Photo by Ruth Bar-Eden

“I’m taking you to a spa in the Dead Sea,” my sister told me.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Spa: short, three-letter word capturing the essence of indulgence: a sauna, a pool, a Turkish hamam, another pool of warm, oily Dead Sea waters, a massage, and a late lunch overlooking the lowest place on earth, the mountains and Judean desert on one side, where mystics for thousands of years wandered, Jordan on the other side, and in the middle, the Dead Sea. The Essenes lived here, men and women monastics who wanted to get close to God. Some say Jesus of Nazareth walked here.

Those mystics, who took shelter in caves from the blazing sun, who had to search for hidden springs for water, were kept company by ibex and took precautions against snakes, did not go to the Ein Gedi Synergy Spa. They were not offered a host of teas and Italian coffee, lightweight bathrobes and flip-flops. They didn’t need signs to tell them to maintain silence. At dawn the sun came up over the Hills of Moab, where the Biblical Ruth came from, turning everything pink, and at night the purple Judean Hills invited them into their dark embrace. Like the Buddha, they renounced everything. Owning nothing, they felt closer to God.

All my life I’ve felt a close affinity with this place and its mystic inhabitants, have come back again and again, brought friends, husband, and Japanese roshis, not to wander the desert but to guesthouses and hotels. Yesterday, to the Synergy Spa.

We Western Buddhists have to own our life, own our choices. And what we’ve chosen is to have: a home, a friend, a spouse, a partner, children, a job, a livelihood, credit cards. Our practice isn’t to renounce and exclude, but to have and let go. To reach for something knowing it’s changing even as we reach for it, to love someone as we grow nimble in the art of losing him or her, to include everything in our field of awareness including those we rue and regret, to embrace life fully and very, very patiently.

I can’t spend the rest of my life feeling like a second-class Buddhist because I chose to have rather than to renounce, to say yes rather than no. But our teachings, our koans, our roots all lie in that world of No. Once we fully face that and examine the effects of that conditioning, we could start consciously making the turn to Householder Zen, Householder Buddhism.

I always think of Bernie here. I’ve been a lifelong admirer of Gandhi, who possessed his loincloth and eye glasses and not much more. “You have a mind of poverty,” Bernie used to tell me. “When you have money, have it. When you don’t have money, don’t have it.”

Being here in Jerusalem with my folks, especially my brother who is examining new paradigms in modern Judaism, I appreciate what family is for us, the importance of giving care, the wonders of vacations, breaks, and even spas. Appreciating my body, the fragrance and variety of foods, the beauty of hand-painted Armenian tiles in a store in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City—do these things automatically translate to self-absorption, possessiveness, greed? To being a second-class Buddhist?