Monday, August 14, 2017

Story of a trip

I am reading "The Jew in the Lotus" by Roger Kamenetz.  A friend gave me a paper copy.  I misread the title for quite a while and thought the book was called The Jewel in the Lotus.  Then, I thought the actual title must be about the JuBu phenomenon, the large number of Jewish people who have been attracted to Buddhist thought.  But it is actually about the Dalai Lama being interested in the history and practices of the Jews and their demonstrated ability over 2000 years to remain faithful to their traditions, their culture and their beliefs despite strong and even deadly opposition and dispersion.  A group of Jewish religious and thought leaders, writers and teachers made a group trip to Dharamsala, the town in India to which the Dalai Lama fled from his native Tibet. The Chinese army invaded Tibet in 1950 and the Chinese have worked steadily at undermining Buddhism and the native Tibetan government since then.

Whatever the reasons for meeting, Jewish and Buddhist people have plenty to offer each other.  The book by Kamenetz is well-written and offers open-eyed observations about what intelligent and interested observers saw and felt about the trip, the people, the culture and ways of getting along.  I have been inspired to make several tweets of passages from the book.  The party of 20 or so flew from the US to India and landed there at 4 AM local time.  Even at that hour, they were met by a large, loud and active crowd of beggars, including children and very disabled people, seeking anything they could get.  

Seeing the poverty and the masses of people, the author realized that a Jewish tradition that it is the mission of the Jews to "repair the world" might be too ambitious:

My exposure to India, though brief, had been staggering. I had traveled extensively in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, so I knew what third world poverty looked like. But nothing could have prepared me for the total density of suffering. The immense need of the people, the vibrant anarchy of their lives, and the variety of costumes, physiognomy, and activity had left me drained. Certain images kept returning with an absolute force: the leper's finger stumps thrust into my face, the mother holding her infant up to our cab, and from our first hours, that corpse surrounded by a circle of white stones. My heart was torn and tender. I believe in tikkun olam—that the world can be repaired. And that belief requires action: being a Jew means put up or shut up. In my own life that made sense. But in India, the idea that any individual could grasp, let alone modify, such a vast quantity of suffering felt absurd.

Kamenetz, Rodger. The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India (Plus) (pp. 36-37). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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