Rosh Hashanah and Zen

In recognition of Rosh Hashanah, I’m posting a selection from a 2007 interview with “JuBu” psychotherapist Brenda Shoshanna, author of the book Jewish Dharma. The interview was conducted by psychologist Bernard Starr for Religion and Spirituality. Read the complete interview here.

While I’m interested in this exchange for the synthesis of Orthodox Judaism and Zen Buddhism, the fact that we have psychotherapists positioning themselves as experts on spirituality is itself an intriguing cultural phenomenon–arguably a kind of hybridization–about which more could be said.

Q. Brenda, aren’t the High Holy Days mostly about repentance? How does that relate to Zen?

A. Yes, Rosh Hashanah is a time for repentance — but also for return. Teshuvah, the Hebrew name for repentance, also means to return to the source of your being. This is precisely what we do in our hours of silence during zazen. We turn away from the phenomenal world, with its endless demands and distractions, and return to the essence of ourselves and G-d. [. . .]

In zazen practice we naturally and inevitably become aware of all that is going on within, often feel sorrow and remorse, and through the cleansing process of sitting, breathing and awareness, correction naturally arises.

Q. In the Rosh Hashanah service there’s a great deal of emphasis on praising G-d — or what you have referred to as “The Coronation of the King.” But Zen is non-theistic, so how do the two fit?

A. A main theme of Rosh Hashanah is to declare G-d King over us — to declare and affirm that we are G-d’s subjects and servants. The question of what it means to truly serve G-d is like a Zen koan (a statement that defies rational understanding) that we sit with continually. By practicing zazen we give up our egoistic ways of being, our selfish needs and desires and become simple — we surrender to our true nature. Zen does not speak or theorize about G-d, but instead directs us to experience G-d directly, to “taste for ourselves and see that G-d is good.”

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