Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, August 20, 2016
Rabbi Meira Chmiel
Over the last few weeks I have advertised the question: “How is our siddur like a sadhana?” Well, you might answer the question with a question, “What is a Sadhana?” and I could ask right back, “What is a Siddur?”
We usually just think of our Siddur as a prayer book that helps us coordinate our prayer. We have been taught that the prayer service replaced the Temple sacrifices, and so we have fixed times of day and night to pray our services, usually with a minyan of ten who are obligated by covenant. And yes, that is true. So, what have we in this well-organized prayer book? A morning seder. An afternoon seder. And a night seder.
What is a seder? We know that word as a ritual symbolic dinner on Pesach—the Seder. Seder is the same root as Siddur. It is a Hebrew term meaning organized, in order, arrangement. A sadhana is a type of prayer book seder and has similar schematics and objectives. Except the word is a Sanskrit word and is used by Hindus and Buddhists referring to their own liturgical meditative practice. It is especially a Tantric or Vajrayana practice that incorporates visualizations with the aid of an icon, veneration for one’s teacher lineage, a liturgical invocation and description that evokes the visualizations, often accompanied by various postures and movements, for example, full body prostrations, not to mention mudra and yoga. Also there are mantras and malas—strings of beads for keeping count of ritual repetitions. Catholics also have a liturgical seder or sadhana, which they call a mass, and they too use a rosary to count prayers in a cycle.
These are all practices. A seder is the keva or fixed format of a practice. It is a tool like a ladder, so that you can climb up somewhere. Or journey inward with increasing concentration. We use the same seder or sadhana over and over—why? Yes, doing so can become boring. It’s not meant to entertain us, captivate our attention to it, because that will distract us. When you drive a good car, you don’t want to be ogling all those strange looking aps and icons on your radio dial. You keep your attention on the destination, the objective before you; the car or the liturgical formula just helps you move in the right direction.
About twenty years ago I was a Vajrayana Buddhist tantrika. I practiced daily with a sadhana, and was part of a well structured and established branch of Tibetan Buddhism headed by a highly esteemed Tibetan master. I was also an iconographer, a painter and scribe of thangkas and illuminated Tibetan liturgical texts. I had graduated from the Naropa Institute with a master’s degree in Buddhist Studies.
I was finishing the final chapter of the first draft of my second novel just two weeks after my fiftieth birthday, when I was interrupted. It started with a police detective show on TV where a Jewish lady had been murdered and the men were chanting kaddish at the shiva. I heard the Kaddish for the very first time that night and became very emotional. The chapter I was working on was about the death of my longago Jewish husband, but I knew nothing about Jewish practices. Since my conversion nearly thirty years previous, I had been an agnostic secular Jew, turned off by my husband’s warning that the men didn’t want women at their prayer services. So I knew nothing. But I needed to know what this kaddish was, so I got books and more books from the library.
That’s how I found this book [holding it up], Rodger Kamenetz’ The Jew In The Lotus. [brief summary] It was through this book in particular that I got my call. It introduced me to Reb Zalman, who, it turned out, lived just across town and was now teaching at my college, Naropa. Another book revealed Shabbat to me, triggering my complete t’shuvah. And a PBS program on TV astonished me even further—women were now becoming rabbis.
These three things added up to one thing for me. Kamenetz had made a strong point about young, Jewishly educated Jews, uninspired by their American Jewish upbringing, especially the traditional images and theistic language, had been turning in droves to Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, for their spiritual development. He urged his readers, “the issue today is different. The job for Judaism is to make sure that the very powerful esoteric language of Judaism does become more widely available—so that when the next strong wave of spirituality occurs among Jews, it takes place within Judaism. This, in essence, is what the Dalai Lama told us when he advised us to open the doors of our esoteric teachings.” [Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew In The Lotus, p. 241]. I realized that I was to engage in the reversal of that trend, become a Buddhist who turns to Judaism in quest of that hidden, nearly lost esoteric tradition, learn Jewish meditation and Kabbalah, and practice the practices of divine unification and synthesis. The dissolving of Yesh (ego) into the Ain Sof. I also knew I was to become a rabbi. But the first step was to start going to shul. Also, learn Hebrew—from scratch.
One of the core principles in meditative training, also called “taming the mind” is cultivating mindfulness. Jewish practice has the essence of mindfulness built into it. Time—of day for prayer, of calendar, navigating in and out of Shabbat, Festivals, and Fasts. Kashrut—in the kitchen, in the grocery bag, wherever you eat, whatever you handle. Mindfulness, not asleep at the wheel. God—major mindfulness of the Presence everywhere around us in whatever we do, whatever we touch, to raise up a blessing and maintain an attitude of gratitude instead of grumble, and see the world, even during the morning commute, with a good eye. Remembering to give thanks after you eat, and bless the Holy One for your food before it goes in your mouth. Being here now with what your body reaches to do—yoga at your fingertips, mind-body synchrony. Halachah?—Ram Das said to himself: “If I were an Orthodox Jew who loved God, how would I understand my religion? Then the halakhic laws fell into place, not as an authoritarian patriarchal or paternalistic law giving, but rather these incredible guides [practices], for how to remember God from moment to moment.” [Ibid, p.267-8]
Cosmic Emptiness, which to Buddhists is True Reality, for many of us evokes loss, absence, abandonment. The shock of our Temple in ruins, and what has become of that Holy Presence which resided there? That very shattering of the tangible reveals what the tangible had kept hidden and forgotten for so long. We need to make an Ascent. Move out of the tangible, and climb up out of our-selves, lekh l’kha, draw close to God’s holy level, and come into the Emptiness or Nothingness that finally reveals its Fullness, Absolute Presence with no separation into I and Thou. Spinoza called it Blessedness. Our parashah today teaches us it is God Who is the totality of our being, all that is, Ain Od, there is nothing else. Our temporary, separate ego is the Yesh, there it is, having. Absolute Reality—God’s nature in its unmanifest quality, Ayin, the Nothingness (or no-thing-ness), which is beyond comprehension or description of any sort, is called Ain Sof, without end. The Buddhist Tantrika enters that Emptiness of no separation and calls that Immaculate Space the Dharmadhatu. That Space is pregnant with an emerging Dharmakaya, a supernal seed that becomes a teaching, on another level an utterance, and in our world manifests through the vehicle of a holy teacher who channels the utterance. Thus we have the heavenly Torah and the Torah of this world.
We enter the practice, using the holy mandala or blueprint laid out in our siddur for a guide, and we proceed via a prayer cycle to follow the stepping stones that show us the way up. That is our purpose. We are ascending Jacob’s ladder. Using our esoteric super-senses—which we all have, perhaps like little muscles never before used—we learn to navigate four cosmic worlds or levels by means of the ten palaces within each level. The higher you get, the more rarified these palaces, the more transparent our stepping stones become, until we arrive at the very throne room itself, a Holy of Holies you can’t see or touch. Because you aren’t you anymore. Only a memory in the deep heart of that Vastness we call God.
Afterwards, the descent is made, like in a glass elevator in the side of a building carrying us swiftly down as we gaze out through the transparencies over a panorama of many rooftops until we descend to the rock-bottom streets once more. Moses coming down from Sinai carrying something—a Word from God—into the world.
Today I will give you the names of these four worlds or levels and next Shabbat we’ll go through our somewhat modified and abridged Conservative siddur together to locate the sign posts of this Ascent and Descent.
The first world is the World of Assiyah: the world of workmanship and building structures with physical matter; also called the World of Firmaments. We living beings, nefesh souls, dwell on earth, encircled by the lowest of Assiyah’s seven firmaments of the heavens.
The second world is the World of Yezirah: the world of formation, a place of spirit beings and angels. We are in a dimension of creative energies and spiritual emotions, ruach. It is called the World of Souls, who are at rest, some in Gan Eden, some preparing for rebirth into the material world of the firmaments.
The third world is the World of B’riah: the world of creation through thought and intellect and the spoken word, the utterance which creates the world; also the very breath of Life itself. It is the place of the higher soul, neshama, and is called the World of Thrones and is the place of the Throne of Glory.
The fourth world is the World of Atzilut: the World of Emanation. This is the Holy of Holies of God’s creation, the Divine Source, the place where the unmanifest gives rise to the seeds of manifestation, something from nothing. From here emanate God’s 13 attributes of mercy as well as the 10 qualities of God or the 10 s’phirot (depicted in this model as palaces or sanctuaries).
When we meet next week, we will navigate this blueprint in its particulars and spot the sign-posts kabbalists have marked for us along the way. And we will learn what unites daily personal meditative practice with solitary walks in the woods and jogging through a crowd across a busy intersection.