Tag Archives: Buddhism

Jew of the Week: Mirra Alfassa

Alfassa and her symbol

Alfassa and her symbol

Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973) was born in Paris to a Turkish-Jewish father and Egyptian-Jewish mother. Growing up in a wealthy Sephardic home, she was exposed to a great deal of spiritual teachings, art, and her father’s vast library – which she had read entirely by age 14. After studying art at the prestigious Académie Julian, she found success as a painter and artist, collaborating with such greats as Matisse, Rodin, and Zola. After ten years of this, Alfassa wished to pursue her spiritual inclinations and found her way to a Polish Jew in Algeria who led a Kabbalah-based mystical circle. In 1908, she established her own mystical circle in Paris, fusing together esoteric Jewish teachings with those of Buddhism and Hinduism. In 1914, she moved to Pondicherry, India – then a French colony – where her second husband was seeking election to the senate. There, Alfassa met a yogi named Sri Aurobindo and became his devoted follower. For the next six years (four of which were spent in Japan), she and her husband published a regular journal of Aurobindo’s teachings. Eventually, the couple divorced, and Alfassa moved to Aurobindo’s house. Aurobindo soon recognized Alfassa as his spiritual equal, and titled her “the Mother” – an incarnation of the cosmic “Divine Mother” of the universe. Alfassa and Aurobindo started teaching together and attracted many followers. The house soon transformed into an ashram. By 1937, their ashram had grown so much that Alfassa commissioned the construction of a new community. This community would draw many, including the daughter of US President Woodrow Wilson, who stayed there for the rest of her life. During World War II, while many in India supported Nazi Germany (in order to overthrow their British rulers), Aurobindo and Alfassa worked hard to support the Allied Forces, and donated much of their funds for the war effort. In 1943, Alfassa founded a new school, which later became the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. After Aurobindo’s death in 1950, Alfassa became the sole leader of the movement, and a prominent holy figure in India. In 1956, she established another ashram and school in Delhi, and did the same in Gujarat in 1967. Meanwhile, a popular 13-volume book of her life and teachings was published (now expanded to 17 volumes).

Matrimandir

Perhaps her greatest legacy is Auroville, a city-state she founded in 1968 near Pondicherry. Auroville was meant to be a model community for the whole world, where all people regardless of background could live in total harmony, spirituality, and peace. Delegates from 124 nations attended the inauguration ceremony. Today, Auroville has over 2500 permanent residents from some 50 countries. A self-sustaining community, it has its own institutions, including farms, schools, and restaurants (one of which is an Israeli cafe – closed on Shabbat, of course). The city’s centrepiece is the beautiful Matrimandir, the solar-powered “Mother Temple”, designed in the form of a famous golden vision once seen by Alfassa, who is still known affectionately as “the Mother”.

Words of the Week

The most important thing for an individual is to unify himself around his divine centre; in that way he becomes a true individual, master of himself and his destiny. Otherwise, he is a plaything of forces that toss him about like a piece of cork on a river…
– Mirra Alfassa, “the Mother”

Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo

Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo

Jew of the Week: Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen (Credit: CBC)

Leonard Cohen (Credit: CBC)

Leonard Norman Eliezer Cohen (1934-2016) was born in Montreal, the grandson of a Lithuanian rabbi and a Polish immigrant who founded the Canadian Jewish Congress. Cohen grew up very close to his Jewish community, and attended Montreal’s Jewish Herzliah High School, where he was first inspired to take up poetry by a teacher. While studying at McGill University, he published his first set of award-winning poems. His second book of poetry found even more success, and was seen as an important work in Canadian literature, with one critic calling Cohen “the best young poet in English Canada.” Cohen moved to a small island off the coast of Greece and wrote prolifically, publishing several more books of poetry and novels. One of his later books – a Literary Award winner – was inspired by the Hebrew Bible and consisted of 50 poems that Cohen called “prayers”. Meanwhile, Cohen started recording music in the 1960s as poetry did not bring the income he hoped for. His first album was a big hit in the US and UK. It was his seventh album that had his most famous song, “Hallelujah”, which Cohen went through some 80 drafts writing, and “banging his head on the floor”. The song was inspired by various Biblical scenes, including the stories of Samson and Delilah, and King David and Batsheva. It would be covered by over 200 artists in dozens of languages, and become the subject of a whole book and BBC documentary. In 1994, Cohen entered a period of five years of seclusion during which time he was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk. However, he never abandoned his Jewish roots, and said, “I’m not looking for a new religion. I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.” Cohen was known to keep Shabbat throughout his career, even while on tour. In his 2009 concert in Tel-Aviv, Cohen spoke Hebrew and ended the concert with Birkat Cohanim, the priestly blessing. During the Yom Kippur War, Cohen went to Israel to volunteer at a kibbutz before going to the front lines himself to entertain Israeli soldiers, saying he will “stop Egypt’s bullets”. In his 1972 Jerusalem concert he was so emotional that he had to walk off stage at one point. The crowd started singing to bring him back and a teary-eyed Cohen felt like “the entire audience turned into one Jew”. All in all, Cohen produced 15 albums (the last of which was released just three weeks ago), 13 poetry books, and two novels. He won a plethora of awards – including multiple Junos and Grammys, the Order of Canada, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and inspired countless musicians, poets, and artists. He has been hailed as one of the most influential songwriters and greatest musicians of all time. Sadly, Cohen passed away earlier this week.

Words of the Week

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen performing for the IDF, with Ariel Sharon looking on.

Leonard Cohen performing for the IDF, with Ariel Sharon looking on.