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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Sweet and Bitter

Outside Beijing, it’s suddenly rural Hebei province. Where my generous, beautiful student hosted us in her village. We walked through the sweet potato fields (also some peanuts and corn). Ethan loved pumping water and bringing it inside. Fun, she said–the first time. Small farming terraces, impossible for machines to navigate, greatly increase farming’s hardship. An amazing cook, her mom has farmed for more than 30 years.

From the sweet potato, mom made fantastic silky cellophane noodles (lunch, with greenbeans; dinner, cold with cucumbers and vinegar). With dishes of fish, pork in black bean sauce, roast duck, other vegetables, and the holiday special rice dumplings filled with date, sweet potato was also served in sugared cubes that harden like candyapple when dipped into cold water at the table. What a feast at this farm on Dragon Boat Festival.

Later, since a mom is never allowed to rest, and since she hadn’t already cooked a feast, the children demanded a lesson in making dumplings. It begins with fresh greens.

We talked about how poorly equipped and staffed rural schools are, and the far higher college-entrance exam scores rural kids need to get into college. Suddenly I understood: this discriminatory policy is to reproduce more farmers. By capping their opportunities, food will be grown. China won’t starve.

The poster says, “Men! The One-Child Policy is your responsibility.”

The noodles, made by a neighbor in the village from sweet potato flour.

More Great Student Journalism

Writers Workshop, my apt

If you’re unmarried at 27, you’re a “leftover lady” – Reese explores this ridiculous problem in the third and last batch of student final pieces, (the first batch here) presented aloud at my apt, over lunch. For a look at some parents’ alarmed, creative reaction to their kids potentially being leftover, we travel with Jolie (and in a related piece, Natalie) to Matchmaker’s Park, a well-done tale (she’s even recruited as good bride material). THose poor, anxious parents stand for hours with placards advertising their children to other anxious parents.

Jolie

Natalie

Lucia told the story of an NGO founded by China’s  leading, pioneering investigative journalist Wang Keqing, who sometimes teaches in this department, to help miners and other impoverished Chinese industrial workers with black lung disease. Some on staff were initially persecuted, for embarrassing the government. The NGO is one of few–it’s a new and uncertain area of China’s nascent, still-beleaguered civil society. Happily, it recently got on the government’s good side, and a few celebrities have lined up for a big fundraiser this month.

Aileen takes us on a journey through her feelings of patriotism and yet demand for information about her home that she loves,  China, on a trip into the troubled Tibetan area, Qinghai. She seeks to explore the unrest (while translating for a journalist from India), and must grapple with being accused by security forces, at every step, of being a traitor.

Aileen journeyed to Tibetan Qinghai

Susan looks at Confucius Institutes (from her days earlier this year interning in NYC), particularly the one at Pace University, and realizes the U.S. students there are learning more about Peking Opera, silk, calligraphy and classical poetry than she knows, as a devoted English student. She determines, then, to rediscover her own culture.

Susan

Laura shows us why Christianity, despite the hype and worry, won’t catch on in China. We see her quit, after too much uncomfortable touchie-feelie hugging and what feels like too much fake saying “I love you.”

Cynthia shows us a migrant laborer who founded a hotline to help others, a well-drawn bio piece about a modern-day hero.

Susan Yu takes us inside student union election politics – a microcosm for Party politics, and urges change towards a more truly democratic process.

In a

Susan Yu

nother great piece, we see how Chinese senior citizens, displaced from the center and their old communities by Beijing’s rampant, outward, horizontal growth pattern, are now being accused of clogging up mass transit when they travel back to their favorite old spots at rush hour.

Cynthia

And Guanlin tells the story of life as a Beijing public toilet cleaner who actually lives inside a stall, with his wife and grandchild.

Liya wrote about Beijing’s oldest foreign-owned small business, run by China’s original British hipster.

Shao Yao Jews

ImageWe are constantly changing trains at Shao Yao Ju, especially on Jewish holidays — when I go get the boys at school in order to go to synagogue. At first our Woody Allenesque way we referred to the station was, “Shao Yao Are-You-Calling-Me-a-Jew?”

Now we just call it, “Shao Yao People-of-the-Jewish-Faith.”

Image

 

Little Monks

Little Buddhist monk, SW China’s Yunnan province

I’m disturbed by little monks. Yes, it takes a lifetime to learn scripture; I read an interview in National Geo with an old Tibetan monk who talked about his happy willingness to enter monastic life, at an uncle’s urging, at age 6 or 7. In Kathmandu years ago, I remember the armies of adorable tiny monks playing ball (soccer fever among little-boy monks being the subject of the film “The Cup,” 1999). Many little Tibetan monks have a much more materially comfortable life in the monastery than they’d have at home. Maybe more spiritually comfortable. Their families are passionate about religious life and they’re honored to join early. But I’m disturbed. They’re cloistered long before they can maturely consent. China has rightly banned the practice before age 15 or 16, but the law goes unenforced.

Playing with our boys. Baisha, Yunnan.

Our boys have played with little monks, whenever they’ve meet them. Basketball, pingpong, tag. This shouldn’t be taken as me implying that these little monks are victims of sexual abuse. Although the BBC out of Colombo, Sri Lanka covered a terrible story this month, hundreds of sexually abused Buddhist monk boys, and we know from many accounts this happened, happens. And of course we’ve seen sexual abuse in Western religious educational settings. I’m by no means pointing to Buddhism (Chinese, Tibetan, Sri Lankan) as uniquely guilty, and this isn’t the main point of my case, as it is for religiouschildabuse.org, an atheist organization that despises religion and uses child abuse as a bludgeon.

I’m saying, we’ve seen a lot of baby monks. And just as it’s disturbing that little Chinese athletes, say, are removed from home and family and friends to training schools from a tender age, as it’s wrong that children anywhere be controlled by large, forceful institutions of any kind, it’s wrong for baby monks to still tolerated here, in 2012.

Monks cleanup, Kanding, Western Sichuan

Stimulating Discussion With Chinese Students

The campus cats. Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Some of these tips I got on arrival, from Fulbright meetings. Other later in my time here. A lot didn’t work. Below is what did. The custom is, teacher’s right/students listen & regurgitate later. Much has been written about how frustrating this is to American lecturers, here and at U.S. colleges (where, sometimes, language proficiency or fraudulent applications may be at fault). There are solutions.

Distribute questions a week in advance to a group. The group prepares the answers. The “discussion” (group presentation) occurs at a planned time.

This didn’t suit a reporting & writing course. They reported and wrote almost every week. Instead, I gave a quiz on the rare non-reporting, non-writing weeks, to ensure they used that week to get caught up with the past month or so’s reading. After the quiz was a reasonably good time for discussion; everyone was ‘on the same page.’

Explain that they need the skill of being able to discuss material, to be transnational. Explain that it’s required in the U.S. classroom, from middle school onward. Lay out the expectation the first day that every student is expected to speak in class, and that to challenge the teacher is considered polite. That questions don’t imply I haven’t done a thorough teaching job.

Unless the students had done a semester abroad, or was naturally extroverted, this had no impact. By the end, I’ve imparted a living sense of a different student-teacher relationship–more actively engaged (if not quite Socratic), more ‘democratic’ and hands-on and debate-oriented. But it’s a slow build, not something you can create in a day.

Call on students randomly.

This worked poorly.

–Go around the room, one by one.

This also worked poorly. Many students were unprepared, unwilling, too nervous, got stage fright & lost their fluent English.

Ask a question. Break up into pairs for discussion. Let one of the pair represent their thoughts aloud.

This might work. I broke into groups of 4 or 5. Sometimes we had a good exercise. The problems were 1) I gave too much time to prepare; 5 minutes would be good but I probably gave 10+, so it devolved into a chat-fest. And 2) the same old gregarious, extroverted, most-fluent students would be speaking, as always.

Here is what worked for me:

Explain the purpose of student-teacher individual conferences, and then pass out a weekly sign-up list. I made coming in mandatory, at least once. Many students came a lot. I had 4 hours/week set aside for conferences (most weeks), at my kitchen table. Discussing, tutoring, mentoring, relationship-building all much easier in this informal setting.

Class lunches. This was strongly recommended by Fulbright, as a key part of our We’re-Not-Your-Typical-Foreign-Expert approach. Great tradition. Class leader would reserve one big table (7-9 students), almost every week. Rotated around until everyone (nearly 90 students this year) participated. They ordered so I learned about a lot of good foods, too. Guest speakers sometimes joined, or other faculty, which was extra great.  Informal setting meant no one was on stage so there wasn’t stage fright or the other problems. Only downside was, had to regularly remind everyone to use English, so we could get to know one another better.

–Distribute a ‘self-evaluation sheet’ the day a piece is due, and discuss after they’ve filled it out. Got this idea from a Chinese professor. Students use this ‘quiz’ to evaluate their work (which they have in hand, in hard copy), against the techniques/skills/theories contained in the latest readings. After they’re done, it’s all fresh in mind, they’ve had a critical, analytical half hour with the material, they’re called on to share aloud the result of their self-evaluation.

BFSU Main Building spring 2012

Sax Man

By Kenny
Throughout the years learning an instrument, everyone wants to perform something. They want to show off what they learned. That’s why they created the recital. At British School of Beijing, there was a recital Thursday night. I had been practicing for the recital for months. I had to give up rugby (against my own will). I practiced and practiced with many hard struggles on the way there (like breaking my finger and delaying my practicing for 3 weeks). Even disobeying the doctor who said I couldn’t play — for the love of the saxophone, even though it might’ve hurt a little bit to play. But I still did it for the love of the instrument. I performed twice. Once alone with a piano accompaniment, and once with the orchestra (a big band).

The day before the concert I went in the first 2 periods of the day and started practicing and thought, ‘Oh no, I’m screwed, I can’t keep up with the piano, he’s going too fast, I don’t know when to start, I’m gonna embarrass myself.’

With an hour to the performance I’m practicing insanely hard with the piano. Playing with a piano’s really hard. When the concert started the flute, piano, trumpet ensemble played. first My friend and I were in the dressing room when in the trumpet ensemble played. I said to him, “Aren’t you in the trumpet ensemble?” He runs over and looks. Luckily for him he had a solo later in the orchestra.

Ten acts later was my solo performance on the tenor sax, with the piano, a piece called “Dark Light” (composed by Mike Nock). I hear the piano, I start going…I see friends in the theater watching me. In the middle, I see a mistake: I had arranged the pages in the wrong order, instead of 1,2,3,4 it went 1,2,4,3. I had to flip a page and go back. Luckily it was only 2 seconds. It went very well.

I had one more performance, the wind orchestra. We start with “Funkytown.” Everyone was liking the song. Since I’m a tenor sax I was playing the bass part. Towards the end of the song I had a solo. It went really well. There are 3 saxophones in that piece, me and 2 friends. Our band’s very big. There are maybe 11 clarinets, 13 trumpets and 7 flutes. The next piece was the theme from “The Simpsons.” That went well but I always get lost at one part. Luckily I got lost for about 8 seconds but I know where to catch up. That’s when my solo is. Our final piece was “Firework” by Katie Perry. It starts out with the clarinets, then saxophones and then flutes and trumpets come in.

I felt really good and it was definitely worth it. The sound was beautiful.

Earlier in the day, to get ready, my music teacher Ms. Joyce Liu, from Guanxi province, says, “Kenny, you need more practice. Come here another hour to play.” After an hour I still can’t do it, but I’ve gotten better. But I’m still falling behind a little & I’m really worried. To get my mind off it I dyed my hair blue, stuck my hair up, and put on some sunglasses and a backwards hat and made my way down to the house music competition.

At the local barbershop, my new faux-hawk

My house, the blue house, Romans, (color like Ravenclaw) were in 3rd place. We needed to win this to get close to winning the house cup. The Key Stage 3 (middle school) Romans team, about 20 of us, start out by singing a song from The Avengers movie, which makes us sound like a team. There’s a lot of tension, we’re all standing in a straight line in a military position. In a few seconds “Party Rock Anthem” goes on. We all start doing a shuffle in a messy order. Then we started dancing, clapping our hands, jumping up and down as the music goes on. Then comes a friend onto the stage wearing a box on his head, dancing. We got
a huge round of applause and the judges started clapping. Our next solo artist was a student piano player who’d played on CCTV and gotten interviewed. Luckily, she was in the Romans house. She played a beautiful classical piece that almost made me cry. The final score…We won the cup for the third year in a row!