I suppose it is inevitable that when you retire a certain amount of retrospection will set in. I haven’t done much of it, and I don’t plan to write a book about my life any time soon. In the first place, my life isn’t all that interesting. In the second place, my mother is dead, and she’s probably the only one who would buy the book. I just don’t need the humiliation. But in a brief look back, I discovered the principle represented by the above formula, which is that Quakerism = Christian Buddhism. I don’t really consider myself either of these. Yes, I practice meditation and I sit in silent reflection with some Quaker friends once in awhile, but I don’t run around in robes or wide brimmed hats. But when I began to actually learn something about Buddhism some years back, a lot of it resonated with me and the more I learn, the more I realize that it resonates because there are so many similarities to the Quaker tradition of my youth.
To begin with, George Fox is considered the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, which is the most formal name for Quakers. If you want to know how they got the name Quakers, check out my podcast at http://impact89fm.org/blog/2015/03/17/michigan-storytellers-2/. But George Fox was persecuted because his ideas were considered blasphemy in 17th century England. He introduced the principle that each of us has an inner light, which is a piece of God within ourselves, and we only have to follow that inner light to live the life that God intended for us. This concept is very much in keeping with the idea that we are all Buddhas, and all we have to do is clear our mind of the extraneous details to discover the Buddha inside of ourselves. I can’t help but add to this the scientific concept of entanglement, which says that a single particle can exist in more than one place, and that before the Big Bang, there was only one thing (the singularity). In a recent online discussion, a friend suggested that perhaps God injected himself into the “molecules” used for creation before they multiplied. So putting these ideas together, if God (however you conceive of him, her, or it), injected a little piece of himself into his/her/its creation, then through entanglement he(etc) could exist in everything there is. So along comes homo sapiens sapiens, a creature that is aware that it is aware, and it is able to detect that little piece of God inside itself. Hence, the inner light, the inner Buddha, or whatever you want to call that spark of divinity within ourselves that gives us hope that there is actually a purpose to our existence.
A second similarity is the power of silence as the primary method for discovering that inner light. Many Quaker worship services consist simply of a group of people sitting in silence. If anyone in the group feels compelled to share something at any point, they should feel free to do so because, by tradition, this is the inner light – the still small voice of God – speaking through them. At its best, this can yield some insights for the entire group, but it can also become an unburdening of very personal issues – a sort of one-sided therapy session. There are times when no one speaks at these sessions, and other times when the group becomes downright chatty. To my knowledge, it is all considered legitimate expression of the inner light. My personal side note is that when you are eleven years old in one of the chattier sessions, it can seem as if everyone has spoken except you, and everyone is waiting for you to say something. This intense pressure to come up with something profound can cause the inner voice to be saying, “What should I say? I don’t have anything to say. I can’t tell them about biting my fingernails, can I? They’re all staring at me, I know they are. When will this be over?” Poor kid.
You can argue whether the Quaker sessions are contemplation or meditation, but the practice in a Buddhist Sangha is a bit more structured. The meditation part of the session and the dharma talk and discussion are kept separate. In Buddhism, during meditation, the silence is unbroken. The intent is noble silence which is not only designed to help the individual practitioner to delve as deeply as possible into their own inner explorations, but to avoid disturbing any of the other participants in their practice. There is a silent sharing in the presence of the other individuals, but the inner focus remains unbroken.
The result of these two distinct contemplative forms is similar as well. Quakers are known as pacifists. They oppose all wars and all violence because of their reverence for life. Buddhists, of course, have the same deep reverence for life. Some Buddhist sects are so radically careful not to destroy life that they restrict their movement in order to avoid unintentionally squishing tiny bugs or even microbes. A second result is the idea of humans as stewards of the environment, which results in the push for sustainable practices. Buddhists and Quakers alike have strong reverence for the natural world and mankind as a part of that natural world, rather than as an opponent whose purpose is to subdue and use the world for selfish purpose.
Many of these principles are not limited to Quakerism or Buddhism, of course, but these are two traditions that I have become quite familiar with. And this post only begins to describe the similarities between these two traditions. I hope this introduction to the subject demonstrates that in the example of Quakerism, Western religion is much more similar to the wisdom of the East than you might have imagined.