Why We Belong
Be still and cool in your own mind and spirit from your own thoughts, and then you will feel the principle of God to turn your mind to the Lord God, from whom life comes; whereby you may receive his strength and power to allay all blusterings, storms, and tempests. (George Fox)
In the midst of the minutiae of Quaker living it is sometimes easy forget why we belong. Why do we sit on that steering group? Why do we work on this or that committee? Why indeed do we come to Meeting at all? To answer these questions it is sometimes helpful to consider the reasons early Friends gave for their commitment. This doesn’t mean of course that we skeptical moderns have to passively adopt their answers yet by peeling back the centuries we might be able to clarify your own motives more clearly. For the likes of George Fox and James Naylor, the basis of their outward dedication was inseparable from their inward experience. They saw Quakerism primarily as a vehicle of illumination, discipleship and transformation. To be a Quaker meant living on that awkward threshold between earth and heaven, between the reality of imperfection and the anticipation of restoration. While the Scriptures taught that the entrance to an earthly Paradise was forever barred on account of the fall (Genesis 3:24) early Quakers saw their devotion to the inward Christ as a means of returning themselves to a state of perfection. As Fox tells us in his Journal:
Now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new; and all the creation gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocence, and righteousness; being renewed into the image of God by Christ Jesus, to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. The creation was opened to me; and it was showed me how all things had their names given them according to their nature and virtue.
As the above passage brilliantly illustrates, Fox did not limit the original bliss of Eden to some ethereal after-world. On the contrary, he understood Paradise as a living reality- accessible to all those who communed with the Light. When I first encountered this idea in Fox, it reminded me strongly of the sublime teaching of the Zen master Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253). Tired of those ‘going-getting’ spiritual achievers who ‘sought’ Nirvana by running off to a distant mountain top (or to the feet of a learned sage) Dōgen suggested that enlightenment was already before us and within us, we merely needed to open ourselves up to it. As Dōgen expressed the matter succinctly to his students, ‘If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?’ For Dōgen there was no separation between the Buddhist in meditation, and the Buddha-nature the individual sought to find. Likewise, when early Friends turned within, there was no separation between the Christian sitting in stillness, and the presence of Christ.
Listening to a Living Voice
What does it mean to say there is no Christian, only Christ, no Buddhist, only Buddha? It means that the world is not as many believe- hopelessly divided between life and death, normality and spirit. All can be Spirit, if we listen carefully, discern and wait. For Zen practitioners such non-dualism fosters, to this day, a radical simplicity of life, and a stern commitment to living in the moment. There was is no need for rituals, statues, sacred gestures and mantras. All of these things are seen by Zen as unhelpful separations from the voice of the living Buddha. As Dōgen puts it: “The voices of the valley are the (Buddha’s) wide and long tongue. The shape of the mountain is nothing else than his pure body.” No stone temples, bells or incense are needed. For the student of Zen, the world is a canvas of profound intimacy, meaning and presence. It is all the sacred space we will ever need. For their part, early Quakers walked a strikingly similar path, embracing simplicity, iconoclasm, and the belief that Christ could be present anywhere. Yet, it also encouraged them to take a further step. Fox (to the revulsion of both Calvinists and Catholics alike) started saying that it was possible to live wholly without sin. To express their new status, some early Friends would wander about cities and towns naked. Such acts (called by Friends ‘going naked as a sign) was intended to signify their regenerated nature. While the fallen couple were said to feel shame at the comprehension their nakedness, those who accepted the Inward Teacher lived according to a new law of divine grace. For such Friends, Heaven was not a pie-in-the-sky abstraction, but rather a daily reality. Much as the old Zen masters spoke of the Pure Land of the Buddha as existing through and within all things, Fox tried desperately to see heaven wherever he was- whether that was in the streets or out in the fields.
Living in Paradise?
“Yea, I have been in Paradise several days and now I am about to enter eternal happiness.” (Quaker martyr Mary Dyer)
While many modern people might be left perplexed by the peculiarly of such claims, I suggest that Fox and Dōgen’s mystical message is still relevant for us today. The essential point to us is that God (for Dōgen Buddha-nature) is not separate from the world in which we live; the Spirit is always with us if we care to listen. This means that we don’t need to wait until our death-bed to experience God‟s Kingdom. If we conquer the pernicious fantasy that we are somehow separate from the forces of Love and Truth, then we can witness the work of the Spirit here and now. Such an alteration of perception may well take an entire life- time to attain, yet this is the ultimate and sure goal of the Quaker Way. No- one gives better voice to this spiritual practice than the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Encouraging us to see Heaven more as a state of mind and less as a future destination, Hanh reflects:
If you walk [with conscious intention]…the energy of mindfulness and concentration will be there to support you. And the place where you walk becomes the pure land of the Buddha or the kingdom of God. The blue sky, the beautiful vegetation, the face of a child, the flower blooming– all these wonders belong to the kingdom of God, to the pure land of the Buddha.
So how does all this help us to better belong? Undoubtedly, it is easy to be a Quaker when we’re on a spiritual high‟- when our relationships are strong, or when the character of our Meeting is soulful and vibrant. Yet, what happens when you feel overburdened, angry or dissatisfied with Meeting? What do you do when you feel weighed down with guilt brought on by “not contributing enough‟? Or perhaps you resent contributing too much. What do you do when life weighs heavily upon you and you find we cannot get to meeting for a period of time? This is where Fox and Dōgen’s insistence on the blissful present comes in handy. When your religious life seems dead or your service burdensome, try to see both your spiritual journey as a small contribution to realizing Heaven on earth. As romantic as this may sound, such a sacred intention can protect our Quakerism from becoming mechanical or insincere. By seeing glimmers of divine light in making the tea, convening Children’s Committee or participating in Meeting for Business, we insulate ourselves from the temptation of merely going through the motions. Our service is suddenly placed in a larger and more evocative frame. And for those of us who find it hard to get to meeting, there is space for us in Paradise as well. For the silence does not merely hold those present on a given Sunday, but faithfully holds the whole life of Friends, past, present and future. In this gathered silence, even our absence becomes a kind of potent presence.
But why is all this talk of Paradises and Purelands so important for a nourishing spiritual life? I think what is true for Zen is also true for Quakerism. The possibility of the all-encompassing presence of the Buddha, lifts Zen from the status of a self-directed cognitive therapy, to a spiritual art. It means that the practitioner gestures at more than the small island of the personality and is thrust out into the great ocean of the universe. The same is true of our Quaker Way. Quakerism without a sense of Paradise can only aspire to a philanthropic humanism, preoccupied with its own institutional survival. Without images Eden, we are tempted towards insularity and navel-gazing. It is only when our communal life touches upon that which is eternal and beautiful that our structures are capable of serving more than the Meeting. By placing our trust in the reality of Heaven here and now we can hold fast to the Quaker Way, not because we want to preserve our community for the sake of it, but because we believe that a better world is possible. Let’s go the last word to Dōgen: “Each moment is all being, each moment is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment.”