Quaker Bodhisattva Pt. 6: Freedom of Conscience

When I go to the Friends Meeting on Sunday mornings for my one hour of silence, I experience something I have never felt in Buddhist settings: freedom of conscience. The greatest legacy of the Quakers is their commitment to Freedom of Conscience. No one tells you what to do with your one hour of silence. No one tells you what to think, or what not to think, in the Buddhist sense. There are no ‘wrong’ thoughts, whether dualism or non-dualism, whether narrative or non-discursive. There is no Zen master using koans, i.e. ‘mind games’, to try to mess with your head. There is no doctrine or dharma or dogma. There are no scriptures, no routines of thinking or not thinking. NO ONE TELLS ME WHAT TO THINK. I am free to think whatever I want, to think as much or as little as I want.

After ten years in Buddhism, this is absolutely liberating. It shows respect for me as an individual. I am being treated like an adult, like I have the judgement and capacity to figure things out for myself. Seeing these contrasts between the two forms of contemplative practice allows me to pierce the seemingly objective facade of Buddhism. Buddhist practice is not just ‘mere experience’; it’s an ideology that tries to shape and direct my experience in a particular way. Quaker contemplation does not shape my experience in any way. I’m free to have my own experience and interpret it as I see fit.

There are other noticeable qualities about this group of contemplatives: unlike many Buddhist sanghas I have participated in, they are remarkably mature, mentally healthy, emotionally and socially well-adjusted. The difference is so striking that it took a few months to get used to it. I was used to being surrounded by a bunch of neurotic, emotionally stunted and socially withdrawn people seeking ‘ultimate enlightenment’.  How about just being emotionally mature? It might not be ultimate enlightenment but it beats being a psychotic narcissist by a long shot.


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