Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Confessions and confusions of a Buddhist Quaker

with 8 comments

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 holiday; a Buddhist’s principal 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 attuned 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 prestige. There are no masters, gurus, lamas, swamis, cardinals, 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, no 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 off-putting.

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 unrepentant materialism of my scientific upbringing).

Somehow, despite the potential confusions of being both a Quaker and a Buddhist, I never 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

8 Responses

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  1. Thanks so much for this, Richard. Hit my heart in all kinds of good ways.

    owen egerton

    Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 22:42

  2. I just stumbled across this, even though it was written nearly a year ago. I guess I wasn’t really ready for it till now. This essay definitely speaks to me, but in a perhaps unexpected way. I too identify strongly with Quakerism and Buddhism. However, I withdrew from my Quaker community a year ago, and have been growing into the new reality for me: Polonius’ words which you quote at the end. In my long search (so far) I found myself much more at home without a community, and mostly because of the norming influence of group dynamics. My own search has taken a strong turn to the internal, and I must say it feels right and unnerving at the same time.

    Thanks for sharing. And Godspeed.

    Rodney Owen

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 13:12

  3. Richard, I appreciate the reflective post. As a somewhat mystical Mennonite (bearing in mind your caveat about labels) there is a great deal here that I recognise. A quick tour around my own blog would illustrate the point. I can think of plenty of instances where an otherwise lifegiving spiritual tradition has smothered under the weight of rigid structures and clericalism. Shalom,

    phil wood

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 06:02

  4. Thanks for this post. I’ve a few good quaker friends in my local peace and justice group and feel much at home with them. I find it most helpful about what you say about the structure of quaker and buddhist community.


    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 12:55

  5. Very helpful. Thank you. I relate whole-heartedly to everything, including Rodney’s comment. But I see myself, maybe, going in the opposite direction of Rodney. I have been thoroughly unable to commit to any spiritual/religious community because of Polonius’ sentiment, but at age 50 am beginning to find the lack of community entirely unworkable for me anymore. I think I’ve taken it to my limit with it and need community to grow. I can easily see where someone might take community to their growth limit with it and need to go it alone for a new phase. There’s a season for everything, huh?


    Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 18:29

  6. Thank you for this excellent written piece. This stirkes a very deep chord with me, as does Rodney’s comment above, and the comment from “Me”.

    I’ve recently left Buddhism after some considerable conscience searching and dark nights of the soul. I don’t want to go into it too much here, but in short I might say, too much authority and dogma, and too little engagement with the world (too passive/indifferent to the suffering of others). It’s when these two – authority and the suffering those not in authority – clash that the strength (or otherwise) of buddhism’s moral integrity really comes clear. So my problems are with it as an -ism, not so much with what i understand to be the spirit of the buddha’s teaching. But even these teachings I don’t think I can accept fully, and i think the later mahayana teachings go too far in ‘transcending good and evil’, to the point that they undermine morality altogether. History has shown how dangerous this has been. As such I’ve been considering Quakerism and Unitarianism, because I have a strong need for supportive community, while at the same time having a strongly independent mind. Maybe I can accept an idea of god as the ground of being, and I accept Jesus as a moral teacher. I need time and space to discover my way, but i also want to be supported in that. I’d like to be in a community that would support the feeling I have of being called to charitable service – a community that would concur that this is a worthwhile and spiritually positive thing for someone to do.

    I wonder if anyone has come across this: http://www.moralobjectivity.net/TwB_Buddhist_Society_of_Friends.html

    I recommend the whole book (The Trouble with Buddhism by Robert Ellis) for those struggling with Buddhism.

    Thanks again for this piece, it has been very helpful to me.

    Richard Rawling

    Saturday, July 26, 2014 at 17:41

  7. I am a humanist Quaker who also practices secular Buddhism though I’m very new to the latter (18 months). I strongly recommend the books of Stephen Batchelor who I believe has some very helpful thoughts on some of the questions that you raise here.

    Miriam O'Donovan

    Tuesday, September 26, 2017 at 21:59

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