Buddhist Monks Tour the Museum
In a pioneering effort to unite the Buddhist and Jewish communities, the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, N.Y., hosted yesterday the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations, along with his convoy of Buddhist monks.
After a guided tour of the most popular and interactive exhibits, the delegation of Buddhist leaders, United Nations representatives, and rabbis conducted a dialogue around the similarities between Buddhist and Jewish fundamental principles of peace and tolerance.
“This is a big opportunity to find out about the Jewish religion,” commented Sri Lankan Ambassador to the UN Dr. Palitha Kohona. Throughout the tour of the museum the monks identified similarities in customs of dress and dietary laws practiced in both religions. The two groups joked about standing out in a crowd – the rabbis with the traditional kipa [skullcap] and tzitzit [fringes], and the monks with shaved heads and brightly colored robes. In addition to observed directives, the ambassador noted the similar principals between Buddhism and Judaism: “tolerance, self-understanding, and non-violence.”
The relationship between the JCM – which is run as a division of Tzivos Hashem, the children’s arm of Chabad-Lubavitch – and the Mission of Sri Lanka to the UN was born almost two years ago when Senior UN Correspondent Gloria Starr-Kins introduced representatives to one another. The relationship further developed when the JCM hosted the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the UN, along with 40 other UN staffers and diplomats, in October 2009.
The tour yesterday began with an exhibit about Jewish morals that “make the world a better place,” explained tour guide Goldy Cohen. “It is not exclusive to Judaism, it applies to everyone equally,” she added. The exhibit showcases moral values such as uplifting the sick, respecting parents and elders, giving to others.
An officer from Kohona’s delegation offered a quarter to be used in an interactive station in the exhibit – a large gumball machine. Out rolled a white gumball. All eyes followed the white gumball as it wound its way through a maze along one wall and landed in a miniature hospital near the floor – representative of how a quarter can be used to give to others rather than to take for one’s self. “Every person put into this world has choices to make and can choose how to react,” said Cohen, as she led to the group toward the Kosher Exhibit.
Buddhist-born student at Columbia University, Savan Wijewardene, pointed out to the group that the Jewish dietary laws of not eating dairy with meat are similar to the Buddhist dietary customs. After touring the Six Days of Creation Exhibit and the Shabbat Exhibit one of the monks asked a young rabbi present to explain the meaning of the fringes he wore, which were hanging from his belt to his pockets. He explained to the captivated group that the numeric value of the tzitzit totals 613, the number of commandments in the Bible. “We, too, have things to remind us,” noted a monk clad in bright orange linen robes.
“By having a greater understanding of Judaism, people will be nicer to Jews and even more than that, have tolerance of all cultures,” said the head monk of Staten Island Buddhist Temple, Bhante H. Kondañña.
Director of Development at the JCM Rabbi Mendel Spalter opened a sit-down dialogue by connecting the gathering with the recent celebration of the Jewish New Year. “We celebrate the creation of man on the New Year,” Spalter spoke from the podium. “Everyone is equal and unified under G-d, therefore it is very apropos for us to gather now,” he said and concluded with a blessing for a happy and healthy year.
Rabbi Simon Jacobson, best-selling author and director of A Meaningful Life Institute, spoke about the New Year saying that on the High Holidays people communicate with G-d and connect to a higher reality. He paralleled that bond with intercultural connections. “Words can be traps. We should try to find a medium that transcends words in order to connect to each another and express the inexpressible.” Jacobson then led a word-less hymn, called a niggun, sung by Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim on the High Holiday of Yom Kippur.
“Just like every music note is necessary on its own and as part of a greater composition, every person is indispensable,” expressed the rabbi.
Ambassador Kohona addressed those present, saying, “I hope this will lay the foundation for future relationships between our two communities.” He noted the similarities in beliefs that Jacobson touched upon during his talk that, “the world is being renewed constantly and changes moment to moment.”
“The most important factor is to bring happiness into the world,” declared the head monk of New York Buddhist Temple, Venkurunegoda Piyatissa. “I appreciate the effort to bring peace and unite us,” spoke the 80-year-old monk softly into the microphone.
Kins, who initially introduced the two groups to one another more than one year ago, said it is her hope that such intercultural events spur “peace around the world. I am just brimming over with the pleasure of this,” she added.
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