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Yuval Ido Tal.(Photo by: Amiram Zionov)
Buddhism and the city
Buddhist psychology expert Yuval Ido Tal shares his wide-ranging knowledge with specialty courses at Tel Aviv University.
Yuval Ido Tal never realized his early dreams of becoming an architect. Instead, his life took an unexpected turn after he read Tao Te Ching, one of the three basic Taoist books.

"I bought it and read it three times in one day. It totally changed my life," Ido Tal tells The Jerusalem Post. As well as being academic director of Psycho-Dharma (The Israeli School for the Buddhist Study of the Mind), he is also a senior lecturer and meditation teacher, translator of modern and ancient Buddhist writings and a published author.

Many years ago he was studying architecture in Italy, where he had a romantic notion of studying the practice where it all began - in Florence. However, the budding architect was not fully satisfied. "I started asking questions," he recalls. "I thought I was doing something from the heart but I realized it was a rationalization of the heart." He admits that he was aiming for something that would give him more artistic pleasure. Enter Buddhism.

A self-confessed hedonist, Ido Tal explains that it was hard not to express that side of himself while he was studying. About a year and a half into being in Florence he came across the Tao Te Ching (also known as the Laozi) and realized that he had to make some major changed in his life.

"I sat down and wrote a 14-page letter to my dad, mainly because he was helping me with my studies," says Ido Tal. "I told him that I was going to quit school to go learn Chinese so I could read the original Buddhist readings."

With the final decision made, the young Israeli came back home. Upon arriving, his father informed him that an East Asian department at Tel Aviv University had been opened. The rest, as they say, is history. He started studying there and didn't feel the need to go to China anymore because learning about the different cultures became his main focus and that was enough to satisfy his curiosity.

It took the passionate student five years to finish his Bachelors studies. This was not because he failed classes or found it difficult. The opposite is true. If he wasn't "in love" with the course, he would move on until he found courses that he could "make love to."

"If I wasn't making love with the course then I wouldn't take it. I had an aversion to anything that wasn't love making," he recalls. After a Masters in religious studies, Ido Tal began traveling to India and made special visits to Tibetan monks. With five years of studying under his belt he began teaching basic meditation.

As he gained more experience, he started teaching about Buddhist psychology and philosophy. "It was never about tradition for me," he says. "I never considered myself part of any Buddhist lineage. I never wanted to be." Instead, his main inspiration was always Zen, something that he says grounded him. Zen is something that has been important to Ido Tal for some time and, according to him, is open to interpretation.

After years of interest and study, Ido Tal explains that he went through a transformation whereby "it became a lot less about me." He became more interested in the Buddhist origins of Zen and decided that he wanted to help other people.

Helping others is what he focuses on today, mainly through his courses at The Israeli School for the Buddhist Study of the Mind. The school is based in the Broshim Campus of Tel Aviv University and teaches Buddhist psychology, alongside meditation as well as other related topics.

"We present it at is it," he says. "We don't try to adopt modern terms." Instead of proving a quick fix, the school aims to provide people with the means to understand how the mind works. Instead of looking at Buddhism in a religious sense or as a medicine for suffering, the instructors aim to help people decrease their suffering and to try to help students connect to sources of plenty in their lives that are untapped. "We offer a better life, not a perfect life."

According to Ido Tal, the Buddhist point of view suggests that the human heart is mailable. At the courses offered at his department the mind is treated in the same way as muscles in the body. "Happiness is a muscle you can train," he suggests. "We try to see which muscles are overused and train them accordingly."

The unique brand of courses on offer attract a very diverse range of people, even though most of them fall into the middle class to upper middle class bracket, mainly because of the costs involved. A diverse range of people can be found in one class, including artists, lawyers, judges, doctors, poets, editors, agricultural specialists, students, pensioners, teachers, social workers and academics.

With a wide range of characters comes a wide range of activities on offer at the school. Some of the courses are once every two weeks, some are once a week, while others are three times a week. The aim is to match each person with their own specific interests and how much time they can devote. "We are not trying to offer a way out of everyday life, we are trying to offer something that helps with everyday life," says Ido Tal.

He stresses that they are not providing self-help courses. There is a strong emphasis on interpersonal relationships. "We don't just want our students to be happy. We want them to be better to other people."

Yuval Ido Tal is the author of  Buddhism - A Short Introduction, and Selected Poems of Ogawa Yukimitsu.
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