Through various levels of participation, Jews have been instrumental in the development of Western Buddhism. For example, they have helped establish some of the leading Buddhist teaching institutions in North America. After studying with Buddhist masters in India and Thailand, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Jacqueline Schwartz founded the Therava - da-based Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, in 1975. Others have trained with Tibetan teachers and become Buddhist scholars, professors of Buddhist Studies, translators, and publishers. One of them, Sam Bercholz, started Shambhala Books, the first major publishing house to release Tibetan Buddhist works in the United States and later publish books about every school of Buddhism. Still other Jews became popular dharma teachers themselves. Lama Surya Das, born Jeffrey Miller, is the first American Tibetan lama. Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman is the first American-born lineage holder in the So- to- Zen sect of Japan. Ayya Khema (1923-1997), born Ilse Kussel in Berlin, was the first Western woman to be ordained as a Therava- da nun. She founded a monastery ("Nun's Island") in Sri Lanka, and a Buddhist center in Germany, from which she had originally fled Nazi terrorism.
Academic or theological dialogue is another part of the Jewish-Buddhist encounter. However, while Christians have interacted with Buddhists through missionary activity as well as interfaith dialogue and have produced volumes of literature on the subject, there are far fewer Jewish-Buddhist dialogues or comparative research efforts on record. Unquestionably the most prominent of such dialogues resulted when the Dalai Lama invited a small delegation of diverse Jewish leaders to Dharamsala, India, in October 1990. Faced with the urgent need to preserve Tibetan culture, he sought to learn the "secret technique" that has enabled the Jews to keep their own tradition alive during 2,000 years of persecution and exile. It will be interesting to track whether their suggestions, based on Jewish practices, will inform the development of Tibetan Buddhism in modern times.
The area of Jewish-Buddhist encounter that has drawn the most attention and perhaps produced the most writing is personal experience. Dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, essays in anthologies, memoirs, other nonfiction, and even a novel recount variations on simultaneously being Jewish and engaging in Buddhist practice. These works reflect a different level of interfaith discourse. Instead of taking place between distinct representatives of the two traditions, the exchange is within practitioners themselves: Their very lives are the authentic dialogue. The various publications trace individual spiritual journeys. In some cases, Jews who took up Buddhist practice return fully to Judaism, even becoming rabbis. In other instances, they negotiate the paradox of integrating the two different religions. As Jews participate in shaping Buddhism in the West, Buddhist practice is also reshaping Judaism. Engaging in Buddhist meditation has enabled some Jews to delve into the texts of their birth religion and discern ancient practices they could not previously recognize for lack of experiential understanding. In turn, this has helped open the door to Jewish mysticism. Additionally, The Spirituality Institute trains rabbis, cantors, educators, and social activists in the nonsectarian practice of mindfulness meditation that the Buddha first taught more than 2,500 years ago.
This phenomenon of "mixing and matching" Judaism and Buddhism is yielding academic fruit. There is increased interest in examining where the two converge and diverge. As Jewish practitioners of Buddhism explore the tradition from within, they can make research contributions that do not grow solely out of intellectual knowledge but also are informed by intimate experience, creating a marriage between theoretical and existential understanding. The present Jewish-Buddhist dialogue in the West may well be a modern-day version of the ferment that existed at the turn of the Common Era, when the Middle East was a crossroads where Eastern and Western ideas met. This history of Jewish-Buddhist dialogue and interaction illustrates what happens when people of different religions interact with each other on more than a superficial level. It can have a profound effect on the development of personal practice as well as on the development of world peace. Instead of merely seeing each other as an outsider, even considering the other as wrong or misguided, individuals come to understand, on an experiential level, what the other one knows and does and are transformed by that knowledge. In such interfaith encounters lies the potential for followers of many kinds of spiritualities to live together in greater harmony and mutual respect.