Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen scoured the Far East for spirituality — and found it close to home
Photos: Elchanan Kotler
When Dov Ber Cohen realized the people around him weren’t really happy, he knew where to find the tranquility and peace of mind he sought – the Far East, of course. Years later, on a stopover in the Holy Land, he learned that the wisdom he so desperately sought was rooted in Torah all along
Image One: The Fa Wang Si Temple, which covers almost all of Mount Song, in Henan province, China. But who is that young Westerner in the center of the photo, trained in extreme Shaolin Kung-Fu with two mean-looking sabers in his hands as he balances on a stone with one foot?
Image Two: The foot of the snowy Annapurna mountain range in Nepal. But who is that fellow sitting in a lotus position, calm and serene, looking as if he’s finally found the happiness he’d been seeking his entire life?
It’s the same face as that long-bearded rabbi outside the Aish HaTorah yeshivah in Jerusalem’s Old City, who’s chanting something that seems to shake the heavens, as a cluster of students surrounding him fervently answer “Amen.” Was it a siyum masechta? A tefillah for someone’s refuah? Oh, wait — that’s Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen, and he’s just made a “shehakol” on a cup of green tea.
When London-born Dov Ber (a.k.a. Bradley) Cohen was a student at the University of Manchester, he assumed the spirituality he was thirsting for would only be found in the villages and mountaintops of the Far East. In 2001, he put together a backpack and left for the land of the spirit. (“Living out of a backpack means you can only carry what you really need, and it’s incredibly liberating to realize just how little one needs to get by,” he says.) He worked in destitute orphanages in Sri Lanka and Laos, participated in silence retreats in Thailand, fasted in India, meditated with the monks in the Himalayas, trained in martial arts in Japan and Korea, and even became a teacher of Buddhism.
In time, though, he began connecting with his Jewish roots, and by the time he decided to settle in Eretz Yisrael in 2008, he was convinced that the Eastern wisdom he so diligently sought is actually rooted in Torah.
Today, as a teacher of Torah at Aish, a founder of workshops and international spiritual retreats, and author of Mastering Life: A Unique Guidebook to Jewish Enlightenment, he wants to spread one basic message: that Judaism, lived in a more conscious way, provides all the depth, meaning, personal growth, and spiritually that anyone could hope for.
In the orphanages of Sri Lanka
I’m Getting By
In Jerusalem, many yeshivahs have their “star rabbis,” some of them so popular that students from other institutions sneak in to hear them. Aish HaTorah is known for its teachers who have the ability to relate to both “lifers” and those who’ve never been in contact with Judaism, and one of those personalities is a slight man with a lilting British accent who spent six years in Southeast Asia between monasteries and meditational retreats before figuring out that the secret keys to his search were in Torah all along.
“I actually had a pretty strong Jewish identity growing up,” he relates. “I went to our Reform synagogue every Friday night until my bar mitzvah, I played on a Jewish soccer team, and went to a Jewish youth group. We had Yom Kippur, Pesach Seder, candles, and Kiddush on Friday night and a Chanukah menorah. I had a great life — lots of Jewish culture. But nothing spiritual. I just assumed that Judaism and spirituality had nothing to do with each other.”
Life was good, comfortable, but then something happened when he entered university. “I studied philosophy, and when I started looking around me, I saw that very few people are actually living with clarity of purpose and self-esteem, self-respect, meaning in life, and happiness. I’d ask people, ‘How are you,’ and their answer was always, ‘not bad,’ or ‘yeah, I’m getting by.’ But for me, it felt like a tragedy. I realized that I didn’t want to live a life of ‘getting by.’ When my grandfather, who lived to 100, was 98, he told me, ‘You should never live a “should have” life. At your age, make sure that you live life in a way that when you get to my age, you won’t say “I should have.”
“You know, everyone wants to be happy, but I wasn’t finding anyone who really was. Soon this search turned into an existential life crisis and I was feeling like there has got to be more to life than this.”
It wasn’t long before he became drawn to Eastern culture and philosophy, which he assumed would provide the answer to his quest, and after graduation, he packed up a few essentials and set off to find his pot of spiritual gold.
“It wasn’t just about traveling,” Reb Dov Ber recalls. “I had a very practical goal. I was out to discover the purpose of life and how to live with true inner peace and serenity.”
His first station was a small village in Sri Lanka. There was no running water or electricity, and the villagers had never seen a white person before. Still, he set to work in an orphanage, where the children gratefully ate one meal a day.
And that’s where he learned one of the most important life lessons, later on realizing that Chazal knew it all along.
“First of all, by seeing their deprivation, it made me realize how much I had,” says Reb Dov Ber. “But it’s also where I learned one of the fundamental secrets of happiness, and something we can all implement: gratitude and appreciation. These children had one pencil between all of them, and so I went to a store and bought each of them a pencil. It was the best day of their life. Everything they received, they totally appreciated, and this was initially a surprise to me. You see, we Westerners are focused on what we don’t have and what we wish we had. But focusing on what you lack will never help you, and is in fact guaranteed to always bring you down.”
This lesson of conscious appreciation, Reb Dov Ber notes, is perhaps the most basic source of happiness and tranquility in life. And later, when he discovered that it was a basic yet often overlooked tenet of Judaism, he realized that maybe the elusive key to his search was closer to home than he thought.
“Chazal knew this secret, and that’s why the very first thing we do in the morning is say Modeh Ani. Thank You Hashem. Because everything in creation,” he explains, “is encompassed in its beginning — a person’s essence lies in his cellular DNA, a plant in its seed… and our entire day in the way we get up in the morning.”
The mountains of Tibet. Dov Ber learned a fundamental secret of happiness: gratitude and appreciation
Choose Your Reactions
After six months in Sri Lanka, Dov Ber Cohen moved on to Thailand, where he remained for the next year and a half, learning the language and becoming proficient in the finer points of Buddhism. In university he studied meditation and eastern religions, but here was the real thing — now he could spend lots of time in temples with the monks.
His first foray into authentic eastern meditation was a ten-day silent-meditation retreat, together with another 50 foreigners who were searching for an elusive level of peace of mind. Listening to him describe the regimen, it sounds more like an Asian prison sentence than a voluntary retreat, but he says it was actually one of the most powerful experiences of his life. The organizers showed him to his tiny room, furnished with a wooden bedframe with no mattress and another block of wood that would be his pillow. There was one meal a day at 11 a.m., and a snack at six p.m. — one cup of warm soy milk.
“There was no reading, no writing, no listening to music or watching programs, no phones, no talking — nothing. Just you and your mind,” he says. “The idea is to learn to control your mind.”
The first two days are the most difficult, he says, because you realize how crazy your mind is. But then your mind starts to calm down a lot. By day three or four he felt very peaceful, even enlightened. Then, around day five, he went to a deeper place where more subconscious issues came up and that made him feel agitated, but then it got calm again… and eventually, after the rollercoaster of digging up all those subconscious thoughts, he realized that a person has the ability to totally control the mind, that the external world doesn’t have to make you feel a certain way, and that you can choose your reactions instead of being hijacked by them.
“Because,” he explains, “if you can’t control your mind, you can’t control your life.”
While that week of silence was essentially a non-Jewish response and a tool for rising above the pressures of the world, the idea of decluttering the brain and getting rid of all the “noise” that tells us how we should feel instead of taking responsibility for our feelings is found in classic Jewish sources.
“In the Shema it says ‘Lo sasuru acharei levavchem v’acharei eineichem — don’t be a victim to your thoughts and desires.’ In Pirkei Avos we’re taught, ‘Eizehu gibor? Hakoveish es yitzro — Who is a strong person? The one who can control his thoughts and emotions.’ Now,” Reb Dov Ber explains, “I’m not suggesting anyone go on one of these extreme retreats, but at least we can start to become more aware of what we are thinking and understand so that we can start controlling what’s going on in our minds. This is so essential, seeing as our thoughts create our emotions and our experience of life. We get so caught up in our minds that we think we are what our thoughts are.”
He uses this model to explain the difference between pain and suffering: Pain, says Reb Dov Ber, is a feeling, either physical or emotional, and an unavoidable piece of living in This World. Suffering, on the other hand, is the mind not dealing with those feelings in a productive way. We all have pain in our life, but if we relate to pain in the correct way, it doesn’t need to become suffering. Because although we can’t generally choose our situations, we can choose how to react. Are you going to be a victim of your circumstances? Or are you going to realize that through effort and pushing through pain and challenges — or sometimes just accepting things we can’t control — we get depth, peace of mind, meaning, and growth? Instead, we need to try to find meaning in the pain: How can I grow from this?”
And if you can’t find the meaning? “Then you trust and know that there is meaning. This is emunah.”
Were You Really There?
In a small island off the coast of Korea, Reb Dov Ber embarked on intensive training in martial arts. Although he’d had some amateur training previously, he dedicated himself to training daily with a local master, a former national Taekwondo champion “who had the deadliest pair of legs I’ve ever had the misfortune to be repeatedly kicked by.” Training involved running up a volcano in the snow in minimal clothing, side-kicking wooden boards in half, jumping off walls, spinning in the air to kick a board and then landing on the same foot, punching out candles without touching them, and many other exercises that demand extreme focus and precision. After a year and a half, he had a black belt.
Taekwondo wasn’t the only technique he studied. He trained in extreme martial arts for 16 hours a day near Shaolin, China, the world capital of Kung Fu, and those skills were interwoven with meditative practices that emphasized mind over matter. There, training began with a five a.m. bell and some stretching before running down to the bottom of the mountain, from where they had to run up back to the temple.
“On the first day, I hardly made it a quarter of the way up before my lungs felt like they were going to burst and my legs refused to go any further,” Reb Dov Ber remembers. But with the daily routine of extreme stretching, weapon training, weight training, Tai chi, and personal meditation (not to mention his master whacking him on the back of his legs with a bamboo stick if he stopped running), after five weeks he could make the run back up the hill with little effort.
Later, in a small town in Japan, his days consisted of long hours of meditation and intense training. But while Westerners associate martial arts with violence, in the East, it’s actually the opposite. It’s about an almost hypnotic repetition, but immense attention to detail.
“This turned out to be a huge insight for me when I began to connect with Judaism,” Reb Dov Ber says. “At first I had a hard time connecting with the immense number of small details — wash your hands like this, put your shoes on like this… until one day it hit me, that really, in all areas of life, when we value something, details count.”
He remembers a majestic waterfall in Korea that pours directly into the sea and is a tourist attraction for nature lovers all over the world. “But one thing I noticed,” he says, “is that they’d come and take a selfie with the waterfall in the background and then leave, but not really ever be present in the moment there. This was a real wake-up call to me: We’re so busy with the past and future, worrying, regretting, and so on, but we’re never really in the present. Even if you’re watching a beautiful sunset, you might be thinking, ‘It wasn’t as nice as yesterday’s,’ or ‘T his would be a great Instagram picture to show where I was.’ But were you actually there?”
Sanctify, Don’t Separate
Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen is adamant that all the legitimate spirituality of the East is actually sourced in Torah, so I asked him why, then, are so many Jews attracted to Eastern culture?
“Because when you see a picture of a Buddhist monk,” Rabbi Cohen says, “he’s meditating on a beautiful mountain or in a serene temple. When you see a picture of a religious Jew, he’s wearing a black suit and a black hat, maybe smoking a cigarette, arguing over ancient texts… It doesn’t seem so peaceful and connected. And so, on the surface level, your average Orthodox Jew doesn’t look too spiritual, plus he has all these rules he has to follow….”
When I ask him, then, if we should import some spiritual elements of Eastern culture, his answer is blunt.
“We don’t need to import anything from any culture. We just need to live our own culture in a more holistic way, although that’s a scary word for most people because it sounds like we should become hippies. But what it means is that we should live Judaism in the conscious and joyful way that it’s meant to be lived.”
Still, after six years of wandering through Asia, Bradley/Dov Ber had no idea that he could find this spirituality in his own backyard. He was planning the next leg of his years-long adventure in Central and South America. But, taking advantage of the proximity, he decided on a quick stopover in Israel to visit family and friends. Somehow, he made his way to Tzfas, where he started learning about the depth, beauty, and spirituality of Yiddishkeit for the first time.
Eventually he made his way to Aish HaTorah where he finally got his answer to the question none of the other masters could answer satisfactorily: “How do you know this is true?”
Then he discovered a fundamental difference between Eastern philosophy and Judaism. “When I started coming back to Judaism,” he says, “I realized how in the East, you have to detach from the physical world. Sit in a temple or cave, fast, have minimal physical interaction. Judaism, however, is the balance — and maybe that’s why Eretz Yisrael is in the middle between east and west. We sanctify the physical instead of separating from it.
“When I got to Israel from India, I met a frum Yid who told me his brother was in India and attached himself to a guru who claimed he could read auras. He was walking with the guru, when he picked an apple from a tree, mumbled something, and ate it. The guru asked him what he’d said, and this fellow’s brother answered, ‘Well, I grew up religious so it’s just habit to make a brachah.’ Then the guru told him, ‘I never saw anything like this before: When you pick an apple from the tree, it separates from the life force and dies, and there is no longer an aura around it. But when you made that blessing, it brought the aura back.’”
Dov Ber’s formula for a good life: With every decision, ask yourself, is this making me a better person?
Quiet That Noise
Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen lives with his wife and children in Jerusalem, continues to learn and teach Torah, and has earned semichah. His book Mastering Life chronicles his adventures in the Far East and shares insights into finding real meaning and joy in life, and paradigm-shifting perspectives on Jewish thought and practice, and offers practical exercises to achieve calmness and yishuv hadaas in a complicated and often confusing world.
Today, Reb Dov Ber is on a mission: He wants to teach humanity — or at least the people in his many workshops and classes — about mindfulness, real priorities, and the Torah way to achieve true inner peace and serenity, regardless of the pain and challenges hitting you from all sides.
Judaism, he explains, has an ancient meditation tradition, although it’s called by other names: working on your character traits, developing love and compassion, calming your mind, conquering your yetzer hara. “The Gemara tells us that ‘the early chassidim would sit for an hour before davening.’ What were they doing during that hour? The Rambam explains: ‘Lehashkis machshavtam — to quiet their thoughts.’ These are not foreign concepts. They are all rooted in Torah.
“But our goal,” Reb Dov Ber clarifies, “isn’t meditation for its own sake. It’s a technique to achieve a level of ‘mindfulness’ — to calm our minds so that we can really use our minds, not to space out from our minds. We train our minds in emunah, in bitachon, in the idea that everything is from Hashem, and at that level, it’s impossible to feel doubt, anxiety, anger, hate, jealousy, and other negative emotions. What is your mind telling you? In order to build emunah, you have to get rid of the noise and regain control of your mind.
“Mindfulness,” he continues — a theme promoted by his rebbi, Rav Itamar Schwartz, author of the Bilvavi book series — “is a way of living. Of being present in the moment. Of being conscious, of being aware. Of being intentional.” It means being here, exactly where Hashem put you at the moment.
In kabbalistic seforim, and in the Shulchan Aruch as well, the first step in this reframing process is called “hashkasah — quieting down.” Because the ego is what creates all the clutter in the mind, all the self-centered associative thoughts, the first thing to do is quiet the ego to allow the neshamah to be exposed.
How to do that? Reb Dov Ber gives straightforward, uncomplicated instructions: “Turn off your phone. Sit up straight. Loosen your neck and shoulders. Start breathing very deeply and steadily through your nose and focus all your attention in your breath coming in and going out. Feel Hashem keeping you alive as He sends His breath into you. If your mind begins to wander, just catch it, smile and bring your attention back to your breath. Don’t get frustrated, don’t give up, and don’t fight. This is called ‘hakovesh es yitzro.’ Hashkasah.”
But why bother with all this? Why not just go through life keeping Shabbos and doing other mitzvos?
“Because,” says Reb Dov, “you have a job in This World: to become the best version of you that you can, to reach your potential. You are a beautiful, shining holy soul, so deal with your character defects by becoming the master of your mind, body, and emotions. It’s not about what you’re doing with your life, but who you’re being when you’re doing it. The purpose of Torah and mitzvos is to create deep connection between you and yourself, you and your fellow, you and Hashem. Just going through the motions will never achieve that. Success, in Torah terms, is not based on what you have, it’s based on who you are, how much you have perfected yourself in thought, speech, and action, and how much you’re giving to those around you. And as you become your best, you’re helping others around you become great as well. Every decision you ever make, every corner you turn, run it through that idea: Is this making me a better person or helping me improve the world?”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 958)
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