Spiritual Survival In a Consumer Age


By Terry Mattingly



June 8, 2002


It was a logical question for the Dalai Lama to ask, but it caught his Jewish visitors off guard.

The question - "Can you tell me the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile?" - is one Rodger Kamenetz has pondered for a decade. "Notice that the Dalai Lama asked about spiritual survival, not cultural survival," said Kamenetz, author of "The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India" (HarperSanFrancisco). "What he was really asking was, 'How do you survive spiritually until you can return to your homeland?'"

This is a haunting question for Jews in an age when so few actively practice their faith, Kamenetz said during a prayer seminar in Florida for the Palm Beach Fellowship of Christians and Jews. The question of spiritual survival, however, should haunt all believers.

Although such threats as terrorism and persecution are real, Kamenetz warned that ancient religious traditions are being buried in commercialism and entertainment, with faith becoming a "consumer good" rather than a way of life.

The worship, prayer and ethical traditions at the heart of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam should be added to a spiritual "endangered species" list, he said.

"All of the world's great religions provide profound challenges to the unexamined life," wrote Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero at Salon.com. "At their best, they offer devastating diagnoses of human sickness and radical remedies for it. They demand crazy things - that we love our enemies, that we deny ourselves. At their best, religions are difficult, confusing and mysterious."

The fad that has been called Baby Boomer Buddhism is "all too often shallow and small," he said. "It soothes rather than upsets, smoothing out the palpable friction between Buddhist practice and the banalities of contemporary American life."

Many spiritual bookstores sell rocks inscribed "What Would Buddha Do?" and some seekers may find Buddhism attractive because they see it as a form of spirituality without the dogma or rituals they were required to learn as children.

"Let's face it," Kamenetz said, "one of the reasons Buddhism has become so popular, with so many Americans, so fast, is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical content. You are left with a religion that makes very few demands of you. Is that Buddhism?"

Will Buddhists be able to survive spiritually here? "It may take 300 years for a true Buddhism to come to America," he said. "In the meantime, you're going to continue to see all of these hybrid forms. People are taking pieces of this faith and combining it with pieces of that faith. This is all so, so American."