It was a logical question for the Dalai Lama to ask his Jewish visitors, yet it caught them completely off guard.
Poet Rodger Kamenetz has pondered his question for a decade: "Can you tell me the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile?"
"Notice that the Dalai Lama asked about spiritual survival, not cultural survival," said Kamenetz, author of "The Jew in the Lotus," a classic travelogue of uncharted terrain between two spiritual traditions. "What he was really asking was, 'How do you survive spiritually until you can return to your homeland?' "
The exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader assumed that Jews had learned valuable lessons about survival during centuries of life in foreign, often hostile, cultures and lands. But he also assumed that this ability to survive was linked to the practice of the rites and prayers of the Jewish faith.
This is a haunting question for Jews in an age when so few actively practice their faith, said Kamenetz, during a prayer seminar for the Palm Beach (Fla.) Fellowship of Christians and Jews. But this question about spiritual survival should haunt all devout believers in an age in which ancient faiths seem to under attack -- by forces both obvious and subtle.
It's easy to focus on threats such as persecution, terrorism and war. While these forces are real, Kamenetz warned that ancient religious traditions are also being buried in commercialism and entertainment. Faith has become a "consumer good." For millions, a religious tradition is now a product that they purchase, not a way of life that they practice.
In his opinion, the worship, prayer and ethical traditions at the heart of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam should be added to a spiritual "endangered species" list.
Take Buddhism, for example, which appears to be flourishing and winning converts in media-soaked America. Simply stated, Buddhism is being bought and sold. And Kamenetz is not the only scholar who is worried about the rise of a consumer-friendly Buddhism in the spirituality marketplace.
Indeed, some forms of exile are subtler than others.
"All of the world's great religions provide profound challenges to the unexamined life," noted Stephen Prothero of Boston University, at Salon.com. "At their best, they offer devastating diagnoses of human sickness and radical remedies for it. They demand crazy things -- that we love our enemies, that we deny ourselves. ... At their best, religions are difficult, confusing and mysterious."
Meanwhile, the fad that many call Baby Boomer Buddhism is "all too often shallow and small," he said. "It soothes rather than upsets, smoothing out the palpable friction between Buddhist practice and the banalities of contemporary American life."
Consider one item sold in many spiritual bookstores. Consumers can now buy rocks with this inscription -- "What Would Buddha Do?"
There are other seekers -- including growing numbers of "JUBUs" or Jewish Buddhists -- who find Buddhism attractive because they see it as a form of spirituality without dogmas, creeds, beliefs, commandments and rituals that resemble anything they were required to learn as children. They simply ignore what traditional Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama have to say about hot-button moral issues, such as abortion, homosexuality of sexual abstinence.
"Let's face it," said Kamenetz, "one of the reasons Buddhism has become so popular, with so many Americans, so fast, is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical content.
"You are left with a religion that makes very few demands of you. Is that Buddhism?"
Interfaith dialogues between Jews, Christians and Buddhists are sure to increase, as more Buddhists blend into the American mainstream. The number of Americans converting to Buddhism will also continue to rise.
Will the new Buddhists compromise and assimilate? Will they be able to spiritually survive while "exiled" in this strange land?
"It may take 300 years for a true Buddhism to come to America," said Kamenetz. "In the meantime, you're going to continue to see all of these hybrid forms. People are taking pieces of this faith and combining it with pieces of that faith. ...
"This is all so, so American."