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Good Letters

The Buddhists have four stations of the heart: Metta (kindness), Mudita (compassion), Karuna (joy in the joy of others), and Upeka (equanimity).

The Jews have four matriarchs: Sarah, a mother who laughs and who does not speak when her husband takes her son before dawn to offer him as a sacrifice in the place God will show him; Rivka, a mother who bears conflict and from whom is delivered two nations that will be at war with each other to the end of the world; Rachel, a mother who died delivering Ben Oni, the son of her mourning, and who is buried on the road to Bethlehem; Leah, a mother of tribes that one day disappeared.

The Buddhists have three poisons: greed, hatred, illusion.

The Jews have three patriarchs: Avraham, father of mercy and hospitality; Yitzhak, father of loving by touch; Ya’akov/Yisrael, bipolar father of wrestling/embracing mystery. Could the patriarchs be antidotes to the three poisons?

The Buddhists have five hindrances: desire, aversion, restlessness, sloth, doubt.

The Jews have five books: the book of beginnings, the book of revolution and revelation, the book of priests, the book of laws, the book of doubling.

But the priests, who are given detailed instructions on how to keep the fires of revolution burning, become so enamored of the details, measuring just the right amount of grain and oil, scrutinizing bulls for slight imperfections, they forget why they are charged to offer sacrifices in the first place, which is not to feed a ravenous God but to keep the fires, the twin fires of revolution and revelation, burning.

And the hero of the story is a stutterer, who, in the final book of The Book, rehearses the story from beginning to end—doubling it—miraculously overcoming a speech impediment. His reward for eloquence? God kisses him on the lips, the kiss of death.

The five books as a whole? God comes to woman and man, to families, tribes, a nation, and they connect, but because of desire, aversion, restlessness, sloth, and doubt (whose? the people’s? God’s?), the connection is broken, in need of repair. Studying the Book of Books, say the rabbis, that’s a way to repair.

The Buddhists have the eightfold path: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

The Jews have eight days from the day of a boy’s birth to the day of his circumcision. Day one: right latching and right milk, the breasts’ generous flow. Day two: right swaddling. Day three: right poop. Day four: right murmuring. Day five: right night cries. Day six: right eyes open wide to a new world. Day seven: right rest. Day eight: right ritual, a mohel’s steady hand, swift blade, perfect cut in the company of right family and friends.

O One God.

O Single-Pointed Concentration.

Blessed is YHVH who gave to the rooster the talent to distinguish between day and night. Like the rooster, I distinguish Judaism from Buddhism, Buddhists from Jews. I intend to be vigilant, keeping them separate and apart, this in its place, and this in its place.

The law of shatnez, after all: “you shall not wear wool and linen together” (Deuteronomy 22:11).  A mysterious law, meaning, perhaps, categories, species, even religious practices should remain distinct, each from the other.

But I keep hearing this: Hear O Israel, YHVH is our God, YHVH is One.

The koan I keep hearing is this: Hear, O Israel, YHVH is our God, YHVH is One.

When I pray, I remember Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the three poisons. When I walk by the way, if I see a lamp in a shop window I want to know how much that lamp costs and I think how much happier I’ll be with that lamp by my side. When across the street I see the celebrated local poet, I think how devoted she is to self-promotion. When I browse shelves of independence, my beloved local bookstore, I think I should be exercising.

When I touch the wall at one end of the pool and turn to make my way back to the other, I think I should be reading. When I’m reading I think I should be responding to e-mail, and when, after dinner, I’m e-mailing I think I should be enjoying the company of my wife. And every sip of wine inflames my doubts—am I learned enough? Loving enough? And who or what is this God to whom I pray when I pray?

Then I remember the four mothers, kindness, compassion, joy in others joy, equanimity, but I’m not sure who is who. Sarah = joy in others (Ishmael, Hagar)? Leah who was not loved = equanimity?

And when I lie down, I fail to sleep because lying leads not to freedom, lying’s not a station on the path to freedom from suffering. And when at dawn I rise up from a restless night I am unsteady on my feet. I feel neither loving nor loved, not even when I get to the prayers with a great love God loves us and you shall love…with all your heart, all your strength, all your soul.

Feet, don’t fail me now. There is a path. Find it and follow it.

O Lord! O Lord! God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth…. O Thirteen Names of God.

O metta: radiating kindness to all; O mudita: boundless compassion for all beings; O karuna, your joy is my joy; O upekah: the path is clear and I walk it, balanced, spacious enough to hold this and this.

And why not? The world is wide. Why not expand the narrow self, why not dissolve the tribal borders between self and other, why not open to wholeness, why not live, even when you don’t get it, the koan: Is Is One, Is Is One, Is Is One?

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost (University of Tampa Press 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. He is also the Chair of UNC Asheville’s English Department. You can find more information at

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