Sunday, October 26, 2008

Clearness process

This past week I underwent what is known in Quaker circles as a clearness committee. A clearness committee is a group of elders, usually chosen by the person seeking clarity on some issue, who meet with a person seeking to clarify his or her thoughts and feelings about some spiritual matter of importance. If, for example, a Friend feels led to undertake some project or pursue a course of action, but is not entirely sure whether the leading stems from an abiding conviction or a transitory whim, the Friend may request that a clearness committee be formed. It is customary for a person to seek a clearness committee when seeking membership in a particular meeting. (The only way to become a Quaker is to become a member of local meeting that has been authorized to admit new members.) The clearness committee I had this past week was to examine my request to be made of a member of the Albuquerque Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

My situation was complicated by the fact that I am a dharmachari in the Western Buddhist Order and that I wish to remain one. This meant that I first had to contact my mentors in the Western Buddhist Order to determine how they would feel about my being a Quaker and whether they would see my becoming a Quaker as a repudiation of Buddhism in general or of the Western Buddhist Order in particular. The principal issue to be explored there was whether I myself experience any kind of conflict between my Buddhist convictions and practices and my Quaker convictions and practice. I do not. Asked whether I can even imagine anything coming up that would feel like a conflict in my mind, I respond that I cannot.

The next step was to meet with a Quaker clearness committee to explore whether the Albuquerque Society of Friends sees any obstacles to my being both a practicing Buddhist and a convinced Quaker. The four elders with whom I met could see none. They recommended, therefore, that my application for membership be approved by the meeting as a whole. If no one has any serious objections, their recommendation will be followed.

Both to those who know something about the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order and to those who know something about the history of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), it might come as a surprise that my intentions were approved by both organizations. Historically, the WBO has discouraged dual membership, and people have been advised to choose whether they wish to be part of the FWBO or part of some other Buddhist organization; serving two masters has not been seen as practicable. In the FWBO it has generally been assumed that it is entirely impossible to go effectively for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha while also practicing a non-Buddhist path such as Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism or Islam. The Quakers, it is well known, were originally a Christian reform movement, deeply convinced that Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Puritans had all corrupted the original teachings of Jesus Christ and had failed to follow Christ's example; their task was to return to a pure and uncorrupted form of Christianity. Being a faithful follower of Christ did not, for early Quakers, entail going for refuge to the Buddha. So one might well ask how a Quaker can be a Buddhist and how a Buddhist can be a Quaker. The answer is that things change. When people are open to change, they need not become stuck in patterns of belief and practice that were considered essential in the past.

In my own case, the Quaker meeting to which I applied for membership is part of the minority of Quakers that are universalist liberals and who feel free to draw inspiration from any and all spiritual traditions. One is every bit as likely to hear a liberal Friend quoting the Dhammapada, Gandhi, Laozi, Rumi or Walt Whitman as to hear quotations from the Bible or George Fox or Martin Luther King, Jr. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon to hear liberal Friends confess that they never read the Bible and find the Bible off putting, confusing and counterproductive. Liberal Quakers are a now a minority within the Society of Friends. The majority of Quakers are evangelical Christians with a rather aggressive missionary agenda. The largest concentration of Quakers in the world is in Kenya, a country in which American evangelical Quakers have been particularly active during the past several decades. It is close to a certainty that a Buddhist applying for membership in an evangelical Quaker meeting would be rejected.

How have liberal Quakers strayed so far from the roots of their Christocentric spiritual ancestors? The key to understanding this lies in remembering what George Fox and the first Quakers meant by being a disciple of Jesus Christ. They certainly did not mean being Biblical literalists. On the contrary, one of the most often quoted verses from the Bible in early Quaker testimony was "The spirit gives life, but letter killeth." George Fox was chided by priests and theologians of his day who pointed out that he could read neither Hebrew nor Greek. He responded by saying that all human beings participate in the “inward light,” that was the spirit that gave rise to the words in written scripture. We can all gain access to the source of all scriptures if we learn to still our minds, open our hearts and listen carefully to the still small voice that guided the prophets and Jesus Christ and the desert fathers. That same still small voice has spoken to people throughout history in all parts of the world. It need not speak in the same way to all people.

If one begins with the conviction that it is possible to understand the Bible only if one first listens to the spirit that resides in all people in all places, it is a short step to realizing that it is not necessary to understand the Bible at all. All one need understand (or try to understand) is the spirit that manifests in thoughts, dreams, imagination, fantasy, creativity, prayer and meditation, that inspires poets and revolutionaries and visionaries and gives stability to elders and caution to conservatives. Yes, one might find some passages in the Bible that agree with one's voice, but one may just as well find some passages in the writings of Zhuangzi, Nagarjuna or Sangharakshita that are congruent with the leadings of the inner spirit. No scriptural tradition is privileged. No scriptural tradition, and indeed nothing that any human being has said, is without potential spiritual value. No scripture will speak to everyone. No scripture will speak to no one. No one will find no guidance from somewhere.

There is, of course, a potential danger in openness, and especially in an uncritical and naive openness. The typical human mind conjures up quite a few half-baked whims and crackpot delusions in the course of an average day. Not every dream is significant; not every fantasy is as insightful as the sermon on the mount, or the words of the Dhammapada, or the poetry of Walt Whitman. Everyone needs a good editor. A good poet is one who does not publish her poorly crafted poems. A good photographer is one who never shows his bad photographs. A good visionary is one who does not share her every wild idea.

Who is the editor who helps a free spirit sort genuine leadings of the inward light from delusional enthusiasm? That what friends are for. It is not a good idea to embark on an open-ended, open-minded, open-hearted search for truths without the companionship of carefully chosen good friends. It is perhaps no accident that the two organizations through which I ply my spiritual trade are the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Without all these Friends, I would surely be, in the language of George Fox, “mazed in notions, gadding abroad from the truth and liable to disorderly walking.”

I wish thee clarity in thy seeking.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Meeting for worship for business

The author of a comment on a previous posting reported that he had heard that Quakers do not believe in voting, because they believe that God decides all things. This observation puzzled me, and I responded that Quakers tend to be quite engaged in the political process. Only later did it occur to me that what the author of the comment had been referring to was Quaker meetings for business, not to political elections. He was quite right in noting that in Quaker meetings for business within the Quaker organization, there is no voting. There is no voting, because there are no motions made during a meeting for business. There is nothing to vote on. This no doubt sounds mysterious to those who have never attended a Quaker meeting for business (more properly called a meeting for worship with attention to business). In what follows I shall try to describe how Quakers conduct business within their monthly meetings for business within the Society of Friends.

In meetings I have attended, the custom is for the clerk of the meeting to set an agenda of items to be discussed and decided. Agenda items are suggested to the clerk throughout the month and so arise from the concerns of members and attenders of the meeting for worship. The agenda of a business meeting is usually posted before the meeting so that those who attend the business meeting have an idea of what is going to be discussed. Like every other Quaker meeting for worship, the meeting for worship with attention to business begins in silence. Friends typically take advantage of the silence to settle their minds and, as far as it is possible, to leave prejudices aside so as to consider each concern with an unbiased mind. After several minutes of silence, the clerk will introduce an item on the agenda, perhaps inviting the Friend who submitted the concern to express the nature of his or her concern. Once the subject has been introduced, Friends again enter into silence to consider the concern. As they are moved to speak to the issue, Friends will rise to express their insights into the matter under discussion. Usually no record is kept of any of these expressions of insight. Eventually, after as much discussion as seems sufficient, the clerk of the meeting will “try a minute.” That is, the clerk will try to summarize what the collective will of the meeting is. To put the matter as Quakers usually put it, the clerk tries to express where the spirit has led the members of the meeting. Either the clerk or a recording clerk will write this minute down and then read it aloud. If the minute as formulated by the clerk or recording clerk seems to have captured the spirit of the meeting, the members will approve the minute. If any Friend feels the minute has not adequately expressed the sense of the discussion, recommendations will be made to alter the minute in some way. The approved minute is then recorded in the archives of the Meeting.

Perhaps needless to say, there is not always consensus on an issue. A Friend may disagree with where the spirit has led the rest of the Meeting. If so, that Friend will discern whether he or she feels a strong need to stand in the way of the decision expressed in the minute. If the Friend stands in the way, the minute is not acted upon. It is acted upon only if there is approval of everyone at the meeting for business. It is rare for a Friend to stand in the way of a spirit-led decision. Occasionally a Friend will ask that it be recorded in the minute that he or she dissented from the decision but has decided to stand aside rather than blocking the decided action.

A Quaker meeting for business is quite different from a meeting run according to Roberts Rules of Order. The minutes approved rarely mention the name of anyone involved in proposing the concern or in discussing it. Only if a Friend requests that his or her name be recorded as dissenting from the rest of the Meeting will any specific name be recorded.

The kinds of issues typically discussed at a Quaker meeting for worship for business can be quite varied. Someone who has been attending the meeting for some time may ask for membership. An attender or member may ask to be married in the care of the Meeting. The Meeting may decide whether to send a letter to the local newspaper on some social or political issue, or whether to make a financial donation to some charity. It may decide to form a policy on whether to allow same-sex couples to be married under the care of the Meeting.

The Quaker way of making decisions takes a good deal of time and therefore seems inefficient to some. It would probably not work very well for a group larger than a few hundred people to make decisions in the spirit-led way. It would be difficult to run a nation by Quaker business procedures. So when it comes to being citizens of a nation, most Quakers vote for candidates to public offices along with everyone else. If the candidates elected decide to do something that individual Quakers find highly objectionable (such as deciding to go to war), then individual Quakers will make their own decisions about, for example, whether to refuse to pay taxes and to go to prison instead. Quakers have a long history of choosing to go to prison on matters of conscience. Such decisions are made by individuals after considerable reflection, prayer and consultation with other Friends. About such decisions more will be said later.

My own experience with Quaker meetings for worship business has been enriched in recent years as a result of my serving as recording clerk at the Albuquerque Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Serving in this capacity has taught me a good deal about listening carefully and without judgment. Listening carefully has in turn taught me something about speaking and writing more carefully.

Friday, October 03, 2008

America's debt to her military

As America, pulling the world along with it, plunges ever deeper into a financial crisis and as politicians feverishly struggle to make cosmetic repairs to the symptoms of a broken economy, it is sobering to observe how little attention has been given to the root causes of the problem. Surely one of the root causes of the credit crunch is that the increasing national debt has got out of control. And surely one of the largest factors in America's national debt is the enormous amount of money spent every year on an overgrown military that has long outlived its usefulness.

John McCain has said that if elected president he would repair the failing economy by lowering taxes and aggressively scrutinizing every branch of government except the military for wasted expenditures that could be eliminated. This is like a surgeon telling a patient he is going to go into the body and remove every organ except the one that has been invaded by a malignant tumor. The most obvious source of wasted expenditures is the military. Unfortunately, not even Democrats (with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich) have the courage to point this out. The military has become a cancerous tumor that no one is willing to talk about in polite company.

The principal justification for the military, given by those who defend the resources poured into it, is that we live in a dangerous world filled with countries that want to harm us and that are eager to destroy our freedom. What this line of rationalization fails to acknowledge is that no one in the world has any desire to destroy American freedom. The reason America has enemies is not because it is a constitutional democracy, but because it interferes in the affairs of other countries and maintains a military presence in so many countries. According to an article on George Mason University's History News Network, in 2004 the United States had more than 700 military bases in about 130 countries. A more recent story published in 2007 puts the number of bases at 737 and the number of United States military personnel around the world at more than 2,5000,000. The cost of maintaining such a network of military establishments is as unnecessary as it is astronomical. It is a cost that has been bleeding the American economy to death for decades and that has done far more to increase our risks of being attacked by hostile forces than it has done to provide national security.

In her vice presidential debate with Senator Joe Biden, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin made the claim that America uses its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent. This seemed to legitimate America's nuclear arsenal in her mind. The implication was that other countries that have, or aspire to have, nuclear weapons would have the weapons for reasons other than deterrence and defense. Yet, as former Iranian president Mohammed Katami pointed out, there is only one country in the world that has actually used a nuclear weapon in warfare: the United States of America. It is not unreasonable for nations toward which the United States government has shown strong disapproval—if referring to a country as part of an axis of evil counts are strong disapproval—to feel vulnerable and in need of defense. If it is reasonable for the United States to have more than 10,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled, it is not unreasonable for Iran to aspire to have nuclear weapons as a deterrent against being attacked, especially when a Presidential candidate has said that preemptive military strikes against Iran are “not off the table.” and has repeatedly mocked his opponent for saying he is willing to negotiate with Iran without making Iran's abandoning its nuclear program a precondition for diplomatic talks.

As John McCain might say, “It's time for some straight talk, my friends.” It is time for the United States to disband its nuclear arsenal entirely. It has long outlived its usefulness (granting, for the same of argument, that it ever had any usefulness) and serves now only to bring unnecessary alarm and anxiety, not to mention terror, to the rest of the world. It is without a doubt part of the reason why others feel they have no option but to attack the United States and its allies. America's nuclear arsenal is not a deterrent to war but a provocation to attacks by people who desire nothing more than to be left alone to live undisturbed by an imperialistic superpower.

Disbanding America's nuclear arsenal is a necessary step to take in ensuring world peace, but it is not sufficient. America must also disband its 737 military bases on foreign soil and reduce its military to much lower levels. Canada maintains an armed force of 62,000 personnel. Canada's population is about one-tenth of that of the United States. A force that size is sufficient to defend Canada's land mass, airways and coastline, all of which are considerably larger than those of the United States. A force ten times that size would be more than adequate to defend the United States. The United States needs no more than around 625,000 military personnel, approximately 25% of what it now has.

If America's nuclear arsenal were disbanded, its foreign bases closed down and its personnel reduced by 75%, much of the huge drain on the American economy would disappear. Money saved could be used to increase foreign aid, thereby creating good will and dramatically decreasing the incentive of others to attack us. Other savings could be used to provide needed services to America's own citizens and residents. Desperately needed repairs to the country's infrastructure could be made. Education and health care could be dramatically improved.

John McCain's plan to maintain the most costly institution in the country—the military—while reducing the tax resources by which that bloated institution is paid for, is a prescription for disaster. That he makes such a proposal shows that he may be heading down the path of senior dementia that diminished the effectiveness of Ronald Reagan during his lackluster presidency. That his Democratic opponent has not been more aggressive in pointing just out how bankrupt a militaristic America has become is almost as great a source of concern. The change America needs does not seem to be just around the corner.