Ahead of His Time? David Ben-Gurion’s Surprising Passion

Israel’s first prime minister visited Burma in 1961. What was he seeking to achieve in ‘studying the Buddhist retreat,’ and what did he learn?

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on a visit to Burma in 1961.
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on a visit to Burma in 1961.Credit: Paul Goldman/GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Sixty-one years ago, David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel, visited Burma (now Myanmar) for two and a half weeks. There were several reasons given for the visit – security, economic and diplomatic – but the most intriguing of all was highlighted in Haaretz in its front-page headline on December 6, 1961: “Ben-Gurion Will Study the Buddhist Retreat.”

What connection did the “Old Man” (as he was sometimes called) from Plonsk, Poland, have to Buddhism, decades before words like mindfulness entered the Israeli lexicon? What was the father of the nation, with his mane of white hair and khaki shorts, seeking in the bosom of monks, years before Israel’s youth flooded the Far East?

Anyone familiar with Ben-Gurion’s biography won’t raise an eyebrow at the mention of his attraction to Buddhism. “In many senses Ben-Gurion was among the first Israelis to adopt New Age principles,” wrote historian Avi Shilon in his book “Ben Gurion, Epilogue.” Ben-Gurion did Feldenkrais Method exercises, from which he advanced to yoga and then to meditation and readings of ancient Buddhist texts. In a letter he sent in 1957 to his daughter Renana, which is on display in an exhibition at the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute's visitors center, he describes his belief in a connection between the body and the soul: “The first thing that yoga teaches is the individual’s full control of his body and all his organs, both external and internal, as a means of controlling his spirit and thereby mingling with Brahma (cf. anima mundi.)”

Upon landing in Burma, his excitement was evident. “If his visit will bring him closer to understanding the Buddhist philosophy both in principle and in practice, then his passion of many years will be fulfilled,” Haaretz reported at the time.

Before Ben-Gurion entered what was called a “retreat,” a banquet was held in his honor. “May you see the light,” was the benediction uttered to him. He went on to isolate himself for eight days in an official guesthouse that was put at his disposal, “cut off from any contact with the outside world,” as was reported by the daily newspaper Maariv correspondent Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, who was subsequently a government minister (and father of Prime Minster Yair Lapid).

“Mr. Ben-Gurion’s retreat and total isolation will be stopped only in case an emergency need on Israel’s part,” wrote Lapid. He also updated the newspaper’s readers on Ben-Gurion’s spiritual program: “The first physical exercises are special breathing exercises, which entail total concentration on every inhalation and exhalation. The first spiritual exercise will be an attempt to concentrate all thoughts and all attention on the tip of his nose.”

The correspondent sent by the Labor movement daily Davar, Nahum Pundak, the father of Ron Pundak, who was one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, noted: “His personal physician will be nearby but he too will have no direct contact with Ben-Gurion, as one of the principles of the philosophical exercises is total isolation.” During the retreat, Ben-Gurion refrained from reading anything and fasted every day from noon until the next morning.

Ben-Gurion’s wife Paula did not even join him on this visit, contrary to her custom of accompanying her husband on his official trips abroad. “You will learn your Buddhism, but what will I do there in Burma, when you’ll be sitting in the monastery pondering?” she said, according to the book “Paula” by Mira Avrech.

Ben-Gurion called the Buddha “one of the greatest personages in human history,” said “the moral imperatives” of Buddhism “are no different from the Ten Commandments” and described the main principles of Buddhist philosophy to the members of his cabinet thusly: “The individual must liberate himself from darkness, love every living thing and do only good.”

Maariv was unsparingly critical of Ben-Gurion for the fact that he and his defense minister set aside all state affairs to travel to Burma “and concentrate on his inhaling and exhaling proboscis,” as the newspaper put it.

Later, Ben-Gurion wrote in his journal: “In my absence they spread nonsense in the newspapers about my interest in Buddhism.” For example, members of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party accused him of “idol worship” due to the publication of a photograph of him wearing a white robe on his way to the monastery, among other things. “The people at home apparently do not know what Buddhism is. They think it is a religion like Christianity, but Buddhism is a moral worldview and a philosophy of life. From this perspective, there is no difference between studying Buddhism or reading Descartes or Spinoza,” Ben-Gurion replied to his critics.

Ben-Gurion and Burmese Prime Minister U Nu in Sde Boker, 1955.Credit: Paul Goldman/GPO

In his biography, “A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion,” historian Tom Segev explained that the prime minister was “seeking serenity in Buddhism.” Serenity from what? Ostensibly, at that time he had many reasons to be pleased: Not too long prior, Adolf Eichmann was captured, Israel had acknowledged the construction of an atomic reactor in its territory and had entered the space age with the launch of the Shavit 2 rocket. However, in the election held in August of 1961, Mapai, the party Ben-Gurion headed, lost five Knesset seats. As Segev described it, the prime minister was feeling persecuted by his colleagues in the Knesset and it seemed that he was “losing control of himself.”

A European meets a Buddhist

Before starting his retreat in Burma, Ben Gurion said, “No man who doesn’t want to look stupid can predict anything about this practice. I have read a lot about Buddhism and I want to try to practice philosophical exercises, but as to their results I will be able to express an opinion only afterward.”

What exactly was Ben-Gurion doing during those days when he cut himself off from the world? Anyone who imagines the Old Man sitting cross-legged and muttering mantras while organizing his breathing will be disappointed. “It became clear to me that instead of doing exercises, he sat with Buddhist monks and discussed various issues in Buddhist philosophy with them,” Ben-Gurion’s bureau chief at the time, Yitzhak Navon, who later became president of Israel, wrote in his diary. It was published in 2017 in Hebrew as “Meditation Diary: From the Experiences of the Fifth President in a Buddhist Monastery in Burma.”

Similar in spirit was a statement released by Ben-Gurion’s bureau. “The report that was published in a number of newspapers about Ben-Gurion’s retreat in a Buddhist monastery is a fabrication. Ben-Gurion did not go into isolation in any monastery, but rather spent all the days in the home of the prime minister of Burma. During the course of the week he met in that residence with three Buddhist scholars, and discussed with them the oral teachings and philosophy of Buddhism.”

For a moment, it even appeared that Ben-Gurion had reached enlightenment. He became convinced that he had found an internal contradiction in the Buddha: On the one hand, Buddhism believes in reincarnation, and in the other it denies the existence of the “I.” How is it possible, Ben-Gurion wondered, that the “I” – which does not even exist, because the individual changes all the time and is not constant – can be reborn? Ben-Gurion also “argued” about this, according to Navon, with his host U Nu, the prime minister of Burma. “To the best of my knowledge, they did not reach agreement, but that did into interfere with their friendship,” wrote Navon.

Ben-Gurion on his 1961 visit. His excitement upon landing in Burma was evident.Credit: Ben-Gurion House

That was not the first time the two had discussed maters of Indian philosophy. In 1955, when U Nu visited Israel (and became the first head of state to do so), they met at Sde Boker. “Ben-Gurion mercilessly exploited his superiority. U nu was in distress. This was a clash between a European, for whom Buddhism was a tool for debate and spiritual and intellectual inspiration, and a believing and unsophisticated Buddhist, for whom the study of Buddhism was a way of life,” then-Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett described the encounter.

Upon his return from Burma in 1961, Ben-Gurion described the basic tenets of Buddhism to the members of his cabinet: “I learned a lot from them. The individual must liberate himself from darkness, love every living thing and do only good.” He called the Buddha “a moral genius” and “one of the greatest personages in human history.” In an article he published in The New York Times and Davar, Ben-Gurion detailed what he knew about Buddhism at tedious length, noting that “the Buddha denied the existence of gods or a God – and even of the human soul.” He explained that the Buddha’s teaching as “entirely on the rational and moral plane: what path should a man choose in life, for his own good and for the benefit of all living creatures?”

Ben-Gurion’s interest in Buddhism stemmed from his being an autodidact who expanded his horizons through reading and study. It was also a byproduct of his interest in India, where the Buddha was active in the 5th century B.C.E. Shilon provides a practical explanation for this in his article (in Hebrew) “Toward the Eastern Frontier: Ben-Gurion’s Approach to India and Buddhism,” to this effect: “Ben Gurion hoped that with the help of India he could establish diplomatic and economic ties that would free Israel from the isolation it was subject to because of the hostility between itself and its neighbors.”

A unique experience for Ben-Gurion during his visit to Burma was a meeting with the Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera, who had a very unusual personal story. Nyanaponika was born in Germany in 1901 to a religious Jewish family originally from Galicia. He was given the name Siegmund (Shlomo) Feniger. In his younger days, Feniger was a member of the Zionist Hapoel Hatzair movement – but he ultimately abandoned Zionism in favor of Buddhism. After Hitler’s rise to power, he fled to Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon at the time), where he joined a Buddhist monastery. Over the years, he became one of the most influential Western monks of the 20th century.

Dr. Asaf Federman, a therapist and the author of the book “Mindfulness: Spiritual Change Through Brain Training” (in Hebrew), discovered that Ben-Gurion and Nyanaponika first came in contact back in 1956, after Ben-Gurion asked the Sri Lankan government to provide him with books on Buddhism. The two began a correspondence that lasted seven years – some of which is preserved in the Ben-Gurion archive. Part of it was published in 1990 by Haim Be’er in the Davar Hashavua, Davar’s weekly news magazine. Federman published the full correspondence in 2009, after it was found in Sri Lanka.

The letters are about issues from the world of Buddhism that bothered Ben-Gurion, including the first of the Four Noble Truths as presented by the Buddha: Dukkha, or suffering. Ben-Gurion wrote that personally he had not experienced suffering in the world, but joy. His monk correspondent replied that a term like “suffering” has a much broader significance that just physical and spiritual suffering. As Esther Peled explains in her Hebrew-language book, “To Multiply Good in the World: Buddhism, Meditation, Psychotherapy,” the source of the suffering Buddha spoke about is in constant desire: “Man transmigrates time after time in the eternal circle of desire, contentment, ebbing of the contentment and rebirth of the thirst.”

Federman supplies interesting background to the relationship between the Israeli prime minister and the Jewish monk. Similar to the resemblance that Ben-Gurion saw between Israel and Burma, he also found parallels between Israel and Sri Lanka. They both were freed from British rule in 1948, and they both “acted to renew an ancient spiritual tradition as a way to nation forming,” Federman wrote.

A passing episode or a way of life?

Another link concerns Ben-Gurion’s reservations about halakha, or Jewish religious law, and the rabbis, and from his turning to draw inspiration and guidance directly from the Bible, in order to revive the study of the text. “In Buddhism too, during the same period, there was a sort of ‘resuscitating the sources’ – renewed interest in the ancient Buddhist texts, and also the revival of the practice of meditation of the ‘sources’ that the Buddha taught,” wrote Federman. Nyanaponika filled an important role in this: “Here are two countries that are based on the story of rebirth of ancient tradition, and outline a modern and relatively secular future – not traditional or conservative – but which draws its authority and inspiration from ancient spiritualism,” wrote Federman.

Ben-Gurion and the “Jewish monk” naturally also discussed the Jewish world. Nyanaponika recommended that Ben-Gurion should act to translate Buddhist texts into Hebrew, and explained that “among our Jewish people, which experienced, and is still experiencing, so much suffering, but preserves its internal strength and creativity, there will certainly be those who will find interest in studying the release from suffering. There will be others who have lost their faith – for them Buddhism could offer an alternative.”

“Ben-Gurion differentiated in the comparison between Judaism and Buddhism in their teachings and philosophy,” Haaretz wrote in 1961. Shilon wrote about how Ben-Gurion described the relations between the Indian and Jewish cultures as “spiritual identity,” and stated that “the moral commandments” of Buddhism “are no different mostly that our Ten Commandments.” As Ben-Gurion phrased it, “the doctrine of Buddhism on ethical behavioral issues is similar to that of a number of the prophets of Israel” – in both sources it is possible to find the “values of the love of mankind, justice, truth and peace.”

For example, Ben Gurion compared this Jewish phrase from Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) – “Who is strong? One who overcomes his evil inclination” – to the main principle of yoga, which is controlling desires; he compared “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” to the love of every living creature in Buddhism. As Shilon demonstrates, Ben-Gurion even went a step further and claimed he had found the source of pioneering in the Buddha. “Like a pretty flower, full of colors, but without any smell – in this way there is no purpose in words without anyone to act according to them,” wrote Shilon, explaining that “this is the meaning of pioneering, according to which talk that is not accompanied by acts is empty of value.”

Was this just a passing episode in Ben-Gurion’s life or did he adopt Buddhist principles during the 12 years he had left after he returned from Burma? “I see in his interest in Buddhism part of his interest in life beyond politics,” says historian Yossi Goldstein, who wrote a comprehensive biography of Ben-Gurion. “This was pure intellectual interest. Curiosity and wonder, like he was interested in Greek wisdom and even Spinoza.”

Ben-Gurion’s interest in Buddhism had a psychological explanation too – “his desire to cut himself off from his surroundings,” says Goldstein. Before becoming prime minister, Ben-Gurion used to spend weeks, and even months, every year outside of Israel. “When he became prime minister, he could no longer do that, publicly, but his intellectual interests allowed him to cut himself off nonetheless,” adds Goldstein.

So despite the fears of the religious parties, Ben-Gurion didn’t become a Buddhist? “He didn’t become a Buddhist even though he stayed in a Buddhist temple for a few days, and he did not turn into a worshipper of Plato’s doctrine, even though he dealt quite a lot with Greek philosophy,” says Goldstein. “He was also smart enough to understand that he was ‘tasting,’ and nothing more than that.”

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