Thursday, September 25, 2008

How to be a Quakerly Buddhist (maybe)

Normally I am opposed to mixing religious traditions. Whether or not this resistance is well advised, I tend to trust that a system of doctrines and practices that have grown up in an organic relation to one another have a greater coherence than any system of beliefs and practices I could develop in the course of a single lifetime. I trust the collective wisdom of the human race better than I trust my own wisdom, and I trust the process of correcting mistakes that human beings do collectively more than I trust myself to correct my own mistakes. Moreover, I am convinced that different religious traditions simply focus on different problems, and therefore have different goals and that their differences in practice and doctrine reflect those different perceptions on what it is about human life that is broken and in need of repair. It rarely works to take a practice out of one tradition and its perception of what is wrong and to put that practice into another tradition that is trying to be a solution to a different problem. Given all this, it is odd that I find myself believing (perhaps falsely) that I am both a Buddhist and a Quaker. And yet that is what I believe, and I guess I owe myself an explanation.

My first exposure to a Buddhist account of what is unsatisfactory about life as most of us know it seemed to me just about exactly right. So did the account of what could be done to improve life, or at least improve my own approach to it. My first reaction to hearing a Buddhist account of all this was to feel thrilled that others saw things as I did and that I was not alone. In a way, I was still very much alone, because I could not find very many people in my cultural setting who were as thrilled with Buddhism as I was. So I could find no human teachers. I learned as much as I could from books, and I read as many books on Buddhism as I could get my hands on, and I tried my best to arrange my life in accordance with Buddhist teachings.

One of the first Buddhist teachings I recall encountering more than forty years ago were these words from the Dhammapada:

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred... Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

These words said (and still say) just about everything that lies at the base of my attitudes toward war, toward philosophical disputes, toward partisan politics, toward religious sectarianism and toward community life. We are all mortal, and as far as we know this one life is all we have, so why waste this one life harboring grudges against those whom we perceive as aggressors? Why waste time passing judgment on those who think and act differently from how we were conditioned to act? Why invest time and energy and other resources in defending what I have been conditioned to believe is mine to own? Why not instead radically question the very idea that anyone actually owns anything? Why not see nations as dangerous abstractions that probably cause more harm than good and that stand in the way of healing festering ruptures in the body of the human race? Why not see being human as a dangerous abstraction that ruptures our relationship with plants and animals and the seas and the soil and the air? In short, why approach life hatefully, seeing myself in an antagonistic competition with others? Why not approach the world by being in love with it? Why not think and act like a Buddhist?

Christianity seemed to me as hopelessly muddled and confused as Buddhism seemed clear and insightful. Most of the Christians I knew about at the early stage of my adult life were mindlessly patriotic, and many were openly racist. Since patriotism and racism were as far from my own values as it was possible to get, I had no use for a religious ideology that tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, those attitudes. I kept as much distance between myself and Christians as I could keep, thereby probably depriving myself of many a beneficial friendship. Looking on it now, I would have to say I acted as if I hated Christians, which was an odd thing for a person who was trying to live without hatred to do. I was young.

As luck would have it, the first group of people I encountered whose lives were obviously far more in harmony with Buddhist principles than mine was were Quakers. Were they Christians? I had a very difficult time figuring that out. They talked about Christ quite a bit, but it was obvious that what they meant by that was not at all what I had learned that most Christians believed. It has taken the better part of my adult lifetime to get some sense of what Quakers might mean when they talk about Holy Spirit and Christ and the Inward Light and “answering to that of God in everyone.” I think I have some idea what I mean by those things, but I'm probably not entirely sure about even that.

Here's a confession. When I first went to Quaker meetings forty-one years ago I mostly did Buddhist meditative exercises. The Quakers were for the most part silent, so meditating in their presence was not hard to do, and I quickly learned to put up with the fact that every now and then somebody stood up and said something. I listened to what was said and then got back to my Buddhist practice. I did that for years. I now believe that was a foolish thing to do and that I surely would have got much more from Quaker meetings if I had done my Buddhist meditations somewhere else on my own time and attended Quaker meetings with a more open heart and mind. I was young for a long time.

It cannot be postponed any longer. I really do have to say something about “answering to that of God in everyone.” As I see human beings, everyone who is alive and everyone who has ever been alive, has acquired, either through birth or acculturation or some combination of those, a mixture of drives and motivation, some of which make for harmonious and happy living and some of which make for disruption and miserable living. No one is purely harmonious, and no one is purely disruptive. In other language, no one is entirely good, and no one is entirely evil. Even the most depraved person has some wisdom and compassion and some capacity to love and to manifest some kindness. All those harmonious and productive and positive and ennobling drives—what some would call the good or the virtuous in a person—are what I call, for the sake of convenience, that of God in the person. And answering to that of God in everyone means focusing as much attention as possible on those bits of goodness in every person, no matter how feeble those bits of goodness may be or how rarely they may manifest. Focusing on those ennobling characteristics rather than on the more vicious characteristics is answering to that of God. Answering to that of God makes it possible for me to find something to like in everyone, and it dramatically decreases the chances that I will dismiss anyone as evil or useless or worthless. It increases the likelihood that I will regard everyone as a friend and no one as an enemy. To see everyone as a friend all of the time is my goal. As I get older, I am somewhat closer to that goal than I was as a younger man, probably because of so many others who have kindly answered to that of God in me.

A Quaker meeting, especially among unprogrammed Friends, is a ritual of sitting in silence and waiting for a Spirit-led communication. As one sits in silence, puts the business of life aside, lets the mind settle by setting aside beliefs and prejudices and presuppositions, one can become quite open to listening to those thoughts that percolate into awareness from somewhere by somehow bypassing the ego. A lot of those thoughts, of course, are only half-baked bits of fantasy, dreamlike fragments of impractical temporary madness. Best not to give voice to them. Every now and then, perhaps once every month or so, a thought may arise that feels coherent and perhaps even somewhat worth sharing. Such thoughts, having leaked in past the ever-vigilant ego, which wants nothing to seem out of character, often feel as if they came from someone else. Often before one has given the matter any further thought, one is standing up and speaking aloud, often with a racing heart and with trembling hands and voice. It is not for nothing that people who rise to speak are called quakers. The convention is to say that these thoughts that come from something like the unconscious and not from the ego are Spirit led. I don't mind using such language to talk about something I scarcely understand. I guard against the trap of thinking that by using an expression I am understanding what I am talking about.

The more one is sitting in a Quaker meeting doing a programmed Buddhist meditative exercise, the more one is shutting oneself off from the experience of being a Quaker. One cannot listen to the silence if one is filling the internal silence with mantras and prayers. This is not to say there is no use at all for silent recitation of prayers or for doing some mindfulness of breathing to still the mind. Usually at the beginning of every meeting for worship I go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and do a quick review of where I stand with respect to the ten Buddhist precepts. And then I look around to see who is present and who is absent, and I take notice of anyone who seems to be afflicted in some way, and I think of how they might be comforted in the affliction and assess whether I am in any position to take part in the process of offering them the comfort they need. And then I still my mind (which is rarely a difficult thing for me to do these days) and listen.

Aside from going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, which I do out of lifelong habit and out of sincerity, I try not to let any Buddhist ideas or practices intrude on Quaker practice. It turns out, I think, that behaving as a practicing Buddhist ends up being pretty well indistinguishable when viewed from the outside from behaving as a practicing Quaker. When I refrain from killing a cockroach or say something to try to bring a bit of cheer to a weary heart, is there any point in deciding whether the cockroach was spared because of Buddhism or because of Quakerism? Is my attempt to be truthful a Buddhist or a Quaker attempt at truthfulness? Does anyone care what label to put on it? If so, let them do the labeling. It's not my job.

If following a path required me to kill or steal or tell lies or treat people abusively, it would obviously conflict with both my Buddhist and my Quaker practice. But nothing in my Buddhist practice conflicts with my Quaker practice, and nothing in my Quaker practice conflicts with my Buddhist practice. So why decide which practice is which?

That is as close as I can get to explaining to my own satisfaction how I can be both a Buddhist and a Quaker without mixing the two together.


Unknown said...

Wonderful post. I am Buddhist with great sympatico for Quakers.

I probably know less about both religions than you, but for me I cannot be a Quaker.

For one thing, based on the very few Quaker sermons and informationals I have gotten, I understand that the Quakers do not believe in voting; they believe that God does the choosing.

There also is the underlying belief in Book of John- and Revelation-based Christianity that Jesus was not mere mortal, as the other books in the New Testament and the gnostics believe.

Too there is this believe in becoming a tool of Jesus whipped about by Satan's evil influence and wish-thinking gifts that come to one from God. I much more so believe in science and randomness.

Also, I have to believe in evolution and not the Genesis account of the beginnings of human life. On this issue, I don't know what Quakers believe.

Dayamati said...

I have never met a Quaker who was opposed to voting. Most I know are heavily involved in getting out the vote, canvassing for candidates, driving people to the polls and monitoring the counting of votes. It may be worth mentioning that in the United States there are two very different branches of Quakers. Some are almost fundamentalist and quite evangelical. It's possible your reports are of Quakers of that stripe. (Richard Nixon was of that persuasion.) The other branch is pluralistic and ecumenical. That is the only kind I have known personally.

All the Quakers I have known personally are Darwinists, scientifically rather than biblically oriented. Those who read the bible at all tend to read it is myth and allegory rather than as history. Almost all Quakers I know take the bible with more grains of salt than can be found in the state of Utah.

It is likely that you are right in saying you could not be a Quaker of the ilk that Richard Nixon belonged to. Neither could I be one of those. They wouldn't have me anyway; I'm a Buddhist. You might, however, find the more liberal, ecumenical and pluralistic Quakers, the so-called unprogrammed Quakers or Hicksites, more to your liking.