Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
So this Sunday’s sit at Friends Meeting House (Society of Friends/Quakers) was a bit different. There was about a half hour of silence and then people started ‘sharing’. One member spoke of his cross-country quest for spiritual knowledge and how that led to experimenting with psychedelic mushrooms. Another member shared what she learned about being white from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. People talked about their concerns and experiences with white privilege and racism, or their personal spiritual insights, or their connection with nature. So it was a wide variety of stories, of which only one referenced ‘Christianity’, in this case a Quaker forebear who resisted slavery.
In my last post I asked the question, ‘What makes the Quakers different?’ They are a contemplative tradition with a vibrant history of and commitment to social justice, unlike most other contemplative traditions which don’t foster social action. I’m beginning to understand the difference, at least, between Quakers and Buddhists., and it’s a big difference. Quakers also have a spiritual tradition of non-dualist thought and practice. George Fox wrote of the ‘Oneness’ that Quakers experience as they sit together in Silence in the Spirit. But the Quakers were also a practical people, a professedly ‘plain’ people, and a lay people. They were not primarily agriculturalists, like the Amish or the Mennonites, although they did subsistence farming. The Quakers were industrialists, traders, engaged in business. They ran factories, produced and traded goods. This was partly because of their history of persecution. Quakers were not allowed to attend universities because universities were also seminaries that trained preachers, and Quakers were deemed too heretical to become ministers. Furthermore, they rejected the notion that only a privileged few should preach and proposed that all people were preachers sharing their own ‘Inner Light.’ Because they did not attend universities (and of course women were forever barred), they did not go into the professions or ministry, but into business and trade. The Quakers knew the pragmatic consequences of their businesses. They knew that when they conducted business in an ethical manner, e.g. refusing slave labour or the products of slave labour, that there were ethical consequences to the decisions they made. So they became ethical realists, keen observers of the impact of their ethical choices on various classes of people: women, laborers, African-Americans and immigrants, and so on. As they were often themselves victims of religious persecution, they became politically astute, keen observers of systems of power, privilege and oppression. They had a sense of the non-dualist nature of their contemplation, but that did not eclipse their attention to the ethical nature of their actions.
The Quakers emphasized ethical behavior, charity and justice over the non-dual experience of contemplation. Buddhists, I’m afraid, have historically and even to this day, privileged non-dual transcendence over ethics, and downplayed the ethical impact of their behavior, which requires that one make distinctions about the pragmatic impact of one’s choices. The Quakers were a religious order of lay people that rejected a privileged religious hierarchy, while the Buddhists were organized around a monastic class who were exempt from the practical realities of lay life. The effect of placing the greatest emphasis on non-dual transcendence is that it tends to diminish and erase distinctions between situations and the impact of one’s actions on others and the material world. Though they were a ‘plain people’ who eschewed any kind of luxury, the Quakers were keenly aware of the impact of their behavior on the natural and material world, on people’s material and spiritual well-being. They were keenly aware of the economic impacts, material security and social solidarity of different social structures. In short, they were ethical realists first, contemplative non-dualists second. This is what I hear from Quakers today—their ability to make ethical distinctions and thus their passion for justice.
QB Part 3: The Quakers are different because they never produced a religious hierarchy, a ministerial or monastic class. They are a contemplative movement of lay people. Amongst the most radical Quakers, the ‘unprogrammed’ universalists, they do not even have preferred or venerated teachers; everyone is a teacher. The historic domination of the monastic class in Buddhism produced the emphasis on non-dualist transcendence to the neglect of ethical and social realities.