May 2, 2006 -- During my long career at ABC News, I have been posted in two seemingly opposite religious corners of the world. I spent nine years in Japan where Buddhism is practiced and nearly four years in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where the majority of the people follow Judaism. That should qualify me to write about JuBus (pronounced "Jew-Boos"), followers who simultaneously embrace Judaism and Buddhism. The reality is I feel a little nervous exploring the subject, as I still remember that old warning every kid got at summer camp: "Don't discuss politics or religion."
But here goes.
JuBus caught the eye of one of our more astute editors when a long takeout appeared in today's Los Angeles Times. For anyone interested, I strongly urge you to read it online (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-jubus2may02,0,3937916.story?coll=la-home-headlines). It's filled with anecdotal information from adherents who are "at peace with the paradox." The moniker "JuBu" has been around for a while but was popularized by Roger Kamenetz in his 1994 book, "The Jew in the Lotus."
On the one hand, Judaism bans idol worship yet followers find no problem in placing a statue of Buddha in a family shrine along with Jewish relics. My favorite quote in the article comes from Marc Lieberman, a San Francisco ophthalmologist who set up a historic dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Jewish leaders in 1989. "I'm a healthy mosaic of Judaism and Buddhism," Lieberman told the LA Times. "Is that fair to either religion? Fair schmair! It's what I am."
No one seems to know how many JuBus embrace this dual religious identity. The last survey was conducted in the 1970s. Research shows about one third of Buddhism converts were raised Jewish. But getting a specific number has proved impossible. There are 6 million Jews in America and 3 million Buddhists. Just how many crossovers, converts or dual religious citizens exist remains a mystery.
Understanding anyone's religious beliefs -- or their combination of beliefs -- requires a suspension of analysis that reporters are supposed to be known for. Still, there are a few clues.
Buddhism is one of the most forgiving and accepting religions on earth. I remember being told by my friend Hisayo Sakata in Tokyo, "In Japan, we are born Shinto but die Buddhist. Our belief is not founded on guilt or any supreme being but on acceptance and the belief that we should help the poor, treat others with compassion, and essentially follow the golden rule." How does that square with the customs and tribalism of Judaism? "We accept everyone," Hisayo said as she and I threw a couple of coins into the donation box at a temple (or was it a Shinto shrine?) and clapped our hands twice. Later, I would pick up an antique praying monk in Thailand and place it on a Japanese chest in the entryway of my apartment. A stone Buddha head was another acquisition, though I considered the two religious symbols "ethnic antiques" and not religious idols. I felt the same way about a raked stone meditation garden in Kyoto.
Jews identify with their ancestors' pain and suffering. There is immense pride in the traditions and customs handed down since the time of Abraham. I always appreciated the fact that Judaism wraps itself in a very rich tapestry of historic customs marked by specific holidays. Some of my most memorable moments in Israel were at Passover Seders. To now hear that JuBus mark Passover with "a Zen Seder" evokes memories of the 1960s beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Could Zen possibly live side by side with the strict rules of the Old Testament?
The politically correct way to refer to this religious mixture is "paradoxical diversity." One Jewish woman I spoke with told me she follows "Judaism as my inherited religion," but feels "comforted by the lessons of life Buddhism espouses."
A Jewish man told me he thought it was just the latest feel-good trend. "I'm Jewish, I'm proud of it; I don't need any other religious experience in my life," he said. He then launched into a screed against Jewish mysticism, Madonna and Scientology. Not sure why Scientology became a part of our discussion.
The LA Times story describes this religious duality as "a new American hybrid" that is "blossoming, fed by a large representation of Jewish practitioners." I'd love to know whether Madonna has discovered "JuBuism" but no one I spoke with could come up with her phone number.