What a Japanese Buddhist Who Converted to Judaism Taught Me About Spirituality

What a Japanese Buddhist Who Converted to Judaism Taught Me About Spirituality August 11, 2022

When I am curious about something, I call people; strangers, who often end up becoming my friends. I find them through LinkedIn, organizations I am interested in, social media groups, and acquaintances. Sometimes a call last twenty minutes; other times, I’ll be on the phone for hours. When we’re done talking, I usually ask: “Is there anyone else you think I should talk to?”

“You Have to Talk to This Japanese Guy”

At the end of a phone call with the head of an interfaith organization in San Francisco, the answer was: “Yes. You have to talk to this Japanese guy I know. He is a Buddhist and just converted to Judaism. He is your man if you want to learn more about lived interspirituality.”

I got his email, reached out, and he agreed to a phone call that lasted almost two hours. It was one of the most enlightening conversations I’ve ever had.

I will conceal his name for privacy purposes, but here is some of what he told me.

Buddhist Roots

He told me about his Buddhist roots in Japan. Going to temple. Learning how to meditate. Attending silent retreats. Frankly, many of the things that my Western friends have been craving for the past three decades. He learned to be in a state of peace.

Going to Church

After moving to America for college, he met a woman, fell in love, and got married. Suddenly, he found himself going to a Christian church every Sunday with his wife. He never converted but was treated like a part of the community nonetheless. He did this for twenty years.

Converting to Judaism

How he got introduced to his local Jewish temple, I can’t remember, not exactly, but he fell right in with that crowd. He loved the close-knit community, the endless dialogues about theology and society, and the ongoing social activism, to name a few. He found himself going to the temple several times a week. In contrast to the introverted nature of the Buddhist tradition, the Jewish community seemed fully engaged in the world, working to make it a better place. He still went to silent retreats once or twice a year to stay connected to his Buddhist roots, but converting to Judaism gave his life purpose, community, and direction.

The Paths of Oneness and Goodness

In my graduation thesis in 2017, I posited that all of the world’s religions offer two major paths of experience. One is the extroverted path of Goodness. The other is the introverted path of Oneness.

This idea became central to my Experifaith model.

I also wrote that although both exist in all the major traditions, one has usually matured more than the other. For instance, there is more emphasis on Goodness in Judaism and Christianity, and more focus on Oneness in Hinduism and Buddhism.

The Need for Both Exists in All of Us

Still, even though these paths may seem to contradict each other at first glance, the need for both is in all of us. We have a need for inner peace and a sense of Oneness. We also have a need for community and cultivating Goodness. If one is missing from our tradition, we will seek to fulfill the need elsewhere, like the example of the Episcopalian congregation where Buddhist meditation became a common practice shows.

What I Learned

Having been raised in a Christian environment, I knew about the need for inner peace and Oneness. My yoga classes were full of people seeking moments of calm. In fact, that is why I became interspiritual in the first place.

What I had failed to consider was the opposite, that people raised in Oneness traditions had just as much of a need for community and Goodness. That is what I learned from the Japanese man’s story.

Gudjon Bergmann
Personal Coach, Mindfulness Teacher, Author and Columnist

Picture: CC0 License

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