Preface to Zen and Hasidism

by Jacob Yuroh Teshima, Doctor of Hebrew Literature

an extract from "Zen Buddhism and Hasidism, a comparative study"

(University Press of America, 1995)

Zen Buddhism began in China in the sixth century A.D., spreading in China and to Tibet, Korea and Japan. Its teachings have so penetrated the philosophy of Far Eastern peoples that today we cannot speak of Far Eastern cultures without referring to the influence of Zen. Hasidism was founded by Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, in Poland in the middle of the eighteenth century. It spread mainly in Eastern Europe. Although it is still relatively young, its direct and indirect influence has reached beyond Judaism. Each of these two religions developed in completely different worldsgeographically, racially, linguistically, socially and philosophically.

Martin Buber was the first person to point out the similarity between Zen and Hasidism. He said that the two share common elements. For instance, in Zen and Hasidism truth in the world of man is not to be found as the content of knowledge, but only as human existence.1 Furthermore, Buber claimed that both in Zen and Hasidism the relation between teacher and disciple is central.2

However, in comparing Zen koans and Hasidic tales, Buber failed to grasp the precise meaning of the koans which he quoted. For instance, he compared two stories about thieves.3 The Hasidic story tells of a thief tenaciously pursuing his job until he finally succeeds in stealing things. The story teaches the significance of perseverance in worship and the study of the Torah. The Zen story tells of a thief successfully escaping from a treasury after he was trapped inside. Buber learned from this story that one must risk one's own life in order to attain a certain goal. However, the true lesson of this Zen parable is that it is possible to find a way out of a fatal situation and attain safety. That is to say, truth can be attained at the utmost end of logical speculation. The apparent similarity between Hasidic and Zen tales does not end at the similarity of hidden meaning. I doubt whether it is possible to compare Zen koans with Hasidic tales. As Buber insisted, legends and tales preserve reflections of truth.4 But each legend represents only its own case; therefore, it is not legitimate to compare different stories because of their external similarity. Perhaps only a religious master who has insight can tie them together and put them into one mosaic picture.

In comparing different religions, we must first observe them from a general perspective. It is impossible to judge one religion by the standards and doctrines of another, because every religion has its own absolute values to which its believers commit themselves. Every religion has its own system and functions by which it responds to the needs of its members. It is quite natural for religions to have different languages, different doctrines and different concepts. Therefore it is not right to compare different religions through fixed categories. But since every religion ultimately seeks to provide answers to basic human problems, it seems possible, at least, to compare the functional equivalents of two different religions.

In this study, I examine the kinds of answers which Zen Buddhism and Hasidism give the individual regarding the various problems in human life. In order to investigate their positions and approaches to the problems which man faces in practice of religion, I raise five questions:

1. What are the basic practices in Hasidism and Zen Buddhism and how should they be performed?

2. What are the major obstacles in the way of these practices?

3. How can man attain the goal of these practices?

4. What is man who is the subject of these practices?

5. And how does man overcome the problem of insecurity?

After an introductory chapter, the five chapters which follow deal successively with these questions.

In chapter two I survey of the basic practices: zazen in Zen Buddhism and devequth in Hasidism. Although in essence both zazen and devequth are contemplation, zazen is the practice of no-thinking and looking into one's own nature whereas devequth is meditation on God. In this chapter I also explain that Zen Buddhism emphasizes the immediate and empirical understanding of truth because truth in terms of Zen Buddhism is not a concept but an absolute reality.

In chapter three I deal with the major obstacle in the practice of contemplation: distracting thoughts. In order to avoid delusion, Zen Buddhism demands of its practitioners complete cessation of thinking. There is no other way to cut off the succession of thoughts. The Hasidic solution for bad thoughts, called the elevation of strange thoughts, was developed by the Baal Shem Tov from the Kabbalistic idea of the uplifting of the holy sparks from the evil kelippoth.5 We must not forget, however, that both Hasidism and Zen Buddhism consider the elevation of the cessation of thoughts as temporary solutions and that in order to fulfill one's ethical assignments adherents must completely eliminate all passions (Zen) or completely subjugate the Evil Impulse (Hasidism).

In chapter four I discuss the goal of the practice, the annihilation of selfhood. Zen advocates wu-nien (no-thought), wu-hsin (no-mind), and wu-wo (no-self). These are not actually annulments but detachments. The goal is to diffuse attention to every part of the body twenty-four hours a day. It is the maintenance of the unconscious everyday-mindedness. In contrast with Zen's wu-nien, Hasidism's bittul ha-yesh is the annihilation of the mind which a person achieves mainly during prayer. In early Hasidism glossolalia was also observed. Dov Baer of Lubavich assumed the level of total selflessness and unconscious ecstasy called Yehidah, the highest level of ecstasy. This is perhaps very close to Zen's version of the annihilation of selfhood attained by everyday-mindedness. The essential difference between the Hasidic and the Zen versions of the annihilation of selfhood is that in Hasidism the individual accomplishes bittul ha-yesh through encounter with God, while in Zen Buddhism the individual maintains wu-nien through realization of his own universal nature.

In chapter five I examine the concept of man. Hasidism saw the essence of man in his neshamah. The individual person (or society) without neshamah was regarded a mere complex of animality called dam (blood). Adopting the doctrine that the neshamah is a part of the Divinity, Hasidism not only stressed man's dependency on God but also reached the radical conclusion that except for God no one has the solid substance which is called the self. Buddhism, however, denies the existence of ego from the outset. But Zen Buddhism considered self-nature to be a matter of subjectivity of the individual. As a result of this, an apparent gap between man and Buddha-nature was removed, and the concept of man came to represent Buddhahood. Zen Buddhism teaches the individual to demonstrate his being through deeds. Man in Zen Buddhism fulfills himself in action, while in Hasidism man fulfills himself through humility before God.

In chapter six I focus on the insecurity of life. Galuth (Exile) was previously accepted by Jews as the inescapable misfortune for all Jews and even for the Shekhinah (that is, the Divine Presence). But Hasidism learned to overcome its bitterness by finding significance in their being in Exile: only Jews can lift up the holy sparks and console the Shekhinah who is tired in exile. Hasidim participated in the hastening of Messianism by attaining their own redemption through the efficacy of the Zaddikim and finally through devequth to God. In Zen Buddhism fluidity of birth and death is no longer a problem to the practitioners when all thinking is wiped from the mind. Once the individual realizes his supreme mission in Buddhism, he learns to sublimate everything for the sake of Buddhism.

In this study I attempt to describe two different images of men in their efforts to attain their ultimate goals. What to believe or which religion is superior is not my subject. My concern is how sincerely men strive with problems and how assiduously they devote themselves to faith, because religion is a matter of this world rather than of the hereafter. How to accomplish our tasks in this world must be our major preoccupation. How to attain the pleasure of the world to come is perhaps our hope.

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[Return to the front page.] [Go to the previous essay.]


1: Introduction

2: Zazen and Devequth

3: Problem of "Strange Thoughts"

4: Annihilating Selfhood and Attaining Ecstasy

5: Concept of Man

6: Insecurity of Life

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