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The Institute of Buddhist Studies would like to thank all the panelists, participants, and guests who made the 2010 Buddhism Without Borders Conference such a wonderful success!

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Buddhism without Borders: Contemporary Developments of Buddhism in the West

at the Institute of Buddhist Studies
Berkeley, California
March 18 - 21, 2010

Panel VI: Interpreting Buddhism in the West, 9:30 -12:30

The Jewish Buddhists: The Upcoming Rise of a New School of Buddhism?

Mira Niculescu

The introduction of Buddhism in the West from the turn of the twentieth century onwards was accompagnied by the emergence of a new hyphenated religious phenomenon: the ‘Jewist-buddhists’. This phenomenon, which can be summarized as a consequence of the attraction of secularized Ashkenazi intellectuals to this eastern spiritual path, is mainly american. Yet it also ephemerely appeared in Europe -especially Germany-, before the Nazi regime, but without being given such a name, which is the first sign of acknowledgement of a trend as such.

The fact that amongst all the westerners who are attracted to this ‘alternative religion’, american Jews were the earliest engaged and most dedicated ones, stroke every observer: After being so numerous that Chogyam Trungpa called his group the ‘Oy Vey school of Buddhism’, Jews represent today a third of the western Buddhists, while they are just 2.5% of the american society (Prebish 98, 2002). Indeed, not only pionneer converts to Buddhism –chronologically Zen for the fifties ‘beat generation’, Tibetan in the sixties ‘counterculture’ and Vipassana in the ‘Hippy’ seventies -, the so called jubus (Kamenetz 94) were the first to found the main Western Buddhist centers in America.

However, this ’Jewish Buddhism’ is foremost a ‘Western Buddhism, that has influenced not only the form but also the contents of imported Buddhism: the emphasis on gender equality, social justice and environmental protection became that of a so-called ‘socially engaged Buddhism’.

Yet the Jubu phenomenon tends to be considered under a sole Jewish perspective: How does it ‘affect’ the Jewish community? How has it conversely stimulated, as a positive reaction to religious competition, a ‘Jewish spiritual renewal’?

But what about its effects on Buddhism? Is there a specific Jewish influence within Western Buddhism? Today, some Buddhist centres in America propose special mixed Jewish-Buddhists programs, and even trips to Jerusalem. Could that trend acquire a transnational dimension and expand in the main countries of Jewish settlement: Israel (where jubus are numerous), France and England? Could a non-Jewish public be interested in this ‘Buddhism for the Jews’? In that perspective, conversely to a Buddhist influence on Judaism, we might be witnessing the emergence of a proper ‘Jewish- Buddhism’. Could we then say that a new syncretic form of Buddhism is emerging from its acculturation and reappropriation by some members of the Jewish community?

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