Finding Zen at the Heart of Tel Aviv

East Asian scholar Jacob Raz has brought the teachings of Zen Buddhism to countless Israeli students and readers. Just don't call him a guru.

Maya Sela
Maya Sela
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Maya Sela
Maya Sela

We meet at a coffee shop in Tel Aviv. Not the most Buddhist or spiritual of places to meet Jacob Raz, but I already know that this cafe, too, is a Zen monastery. In his new book, entitled “Kakh Shamati” ‏(“So I’ve Heard,” Modan Press; in Hebrew‏), Raz details the daily schedule of the monastery. There is teeth brushing and also meditation and also sitting opposite Moshe the clerk at the National Insurance Institute office.

“The Buddhist monastery is a historical event that had value and still has value,” Raz says, “but the Zen teachers greatly encouraged their students to work on a daily basis. Most Zen monasteries do not subsist from the state: The monks work. One of the greatest Zen teachers of our time was the chief accountant of a cosmetics company. Until noon he wore a suit and tie and worked, and from noon he wore the robe and was a Zen monk.”

It is unclear how Jacob Raz, a professor emeritus in Tel Aviv University’s East Asian studies department, came to Buddhism. He was born in 1944 in South Tel Aviv, to parents who had come to Palestine from Thessaloniki, before World War II. His mother was a preschool teacher and his father a decorator. “That is a profession that no longer exists. He was a decorator who also hangs curtains, a craftsman.”

Buddhism was not on the menu. “Not only that,” Raz continues, “but my parents were communists. At home we read Kol Ha’am [The People’s Voice]. From this you understand that between Rebetiko music, stuffed vegetables, Sephardic romances, Ladino and communism, Buddhism wasn’t the direction.”

He studied philosophy and theater at university. And there were also Prof. Ben-Ami Scharfstein’s classes in Eastern philosophy, which opened this field up to him, and there was a professor who came from Australia and taught Chinese philosophy. “We were three students in his classes. Now our East Asian studies department may be the largest in the world, with 650 students.”

Still, Raz says now, he didn’t take it seriously. He opened up to the subject, he learned Chinese, but if asked back then, he still would have said that he was studying both Chinese philosophy and Spinoza, nothing special. “I can’t say where the point of no return occurred, but it did, because when I got to the master’s degree I was already hooked. I saw the contact Ezra Pound, Yeats and T.S. Eliot had with the East, both from a literary standpoint and from the philosophical-religious standpoint. I did my master’s on Yeats and the Japanese Noh theater.”

It was at that same time, in 1972, that Raz met the Japanese Zen teacher Kyodo Roshi, who was staying in Israel with Heinke Piattelli, with whom Raz studied Japanese. “We met at her apartment on Sheinkin-Rothschild. Much later, I learned that I recognized her name because she had been linked to a famous murder case that took place when I was a child. Her husband was Fidia Piattelli, who was murdered at the Tzafon movie theater by a guy named Tommy Blitz. Blitz robbed the box office and murdered him on the way out. Much later [Heinke] went to the prison after he wrote her a letter expressing remorse, and she began to work with him. She taught him music and requested that he be granted parole. In the end, he was indeed paroled, and on his release, Blitz became a music teacher.

“This woman taught Buddhism, and her compassion was inconceivable. She did not talk much about it [her husband’s killing], but one time she did, and she said several Buddhist things. She contributed to my Buddhist side, and so did Kyodo Roshi.”

Yakuza and spirituality

Raz lived in Japan for 10 years. He completed a doctorate in the aesthetics of Japanese theater and lived in a monastery for certain stretches of time. Later on he also became interested in the Yakuza, the Japanese crime syndicate ‏(2004 saw the publication in Hebrew of his book “My Brethren, the Yakuza: A Personal Journey into the Japanese Mafia”‏).

When I wonder aloud how the Japanese crime organization fits into the spiritual quest, Raz says the “syntax” does not work like that: “Neither does the syntax of my life work that way, that you have to decide on a profession or on a discipline. I was a theater director and I stopped, I dealt with music and I played piano and afterward I switched to writing, and during all those years, I worked in education. When you see a culture not from the vantage point of a particular discipline but rather as a whole, the dark side is something that completes the picture, and it fascinated me.

“My encounter with Japan was also with its dark side. There is their fabulous aesthetic. If you spend a chunk of time in a foreign city, at first you go to museums and monuments, but then you go to sleazier places. You can’t live in Japan without running into this shadow of the Yakuza. I think that I have always had − even before Yoni − an attraction to things that are on the margins. Then it reached my home, someone who is other.”

Yoni is Raz’s son, born in 1978. The new book has several passages relating to Yoni. This one, for example: “When my son was born I was informed of his death / They recounted to me his death and his life / The informers stood in a row / Like those girl and boy soldiers standing on the doorstep / And facing them, a father and mother who know.”

A doctor and a social worker announce the birth of a “different” child. How is this child different? Raz defines it thus, in his book: “Chromosome such and such of his is triple / Not in the way of nature / He is a something syndrome.” He also describes how one doctor suggested he not become attached to this baby born with Down syndrome. Elsewhere in the text Raz muses: “Where is there room here for Buddha / Or God / A referral form was required / From the HMO.”

“The book’s first section describes my imaginary conversation with Buddha and my practice and the question of what you do with this thing. To be with this character whom they are telling me is an awful and damaged character, or to be in a place of tenderness and meet the fellow himself. I have no doubt that his birth and life with him have strengthened Buddhism for me − and also vice versa: that Buddhism has strengthened in a substantial manner, which I can’t put my finger on, the work with him, the acceptance.”

Raz speaks of the texts he gathered in the book as notes on conversations and thoughts, Zen columns. Sometimes they are poetry. I ask him how one should talk about poetry.

“I suppose under certain circumstances we could, you and I, talk poetry,” he says. “Maybe it will even happen. Prosaic talk and poetic talk are different manners of speech. The inherent syntax, in which there is a subject and predicate and object, is completely not a reflection of reality. I think that when people began making communicative sounds, they did not communicate using syntax. I know [Noam] Chomsky’s theory that there is a structure of some kind in our mind, and I suppose there is such a thing. But the syntax destroys things, it forces you to take one step at a time, according to a structure, when the human experience isn’t like that.”

An example of another kind of speech is haiku poetry, he adds, which is almost fully disconnected from syntax to the point of being photographic. Poetry, he adds,
contains something that is closer to the core of feeling: “I can’t prove it, but in my opinion, poetry preceded prose in human communication, and stammering preceded explicitness and clarity. Stammering is not a void but rather a place that is before the form takes shape. Before things order themselves in linear lines. I don’t know how to arrange the world. When it needs arranging, I am aware it is an arrangement that is contingent upon a period, profession or tradition, and that it is very loose.”

When I say that there are people who talk about him as a kind of guru, Raz’s automatic response is abhorrence; he physically recoils and remains silent. But you know this already, I persist.

Raz: “I know if I am told. It is not something that gives me great pleasure; it is very isolating. When someone comes and speaks to me in such a manner, face to face, I cannot describe to you the sensation of loneliness I have at that moment. After all, he isn’t speaking to me but rather to the image. I am allergic to that.”

Raz writes in his book about his teachers, one of whom was an exemplar of behavioral spluttering: “When they wanted they could be very articulate, but in the course of teaching or when they pointed something out, there was something that returned to stammering, to a pointing that is not corrective. I do not live as a teacher and do not remind myself of it. I am also conscious of the abuse there can be, not intentionally of course, but rather the abuse that stems from such a thing. Where is the freedom of the person who says such a thing, ‘I am a teacher’?”

Among the books Raz has published to date are “A Man Searches for a Bull,” a Hebrew version of the Zen Buddhist classic “10 Ox-Herding Pictures,” which he translated into Hebrew and edited with Dan Daor; Basho’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” in translation, with essays; and “Zen Buddhism: Philosophy and Aesthetics” ‏(in Hebrew‏). Raz leads meditation groups, and in 2000 co-founded with psychologist Nachi Alon the Psycho Dharma center for the training of Buddhist therapists.

‘Practice,’ not ‘therapy’

I ask Raz to demonstrate what Buddhist therapy is, compared to conventional psychotherapy, and wonder what we will talk about if not about what our mother did to us during childhood. He says he does not like the word “therapy” and prefers “practice,” or “training session” or “consultation.”

“That a person is in distress is something I can’t argue with, but if you call this therapy, then that is already part of the problem,” he says. “The example you gave with the mother is precisely the sort of thing from which I refrain. Some of the methods that were popular until recently involve checking one’s childhood or distant past to see what went on with the mother. Buddhism rejects the exclusivity of this approach, according to which you have to check the source of your distress, as though if I resolve matters with my father or mother, then everything will be solved. Buddhism opens it all up. We live in ‘mutual evolving.’”

What is “mutual evolving”?

“Biography-based therapy ignores countless negotiations and dialogues that I have with endless figures. My mother is one of them, I don’t deny it. She evidently also occupied a decisive place at a certain time, but I open up the exclusivity of this syntax. We are in endless syntax. Here we are, drinking coffee they produced in Brazil, receiving light from the sun, hearing the sounds all around, affected by the economy, the politics, the food we eat and the proximity of people. Our syntax is a simultaneous syntax, not a linear-biographical one that reduces our lives to a particular biographical line that in any event is entirely a simulation in our heads. Narrative is not something that was, but rather something that we recount that it was. Our past changes over time, so there is no knowing what was.”

In Buddhism, this is called “the second arrow”: The very desire to solve a problem also compounds it to some degree.

“Not only are you hurt by something, you want to resolve the pain,” Raz explains. “I do not accept the sheer craving to solve the problem. I do not accept designation of the pain as a problem. It immediately puts us into a tailspin of failure and success. We have no tolerance for pain. There are samplings of happiness with all sorts of false simulations. Millions of books that come out on the subject with simulations of a place where there are no flies and no heat waves. There is no such thing. Pain is a type of marker for a place that seeks care and attention,” he adds.

“The Buddha’s first truth is that there is pain, and the third truth is that happiness does not come to people who hold on to wishes, but rather only to those who let the wishes go. A desire to be rid of anxiety is in itself the source of the anxiety. I see the endless mutual evolving taking place at each and every moment, and it brings me to a place of wonderment − not of complaints or desires.

“Reality is not arranged according to my desires and fears. It didn’t promise me that; there is no such contract. Some of our troubles arise because we really did take a blow or contract an illness, but the lion’s share of our troubles do not come from things like that, rather from the lack of compatibility between what we would like there to be and what there is.”

Raz suggests we take a broader and more ecological view and gives as an example the Fukushima disaster in Japan. “There were actually two disasters. There was the disaster of the earthquake and tsunami, and the disaster of the reactor. When you examine the reasons for the reactor disaster, you discover that its cooling plant was hit by a tsunami wave because people had not predicted it would reach such a height. They very easily entered into the illusion that we know what the reason was, that it’s from nature − it isn’t us. Next time we’ll make the reactor two meters taller and everything will be fine. But when I look more broadly, then, it is greed that led to their building 30 nuclear plants. The greed of the Japanese for energy knows no bounds; I say this as one who lived there ... The energy guzzling that went on in Tokyo at the high point of the economy was disproportionate to needs, and I am not talking about the needs of monasteries. That is the reason for the disaster.

“They say that nuclear energy is clean energy − how? When there’s a malfunction, it is as dirty as it gets. The ceaseless search for clean energies perpetuates the problem; it does not resolve it ... Obviously if you must choose between dirty and clean, then better the clean, but there is an ever-growing guzzling going on, disproportionately greediness. Instead of reducing consumption, now I will endlessly pursue clean energies, some of which cause disasters. The second precept in Buddhism is do not take what is not given to you.”

Raz explains that our erroneous interpretation of the Fukushima disaster is similar to the narrow manner in which we view events in our lives. “The Buddhist invitation is an invitation to look, not necessarily at what you define as a problem, in a place that a particular school of psychology knows how to locate. Besides, existence sometimes requests that it not be talk therapy at all. In Zen, in general, they tell you: Do something.”

You always read about Zen teachers sending their students to dig a hole.

“That’s right, dig a hole in the yard, do something in the community. Wash dishes.”

But what do you do with the despair?

“There are moments of despair. When I am asked if it isn’t hard for me with Yoni, they mean hard with a capital H. There are hard moments, but I am sure there are hard moments with every child. The hardness is lowercase. At that moment, it can be too difficult to bear the way that climbing a mountain can be too difficult to bear at a certain moment. But the despair is the despair of that moment. There are moments of despair, anger, fear, but they are moments; they aren’t capitalized. They don’t receive mythological standing in my life. The sun will eventually set and in a couple of weeks the heat will pass.”

Jacob Raz. "I can't say where the point of no return occurred, but it did."Credit: David Bachar

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