There’s often an underlying tension when one professes to be a member of two religions. There’s the constant challenge of “Well, how can you be both X and Y?” And often one avoids answering the question by either outright ignoring it or starting a long convoluted explanation about how even though these two religions seem to have differences, they’re really not all that different when all is said and done.
Except sure they are, or you wouldn’t find it necessary to be part of both. You would be satisfied with one religion and wouldn’t feel the need to have two.
I am both Quaker and Buddhist. These two religions do have some similar beliefs—Quaker’s “that of God” is comparable to Buddhism’s bodhichitta or the idea that anyone can find enlightenment, not just monks—and some similar practices—when I sit in Meeting for Worship or for meditation, physically I am doing the same thing—but Quakerism is not Buddhism and Buddhism is not Quakerism. Nor should they be!
In this post, I’m going to focus on one of the most important theological differences I find between Buddhism and Quakerism. Now given the wide diversity of beliefs in both Buddhism and Quakerism, this post is going to involve lots of generalities and is just my understanding of what are the foundations of both religions, regardless of whether all Buddhists and all Quakers currently believe in these foundations or not.
This foundational difference is the concept of God. In Buddhism, there is no God, at least not in the personal, creative (as in, creator of the Universe) sense. The universe and all its inhabitants are, ultimately, ruled by karma, the law of cause and effect. In this sense, Buddhism is very scientific: because this happened, this then came to be, and so on. Pema Chödröm has this to say about the belief in a personal God, the kind of God who actually cares about you as an individual and interacts in the world:
“The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God… Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us… Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.”
Quakerism, on the other hand, has a foundational belief in the existence of a personal God. We sit in Meeting for Worship waiting to be Moved by Him (or Her or It or Whatever), and if we are so Moved, we stand and share the message. We believe that one can be Led. We have clearness committees to test Leadings. Now whether all Quakers today would agree that a personal God exists, we clearly believe that there is Something that has the ability to lead us. We believe in Something that can call us to an action or an inaction. We believe all can have a personal relationship with this Something without the need of a priest or outward sacraments.
Now whether Quakers today would name this Something God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Light Within, Allah, Nature, or Our Inner Goodness, this belief is not one that is found—as far as I know—within Buddhism.
The belief that I can be led—personally—by the Something seems at odds with the Buddhist belief in karma. How does a Something that can interact with me personally fit in with the Buddhist understanding of the universe as a mechanism of karma? How does that work?
It doesn’t seem to work, to be honest. Buddhist and Quaker dogma aren’t the same. They are inherently different. They come from different foundations: Quakerism is founded upon the idea of a Creator God, specifically the God of Jesus, that is accessible to all people; while Buddhism is founded upon the idea that anyone, despite current caste and past karma, can become enlightened and free from this world of suffering by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path. Quakerism in a sense encourages the individual—one has a personal relationship with God, one can be led—while Buddhism discourages the individual—the idea of a Self is ultimately a delusion. And if that is true, then how can something that doesn’t truly exist be led?
Wow, I am really over-simplifying and generalizing, aren’t I?
But what it comes down to is that practicing Quakerism and practicing Buddhism works for me—experimentally—as George Fox would say. The Buddhist practice of meditation—the maitri/metta I talked about in my last post; the mindfulness of breathing, of pain, of sound, of Being—works for me. The Quaker practice of waiting upon the Light works for me. How can I deny that I have been Led? Can I look back upon the ministry I’ve given in Meetings for Worship and dismiss the heart-pounding, body trembling that inspired me to stand and speak?
And yet, I can’t deny that there are serious differences between the two religions, and that these differences in some cases seem to be contradictory.
And so I am forced to stand in the Center, between what seems to be two choices, and wait in the tension.
Because what it comes down is that I believe more in experience than in notions. And that is something that both Buddha and George Fox would agree with.