Common grounds between Buddhism and Judaism

Since there is a Jewish Buddhist movement, here is a list of ways in which (Theravada or early) Buddhism and Judaism are, as I understand, more similar to each other than either is to Christianity:

  • In both, though there are things on which most members of each religion agree, there is no firm dogma, because the spiritual goal (experiencing God or Nirvana) is thought to be beyond mundane human thought. Individuals are free to explore their own spiritual feelings and beliefs, and to develop their own understandings. Prophets, Messiahs, the Buddha, and monks are people who may have had an especially clear or rich spiritual experience, but they are not God(s) themselves. Said another way: both religions are more orthopraxic than orthodoxic (i.e., less faith-based, more focused on what people do and experience than on what they believe).
  • Absolute reality, God, etc. is usually thought to be some kind of unity or single substance, not a trinity, a hypostatic union (hybrid God-man), etc.
  • Both are/were largely aniconic (Buddhism was in the early days) and prohibit giving anything a higher status than God or nirvanic beings.
  • Like devas in Buddhism, early Judaism seems to have acknowledged polytheism (e.g., El becoming YHWH, “You shall have no other gods before me,” etc.), but neither made polytheism central to their religion.
  • Hell is not forever. In Judaism, hell is more like Catholic purgatory and lasts only a short time, so that God can teach sinners a lesson. Those souls who are too bad to be redeemed are either destroyed by God, which seems much more compassionate to me than eternal torment, or continue to exist in a remorseful state. In Buddhism, the length and depth/badness of a hellish life varies based on one’s karma, with the worst hell being called avici. Both also find rebirth/reincarnation possible.
  • Both generally lack a notion of original sin, though in Buddhism, the mind that is reborn has typically had many past lives and has accumulated many both good and bad traits. Both see people as a mixture of good/selfless and bad/selfish impulses, and see a Middle Way-type balance to be necessary for successfully living in the world (e.g., a person has to be a little selfish in order to have food to eat, to do a job, etc.).
  • Less focus is placed on external forces (e.g., the devil, praying to angels or saints, God(s) taking physical form, etc.), which are usually considered to be metaphorical. Unlike how Christians often interpret it literally, the oft-quoted line from Genesis 1:27, that man was made in the image of God, is usually taken in Judaism to mean that a human’s nature, essence, or capacities for things like reason and intuition are similar to God’s, not that God literally has a human-like (or any corporeal) form.
  • Both Buddhism’s precepts, the Brahmaviharas, etc. as well as Judaism’s kosher rules are concerned with how to kill animals as sparingly and humanely as possible. In both, the brief five-to-ten precepts/commandments are just a categorization or introduction to a much longer set of vinaya/commandments about many aspects of life.
  • Both Buddhists and Jews do merit-making activities, especially as regards dead family members:

Don’t let karmic fruits run your life

Thoughts and feelings that arise automatically just are what they are. What matters is what new thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds we choose to make or not make.

As I understand, a fruit or result of karma (Pali: phala) is any experience that arises automatically in a person. For example, if someone insults or attacks you, the fear, anger, etc. that most people automatically feel is a result of past karmic seeds (Pali: bija) you have planted in your mind by choosing to feel that way under similar circumstances. Karma is intention (or mental energy), like setting or preference or default about how your mind should react in the future. Buddhists think that every automatic human experience (sights, sounds, moods, cravings, habits, cognition, etc.) is a karmic fruit — complex results from many past choices. Unless one practices making intentions more consciously, it is very easy for the fruits of past karma to run one’s life, and to keep perpetuating themselves if you keep giving them mental energy. It’s like a song stuck in your head that never stops as long as you keep singing it.

So, in terms of personal development, one has two good options: either try to have a happier future by learning to create happier, healthier, etc. karmic seeds (i.e., the path to a pleasurable, heavenly life), or learn not to make new karmic seeds and to destroy the seeds that already exist in the mind (i.e., the path to a peaceful, nirvanic life). For instance, for a more heavenly life, if a person attacks you, practice feeling pity, sympathy, or empathy for them instead of fear or anger, try to understand why they are attacking you and how you can reach some compromise with them or how you can help them out of whatever problem is prompting them to attack you. The brahmaviharas/divine-attitudes (metta/loving-kindness, karuna/compassion, mudita/sympathetic-joy, and upekkha/equanimity) are supposedly the mental states of heavenly beings. For a more nirvanic life, if a person attacks you, practice remaining calm and cool-headed, and make no responses, either mentally or physically, like a statue — even if a statue is destroyed by an attack, it does not respond. Nirvanic beings supposedly do not make any actions in this world, no matter what happens here. Here is an example of a (comedic, over-the-top) nirvanic response from a Vietnamese Buddhist man in the film Good Morning, Vietnam. The context is that Robin Williams’ character was teaching a funny English class about cursing.

“[Adrian (Robin Williams):] Let’s try a very special situation.
Wilkie, somethin’ special, okay?
You go into a restaurant okay?
A waitress comes up to you. You’re, eh–
You’re wearing your best new suit.
She comes up, she spills soup
all over you, looks at you like…
“Eh, I’m sorry.
What are you gonna do about it,
asshole?” What do you say to her?
What would you say? They spilled
something on your pants. What would
they do? What would you do?
[Wilkie (the Vietnamese man):] I do nothing.
[Adrian:] Come on, Wilkie. It’s cursing class.
You’re gettin’ a little pissed off.
What would you do?
[Wilkie:] I just remain reticent.
[Adrian:] Okay, she goes in the kitchen, she gets
a knife, she starts stabbing you.
She’s stabbing you.
She’s putting forks in you.
She’s got spoons in your eyes, Wil.
They’re startin’ to cut you with knives.
They’re puttin’ spoons in your eyes.
What would you do, Wil?
– What would you do?
[Wilkie:] I’m waiting to die! [everyone laughs]”
(transcript from Script-o-rama).

A Theravada view of abortion

Given the current US presidential debate environment (about sexism, abortion, etc.), here is my understanding of a Theravada Buddhist view of abortion, which does not seem to be represented by any candidate running for US president. This description will be skewed towards a Sri Lankan perspective, because I am most familiar with that.

“Monks, the descent of the embryo occurs with the union of three things. … when there is a union of the mother & father, the mother is in her season, and a gandhabba is present, then with this union of three things the descent of the embryo occurs” (MN 38). From Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s introduction to that sutta: “Usually in the Canon, the term gandhabba means a being on the lowest level of the celestial devas — devas who are often represented as obsessed with lust. However, the Commentary notes that gandhabba in this context means a being whose kamma enables it to take birth on that occasion, an interpretation supported by a discussion in MN 93” (ibid).

Therefore, perhaps the only way in which a fetus might not possess a gandhabba, and be just a physical shell/husk, is if the fetus dies for some reason during the course of pregnancy (e.g., from a congenital defect), such that the gandhabba leaves that body naturally and seeks a different body. If the fetus is not already dead, a gandhabba probably is still there, at any stage of pregnancy, and killing the fetal body that is supporting the gandhabba probably is the same as killing any living human (i.e., murder, if the killing is intentional, which might cause the killer to be reborn in some type of hell). This prompts a number of questions:

  • Should women have the right to choose abortion? Should any human have the right to choose to murder another human? If it comes down to a decision between saving the life of the mother or the life of the baby, who has a greater “right to life”? As I understand it, the law in Sri Lanka, which is a Theravada Buddhist-majority country, is that abortion is legal only if a medical doctor believes/certifies that abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. Otherwise, the baby has a right to life.
  • What if doctors know that the baby will be severely handicapped and/or have a very difficult or painful life? As I understand it, the Buddhist view is that that is the baby’s karma — a natural result of its past intentions and actions. Wherever that mind is born, it must face its karma, so sparing it a life here and now would just send it somewhere else to suffer similarly.
  • Women did not consciously choose to be the child-bearers in our species. Is it fair to ask them to sacrifice themselves? As I understand it, women’s gandhabbas did unconsciously choose to be born as women, though it is questionable how much a gandhabba can know about the body it is choosing.
  • Is that sacrifice a kind of suicide or self-murder? Many parents (including fathers) love their children more than themselves, and would willingly sacrifice themselves to save their children (e.g., undertake risky travel to help their children, would jump in front of a bus or train to push their child to safety, etc.). Is it selfish of a mother not to be willing to sacrifice herself for her child? It seems to be a “damned if you, damned if you don’t” scenario (i.e., having to choose between killing a child or allowing oneself to die). Hell is not eternal in Buddhism, like it is in the Abrahamic religions, but, still, it is probably not somewhere one wants to go. There is a jataka story (a story about the Buddha’s past lives), where the Buddha, in a past life, before he was fully enlightened (so he could not avoid rebirth in hell) but when he was still quite spiritually accomplished, came upon a family of tigers that were starving. He went to the top of a nearby cliff and jumped off, sacrificing himself so that the family of tigers could have something to eat. He supposedly paid for that suicide with a rebirth in some kind of hell, but was willing to do it because of his great love for all living beings, who were not even his own immediate children.


Though an artificially intelligent (AI) robot might someday look and behave just like a human, how do its internal ‘mental’ states compare with a human’s. Is it possible for a robot, which behaves in a way that a human interprets as kindness or empathy, actually to be internally loving, kind, compassionate, sympathetic, attached, etc.? Can love be stored in a file on a computer disk, and what would be in such a file? Was the file designed by someone and/or was it constructed inductively from a history of sensor (infrared, microphone, etc.) data organized by machine learning algorithms? Can those algorithms modify themselves; if yes, to what extent?

Similarly, can different species (or even different people) ever really empathize with or understand each other, and does it matter? Does anyone care whether the happiness of a dog is the same as the happiness of a human, as long as the dog is wagging its tail or behaving affectionately, and as long as we believe the dog isn’t secretly plotting to hurt us?

I suspect that robots might some day reach this ‘close enough’ stage, where humans develop enough of a degree of apparently mutual love and trust with them to live with them, but I also suspect that robot minds and bodies will evolve differently, and much more rapidly, than biological ones (perhaps unless an artificial version of a human is made), such that our communications with robots will be similar to inter-species communications, and it might be hard to trust that the robot’s intelligence and/or motivations didn’t drastically change overnight. Limited hardware capabilities, similar to the way that numbers of neurons limit the complexity of biological thought, might provide some comfort to humans, though computer processors are becoming smaller and denser by the day.