Quaker Universalist Conversations

Bi-religious Duality

To introduce our November conversation on Buddhism and Quakerism, T. Hamboyan Harrison (who goes by “T.” online) has given us permission to republish the following post from her blog, Light & Lotus.

T. is a convinced Quaker and member of Third Haven Monthly Meeting. She is also a Buddhist who has taken formal vows and been given the dharma name Tenzing Chödrön (“Truth light holder of the teachings”) by her sangha, Easton Meditation Group.

T. writes on her About page “that the practices of Buddhism help me to better follow Jesus’s teachings; [and] that meditation practice allows me to better discern a true Leading of the Spirit from a ‘leading’ of my ego.” She finds that the Quaker Testimonies and the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path are complementary, as are “the traditional Quaker doctrine of perfection and the Buddhist belief that anyone can become enlightened.”

Bi-religious Duality

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 Chödrön 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?

Reclining Buddha in Gal Vihara

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.

The image is the Reclining Buddha in Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa, by Lankapic (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons


At 75+ and at the 50th anniversary of being ordained a catholic priest in Rome, I’m now writing a brief apologia as a confirmed Deist (per the World Union of Deists definition). But I’m trying to avoid reinventing the wheel of purifying the world of wrong/viciously vindictive religious ideas. The WUD is quite militant (non-violently), though sympathetic to those who still hold to “revealed” religions. But I know that in the 21st century and beyond there are values about living together on this planet that should be passed on from wherever they might come—if the origins in wrong/viciously vindictive religion/scripture are soundly denounced. There is the problem also of "community," mutual support, the arts, etc.—can we have this without the religions? The WUD certainly does have positive repositories of “good living” studies. I’m looking for other evolutions out of “dogmatism” of the 16th+ century. Quakerism has been one such repository. And I’m sure Buddhism has redeeming truths. (Correction: Fox said, “… and I knew experientially”, not “experimentally”, another way of saying he was convinced of conscience binding truths through his reason and life experience.) Thanks to the Quaker Universalist Voice, I’ve just had a thorough review of Quaker development with such leaders as Winstanley and Fox. (David Boulton, “Quaker Militarism”). I joined the Quakers in 1970. I married and was automatically excommunicated, condemned to hell by Rome, notwithstanding all the 8 years of training, all the “godly” powers given to me forever “according to the order of Melchisedech." [Quakers'] peace and egalitarian testimonies, their “primitive Christianity” were priceless to me. I’ll have to play down their separate sides for women and [their] owning [of] slaves. They certainly were in the forefront of abolition. And George Fox converted to pacifism in a lifetime—not centuries like the “infallible” Catholic church. So I raised my 3 kids in home-based Quaker meeting. But for geographical/job-related/family related reasons I re-upped with the RC’s. I did, I confess, find some weaknesses in Quakerism, i.e. “weighty” Quakers, people who exercised more weight because of money and position; and anti-gays. Now, having “come-out” as SGO ("same gender oriented," less open to stereotyping than the “G” word) in 2000, still married for 43 years and 3 grandchildren, I am on a crusade (non-violent) to fight the [anti-SGO] influence of all “revealed” religions—Judaism, Islam, Buddhism included (based on e.g., "misogynist," the adjective used by Bernard Faure about Buddhism, as well as [on] the Dalai Lama in our own day saying we—SGOs—should be respected but his religion tells him same sex behavior is immoral). The evil (not the “Devil” but real humans) perpetrated against us SGOs (and transgender, etc.), not to mention Black slaves (12 Years A Slave will make you sick,) is totally inexcusable, ever since Fox converted to pacifism, but certainly now. And slavery [has been] practiced by all the religions in the world I know. I have never been a “minority” and never suffered discrimination, murder, such as slaves and genocide victims, or religious persecution. One note though: the recounting of Quaker militarism has “revealed” to me how my Irish Catholic grandparents, great-grandparents were the victims of both Oliver Cromwell and George Fox! Thousands of Irish who weren’t killed were sent into slavery in Barbados. And I have suffered suicidal depression in the last few years as I identified with all the SGO’s murdered/suicide victims right up to today. O.K. the real reason for logging on here—I have known about since hearing about QU’s—is because of Thomas Paine. Seems like he was raised a Quaker or at least credits them with being a more believable religion. But he died a pauper and was refused burial in his Quaker cemetery because of his “The Age Of Reason” and his aggressive "Deism," which, I guess, even Quakers had to avoid in the days of the English revolt against the monarchy and church and, I suppose in revolutionary America. Question: has Thomas Paine been “owned” by Quakers since the American revolution? Can I be a QU and a Deist too? Thanks!
Pema Chödrön, says, “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.” I suppose her definition of “theism” captures the conventional view well enough. Even so, her definition of “nontheism” also describes my personal experience of relationship with “God”…which, ironically, can be theist or nontheist, depending upon the moment. “Relaxing with…the present moment without reaching for anything” could describe the life and teaching of Yeshua (Jesus) as much as of the Buddha. When we are present in that sense, we don’t need someone who “will appreciate us and take care of us.” We “do God’s will” without even thinking about it, without wondering what it is. We are ourselves the hand for others to hold. Blessings, Mike
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