Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today's Jewish Mystical Mastersby Rodger Kamenetz
Rodger Kamenetz continues the dazzling spiritual adventures he began in The Jew in the Lotus, his bestselling account of the historical dialogue between rabbis and the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. In Stalking Elijah, Kamenetz takes his wild mind on the road, seeking the counsel of spiritual teachers across the country as he searches for his own Jewish/b>/b>
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Rodger Kamenetz continues the dazzling spiritual adventures he began in The Jew in the Lotus, his bestselling account of the historical dialogue between rabbis and the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. In Stalking Elijah, Kamenetz takes his wild mind on the road, seeking the counsel of spiritual teachers across the country as he searches for his own Jewish truth. Entertaining, illuminating, and deeply moving, Stalking Elijah takes us all on a remarkable journey through the new landscape of Jewish practice.
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Dharamsala, a small town in northern India, shelters a community of several thousand Tibetan refugees. It's where my life changed dramatically in 1990 when I witnessed a dialogue between religious Jews and the Dalai Lama.
Going back to a place where your life changed is risky. Especially if it changed for the better. Suppose the magic isn't there? Suppose it was invented in the first place? I knew one thing: I wanted to make up for the last time I met His Holiness.
At the end of the 1990 dialogue, the Jewish delegates lined up to give him gifts. I hadn't brought one, so I hastily pulled out a paperback copy of Terra Infirma from my knapsack. A photograph shows me grinning and handing him the book: it happens to be one of the stupidest moments of my life. I amsaying to this wonderfully humble Buddhist master, I read your autobiography. Here's mine."
I hoped to do better this time.
It was two weeks before Passover 1996. I'd been traveling a long way to this moment. In the last six years I had learned something of Buddhist meditation, and explored the richness of Jewish meditation and Jewish renewal. My brief encounter with the Dalai Lama had opened a door to a new inner life. I wanted to thank him.
Now I waited eagerly in his comfortable meeting room. He smiled as he entered from the back, bowed slightly as I bowed to him, and sat in a yellow armchair. My friend Dr. Marc Lieberman introduced me, explaining that I had written about the Jewish Buddhist dialogue in The Jew in the Lotus. Then it was up to me.
"Your Holiness," I said, "people ask me, why did I have to go all the way to Dharamsala to look more deeply into my Jewish tradition? Why did I have to meet with aBuddhist master to se Judaism more deeply? I heard a story from Nachman of Bratzlav, a great hasidic rabbi from the last century. May I tell it to you?"
He nodded slightly and I began, A poor rabbi, Reb Yechiel, wants to build a new synagogue for his town. Every night he dreams of a certain bridge in Vienna. Hidden gold lies under it. Finally-the dream is driving him crazy-he makes the difficult journey to Vienna. He finds the bridge and searches around it. A guard asks what he's doing. Reb Yechiel explains his dream and the guard laughs.
"'Oh, you Jews are such dreamers. I'll tell you what dreams are worth. Every night I dream of a Jew-Reb Yechiel. And hidden behind his stove there's gold
As I gave him the story, the Dalai Lama's face captivated me. Every emotion, every nuance registers there. He samples the feeling in your words and gives it back to you: this is sadness, this is joy. He listens with his whole being. I came to the punch line. "So Reb Yechiel returned home, looked behind his stove, and under the floorboards he found gold." The Dalai Lama's rich deep laughter filled the room. Behind him I noticed the golden statue of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion.
"Rebbe Nachman told this tale," I said, "to explain why a person might journey far away to find a teacher, who will show the student what is already close at hand. For me, ' I said, looking into his eyes, "and for many Jews, you have become such a teacher. By making us look more deeply into Judaism, you have become our rabbi."
Cupping his hand, the Dalai Lama reached for the dome of his shaven head, laughing, and said, "So you will give me a small hat?"
I promised him a yarmulke. Then I closed my mouth. I had learned something from transcribing the 1990 dialogue: always leave him time to respond. In the silence, he's thinking. If you fill it with your own chatter, you may never get the benefit of that thought. So I contravened forty-six years of my own noisy cultural conditioning and let the silence alone.
Soon he replied that "all major religions can help each other. Each tradition has some specialty or uniqueness which can be very useful for other traditions." He added that sometimes the communication is not necessarily through words, but also through close feelings. "So," he concluded modestly, looking at his fingernails, "if you find some little contribution from my part to our Jewish brothers and sisters, I am very happy-" He laughed and said thank you softly twice.
But though the Dalai Lama seemed bemused at being called a rabbi, I knew he had taught Jews through our 1990 dialogue, especially with his questions about the Jewish inner life. From the Tibetan perspective, religions exist to benefit humanity. The Tibetan path includes particular practices-mantras, prostrations, meditations, and visualizations-meant to purify the mind of negative emotions such as hatred, anger, lust. What practices, he had wanted to know, does the Jewish tradition teach to purify afflictive states of mind?
The phrase "afflictive states of mind" was new to me in 1990. I understand it now as the anguish that keeps us awake at night, the gnawing within that makes life difficult, the fresh pain, or the old pain, each carries in the heart. Until I heard his question, it had never occurred to me to look within Judaism for an answer.
For many reasons-the prospects of peace in the Middle East, the changing of generations-Jews today are turning from issues of identity and politics and are looking more deeply inward. Through accounts of the 1990 dialogue, including my own, the Dalai Lama's curiosity about the Jewish inner life stimulated thought and debate. I told him Jews were very grateful for his questions.
The Dalai Lama generously replied that he felt all traditions, including his own, sometimes focus too much on external rituals or ceremonies. "Then theyneglect the real end of spirituality transformation within ourselves." He added with a playful smile, "If you make a short visit to a monastery, everything is beautiful. But if you listen to the story of what is happening-just as with normal human beings, there's fighting." He laughed, adding, "That is a clear indication we are neglecting genuine transformation, or spiritual development, inside."
Stalking Elijah. Copyright © by Rodger Kamenetz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Meet the Author
Roger Kamenetz wrote the landmark international bestseller, The Jew in the Lotus, and the winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Stalking Eljah. He is a Louisiana State University Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies and a certified dream therapist. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, fiction writer Moira Crone.
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