JewBus or JuBus (Jewish Buddhists)

Ancient Hebrew scroll found in Mogao Buddhist Caves

What is a JewBu?
Jews and Buddhists have been hanging together for a long time. Take this scroll. he My rabbi (in email) tells me this scroll, it’s actually only a photo from a display, (the original was spirited away by tomb raiders in the ’20s, I think to the British Museum) is familiar (though the handwriting isn’t). It relates to Tashlich, the ceremony between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we throw breadcrumbs or pocket lint into moving water to symbolize being rid of our past sins. The priceless scroll is one of thousands discovered in a cache, later taken by European explorers. It’s from Mogao, or Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, a complex of almost 500 often-magnificent Buddhist caves used since 400 AD for meditation and worship, full of sky-high Buddha carvings, in the Gobi desert along the Silk Road near Dunhuang (map below). Holland Carter won a Pulitzer for this story in the Times on Mogao. There were Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Arabic scrolls…and our very own Hebrew.
Wherever you go, there you are.

Dunhuang, the nearest town (25 miles) from the Mogao Caves, is closer to Kirgyzstan than Korea–central Asia, not far from Pakistan and Eastern Mongolia. Around Dunhuang, the huge empty desert and Mingsha Dunes, it’s not that hard to imagine the caravans carrying the silk, the foods, the scrolls of many faiths and philosophies.

Buddhist nuns, Wutaishan, Shanxi province

China looks different through Jewish eyes. Our antennae pick up these ancient wavelengths and we feel our two people’s world-spanning presence and interaction. And we spend so much time in temples and Buddhist sights, because they’re most often China’s most richly interesting cultural treasures.

Buddhist caves at Yunggan, an early Buddhist cave

The JuBu experience is a path fairly well-trod, by practicing Jewish Buddhist thinkers such as Sylvia Boorstein. Who my rabbi emailed me about yesterday, as did my friend, the great Brooklyn author, journalist, “Sisterhood” blogger, guide to all things modern-Jewish-woman, Debra Nussbaum Cohen. The term JewBu was coined (or, popularized) by the poet Roger Kamanetz in his bestselling 1994 The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, a book I’ve always loved. It narrates the visit of Jewish leaders to Dharamasala, summoned by the Dalai Lama, so they might teach him how the Tibetans can survive culturally and religiously in their diaspora and exile. I had a meditation teacher when I was in high school, who’d just finished a decade at Tasajara, the Zen Buddhist farm retreat in California.

Ethan finds the character ‘Buddha’

(She was Jewish.) I haven’t thought about that 30-year-old time until I just wrote it but maybe that makes me a JewBu. The ‘American Buddhist’ classics she gave me Miracle of Mindfulness and of course the great Japanese monk Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindwere imprinted into my brain quite young. Perhaps this helps explain our frequent visits to Buddhist hallowed ground in China.

At Wutaishan…more on that another time

Yesterday I started reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. I hope Kenny might read it as part of his bar mitzvah preparation. It begins with a story, not the rabbi’s own but a young man he knows:

“[The Dalai Lama] greeted me with his warm, loving smile and asked if I was Israeli.
‘Yes,’ I immediately answered.
‘Are you Jewish?’ he continued.
‘Indeed,’ I replied.
He was silent for a couple of minutes and then said: ‘You come from the most ancient wisdom…the source…You do not need to travel all the way here to seek the truth…You should return to your country and learn your religion well. Return here if you feel the need, but only after you have done so….’
At the time I was deeply disappointed and kept thinking: ‘Have I ventured all the way to Bihar to discover that I should learn Torah?’ ”

North peak, Wutaishan (Five-Peak Mountain), Shanxi

Of course, we should (learn Torah)–there’s never been any doubt, only a lack of time and commitment. We didn’t need to come to China to realize that. But here, we find ourselves slowly immersed in Buddhism and experience it becoming a filter for our Judaism, as in the other direction we see and feel Buddhism here (Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian) through the lens of our own ancient people. The JewBu (JuBew?) experience is an ad infinitumechoing hall of mirrors.

Temple cat, unafraid of temple lion

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Devotion (Lambie Discovers Buddhism)

Lambie visited the Yung gang (“Cloud Ridge”) caves, and saw that devotion moved mountains.

Lambie was happy and astonished to see how Buddhism flourished here.


She learned that the ancient Silk Road passed by, carrying goods and gods. While trading foods and fabric, the road carried culture from India, flowing robes of Greek sculptures from Rome, artistry from Iran. Turkestani rulers, who unified northern China, embraced India’s Buddhism, and melded it all together. Here is a great world religion at its height.

Lambie is pumped to see what happens when great civilizations meld.

The giant Buddha caves of Bamyan, Afghanistan were destroyed. These remain, surviving 2,000 years of erosion, corrosive pollution, vandals, political attacks, and millions of visitors.

Lambie was sorry to see holes and some broken caves.

Lambie knows about Pharoahs. The giant Buddhas were Pharoanic in a way, offering worship to Buddha and glorifying the ruler.

Indian monks, Turkic kings, Hellenic motifs...yet distinctly Chinese Buddhism.

Lambie hopes to become more like Buddha by following his example: Meditation, morality, insight, generosity, patience, and kindness.

Lambie is happy.

Big, Big Buddha

We rode a sleeper train to see Buddhas, carved inside mountains, in human-dug (not natural) caves (or shiku), on the Silk Route. The Yung Gang Shiku were created around 400, funded by a Northern emperor. Carvers roped themselves up high, dug a hole, and began with Buddha’s face.

There are hundreds of caves, large and small, filled with Buddha and carved tales of his life. Some Buddhas were destroyed by water, coal dust from nearby mines in Shanxi (a rather poor, mining area with distinctively eroded white cliffs, almost like the Badlands), and vandalism during the Cultural Revolution. Some were colorfully painted about 600 years ago during a restoration.

Some Buddhas were painted outside the caves.

A lot is going on inside these caves.

Preservation is a huge challenge with millions of visitors.

A cave beside Buddha was a good place to meditate.

In all, there are 55,000 Buddhas here.


A few more pictures:



We were told it took about 40,000 people about 60 years to carve. A few weeksago, the Chinese government opened a sprawling complex of Buddhist temples, ponds and pavillions as an entryway. There, the Great Hall Buddhas are molded of plastic.