As the teachings of the Buddha take root in the West, they are inevitably influenced by their encounter with our existing religions. Similarly, as we who were raised in Christian and Jewish traditions engage in a dedicated way with Buddhist teachings and meditations, our religious beliefs, rituals, and practices are reciprocally influenced. As the Dalai Lama acknowledges, “Buddhism has evolved differently in different times and places and yet the essential Dharma remains the same. The Buddha’s prime concern was that all beings should find peace and freedom from suffering. His advice that we should try to help each other if we can and at least avoid doing one another harm remains relevant everywhere, reaching across the boundaries of nationality, language, religion and culture.”
In the Jewish tradition of my upbringing, there is a ritual of prayers and candle lighting to welcome the Sabbath at sundown each Friday. There is another ritual for bidding the Sabbath good-bye and entering the new week, at sundown on Saturday. This ceremony is called Havdalah, which literally means “separation.” We are marking the separation between the Sabbath day of rest and reflection, and the six days of ordinary work and activities. Although there is a broad continuum encompassing the varying degrees to which Jewish individuals and communities observe the Sabbath, to honor the Sabbath at all is to recognize that Havdalah, or separation, does indeed exist.
Raised in a Reform Jewish household, we usually had the traditional challah, or braided bread, at dinner on Friday evenings. With a simple Hebrew blessing over the bread, we marked the arrival of the Sabbath. Sometimes we also blessed and sipped wine. Years later I discovered the reason we rarely lit Sabbath candles was that my maternal grandmother had inadvertently caused a small household fire one Friday evening when her Sabbath candles set a tablecloth ablaze. My grandfather then forbade Sabbath candle lighting, so my mother did not have that tradition to bring into our family.
Although I have always identified culturally and ethnically as an American Jew, my knowledge of Judaism as a religion was severely limited. It consisted primarily of annual Children’s Services at a Reform Synagogue in New York City on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The awkwardness of obligatory synagogue attendance was heightened by the physical discomfort of the outfits my sisters and I were required to wear on these occasions.
Many years later, as a young adult in graduate school, I spent a few years delving more deeply into Judaism. Although I never found my spiritual home in a synagogue, I taught myself to read Hebrew prayers and blessings, studied the Torah, observed the weekly Sabbath and major Jewish holidays, and participated in a community Chavarah, or group of people celebrating their Judaism together, unaffiliated with any congregation. My journey led me to meditation practice, which I began as an attempt to bring greater sanity and balance to a stressful inner world, and to cope with the ever increasing suffering in the world at large.
Meditation practice resonated for me in a way nothing had before, and it was my interest in deepening my meditation practice that led me to Buddhist retreat centers. On silent retreat year after year I was exposed to the teachings of the Buddha, and this is the spiritual path I have traveled for more than two decades. I have dedicated these years of my life to understanding the fundamental teachings of the Buddha to the best of my ability. The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, The Five Precepts, The Law of Karma, and the Four Brahma Viharas: these are the precious teachings and practices that shape my view of life and the world, and that over time, increasingly guide my actions.
I am aware that mine is but one of many individual stories of how Westerners have come to Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying that Buddhism is more a “science of mind” than a religion. Because the Pali word citta means both “mind” and “heart,” and because Buddhist teachings and practices so skillfully show us how to develop both the intellect and the emotions, I interpret the Dalai Lama’s assertion to mean that Buddhism is a science of mind and heart. This has certainly been my experience.
There is ongoing discussion, and significant disagreement, among Western Buddhists about how much melding and morphing traditional Buddhism can undergo without diminishing or distorting its essence. Some Westerners have become what is referred to as “Buddhist converts,” meaning they have adopted Buddhist principles and practices as their chosen religion. Others continue to identify with the religious tradition of their upbringing, and to one degree or another study Buddhist teachings, and practice Buddhist meditations, more as a way of understanding and navigating this human incarnation, than as a formal religion.
Beloved Vietnamese meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh urges Westerners not to abandon our religions of origin, if these religions continue to hold meaning and relevance to us. Rather, he encourages us to explore what Buddhism offers, and to take to heart the Buddhist teachings and practices that enable us to decrease personal and communal suffering and to promote greater love, healing and peace in our lives and our world. He calls Buddhism “the strongest form of humanism we have,” explaining that “it came to life so we could learn to live with responsibility, compassion, and loving-kindness.” He sees the Five Precepts as “a global ethic,” a set of guiding principles not just for Buddhists, but for all of humanity.
I consider myself and my family fortunate in that my meditation practice and Buddhist path were firmly established before I became a parent. Like all parents, I needed to consider what type of religious training, if any, I wanted my children to have. And like many American Buddhist practitioners, I am continually exploring ways to offer my children some measure of the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha’s teachings, as well as an appreciation of mindfulness.
Just as I love and respect the teachings of the Buddha and his legacy of healing meditation practices, I have also grown to love celebrating the major Jewish holidays: the Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Passover and Chanukah. I agree with the Dalai Lama when he says, “Often we encounter things in another tradition that help us better appreciate our own.” My understanding of the Buddha’s teachings has enriched my observance of the major Jewish holidays, and motivated me to modify traditional Jewish rituals and blessings in ways that reflect the Dharma.
Perhaps of all the Jewish holidays, I love Shabbat the most. For many years before becoming a parent, I had celebrated the Jewish Sabbath with a half-day silent self-retreat at home every Saturday morning. I ate a silent breakfast and lunch, and in between did alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation and yoga. During those years, my Saturday morning routine provided me with a strong sense of balance, contentment and refuge amidst the many and varied events of my personal life and of the larger world. It was something I held close, and looked forward to all week long. My Saturday self-retreat went by the wayside as I adjusted to motherhood. However, the teachings of the Buddha have been integrated into my family’s Friday night blessings and Saturday evening Havdalah ceremony.
Havdalah is one of the most ancient Jewish rituals. It is a beautiful, visual, participatory ceremony that consists of six interrelated parts: the introduction, the blessing for the wine, the blessing for the spices, the blessing for the lighting of fire, the blessing of Havdalah, or separation of Shabbat from the six days of labor, and the conclusion. Different Jewish sources offer varied explanations for the symbolism of this ceremony. The introduction speaks about life and happiness. The wine symbolizes joy, and the potential for healing pain in our lives and the world. The sweet aroma of the spices represents the sweetness of the Sabbath day of rest, and offers us a sweet smell in exchange for the Sabbath that is ending. The light is from a special braided Havdalah candle that contains multiple wicks. It reminds us that just as fire can be used for beneficial purposes or for destruction, our actions can create either happiness or suffering. We commit ourselves to choosing our actions wisely, so that we can promote greater peace and harmony in ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world.
After the blessings for the wine, spices, and light, the Havdalah blessing urges us to consciously recognize both the sacred and the ordinary in our lives. Following the Havdalah blessing is a short Hebrew song about the Prophet Elijah who many Jews believe will herald the future time of ultimate redemption and happiness. The Havdalah ceremony then concludes with the wish for a good week.
Our family’s revised Havdalah ceremony follows this order. Each family member, and any friends who have joined us for Saturday dinner, has a written copy of the ceremony. We assemble in the dining room and light the Havdalah candle. One of my children reads: “With compassion and loving kindness, we honor all beings, nature, and life itself. May all beings live in peace, be free from suffering, and know true happiness.”
We raise the cup of wine, over which we recite the Hebrew blessing and a modified English translation: “Blessed is the Guardian of the Universe, who brings forth fruit from the vine.” The wine is circulated for everyone to sip.
Next we raise the spice box, inside of which is fresh ground cinnamon. We read the explanation for the spices, say the blessing in Hebrew and English, and circulate the spice box for each person to enjoy the sweet aroma. “The added soul Shabbat confers is leaving now. The sweetness of these spices consoles us at the moment of its passing, and reminds us that all things arise and pass away. May our awareness of the impermanence of life help us to experience each moment as precious, and may our every action serve to heal the world of pain. Blessed is the Guardian of the Universe, who brings forth all the spices.”
After the spices have circulated, the burning candle is held up, and all gather closer, in order to see the interplay of shadow and light on our outstretched hands. We bless the light, and offer gratitude for the Sabbath. “Blessed is the Guardian of the Universe, who brings forth the light of fire. We give thanks for the Sabbath day that now is ending. We are grateful for its many blessings: for peace and joy, rest for the body, and refreshment for the soul. May something of its meaning and message remain with us as we enter the new week, lifting all that we do to a higher plane of holiness, and inspiring us to work with new heart for the liberation of all beings. May the quiet of Sabbath open our hearts to all the miracles of life. In the week ahead, may we continue to cultivate compassion, loving-kindness, ethical conduct, truthful speech, and deep listening.”
Next is the short joyous song about Elijah: “Eliyahu Hanavi,” and then the Havdalah blessing in Hebrew, which we revised in English to say, “Blessed is the Guardian of the Universe, who separates sacred from ordinary, light from darkness, the seventh day of rest fro the six days of labor. May this Sabbath day help us to see the commonplace in the holy, and feel the sacred in the ordinary. May we live fully both the sorrows and the joys of life.”
The candle is extinguished by submerging it in the wine cup. Our ceremony ends with the Hebrew chant, “Shavua tov, shavua tov, shavua tov, shavua tov,” which we repeat in English, “Good week,” and in Spanish, “Buena semana.” We embrace one another, and sing the following wish, “A good week, a week of peace, may gladness reign and love increase.” With the conclusion of Havdalah, we enter the new week, always feeling at least a little bit refreshed, and always a little more in touch with the potential for goodness in ourselves and in the world.
The Sabbath day offers the possibility of slowing down, of being mindful, of connecting more deeply with what is most meaningful to us. Havdalah is a potent reminder that human beings embody two complementary aspects: the sacred and the ordinary.
This concept of “the sacred and the ordinary” is a Jewish teaching. However, it translates for me into what is often referred to in the Buddha’s teaching as absolute and relative reality, or unconditioned and conditioned existence. Although we are often preoccupied with wordly concerns and activities, Havdalah urges us to recognize that we live simultaneously on two planes of existence. Attending to our ordinariness without considering our sacred aspect easily leads to isolation, depletion, and delusion. We can become overwhelmed by the inevitable changes in life. We forget our true nature. Exclusive contemplation of the sacred, of absolute reality, could foster a sense of disconnection from our humanness: our body, our emotions, our place in society, as well as consideration for the earth itself.
The sacred and the ordinary is what Jack Kornfield calls “the universal and the personal.” In his new book “The Wise Heart,” he explains, “We are spiritual beings incarnated into human form. We need to remember our zip code as well as our Buddha nature…Our existence has both a universal and a personal dimension. This psychological paradox is called the Two Truths…Both dimensions must be respected if we are to be happy and free.”
In addition to the simple beauty of our weekly Havdalah ceremony, and to the pause of mindfulness that it provides, I find in Havdalah something yet deeper and more meaningful. It serves as a potent reminder of the Buddha’s assertion that we must honor both the universal and the personal within ourselves, in others, and in our world. Week by week, year after year, I watch my children grow, and I continue to appreciate the beauty and importance of this reminder.
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