I went to a Society of Friends (Quaker) Meeting, for the first time this morning. They are a Christian tradition going back almost 400 years to the Protestant Reformation in the UK and the Netherlands. Their ‘worship’ tradition is to sit together in silence on Sunday mornings for one hour. There are no requirements other than sitting in silence. You can do whatever you want with your one hour of silence. You can think, pray, meditate, contemplate scripture, read a book, daydream, whatever you want. No head trips, no mind games. No grueling Olympic-style meditation sessions. No turning yourself into a human pretzel. No requirements that you sit perfectly still without moving. People moved quite a lot to make themselves comfortable in their nicely padded chairs. They sit in a circle facing each other. All you have to do is sit, in silence. No one tells you what to think or what not to think, or how to feel, or how to position your body, or what your silence is about. There is no leader, no priest, minister, lama, guru or monk. Nobody leads anything. There are no gongs or bells. Meeting starts when the doors to the meeting room are closed. The silence goes for one hour. Amazingly, I was able to stay in a state of meditation for the entire hour, something I had never been able to do before, because there were no expectations.
At ten minutes to the hour (obviously someone is keeping time), a member asks if anyone would like to share something from their ‘worship.’ Only one person spoke on this particular Sunday, but I was told that its usually ‘a bit more noisy than that.’ Afterwards, participants shared their names and what town they were from, and offered announcements of interest to the members. The meeting room doors are opened and the meeting is over. Then we had a potluck lunch, talked and got to know each other.
I told them that I had been raised a Roman Catholic, but that I had been practicing Buddhism for the past ten years. I had been invited by Clarence, one of the members, to come to the meeting. I had met Clarence when I tried to set up a meditation meeting at the Meeting House for people recovering from addiction. The meeting didn’t pan out, nobody came, so I had cancelled the meeting. But then I thought, “Clarence invited me, so why not?” It also helped that the Friends Meeting House was at the end of my street. Literally, walk to the end of the street, take a right, you’re there. So ok, here goes.
I told them that I had been practicing Buddhism for ten years, but (vaguely) I was looking for ‘something different’. Actually what I was looking for was a way to practice meditation without the authoritarianism and abuse that I had experienced at most Buddhist sanghas, but I didn’t say that. I didn’t want to give the impression that I was coming from a place of ‘sour grapes’. I was told that ‘75% of us are former Roman Catholics.’ In other words, the vast majority of members were raised in another tradition, possibly also trying to escape religious persecution. So that made me feel at home.
I’ve decided to continue following this path as a Buddhist-in-Friends-Meeting to wherever it takes me for as long as it seems relevant to me. I am interested in their contemplative tradition and the Quakers’ long history of commitment to social justice. I am curious as to how their contemplative tradition blossomed into their confirmed history of social justice activism. This doesn’t happen in Buddhism for the most part, East or West. The Buddhist contemplative tradition has not fostered a tradition of action for social justice, and likewise neither have most other monastic and contemplative traditions. I want to know and experience for myself: What makes the Quakers different?
They were among the first settlers in America, displacing the indigenous peoples and thus, not ‘colonialists’ but ‘colonizers.’ In the 1600s, many Quakers had slaves, so no, they weren’t saints by any stretch. But by the early 1700s, they had decided that slavery was wrong and freed the slaves, and banned it among their membership. They were among the first to ban and condemn slavery as a religious society, 100 years before it became illegal in the British colonies. The Quakers then became white Christian leaders of the Abolition Movement in America and the UK. They were active in the Underground Railroad to free slaves from the South. They were also leaders in the Women’s Suffrage movement and for women’s rights. The Quakers have been leaders in the anti-war movement throughout US history, and refuse to fight in all wars. They will hold support positions in the military as conscientious objectors, but many refuse to enlist.
This particular Friends Meeting is active in the racial justice movement in the US. It is their primary social justice objective, followed by immigrant rights, ‘Alternatives to Violence’, and environmental work. Historically, the Quakers led the movement for the humane treatment of prisoners and persons in insane asylums, championing many institutional reforms in the 18th and 19th centuries. But now they are leaders in the Prison Abolition movement.
It should be noted that not all Quakers practice in the same way; there are several different Quaker traditions. Some hold meetings that are more like Congregationalists. Some Quakers have ‘programmed meetings’ led by a ‘registered preacher’ who gives a sermon, or they may have readings from the Bible, or sing Christian hymns. The particular meeting I attended is called ‘unprogrammed’ because there is no leader and no order of liturgy or practice, just silence. Also, most Quakers groups in the US are ‘evangelical’, that is, they strongly emphasize the Gospel, Jesus Christ as Savior, God, and are more or less like a Protestant church.
In this unprogrammed meeting, there is no discussion of ‘God’ or ‘Christ’, except if that is what a particular member happens to believe. These are called ‘liberal’ and ”universalist’ Quaker meetings, which are the minority. In these Meetings, you are not required to believe in God or Christ or anything in particular. You can be an atheist and sit with the Society of Friends.
And again, Quakers aren’t saints. President Richard Nixon was a Quaker, from an evangelical brach of the Society of Friends. But I think he’s about the most notoriously awful Quaker in American history. Most of them have been exceptionally decent folks.
What I felt from attending the Friends Meeting House is a sense of freedom and relief: finally, I can practice meditation without someone in authority breathing down my neck, critiquing my every move and playing games with my head. And I can get involved in action for social justice with the support of the membership, instead of pushing against an immovable wall of complacency and indifference in a Buddhist sangha. Though I am far past the point of ‘becoming’ anything in my life, and have no intentions of converting to Quakerism, I hope to develop a practice as a Quaker Bodhisattva.
So what makes the Quakers different? Why does their silence blossom into activism and social justice? I have a hunch that it’s because, deep down, they’re anarchists—gentle, quiet anarchists—and they can’t abide any kind of authoritarianism in their own Society, or in society at large.