A Cloud Never Dies. Interfaith Families and Thich Nhat Hanh

Photo, Susan Katz Miller

In the most well-known dharma talk by beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, he contemplates drinking a cloud in a cup of tea. The cloud never dies–it transitions to a raindrop, to a river, to the tea in his cup. Yesterday, we learned of the peaceful transition at age 95 of Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay (“teacher”), as he was known to those who followed his mindfulness practice. We must now look for him in the clouds, in the rain, in the steam rising from our tea.

Thich Nhat Hanh was an author of many influential books, and a peace activist nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by Martin Luther King Jr. His teachings were the primary inspiration for Engaged Buddhism. And his practice had particular significance for many interfaith families, and multiple religious practitioners including Buddhist Jews, and Buddhist Christians.

My interfaith children have been known to describe their identities as Jewish and Christian swirl with a ribbon of Buddhism. Their formative introduction to the teachings of Thay came through three family friends and teachers: Paul Wapner, Sharron Mendel Swain, and Reverend Julia Jarvis. Julia was our longtime Spiritual Leader at the Interfaith Families Project. She came to us as a Christian minister, but she also infused our gatherings with Buddhist meditation and teachings, and brought us Buddhist teachers including Mitchell Ratner, and Kaira Jewel Lingo. So my interfaith children grew up listening to the ringing of bowls, and the silence that follows.

In 2011, I was lucky when Julia invited me to the Warner Theater in Washington DC to see and hear Thay. Arriving, I was slightly skeptical about spending an entire evening listening to a diminutive elderly monk seated on a stage. But then, I was riveted by Thay’s quiet presence, the depth of his words, his compassion, and his humor as he described that cloud in his cup of tea. May his memory be for a blessing!

Photo, Susan Katz Miller

Buddhism has long had a following among adult interfaith children and interfaith families. Our friend Sharron was raised by one Jewish and one Christian parent. She found a spiritual home in Buddhism in her 20s, and spent time in Plum Village, the Buddhist community created by Thay in France. She went on to teach in our interfaith families community, worked in UU religious education, and eventually converted to Judaism.

Years ago, I asked Sharron about the appeal of Buddhism for her, as someone born into an interfaith family. Today, I reprint our Q&A here, in memory of Thay.

Susan: Why does Buddhism seem to have particular appeal for some interfaith families and interfaith people?

Sharron: The beautiful thing about Buddhism is that it never, in my experience, asks someone to choose.  For example, in the Plum Village tradition in which I practice, it would be unthinkable to ask someone of mixed race parentage, “are you Black or are you White”?  Same with asking someone with Vietnamese parents who was raised in the US:  “are you Vietnamese or are you American?”  Anyone who’s been around for any time would get it that you’re both!  It would be like asking a child “are you your father’s child or your mother’s child”?  Of course you are the child of both. . .

One of the central tenets, if you can call it that, of this practice is the notion of “interbeing.”  Interbeing is a deep recognition of how intricately interconnected our world is, from the subatomic level to the level of the cosmos.  Looking deeply, it is possible to see that Christianity cannot exist without Judaism, and Judaism as it is today cannot exist independently of Christianity.

For me, it is as if Christianity and Judaism are two rivers of my family’s experience flowing into the ocean of my life and experience.  Buddhism is the one place I have found that is big enough to embrace the whole ocean, never asking me to choose.

Susan: Do you see Buddhism as having particular benefits for interfaith people/families?

Sharron: Buddhism doesn’t concern itself with the same questions, and is therefore focused on something other than the arguments that have been plaguing Christians and Jews for centuries, if not millennia.  The Buddha himself said he was not interested in the question of whether or not there was a God, and therefore focused his efforts and attention in a whole different direction.  Buddhism (when not practiced in a rote or devotional way, like anything else) is deeply experiential by nature.  It has a built-in “out” in that the Buddha basically said “look, try this, and decide based on your experience, not what I say.”  This is extraordinarily appealing to folks who have probably already broken a number of rules by venturing far enough outside their birth faith to marry someone raised in another faith.  Buddhism has countless practices that, if applied skillfully, can significantly assist in the process of transforming suffering, no matter what someone’s “religious” orientation may be.

And, an ironic thing about Buddhist practice is that it almost invariably leads the practitioner into a much closer examination of, and often deeper appreciation of, the religion (family, etc.) with which they were raised.  This often helps people arrive at a much more mature appreciation of the treasures buried in their birth traditions, and an ability to see the “garbage” for what it is.

Susan: Why do you think it seems to be easier for some people to practice Buddhism with Judaism, or Buddhism with Christianity (as theologian Paul Knitter does), than it is to practice Judaism and Christianity?

Sharron: The Buddha is completely innocent when it comes to the question of Christ’s death. Jews have been burdened for centuries with false allegations around this event, and all manner of prejudice and discrimination that flows from that.  Neither the Buddha, nor Buddhists, to my knowledge, participated in Crusades, or Inquisitions, or other bloody ways of spreading their faith.  Jews also, in many cases, have developed a strong (and justified) “fortress mentality” in the face of centuries of persecution.  The fact that the Holocaust was the experience of the older generation of Jews that is still living has undoubtedly created cultural and generational wounds that may take centuries to heal.

Nonviolence and nonharm are central to Buddhism.  People come into Buddhism with all kinds of wounds and baggage, but if they stick with it long enough, it helps transform all that.  There’s a recognition, perhaps like the Christian acknowledgement of sin, that we all suffer, but there’s no judgement with that.  It’s more like “we are alive, and so we suffer, we feel rage, we discriminate, etc. And we have the power to transform that suffering.  We’ve got all the ‘wholesome seeds’ within us, too.  This means that no matter how much anger or hatred is in us, we can shift the focus and nurture the altruism, the forgiveness, the kindness, and so on.”

This is a profoundly healing perspective, and when it is combined with skillful teachers and real practice, it changes lives.

1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness

Why: Could you expand on the idea of Interbeing, a concept that sounds very relevant to interfaith families?

The first three mindfulness trainings of the Order of Interbeing (at least in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition) may give some insight into what Buddhism offers:

Photo: Susan Katz Miller

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.

2. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment from Views

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

3. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought

Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever – such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination – to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

Inauguration: Celebrating President Barack Obama and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Inauguration 2009, copyright Susan Katz Miller
Inauguration 2009, copyright Susan Katz Miller

Four years ago this week, we awoke before dawn, bundled our children into layers of clothing, and walked from our house to the Metro station. We wedged our family onto a subway car with throngs of neighbors and tourists, and emerged in downtown Washington DC, just as the sky began to turn pink. As we sleep-walked past the grand Constitution Hall heading towards the Washington Monument, I told my children how the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) prevented opera singer Marian Anderson from performing in that Hall in 1939. They were amazed that their own grandparents had lived through such times.

At the base of the Monument, we found a place to wait, and wait, and wait, for hours in the freezing cold, far from the Inaugural stage, facing a huge video screen. We found ourselves part of a vast, diverse crowd, our collective spirits so high that we were able to endure the long hours standing on the frosted grass, packed in side by side. The point was not to try to glimpse the tiny figure of the distant President, so much as it was to be a part of this sea of humanity–to find ourselves part of the America we had voted for when we elected President Barack Obama.

Four years later, I could complain about whether President Obama has been progressive enough. But it remains true that our image of ourselves as a country changed forever, and for the better, with his election. And his re-election proves that we meant what we said the first time. We want to try to live up to the dream Obama represents, the dream of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

The convergence of this year’s Presidential Inauguration and the remembrance of Dr. King’s birthday heightens the significance of both events. For those of us in interfaith families, some of whom are also in mixed-race families, Dr. King’s dream has special resonance. The vision that “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands” inspires us as we hold hands every day with our partners, spouses, children.

President Obama chose Christianity, and he chose to identify as an African-American. As Americans, we are lucky to live in a country that does not issue ID cards stamped with race or religion: we have the right to choose our own labels. At the same time, I recognize in Barack Obama the child of a global village. I know the stories of his white grandparents, his extended African family, his years in Indonesia, his Catholic school, his love for the diversity of Hawaii. As an interfaith child and an interfaith parent, this week I celebrate Dr. King’s dream, and President Obama’s re-election. Now, we have four more years to come a little bit closer to making that dream a reality.

Top Ten Interfaith Posts on This Blog

Interfaith Collage by Robin Allen

Pausing for reflection at the end of the year, I thought I would reveal the most popular posts from this blog on interfaith identity, interfaith parenting, interfaith children, interfaith families, and interfaith life. Below is a list of the top ten most-viewed posts since this blog began in 2009. In the comments, let me know which posts were your personal favorites of all time, and what topics you would like to see covered in the year to come.

  1. Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions. It seems fitting that the number-one post on this site is devoted to explaining the benefits of exploring both family religions with dual-faith children.
  2. Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Welcome Yule! Interfaith Families Doing the Most. This post includes vignettes from my family celebrating each of these holidays. It was selected by WordPress for their “Freshly Pressed” feature. It also benefited from traffic based on the provocative public letter addressed to me by a blogger for the Jewish Daily Forward who objects to intermarriage.
  3. Welcome Walker Diggs, Interfaith Child. Fans of intermarried Broadway and television stars Idina Menzel (Jewish and white) and Taye Diggs (Christian and black) have kept this post at the top of the hit list. When their baby son Walker was born, I wondered in this post how they would choose to raise him in terms of religion. The last I read, the couple is still figuring out their religious pathway for Walker.
  4. Interfaith Marriage: A Love Story. The post describing the long and happy marriage of my Jewish father to my Christian mother has become a perennial favorite on this blog. When they celebrated their 50th anniversary, I wrote about how their successful interfaith marriage has made it impossible for me to feel that intermarriage is a bad idea. Readers are scouring the internet, looking for signs of happy interfaith couples. The popularity of this post inspired me to start a whole series on successful interfaith marriages.
  5. Muslim and Jewish: Interfaith on “Shahs of Sunset.” Okay, so this post is popular because of a trashy reality TV series, featuring wealthy Jews and Muslims of Persian (Iranian) descent misbehaving in Los Angeles. Fans trying to figure out which character is Muslim, which is Jewish (and which is from an interfaith Muslim/Jewish family) end up on my blog. Intermarriage between Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Christians represents the next wave of multi-faith families. So I am glad the interfaith world beyond Judaism and Christianity is represented in my top-ten posts.
  6. Roger Williams, My Bat Mitzvah, and the “Lively Experiment.” I adore the fact that this tribute to a 17th-century religious rebel in New England remains a top post on my site. Roger Williams founded what would eventually become Rhode Island as a refuge for Quakers, Jews, Anabaptists, and anyone fleeing the religious oppression of Massachusetts Puritans. Williams himself ended up becoming a very early example of the “religious nones,” without institutional religious affiliation.
  7. Black and Jewish, Interfaith and Interracial, Hilarious and Offensive. A parody music video created by two pop culture stars who are black and Jewish inspired this post. It represents a pushback against the idea that Jews are by definition white, and a reminder of the rise of racial and religious intermarriage in our increasingly multicultural world.
  8. Successful Interfaith Marriages Ignored Once Again. This post critiques a Washington Post opinion piece that described interfaith marriages as doomed to frequent failure. The author is affiliated with a conservative think tank, and was fired this year from a blogging position at the Chronicle for Higher Education over a post described by some as racist. People searching for news of successful interfaith marriages stumble on this post, and I am glad that responding to an anti-intermarriage piece provided me with an opportunity to connect with more readers and bring them news of happy intermarriages.
  9. Celebrating Martin Luther King: Multiracial, Multifaith in the 21st Century. This post in honor of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday refers to his relationship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside King. I go on to describe how my community of interfaith families, composed of intermarried Jews and Christians, and intermarried blacks and whites, celebrates King’s birthday holiday and the Civil Rights movement.
  10. Interfaith Children: Born This Way. I wrote this post to respond to the blogger who was dismayed by the idea that my family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah. While making reference to Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign and her hit song “Born This Way,” I describe how children from interfaith families benefit from claiming our interfaithness and discovering all that is positive about bridging two religions and two cultures. I am glad the idea that families can and should instill pride rather than shame in their interfaith children, made it into the top ten posts.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

 

Gabrielle Giffords: Jewish Congresswoman, Interfaith Child, Interfaith Spouse

At first, it seemed somehow inappropriate to write about Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her interfaith family. We have all been in shock, hoping or praying for her survival and recovery, mourning for those lost in Tucson. As a Washingtonian, I have many friends who work on Capitol Hill, and some of them know Giffords and knew her aide Gabe Zimmerman. To write about Giffords’s parentage and interfaith connections seemed frivolous, off-topic.

And yet, the moment I saw her photo, heard the name of the first Jewish congresswoman from Arizona, my half-Jewdar went off. The confirmation came immediately. Gabby Giffords, like me, is a patrilineal interfaith child married to a Christian spouse. Her mother was a Christian Scientist. Giffords chose Judaism in adulthood after an epiphany in Israel, and has been accepted into a Reform Jewish congregation.

Within hours of the shooting, the religion blogosphere lit up with the eternal debate. She’s Jewish, how dare you say otherwise at a time like this? She’s not Jewish, her mother’s not Jewish, she didn’t convert, sorry for what happened but nonetheless she’s not Jewish.

As always, those of us who are interfaith children must relive the sting of rejection from those who adhere rigidly to a tribal law written thousands of years after the Biblical era, an era when the great intermarried patriarchs and matriarchs of Judaism often seemed to enjoy a more inclusive and expansive and fluid definition of belonging.

And as always, we struggle with the hypocrisy of those who claim beautiful interfaith celebrities (such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who is actually a cousin to Giffords), top athletes,  and political heroes as Jewish, and then turn around and refuse to marry interfaith couples, or refuse to accept their children into religious schools, or refuse to bury them together in cemeteries. Although an editorial this week in the Jerusalem Post advocates for accepting Giffords as Jewish inspite of her halachic status, an inevitable and promising shift from a major Israeli newspaper.

Giffords represents proof that interfaith couples, even when they allow their children to choose a religious path, even when their children face rejection from Jewish institutions, can give the world children who wind up as outspoken and committed Jewish leaders, rather than confused or alienated non-participants.

But I was not going to weigh in, partly because it has seemed fairly clear that mental illness is the main culprit in this tragedy, not anti-Semitism, so why view this tragedy through a religious lens at all? But then Sarah Palin pushed me over the edge with her bizarre reference to a “blood libel.” For a deep and nuanced analysis of the way the “blood libel” has been used against Jews, read history professor Susannah Heschel’s piece from yesterday. We can only hope that Palin actually did not understand the meaning of the term “blood libel” when she used those words to describe how she feels journalists have blamed her for violent rhetoric. As we head into Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday weekend, it seems particulary appropriate that Heschel, the daughter of Dr. King’s dear friend and colleague Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is weighing in.

Tomorrow in Washington, at an annual interfaith Shabbat, Jews and Christians will join to celebrate the non-violent activism of Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King. The timing could not be better to reaffirm our ardent communal dream for a time of peace.

For me, it remains clear that interfaith children can play a special role in bringing us closer to that dreamtime. In Giffords, a Democrat elected in a Republican district, a congresswoman known for reaching out at public events, reaching across boundaries of race, class, religion and politics, I see the hallmarks of someone raised outside the box. I acknowledge the Jewish label she chose for herself, I acknowledge the danger of applying labels to others. Nonetheless, I cannot help noting our shared experiences as interfaith children who insist on staying connected to Judaism.

Celebrating Martin Luther King: Multiracial, Multifaith in the 21st Century

This week, hundreds of communities across America will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with interfaith services featuring pastors, rabbis, imams. But for our community of interfaith families, this national holiday has an even deeper significance. Dr. King spoke about the day when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.” In our community, we go beyond joining hands, we create families together. We now have several member families composed of Christian African-Americans married to Jews. Of course, intermarriage between Jews and blacks isn’t new—the first significant wave of marriages occurred when these two groups worked side by side during the civil rights movement. But in the 21st century, the good news is that neither the Christian African-American partner, nor the Jewish partner, has to give up their religion in order to be together. They can give their children roots in both dynamic religious traditions.

On Sunday, our community had our own celebration of Dr. King, featuring Sombarkin, a powerful a cappella gospel trio (Karen Somerville, Lester Barrett Jr. and Jerome McKinney). In our discussion group afterwards, our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, talked about meeting Dr. King in the 60s. Rabbi White was a student of Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Dr. King in Selma and had a deep relationship of mutual respect and engagement with him.

Then, Rabbi White and Karen Somerville, an African-American museum director and historian, talked about their own close friendship, and the ups and downs of the history of the relationship between Jews and African-Americans.  They pointed out that African-Americans recognized and celebrated Jesus as a Jew, long before white Protestant churches began to see Jesus in this way. And of course, there’s the solidarity that comes with the knowledge of having been slaves, however attenuated that knowledge is now for Jews. And the shared sense of survival in the wake of tragedy (American slavery, the European Holocaust). And the shared sense of being a repressed minority in America (increasingly rare for Jews).  But none of this is new.

Here’s what is new: an African-American father, married to a Jewish mother, standing up at our celebration to lead the responsive reading excerpted from the “I Have a Dream” speech. As this father read of the day when, in Dr. King’s words, “with this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together,” the interfaith and biracial children in our community have implicit permission to fully appreciate King as a minister, as a man of deep Christian faith. They could listen to those words knowing that both of their parents belong equally in our interfaith community. Neither one is a guest or visitor. Neither one must compromise their religious identity. And in our community, these children will learn the history and rituals and ideas of Christianity, as well as the history and rituals and ideas of Judaism. These children can grow up listening to gospel songs of freedom, based on the Exodus story so dear to both Judaism and African-American Christanity, and so often sung at interfaith Shabbats and Seders. But they are also free to explore the gospel songs that mention Jesus, and perhaps even to download Sombarkin’s sublime version of “I Want to Walk and Talk With Jesus” (the only Sombarkin song available as a ringtone!) — a song that probably isn’t played at any Shabbat or Seder.

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