What makes the Quakers different as a contemplative tradition? Why are they so keenly committed to social justice? As I wrote in QB Pt. 3, the Quakers have no instructions for practice or privileged doctrines. How does this utter emptiness of doctrine and practice lead to radical movements for social justice, for which they have a demonstrated history of over four hundred years?
I think it has to do with how they practice contemplation. First, there are no instructions for meditation or contemplation, so there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to meditate or contemplate. How’s that for equality—they even preemptively got rid of the meditation instructors! Second, it’s not contentless meditation or contemplation. It could be, if that’s what you want to practice. Having had a ten-year meditation practice, I prefer to do just that: silent meditation with no concepts.
But you could also spend your hour of silence contemplating anything you wish, what Buddhist would call ‘mindfulness of dharma.’ You may contemplate any doctrine, or story, or life experience, philosophy or dharma. You could also contemplate any number of social justice issues that you are concerned with. And if there is any sort of tradition in the Friends Meeting, it is a preference for contemplation of social justice issues and one’s personal relationship with it.
Let me give you an example from my experience with the Quakers. I sat with them again Sunday morning, and something remarkable happened during our sit (from my perspective). A man shared in detail how he felt about the Slavery Abolition movement and the US Civil War. He had a personal connection because three of his great-great uncles died in the war (North), from disease. He said the only reason he was here was because his great-great grandfather was too young to fight. The man shared his feelings about the terrible cost of violence, and how that violence continues today in our current political situation in the US. He said he was in tears this week thinking that there could have been another solution, a non-violent solution, a way to end slavery without resorting to the bloodiest war in American history. So this man had deep feelings about this situation, and also a keen interest in the anti-slavery and anti-racism movements.
What was remarkable about this situation? First, because in the Quaker tradition, people are encourage to speak during the silence. They are encouraged to share from their hearts what really moves them. In this man’s case, he was talking about Abolition, but it wasn’t some abstract political discussion—it was something he had a deep personal connection to. Second, Quakers are encouraged to talk about political issues, issues of social justice. They do not make a distinction between ‘spiritual’ issues that are appropriate for a Meeting, and ‘political’ issues that otherwise belong ‘outside’ the Meeting.
The connection between the spiritual and the political happens in the course of the meeting, sitting in silence. They contemplate an issue of justice within their silence, and then share it with the community. So the ‘political’ is brought into the spiritual space within the Quaker meeting, and personally deep into their own being in contemplation. And then the ‘spiritual’ is brought out, first into the meeting, and then into the streets, in the form of action for social justice.
But this requires, again, two things: talking, and specifically talking about social justice. It is not considered a disturbance of the peace or disruption of the meeting, or of anyone’s contemplation, if they talk about social justice issues. In fact, it’s encouraged and supported.
I listened to a talk by Lama Rod Owens today in a round table discussion on the #MeToo movement in the context of Buddhist communities where sexual violence has occurred. Rod Owens said the reason that Buddhist communities don’t talk about the issue of sexual violence is because they don’ttalk about anything. People can’t even have an honest conversation about themselves and what’s going on in their own lives. It’s always a strict practice of silence that isolates and controls people, that actually becomes a form of oppression. If people can’t even risk sharing their personal lives, how are they going to talk about something as risky as ‘racism’ or ‘misogyny?’
I believe it’s because Quakers see the political as spiritual and spiritual as political, again a non-dualist approach, that they have a long and confirmed history not only of ‘consciousness’ on social justice issues, but ACTIVISM on social justice issues. So it’s their practice makes the Quakers so different from other contemplative traditions.