What’s different about the Quakers? Why are they just about the only contemplative tradition that also has a confirmed history of social justice activism? These the questions that have been guiding my exploration of this sect.
First, as I hinted at the end of QB Pt. 2, they have no priestly class. The Quakers are different because they never produced a religious hierarchy, a ministerial or monastic class. They are a contemplative movement of lay people. The historic domination of the monastic class in Buddhism produced the emphasis on transcendence away from normal human lives to the neglect of ethical and social realities.
Amongst the most radical Quakers, the ‘unprogrammed’ universalists, they do not even have preferred or venerated teachers; everyone is a teacher. There are no experts, yogis, ‘realized beings’ except the members themselves. They are quiet anarchists who don’t tolerate any form of hierarchy or domination and insist on radical equality for everyone. They are anti-authoritarian in their practice. Anyone can teach.
There is an order to the service that anyone can share what ‘the Spirit’ moves them to speak. This ‘Spirit’ references the Holy Spirit of the Trinity, but there is no sense that Spirit is a different ‘person’ than God or Jesus. Nor is this ‘Spirit’ different from the person who experiences it. It’s all One, and we are all One with it. This is Quaker non-dualism; no distinction between human beings and this ‘Spirit.’
So what else is different? There is no talk of salvation. If they believe in ‘God’, this is not a god who created the world, who intervenes in human history, and especially, not a god who saves anyone. There is no Christ, no crucifixion, no sacrifice or forgiveness of sins, heaven or hell. But moreover, there is no Buddha, no ‘sasana’, no ‘ultimate’ enlightenment, no hierarchy of beings who are more enlightened than anyone else, no karma, no rebirth. There is an ’emptiness of doctrine’ in which people can believe whatever they chose to believe.
There is an admonition that one should look within to discover and connect with one’s ‘Inner Light’, but my inner light and yours are never compared, and there is no standard by which it might be judged or authenticated. No salvation, no ultimate buddhahood. There is truly nothing to strive for. Everyone already possesses this Inner Light, all one has to do is get in touch with it through contemplation. In some ways, the Quakers are better buddhists than the Buddhists.
As I continue to observe and participate in the Quaker contemplative tradition, I am amazed that this tradition is almost 400 years old, and how in many ways it seems like a good candidate for the ‘spirituality of the future.’