Buddhist and Quaker

I received an email from a reader, asking me questions about being both Buddhist and Quaker. Below is my reply:

Hi. Thanks you for your email. 🙂 I’m also not a fan of most “New-Agey” type of books… I consider myself both a Buddhist AND a Quaker, and I ultimately think this is okay and not inconsistent because both faiths–at their core, I feel–are faiths of practice more than faiths of theology. For example, meditation, mindfulness, developing compassion/loving-kindness, and the knowledge that attachments are a direct cause of suffering (in short, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path) I consider the core of Buddhism (and I’m in good company: Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a wonderful book called “The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings”, which you might be interested in). As for Quakerism, I believe our way of worship and our testimonies are our core. And there seems to be a lot of ways that Buddhism helps my Quakerism: for example, how could I follow the testimony of Integrity without having Right Understanding (one of the Eightfold Paths)? Equality lines up with Right Action, Right Speech, Right Vision, and Right Understanding… etc. There’s even been talk within some Quaker circles recently of “Right Relationship”, which has a lot in common with the Buddhist Eightfold Path (Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Understanding, in particular).

As for specific practices, I try to meditate every day (Om mani padme hum…), though I admit that this has been on and off for a while. Still, I keep trying. Also, the Tibetan Buddhist concept of tonglen (Pema Chodron is an EXCELLENT, life-changing Buddhist writer–I highly recommend any of her books to you… and when I say life-changing, I mean that literally) has been helpful for me. Tonglen is a form of breath meditation where you open yourself to another’s suffering: you breathe in their suffering, and breathe out peace/calm/etc. I find it helpful in developing compassion, especially towards those I’m angry with. The practice of mindfulness–being IN the moment–I find consistent with the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity. Meditation is also useful in centering for Meeting for Worship: I often start Meetings with a few minutes of meditation, to help quiet my own thoughts so I can better hear the Divine.

As for good books, Jim Pym (another Buddhist and Quaker) wrote one called “Listening to the Light”, which is mainly about Quakerism, but also about his experiences as a Buddhist as well. Mary Rose O’Reilly, who identifies as a Quaker, wrote a memoir called “The Barn at the End of the World” about her experiences tending sheep and spending time in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Buddhist retreat in France. (This is the book that got me interested in Buddhism; I was a Quaker first.)

I suffer from a lack of participation in a formal Buddhist meditation group. I’m disabled and unable to drive the distance required for meditation sessions. I’m not in the Bible Belt, but I live in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is pretty much Southern Christian Conservative in culture. My monthly meeting, Third Haven, is a kind of liberal oasis in the area; even that is half an hour away from me (my husband drives me to Meetings, though he doesn’t attend). There is at least one other Buddhist and Quaker at my Meeting, and I’ve made no secret that I identify as both.

I took my refuge and bodhisattva vows last May and intend to keep them. Part of that is not hiding that action.

As far as I know, no one in my Meeting has been upset or offended by my identification with both faiths. It might be helpful that I also take Christianity very seriously–I just finished reading the Bible for the second time as a whole a month ago and read the New Testament every year. I think Jesus and Buddha would have agreed on a lot. I also think Jesus and Buddha said a lot of the same things, but said them in the context of the dominant religion of the community they were in (for Jesus, it was Judaism; for Buddha, it was Hinduism).

Part of it is that I fundamentally believe that theologies (God, heaven, reincarnation, etc.) are, at their root, unknowable. In my mind, it makes no difference to me if I’m reincarnated when I die, sent to heaven, or my consciousness/soul simply ends: I try to act with compassion because I feel it’s the right thing to do, and I made the vow back in high school that I would act this way even if I’d be punished at the end (sent to hell–I was a Catholic at the time) and not rewarded.

I believe in God because I’ve felt His presence, yet I’m aware that this belief is based on a feeling and a concept. The Buddhist practice of non-attachment has taught me that what I call God, another might call something else. And that there is no way for me to know who is right, nor is that what I should be concerned about.

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4 Comments

Filed under belief, buddhism, different faiths, faith, God, Jesus, meditation, meeting for worship, mindfulness, quakerism, statement of faith, third haven

4 responses to “Buddhist and Quaker

  1. Yes, yes, and yes – I’ve shared all of those readings, and discovered the congruence between Buddhist and Quaker thought and practice. Here’s a little something else I picked up: the word “notions,” which Thich Nhat Hahn used in a video to describe human theologies – or even language – contrasted to the reality of experience – was the same word, “notions,” used by George Fox (I can’t quite remember the context) to describe the effort to tie the Divine down in conceptual/theological language. So, for Thich Nhat Hahn, the word “nirvana” is a notion – unless there is an experiential dimension of knowing what the word means. Many of the folks in my meeting share this interest in Buddhism (Mary Rose is in our meeting too, which is quite splendid.) There is a difference, though, for those of us who experience the Divine in personal / devotional ways. Christian language makes it easier to pray / praise / give thanks, though there’s tradition in Buddhism for these as well.

  2. Thanks for the reminder about the word “notions”; that’s exactly what I was trying to say. And I have to admit to being a little jealous of Mary Rose being in your meeting. 🙂

  3. Very well reasoned and felt.
    At your Quaker meetings, in your silence, do people get up and speak when they are led by the spirit? I attended 2 Quaker meeting decades ago and did not enjoy it for two reasons:
    (1) I enjoy silence and time to enter that space. I don’t want it interrupted.
    (2) The folks that jump up to speak what God told them tended to be the weird people in the group. Such a practice invites these sort of people.

    Has this practice changed? If not, I still prefer the silence of Zen.

  4. If that practice had changed, I don’t think we could call ourselves Quaker any longer. I’m not sure what you mean by “weird people”, except that I myself have given spoken ministry in Meeting for Worship. The whole point of Meeting, in my experience, is to commune with God. The silence is the vehicle for the communion, not the purpose of the Meeting.

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