To Make One’s Life a Blessing

By Jonathan Chao Burnston


I was not born Jewish, at least not according to traditional Jewish custom. My mother is Chinese and a practicing Buddhist, so I had to be converted to be considered a part of the Jewish faith. I had to have permission granted from a religious council to have a legitimate bris. However, from the moment after my mikvah until the time of my Bar Mitzvah, I was brought up in an unequivocally Jewish fashion.

As a child, I was perfectly content running around Hebrew school on Sundays, hearing of Jewish history and legends, and being guided down the path that would eventually lead to my adolescent coming of age. I grew and excelled in studies of Hebrew language and lore, reveling in my teachers’ praise. When it came time to begin preparing for my Bar Mitzvah, I was well on my way to fulfilling my pre-determined role as part of the Jewish community.

It was at this time that questions began to arise in the back of my mind. Oncoming manhood and maturity led me to challenge previously accepted notions and prod at areas of ambiguity. By 13, I had already caught my first glimpses of intellectual writings and the teachings of other faiths. While troubled by philosophy and questions of religion, I nevertheless completed the preordained cycle and became a Bar Mitzvah.

As a teenager, my attention took a frustrated turn away from my childhood path. I brooded, and as so many do in our increasingly skeptical world, I questioned the concept of structured faith and the idea of a God-figure. Even more powerful were contradictions I found closer to home. Technicalities, such as the Jewish practice of refusing to bow, gave me undue trouble as they were in direct opposition to my mother’s religious tradition and culture.

This darker time led to a spiritual reawakening in the twilight of my teenage years. The end of high school and my entrance into the world of college were marked by an opening of mind and a more free-range education than I had previously been afforded. I studied much of both Eastern and Western thought, and devoted a great deal of mental energy toward spirituality and the divine, particularly with regard to the belief systems of my mother and father.

The end result of all this was a blessing of peace and positivity born of one unmistakable realization: that human love is an intrinsic part of spiritual belief, that social action and worldly consciousness lie at the very foundations of both Jewish and Buddhist thought. I came to see that the heart and soul of both sides of my heritage, of both Judaism and Buddhism, were truly one and the same.

One can find this sentiment prevailing throughout the most fundamental teachings of both these schools of thought. I suppose the foremost example would lie in the idea of the mitzvah, or commandment. Mitzvot are commonly understood as good deeds, and are explicitly considered to be commandments from God. The most classic examples of mitzvot tie into the idea of social action. Comprised of “deeds of loving-kindness,” their value lies in the doing and in benefiting others, rather than in gratitude or recognition. Here the Buddhist reflection is exact; “loving kindness” is emphasized throughout Buddhist teachings (verbatim, in fact), and is taught to be cultivated whenever possible.

Compassion, an empathy and understanding of the plight of our fellow beings, is considered to be the primary Buddhist virtue. As of late I have been doing my best to internalize this virtue and exercise it to the best of my ability. Since I started working at my campus’ coffee shop/eatery, I have made it a habit to bring leftover sandwiches to homeless people in the local area. I’m not sure if this is Buddhist compassion coming out through me, or a Jewish sense of tikkun olam, helping to repair the world. To be honest, I don’t think there is much of a difference; either way, they are pretty much the same thing.

Following this line of thought, the mindset behind deeds of loving-kindness is also something shared by the Buddhist and the Jew. In Buddhism, universal consciousness, as manifested in individual consciousness, represents man’s connection to the divine; it simultaneously makes us an individual and a part of the greater whole. I find this to be quite an interesting idea. “Universal consciousness” is a basic way of expressing many concepts of divinity. Meanwhile, keeping all those around us in mind as we go about our lives is a natural way of tapping into that connection.

This is intimately related to the strong Jewish sense of community. There is an undeniable sense of unity within the Jewish faith. More subtly, this also relates to the idea of the unity and the unifying quality of God. My university rabbi once said of the ancient claim “God is One,” that it is really in recognition of a spiritual oneness throughout all existence. I could not agree more. Truly, what is the idea of God but an affirmation of all life and existence, a something where there was nothing, a persistent assertion, a resounding BOOM throughout the cosmos, acclaiming All as being All and not None. And therefore what is the most righteous act, if not to serve that affirmation of life with yet more affirmations, with social consciousness, positivity, and positive action.

A final commonality between Judaism and Buddhism deserves mention before I conclude. In both faiths, righteous learning and belief are nothing without life application. Whether it be Jewish or Buddhist, the holy life is incomplete without bringing blessings into the world, and specifically to others. To this end, I leave you with a favorite quote: I have always been struck by Debbie Friedman’s words in her version of the Mi Shebarach, where she asks God to “help us find the courage, to make our lives a blessing.” In today’s day and age, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a more pious prayer.


About Jonathan Chao Burnston

Jonathan Chao Burnston is a Chinese Jew from Bergen County, New Jersey. He wrote his first article for Interfaith Family, "J.A.C.K. Jewish American Chinese Kid" in 2000 while in high school. He wrote his second IFF article, "To Make One's Life A Blessing" in 2005 while in college. He currently resides in New York, where he is trying to find enough leisure time to write again, in and around a busy job at a renewable energy financial services and advisory firm.