A Jewish-Buddhist Practice for Well-Being

Darren Kleinberg teaches a Jewish-Buddhist practice for holding the whole universe in your heart.

Darren Kleinberg31 January 2024
Photo by Greg Rakozi

In his book Secret Body, Jeffrey Kripal retells a classic Jewish fable: A rabbi from Cracow once dreamed that he should go to Prague to find a treasure that was hidden under a bridge there. In Prague, far away from home, he found the bridge guarded by a Christian, who laughed at him for believing in dreams. He, after all, had had a similar dream, which told him to go to Cracow, where he would find a treasure buried behind the stove of a rabbi named Isaac, son of Jekel. The rabbi said nothing but hurried home, for he was Isaac, son of Jekel, and the treasure he had sought in a distant land was in fact buried in his very own home.

The key to this story, says Kripal, is that “such treasure could only be discovered and fully appreciated by a trip to a distant land and its foreign (in this case, Christian) culture.”

 I, too, made such a journey to a distant land (Northern California, from my native England) and one of its foreign cultures (in this case, Western Buddhism). The result of my encounter with Buddhism was a refraction of my lifelong engagement with Judaism. 

What follows is a practice of well-being based on developing our awareness of an infinite and all-inclusive this, which is one of the names of God in Judaism. I am not attempting to translate Buddhist ideas and practices into Jewish terms, although the parallel to bodhichitta—the enlightened mind of the buddhas—seems apparent, and I’m grateful for the congruity. I share this well-being practice derived from the Jewish tradition for the sake of all beings. 

When considering well-being, one quality of mind that seems to be of particular importance is expansiveness. An expansive mind-space generates an increasing sense of inclusivity, which leads to the recognition that all things, both known and unknown, are ultimately included in this. This is one of the less well-known names that the Jewish tradition assigns to God. 

There are a number of examples of it being used in the Hebrew Bible. Exodus 31:5 states, “this shall be my name forever; this my memorial for generations.” Psalms 27:3 states, “Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear; should war beset me, in this I trust.”

If we can get beyond the theistic baggage of the word “God,” the similarity with the Buddhist term tathata—“thusness” or “suchness”—is clear. In the words of Daniel Matt, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, “God is not somewhere else, hidden from us, but rather right here, hidden from us…. How, then, can we find God? A clue is provided by one of the many names of Shekhinah [a term from Jewish mysticism that is often considered to refer to the divine feminine or feminine aspect of God]. She is called ocean, well, garden, apple orchard. She is also called zot, which means simply ‘this.’ God is right here, in this very moment, fresh and unexpected, taking you by surprise. God is this.”

Among the more familiar divine names found in the Hebrew bible, God is also known by the name יהוה (sometimes romanized as YHWH). As the ultimate expanse—or, in a word, allיהוה is expressed in these words from Deuteronomy 43:5: “You have been shown, so that you would know, that יהוה alone is The God; there is nothing other than It.”

This idea of God being all-encompassing is given its clearest articulation in these words, attributed to Isaiah: “I am יהוה and there is nothing else; besides Me, there is no god. I surround you, though you have not known Me. So that they may know, from east to west, that there is none but Me. I am יהוה and there is none else. I form light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I, יהוה, do all these things.”

Awareness of יהוה as ultimate expanse and all-inclusive this engenders the conviction that the sense of separation between self and other is illusory. When this conviction arises, it becomes clear that one’s own well-being is intertwined with and inseparable from that of others. This leads to a sense of purpose to embody the summum bonum of the Jewish prophetic tradition. As it is expressed in Isaiah 1:17, “Learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge on behalf of the orphan, represent the widow.”

This sense of purpose, along with the actions that naturally follow it, arise from within and complete one’s development as a moral agent and channel of well-being. In Buddhist terms, we might say that this is the realization of the bodhisattva.

Fortunately, it is possible to train our minds to cultivate awareness of יהוה as ultimate expanse and all-inclusive this. By engaging with the following introductory practice a few times a day, one can expect to achieve mastery in a relatively short period of time—months rather than years. 

Mastery is defined as the ability to effortlessly generate a sense of expansiveness at will. Once this has been achieved, you can try the master practice that follows.

The Introductory Practice

First, dedicate five minutes to sitting comfortably and quietly. Spend the first two minutes simply relaxing, either by paying attention to the fact that you are breathing—there is no need to do anything special or unusual, simply attend to your expanding and contracting abdomen or your rising and falling chest—or by resting your attention on any one of your senses. 

Begin to intentionally expand your mind-space. First, become aware of your body. Feel your feet in contact with the floor. Feel the back of your legs in contact with the chair. Feel your back against the chair, and so on.

Expand your awareness to include the objects around you. Then expand your awareness to include the entire room you are sitting in. Then—and here you’ll need to start using your imagination—bring to mind the rest of the building you’re sitting in by thinking of those parts that are familiar (other rooms, stairs, elevators, entryway, etc.)

Now, as your awareness expands, begin to bring family, friends, acquaintances, pets, plants, trees, etc., into awareness. Do this during each successive step of the practice, as appropriate. 

Bring the neighborhood to mind. Then the city you are in. Then the region of the country. Then the country. Then the world. (Consider looking at satellite images of the earth beforehand.) Then bring to mind the solar system—satellites, the moon, planets, the sun, stars, and so on. (Consider first looking at the recently published images from the James Webb Space Telescope.)

When you have expanded your awareness as far as you can take it, acknowledge that there is yet more that is unknown. Rest for some time in this expansive awareness.

It should be noted that this kind of practice cultivates a sense of expansiveness in space. By considering human, evolutionary, and geological history, one may also cultivate a sense of the expansiveness in time. While working with this practice, it is possible that one may experience an expansiveness of mind that seems to be neither space- nor time-bound. 

The Master Practice

Take a minute (or longer if you choose) to settle and become aware of yourself and your surroundings. Then effortlessly generate the expansive quality of mind. Rest for some time in this expansive awareness.

Finally, it is suggested that practitioners reflect on and engage these practices in partnership with another person. This can support accountability and also provides a forum to swap notes about the experience with the practice.

This article is from the March 2024 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.

Darren Kleinberg

Darren Kleinberg serves as a chaplain resident at Stanford Health Care. He’s the author of Hybrid Judaism.