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Book Review: “Entering the Sacred Mountain”

March 5, 2010

Entering the Sacred Mountain: Exploring the Mystical Practices of Judaism, Buddhism, and Sufism
by Rabbi David A. Cooper
1994, Bell Tower
9 out of 10

This book appears to have been out of print since 1995, which is a real shame. It is among Rabbi Cooper’s best works, alongside his brilliant God Is a Verb (1998, Riverhead Books), as well as one of the best spiritual biographies I’ve yet to encounter.

Taking place over the course of several years, Entering the Sacred Mountain moves frequently between excerpts from Rabbi Cooper’s journals from the time and detailed reflections on the events of his life and spiritual practice of the time of the entries. The narrative style is interesting in that it does not follow broad trends as much as very specific details. Still, the order and depth of the details give the reader an intimate view of the Rabbi’s life between the years of 1981 and 1992. It is obvious that Cooper chose a particularly eventful period of his life; it is during the decade in question that he and his wife, Shoshana, jointly entered an increasingly deep spiritual practice, converted to Judaism, dealt with the stress and conflicts as well as pleasures of married life, and moved to Israel. It was also during these years that Cooper trained under Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to himself become a rabbi.

All of these events do more than provide context. They reveal how so-called “mundane life” is inextricably linked with the spiritual life; how we cannot segregate them or draw lines through our life experiences; how our relationships with our fellow human beings and even other life forms inform and enhance our connections with God.

Rabbi Cooper also uses his own life to demonstrate the essentially universal nature of the mystical practices and experiences underlying all traditional religions. He has studied the mysticism of Christianity, Judaism, Sufism (Islam), Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. In Entering the Sacred Mountain, he describes many experiences with the three with which he was most familiar.

Much of Cooper’s earliest mystical experience seems to have been in Sufism, a tradition to which I have had very little exposure myself but which, after reading of Cooper’s time with Sufism, I would like to get to know. Having been raised in a secular Jewish family, there was no apparent cultural conflict for Cooper to practice an Islamic form of mysticism. Instead, he found in Sufism a joyful, ecstatic form of spiritual practice and expression, easily accessible to people of all backgrounds.

In Buddhism, Rabbi Cooper found a more disciplined, quiet approach. Intensive Vipassana retreats followed upon his earliest experiences in Buddhist meditation. These powerful insight meditations led him to a deeper understanding of himself and to the world around him.

The most fascinating part of the story, though, is how Sufism and Buddhism led him, against expectation, back to his ancestral faith of Judaism. He burrowed deeply into the traditional Jewish life. He and his wife traveled to Israel and even moved to Jerusalem in order to better live the Jewish life. They did not, in this experiment, give up their meditative practices, but instead applied them bit by bit within  Jewish context in order to bring their Judaism to a deeper, more intensive life.

Rabbi Cooper is very honest, though, about the conflicts he encountered during his process. He and Shoshana found that they did not ever feel completely at home in orthodox Judaism, largely due to a combination of its conservative social positions and the nonacceptance of their “non-Jewish” spiritual activities. I can sympathize with this process almost in its entirety. Since I’ve become a Christian, a big part of the process has been finding ways of integrating the spiritual practices which have brought me to where I am and continue to carry my onward with my love for Christ. Once this integration had taken place, the next task, still ongoing, became finding my own place within the social structure of Christianity. I do not feel that it is impossible to do so, however, and Rabbi David Cooper is a great example of the process in action.

Rabbi David Cooper is a wonderful example to spiritual seekers of all sorts. He found what works and found ways of integrating it all in a way that is meaningful for himself. If you can find a copy of Entering the Sacred Mountain, do not hesitate to pick it up! Spiritual biographies are always helpful to us as we move along our own paths, but especially so when they are so honest and identifiable.

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