Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for January 10th, 2010

Confessions and confusions of a Buddhist Quaker

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A while back I was inteviewed (in English) on a Dutch Buddhist radio station. The interviewer, Fred Gales, had done his homework well and was interested in asking questions about my dual religious membership in a Quaker meeting and in a Buddhist organization. His questions provoked me into thinking more carefully about just how I manage to balance and reconcile these two approaches to religious practice, and about why I don’t experience any conflicts on account of pursuing two paths at the same time. Thinking about all these things has made me review pretty much my entire life (yet again) in a search for clues that might help solve this mystery.

Sometime in the 1980s, during my Zen years, there was an open house event at the temple I belonged to. An outsider observed that our Zen group seemed to be a very happy bunch of people who were very quick to smile and laugh. The Zen master, Samu Sunim, replied by saying “We don’t have much fun around here. And because we don’t, we make the most of the small opportunies to do so.” That statement, I have realized many times, could be used as a fairly accurate description of my whole orientation to life. Growing up in a post-Protestant family with no religious affiliations exposed me to a culture of general skepticism about all religious claims but with a cluster of attitudes that bore all the marks of Protestant influence. Doing things just for fun was not encouraged, but at the same time I was led to believe that if one enjoys one’s work, then one does not really need to play very much. Work itself is recreation enough. I have no idea whether that is what my parents intended for me to get out of my childhood, but that is what I did in fact get out of it.

The emphasis on work and on constant self-criticism (which Socrates called the examined life, and which Buddhists call being mindful) led me naturally into an abiding love of Stoicism; my first philosophical love was an anthology of writings by the Stoics. If there had been a guild of Stoics in my neigbhorhood, I surely would have joined it. A time went by, the closest I could find was a community of Quakers, and, a few years later, a community of Buddhists. Both communities reinforced childhood patterns of preferring plain utility to ornamentation and frills, tools to toys, of gravitating to simplicity in clothing, fewness of possessions (except books, and those always educational in nature) and a ferocious selectivity in friends and companions. Neither community demanded adherence to creeds or dogmas or doctrines. Both placed an emphasis on thinking carefully before speaking and acting, on living a life of service, on self-reliance and on open-mindedness, pluralism and relativism. One of my Buddhist mentors, Sangharakshita, once said words to the effect that a dedicated Buddhist never takes a holidayf; a Buddhist’s prinicpal work is being a Buddhist, and from that work one can never take a day off. Very much the same can be said of a Quaker (and, I believe, any spiritual tradition. If one is not leading the examined life every hour of every day of one’s life, then one is not leading the examined life. This does not mean that one never stumbles or fails; it means that one is rarely unaware of one’s shortcomings and never complacent. In all these practical ways, being a convinced Quaker is indistinguishable from being a practicing Buddhist.

Despite an overall similarity in attitudes and spiritual practice, there are differences between Buddhists and Quakers in community structure. And on this score I have to say I am much more attutned to the the community of Quakers than to any Buddhist community I have known. Among Quakers all people, in principle, are clergy; there is no laity. There is no concentration of authority or of power. Everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a disciple. No one is considered more authoritative than another simply because of gender, age, ethnicity, education, economic status, or familial presitige. There are no masters, gurus, lamas, swamis, cardianls, bishops, or priests to be reckoned with in a Quaker community, no one to prostrate before or bow to. (In early days, many a Quaker spent time in prison for refusing to remove his hat or to scrape and bow before a man considered to be of higher station.) Because everyone is to be honored and revered, so one is to be treated with special veneration. That attitude is so deeply ingrained in me that I have never felt perfectly at home in Buddhist communities that have people (nearly always males) who hold exalted offices and whose words are held to be especially sacred. In community structure (or lack therefore) the Quakers speak to my condition, and the Buddhists are always slightly offputting.

In the language in which they express their teachings, on the other hand, I feel perfectly at home with Buddhists. I can speak Quakerese, but I am aware that I speak that language with a detectable accent. I can use all the usual Quaker words and expressions, but in my heart I know I mean something else when I use them than most Quakers mean when they use them. I translate every Quakerism into Buddhist idiom, whereas I rarely need to translate Buddhism into any other idiom (except when the topic of conversation comes to rebirth, in which case I find myself translating that into the unrepetant materialism of my scientific upbringing).

Somehow, despite the potential confusions of being both a Quaker and a Buddhist, I ne ver find myself wondering which I am, or whether I am more one than the other. When I do feel confusion (and I do feel it plenty), it is when I ask myself whether I should be anything at all other than a human being who was given a name by his parents. Why wear any other label at all? Why have a name brand? Why belong to a Quaker meeting? Why be a member of a Buddhist sangha? Asking myself these questions makes me aware of a decided lack of authenticity, a recognition that I am not yet following the advice that Polonius gave to Laertes in words my mother encouraged me to memorize, and which she spoke to me on many occasions during my adolescence and my adulthood:

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

In this both the inner Buddhist and the inner Quaker knows I have fallen short. But why?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 17:31

Posted in Meditation