Quaker Universalist Voice

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Eastern Light: Awakening to Presence in Zen, Quakerism and Christianity

by Steve Smith – A Review

Steve Smith’s Eastern Light: Awakening to Presence in Zen, Quakerism and Christianity is a remarkable book in the form of a quasi-autobiographical reflection on the author’s reembracing of Quaker tradition, broadened through the assistance of Buddhist insight, language, and practice.

The book is an advertisement, not for Buddhism or Quakerism, but for attentive listening in stillness, aided by the experience and encouragement of others.

This is a confidence-building book. If Steve Smith can reflect on his life experience and the experience in his tradition and the human tradition of others with clarity and discernment, I can also.

This is a story and reflection on a life on a path to richness. The way he deals with language and the ideas of the traditions he consults is warming to the seeker’s soul. He reminds me of the enriching of tradition, of his Quaker tradition, long thought dead and its language dissipated in overuse.

With this book, Smith helps me transform Quaker silence into stillness aided by silence. In the stillness, there is presence, available to all and denied to none. Practice is the key in focusing attention, whatever the technicalities of that practice may be. The embrace of Quaker silence in community, or Buddhist stillness individually, is a matter of choice and preference in a common human path.

This is a hopeful story. The eastern light in the title is the light of the rising sun, not the setting sun. It is also a reference to the author’s engagement with Buddhism, which cultural companions refer to as eastern as well.

He concludes that the simple sense of delight in the present moment is possible in the worst human conditions through spiritual practice from resources within. That spiritual practice is described in metaphors of light and stillness within practical acts of human kindness. It includes loving kindness in human actions, and it applies across the globe in this discernment.

Our practice in discernment is instrumental in order to do rightly, and we do rightly guided by our practice of discernment. The author’s testimony and story are that this human mechanism works in the most extreme circumstances. It deepens and is reliable as we mature as persons over time, learning from reflection on experience and tradition.

"Siqijor dawn, the Philippines," by Yosomono (2002)

I conclude from this first reading that silence is a crude characteristic of stillness. Silence is unconnected with sound or noise. As Quakers, we forget that silence is only a tool in a pathway to stillness within community. Smith helps us to remember this part of our Quaker tradition by reference to the discernment in the Buddhist tradition.

The book shows great care in its preparation, with an eye-pleasing textual font, substantial and informative endnotes, bibliography, and index. The book is available in both hardcopy and e-format.

Predicting classic status is above my pay grade. But, this book provides opening in insight in a contemporary life that is worth returning to again and again in testing my experience and reflection on my tradition, while open to the experience and tradition of others across the globe who are increasingly part of my community of care.

Note: The process of preparation of this book for publication is a model for how Quaker Universalist Fellowship can be of assistance to Quaker authors in bringing their human discernment into the light for our benefit as humans in our common walk in this life together.

QUF appreciates the opportunity to be of service to this Quaker author, an early example of our larger purpose of aiding communication regarding Quaker faith and practice for all.


Image Source

Siqijor dawn, the Philippines,” by Yosomono (2002).


I like the man (whom I know from another Meeting here in Southern California) very much, but neither silence nor stillness is the One I worship, nor all that worthy a goal in its own right. I myself would recommend Alan Lew’s One God Clapping, because the insights I’ve gained from Lew’s various writings have proved more fruitful to me. Lew’s progression was similar to Smith’s in that his insight from Zen meditation led him to return to his native Judaism… but that tradition, in which he eventually became a Conservative rabbi, is less reluctant to speak about God than LiberalFriendism has become — though I get the impression that people have more often been finding God in Liberal Meetings lately, whether or not they feel easy about publicly using the G-word. (Use of a variety of words and names for The Big Something have long been a feature of the Quaker way; perhaps I should quibble less about how well people name and know that ultimate reality…)
Forrest, Thanks for the Alan Lew resource. The Smith-Lew model of driving away from a birth tradition and returning with deeper understanding through the assistance of another tradition in the common search is emerging in my experience. We recently reviewed a recent British pamphlet, Christopher Bagley, Islam Today: A Muslim Quaker’s View (Quaker Universalist Group Pamphlet No. 34) to a similar story line for Quakers in Islam. It may be that the message is that you can not get IT in your own birth tradition path until you have left to another and are open to return. Some never leave the birth tradition. Others leave and never return. Perhaps the theme is seeking and choosing, which need not bother us much if we easily accept our birth tradition. Thanks again,Larry
Is Quakerism Christian or non-denominational and open to Judaism,Islam,Budhism and Chistianity?
Miguel, Historically, Quakerism grew within the Christian tradition, beginning in England in the 17th century and developed particular distinctives in understanding of the spiritual life and the practice in the world.. It is my own current understanding of my tradition is that I grew out of the • Mid-western tradition of the • United States tradition of the • Quaker tradition of the • Protestant tradition of the • Catholic tradition of the • Christian tradition of the • Jewish tradition, • with cousins in the Islamic tradition and the Buddhist tradition and with more distant cousins in other religious traditions and non-religious traditions. of the • Primordial human tradition of the • Mammal tradition (225m years ago) of the • Reptile tradition of the • Amphibian tradition of the • Fish tradition of the • Multi-cell organism tradition of the • Single cell tradition of the • Pre-life tradition of the • Universe tradition of the • Cosmos Other Quakers may claim their understanding of our tradition in some modification of this understanding. Quakers are denominational in the sense that sociologists can identify a group with shared understanding and practices who identify themselves as Quakers and who recognize the resource of universal truth in their tradition. But, from a Martian’s perspective, Quakers are just humans, like others in other traditions, groping in the fog and pointing out to one another where the bread of life can be found. The openness of the Quaker community to seekers from many other traditions and the role of other traditions in guiding and enriching the spiritual journeys of Quakers is witnessed repeatedly authors such as those in this blog posting. The challenge we all face is one of discernment of the truth arising from our reflection on our own experience and our human tradition. We do the best we can. Do you see this as consistent or inconsistent with your own view?
There are differences between Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and the Westernized Zen Buddhism. The concept of Zen and stillness can traced back to the work of Zhuang Zi which is a method of objective reflection, and Westernized Zen Buddhism seems to mixed well with Christian mysticism and the doctrine of original sin. What have these got to do with Quakerism in terms of knowing God, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire?
Yun Choi Yeung, I agree that there are many streams of experience and insight within Buddhism as there are within Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam. Much of the differences among these streams seem to be language differences and cultural loyalties. Some differences are substantive. It seems to be our task to try to understand and clarify these for our own journeys. Thank you for the pointer to Zhuang Zi. The mixing of Buddhist insight and Christian insight in mysticism appears warm in many lives, particularly in the Quaker community. However, I do not see the particular connection clearly of this mixing to the fundamental nature of humans as suggested in the Christian idea of an original sin. Can you explain it further? In the Smith book, he testifies to the stillness and silence practices of Buddhist and Quakers as a means of encountering and confirming the reality just beyond the edge of our perceptions and to the relation of that reality to our lives. This experience is similar to the traditions of knowing God and the experience of new birth and personal transformation experience in the heat of that new insight, which is described with the baptism of the holy spirit and fire in the Christian community. Thanks,Larry
Thanks Larry, Zen Buddhism seems to be moving away from reincarnation and penance to embrace the concept of “unity of man and heaven” as suggested in the writing of Zhuangzi. This may be that is why people do not see the connection between suffering and original sin. The tradition of be still in the presence of God is very different to the teaching of be still to be god. I am sure a practitioner of Zen Buddhism will not experience Baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire because during meditation one should ignore external interference such as visions, voices and sounds, etc. How many Christians can say that they have been baptized by the Holy Spirit and Fire? Thus the practice of Zen Buddhism can be a good substitute for a wondering mind. Yun Choi
Yun, I greatly appreciate your point about the movement in Buddhism away from reincarnation and penance. I do not understand how unity with people and heaven is related to reincarnation and penance or with suffering and original sin. I am slow to understand. I had not thought about the inconsistency between the Christian tradition’s described dramatic, or at least conscious, interventions in religious experience and the rejection of that recognized drama by the stillness meditation in Buddhism. Must Christians find better ways of describing the impact on their lives and Buddhists open the door to acknowledged conscious changes or must there be a choice between these two traditions? Thanks again,Larry
Larry, Buddhism came from a culture of idolatry before it moved into China in 67 BC, mixed with Confucianism and Taoism, and embraced the culture of seeking unity between man and heaven. Chinese people believe in born innocence and live by the conscience, and reincarnation and penance as solutions for suffering and original sin did not work too well. But idolatry enticed the Chinese people and Buddhism became popular. The concept of becoming Buddha (god) substituted for the culture of seeking to be one with heaven or the universe. There are too many contradictions in Buddhism itself as well as the various transformations. I think it will make more sense if you take a holistic approach in looking at Buddhism. Buddhism adopted many different methods to achieve Zen and stillness is from Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. There is a difference between stillness and Zen or emptiness. A Buddhist has a choice of selecting a method, but a Christian does not have a choice but to be still in the presence of God. Actually the focus of emptiness enticed people moving away from the presence of God. I am only suggesting that people should take a holistic view of Buddhism rather than bits and pieces to suit their situations. Personally, I do not see any human method can substitute being in the presence of God unless that experience is not real in the first place.
Friend Yun Choi, I find this account of Buddhism somewhat confusing, though perhaps what you describe is the changing path Buddhism took in China as it was blended with Taoism and Confucianism. Your description reminds me of the many and varied ways in which Jesus’ faith and practice devolved into a myriad of ritualistic and quasi-idolatrous “Christianities” as the movement spread across the globe. People in every culture and religion long for some sort of “spiritual fix” which will transform them into “saved” or “immortal” or “prosperous” beings. I suppose that has happened with the faith and practice of Shakyamuni (Gautama Buddha), as much as it has to those of Jesus and Mohammed. Popular religion of every sort tends to be driven by the ego’s function of seeking permanence and comfort. However, the heart of Buddhism, as with the heart of Christianity and of Islam, is in surrendering self to a larger, truer, more blessed Reality, one which does not have boundaries between beings or favor some over others. Shakyamuni sought to free Hindus from idolatry, as did Mohammed with his pagan Arab community. Jesus sought to free Hebrews from fear of a vengeful God and to return them to intimate union with Abba Father. We are all one. Blessings,Mike
Friend Mike, Idolatry, reincarnation, and original sin are stumbling blocks to universalism. So, it is very good to know that people are removing or moving away from these stumbling blocks. We should continue to pray for these people. Blessings, Yun Choi
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