers" and not "male" teachers or "old" teachers or "human" teachers. The key is that one can learn from everything in life, even the plants and animals around us (there were profound Zen quotes about this specifically as well).
A class member raised the question of whether there are still true "teachers" or prophets nowadays or if that is really something that is just in the ancient days when religions were being formed. The cantor had an interesting take: He believed that not only are individual "teachers" or prophets alive now, but he also thought that a teacher can be a collective consciousness that we can all learn from (a Zen concept as well). It struck me at that point that while before the collective consciousness was very hard to make explicit and open for all to see, nowadays it is much easier with technology and social media. Even though networks like Twitter still touch a small segment of our society, they at least hint at some of our collective "teachings" and feelings and make learning from each other a lot easier.
The second part that resonated with me was the following:
"There are few things as straight as a crooked ladder.
There are few things as crooked as the straight face of a con-artist.
There is nothing blacker than the white garments in which a corpse is dressed.
And there is nothing more complete then a broken heart."
-Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
This quote caught me not only in its beauty and structure but also in its message: to have a broken heart is to live and grow. The cantor's interpretation of this was also that "anything worthwhile will break your heart." When I heard this, I almost jumped out of my seat because this has been one of my own mantras for a long time: anything worthwhile in life is difficult, complex, and impossible to perfectly optimize and predict. This goes for relationships, business opportunities, and self-improvement. I was delighted to find references to this same sort of philosophy and also some more perspective on it from others out there.
Overall, I really enjoyed these classes and have come away with many more questions than answers -- which is a good thing.
I just went to a fascinating seminar on the intersections between Zen Buddhism and Judaism. It sounded crazy to me too, which is exactly why I went.
It was held at my temple and run by our new cantor, who grew up Jewish but also found Zen and studied it devoutly. I very much respect him for his clarity of thought, precise memory for quotations and stories, and of course his amazing voice.
The seminar went through the history of both Zen Buddhist and Jewish/Kabbalistic traditions and showed how many of the most influential thinkers in each tradition were saying the same thing, but with different words. There were important differences between the two disciplines, but many of the core messages were extremely complementary and shockingly similar.
I learned way too much to write here, but I figured it would be interesting to point out the idea that resounded with me the most and the idea that was the most difficult for me to grasp.
(As an aside, both traditions teach that once you have grasped an idea, you have failed. It is in the act of grasping and striving that one learns.)
Idea I relate to the most: Having a beginner's mind.
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." -Shunryo Suzuki-Roshi
This quote sounds very close to home for me because I am always interested in the things that I know nothing about and in how I can always improve in various ways rather than how I'm good at something. Though at times my "beginner's mind" can seem limiting, it is often what drives me to learn and study hard and to always be prepared and expect the unexpected.
Idea that I struggle with the most: Finding myself where I am and feeling the emptiness.
"If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?" -Dogen Zenji
The seminar talked a lot about the idea of non-attachment as well as of dependent co-origination -- that all things in life are somehow connected and affect each other. And it is only when we can quiet our minds and feel the emptiness around us that we can truly feel ourselves. This concept is so difficult for me and is what I'm struggling with right now -- how to quiet my mind and all my busy-ness and just be.
I've learned a lot already and look forward to the next two meetings of this seminar. In the meantime, I hope to just be with my beginner's mind.