A Rabbi and a Buddhist Monk

By Aaron Moss, Algemeiner, May 4, 2007

I read the following story and it really shook me. I would love to hear your comments:

A rabbi once met a Buddhist monk. The monk invited the rabbi into his temple, but the rabbi refused, saying, "I am not allowed to enter a house of idol worship". The monk asked why. The rabbi answered, "Because worshipping an object is an affront to G-d". 

The monk took a small Buddha statue out of his pocket, looked at the rabbi with a calm smile and threw the statue onto the ground, smashing it to pieces. 

The monk asked the startled rabbi, "Now tell me, would you do that with one of your Torah scrolls? If not, who is it that makes idols?"

Any response? 


This story encapsulates the profound difference between eastern spirituality and Judaism. The two traditions have some things in common, but on many of the deepest issues they sharply diverge. One fundamental question elicits from the two diametrically opposed answers: Which is holier, physicality or spirituality? The Buddhist would answer that the spiritual is far higher than the physical. The Jew would give a typical Jewish answer: not necessarily. 

The monk was right, we would never throw a Torah scroll on the ground. It is our holiest object and we treat it with reverence and tenderness. The Torah is not G-d, but it is sacred. A Torah scroll embodies what the Jewish mission is all about - to take this world and infuse it with G-dliness. 

In the making of a Torah scroll, representatives of all four levels of existence - mineral, plant, animal and human - conspire to create a holy object. Pieces of parchment made of animal hide are sewn together with animal sinews. A feather quill is dipped in ink made from plant derivatives, and a living human handwrites the Torah, letter by letter. The scroll is then bound on wooden poles, covered with an elegant cloth coat, and decorated with silver adornments, representing the mineral realm. 

The four levels of existence have thus transcended their physical nature and become a vehicle to express G-d's wisdom and a vessel to hold His presence. This lowly world has been branded with the divine imprint. The Torah scroll testifies that the physical need not be an impediment to holiness; on the contrary, it can be a home for holiness. 

Eastern thought does not agree. Holiness lies in higher consciousness, elevated states of being, heightened awareness, but not on an animal's hide. The Buddhist can smash his statue, because he thinks it absurd that an object can be anything more than a symbol of something higher. For him there can't be intrinsic holiness to the statue, because holiness is limited to spirituality. 

For the Jew, this is the essence of idolatry. By relegating holiness to the higher worlds, you have limited G-d's jurisdiction. G-d can be just as comfortable in the physical world as He is in the spiritual worlds, if we welcome Him here. Of course we can't worship a physical object, for as long as you are seeing something physical you are not seeing G-d. But an object can itself become holy, if G-d so desires. The Torah scroll is not G-d, but it reveals G-d, it is a manifestation of G-d's wisdom. A human being cannot be G-d, but we can become G-dly by aligning with G-d's will. To do so, we need to write a Torah, study it, and bring holiness into every level of our life. 

This is where the paths of Buddhism and Judaism diverge. In Buddhism, a physical object can't have innate holiness, for holiness is other-worldly; in Judaism a physical object can be the holiest of holies, because there are no limitations to the divine. This difference in worldviews translates into two very disparate ways of life. 

Buddhism is about silence; Judaism is about words. 

The Buddhist ideal is celibacy; Judaism's is family. 

Buddhist spiritual centre is the temple; the Jewish spiritual centre is the home. 

Buddhism glorifies the life of a monk; Judaism glorifies the life of a mother. 

In Buddhism holiness is discovered in solitude; in Judaism holiness is found in community.  

Buddhism says the physical world is an illusion; Judaism says this world is just misunderstood, its potential for holiness waiting to be revealed. 

In short, Buddhism is a calling to retreat from physicality and reach for the spiritual. Judaism is a calling to marry the two, and make this world holy.

Relegating G-d to the heavens is idolatry. But revealing His presence in the world - by writing a Torah, and by living its message - that is the holiest thing we can do. When our physical life is imbued with the divine imprint, then we have done the impossible: we have expanded infinity, to even include the finite world. That's not just spiritual. It's higher than spiritual - it's G-dly.