Extinguishing the Flames


Dear Friends:


There is a famous sermon of the Buddha called ‘The Fire Sermon’:

‘Thus I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Gaya, at Gayasisa, together with a thousand bhikkhus [monastics]. There he addressed the bhikkhus.

"Bhikkhus, all is burning. And what is the all that is burning?

"The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning, also whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact for its indispensable condition, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion. I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.”’

Following the standard pattern of Buddhist Discourses the Buddha then repeats this analysis for the ear, the sense of touch, the sense of smell, the sense of taste, and the appearances of our mind.

Because of my Buddhist background I thought about this sermon when reading the recent postings by a number of Quakers about how fire should be our metaphor and our ideal; that we should ‘burn down the Meeting Houses’ or that we should become ‘incendiary’ in our relationship to the world.  From the perspective of the above analysis the world is already in flames; the flames of greed, anger, grief, hatred, sorrows, and despair.  From this perspective it is not more fire that we need, for the world is already consumed in flames.  What is needed is a way of putting out the fire.

My suggestion is that becoming incendiary is simply acquiescing to the ways of the world.  It is a dead end; it will leave us only with ashes and regrets.

But there is a way out.  There is an alternative.  That alternative is silence and stillness; both outer and inner.  In the gathered silence of a Quaker Meeting, in the stillness found on First Day, we embody a different way from that of the world, and open a different path that people can live.  But there is more: it is my view that gathered silence has a greater, and more long lasting, effect on the world than the most dramatic of confrontative demonstrations.  This is because we are all connected; so one moment of silence and stillness is a moment of silence and stillness for all.  It is the way to put out the fires not only for ourselves but for all living beings.

I understand the desire to directly confront injustice, but an incendiary approach will only feed the flames which give rise to these kinds of situations.  Why?  Because confrontation teaches others that confrontation is the means whereby one reaches one’s ends.  And if others who have different ends than we would like, even destructive or malevolent ends, and they use incendiary means to achieve those ends, we have only ourselves to blame if we have used the same means. 

Silence and stillness are not a means to an end; they are the end and the means combined.  And it is in silence and stillness that we offer the world the greatest gift we can offer: the extinguishing of the flames of sorrow.

Thy Friend Jim

Views: 217

Comment by John March on 10th mo. 2, 2012 at 1:45pm

Jim speaks my mind in some but not all ways.

Outward action is most effective when it comes from deep inward stillness. Fire can be a metaphor for this kind of inward and outward life as in the Zen expression: practice as if your hair is on fire, which perhaps captures something of the urgency and energy that we associate with early Friends.

Even so, it must come from stillness. Elias Hicks says, “I labored to be empty, to know nothing, to call for nothing, to desire to do nothing.” The 3rd Zen Patriarch says “When mind exists undisturbed, Nothing can offend. When nothing can offend, It ceases to exist in the old way.”  Both capture the vast Silence out of which forms arise and in so doing help us to avoid the use of words as weapons (in contradiction of the peace testimony) rather than as ways of articulating the Spirit.

If we want to revive the spirit of the primitive church, then we as individuals must work to surrender those aspects of our character that are lost in the idolatry of greed, hatred, doubt and ignorance, ceasing to exist in the old way so that we can become new. This is not easy work--it's what Friends used to call the little crucifixions--and I fear that in our enthusiasms for the new we are at risk of self cherishing rather than the deep surrenders of the  self that allow the full measure of the inward Christ to arise.



Comment by Stephanie Stuckwisch on 10th mo. 2, 2012 at 11:56pm

What happens if, out of the stillness, the Spirit calls us to be on fire?

Comment by John March on 10th mo. 3, 2012 at 7:48am

As early Friends would say, then fire it is.  We tend to forget that Love can also be fierce just like we forget that brilliance/intelligence/reason if they come from Spirit are also aspects of Love.  Unless one has done the inner Work so that these outward manifestations arrive within their own Silence, then they are tainted with self-delusion.  Too much of that these days methinks.  

Comment by Jim Wilson on 10th mo. 3, 2012 at 10:11am

Good Morning Friends:

Friend John: The Zen expression about one's hair being on fire is, I believe, rooted in the standard Buddhist view that 'All is burning'.  Once someone realizes this, then practice becomes more urgent, more focused.  And I think the first step is to not add fuel to the flames.  In my opinion, the kind of political activism advocated by many is adding fuel to the flames.  More silence, more peace, is, I think, needed.

Friend Stephanie: If that happens, I would double-check it.  I would doubt it.  My suspicion would be that such an inclination is a return to old habits.  Fortunately, Quakers have developed procedures for looking into this; particularly a clearance committee. 

Thanks for your comments.

Best wishes,

Thy Friend Jim

Comment by John March on 10th mo. 3, 2012 at 11:47am

Thanks Jim, 

There are many references to the fire sutra across the various Buddhist traditions.  In Zen one also sees references to fire as a kind of energetic state as in the fire of wisdom or in Joshu's Mu koan swallowing the red hot ball.  Here's a quote from Red Pine's translation of Boddhidharma that echoes George Fox's writings on perfection or, better, celestial inhabitation:

"Those who seek enlightenment regard their bodies as the furnace, the Dharma as the fire, wisdom as the craftsmanship, and the three sets of precepts and six paramitas as the mold. They smelt and refine the true buddha-nature within themselves and pour it into the mold formed by the rules of discipline. Acting in perfect accordance with the -Buddha’s teaching, they naturally create a perfect likeness. ‘Me eternal, sublime body isn’t subject to conditions or decay. If you seek the Truth but dont learn how to make a true likeness, what will you use in its place?"

But this is just tilting at articulation not the spirit of inward Silence that is where we are both alive in the Spirit.  Here's a post to that effect that I put up on an ESR Forum for a course I'm taking on Quaker History and Literature that speaks to the need for a deeper acquaintance with inward Silence as the basis for outward action.  Buddhism can help with this, but it is all there in the early Friends if we would just look more deeply:

"In the Zen world, there is a very active and often rancorous discussion over whether the aging status of the Zen community, e.g. the lack of young people who bring new energy to the Zendo, comes from the turn toward training teachers to become priests who focus on the forms of Zen rather than teachers who are themselves awake. To crystalize it, the debate turns on whether to teach the forms of Zen without insisting on realizing the Great Matter or whether teaching should be deferred until the Great Way is traversed and the Great Matter sufficiently realized. 

It seems to me that we are having a similar debate among Friends, with some focusing on whether our forms are relevant to the times and others (myself included) worried that we have forgotten how to wait expectantly in the Silence moment-by-moment until everything we do outwardly is informed by the Light. The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive, but primary must be the how of Quaker practice. Experiment in the Light and the interplay with other religious forms like Buddhism, which was the route available to me 40 years ago, are ways that Friends today are seeking a truly "alive" sense of the Light, but it is as yet undisciplined nor has it reached bedrock status as was true among Fox and Naylor and Fell and Woolman and Kelly and so many others whose lives were alive to the Spirit continually. 

So if I were to write an essay it would be about recapturing the intimate participation with the Light that arises in the Silence and how we might nurture and encourage inward stillness among Friends today. We have a great example of how not to do it in Quietist Friends who lost in doubt were paralyzed in front of a distant God. And we have many marvelous examples from letters, journals, essays and the lives of modern Friends what a life lived in intimate contact with the Spirit looks like. What we don't have beyond the sense of a gathered Meeting is a practice tradition that can be taught and learned like exists in other contemplative traditions. As more and more people seek something deeper, we could go the mega church route and seek to maximize our numbers by pandering to the popular while losing the spark of what makes us unique or we could find ways to encourage sinking down into the Light that we could impart to our children, to those new to Meeting, and especially to Friends today who feel that something is missing in modern liberal or pastoral Quaker Meetings. I believe that for Quakerism to thrive and, more importantly, to lead to a more peaceable kingdom in a world that needs us to do exactly that, we need to go back to the Great Matter and learn again how to wait expectantly in the Silence for that still small voice that speaks underneath words before the first Word was spoken. 

The end of the Buddhist path is not a particular state of mind, but rather is wisdom. Awakening isn't a home to which one retires, but is rather the clarity that arises from great intimacy with the interplay between forms and True Nature. The Sanskrit word for wisdom is prajna, which is a contraction of two smaller works that loosely translated mean "before--concepts." To me, this recalls the Quaker notion of perfection that arises when we give up our own willing. How to be perfected when it can't be done through effort is the mystery within which we sit. Quakerism is about just this mystery and Christocentric language and understanding is sufficient for our purpose if we use it wisely perhaps drawing on other traditions for the gifts that they might provide. 

One could argue that an essay on this topic is very much in the the Rowntree tradition, namely that it embodies a living truth that would speak to friends of all ages, but especially to younger Friends who are seeking an inward basis for outward action that is consistent with Friend's beliefs and testimonies."

Thanks to thee for setting this discussion in motion...


Comment by Stephanie Stuckwisch on 10th mo. 3, 2012 at 11:05pm

Listening silence is vital.

I also think it is important not to presume the words or language with which God speaks to us or what paths we may be called to walk.

Fox spoke of standing still in the Light AND passing through a flaming sword.

Sometimes the words that cause us discomfort are the ones that show us the growing edges.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 10th mo. 4, 2012 at 11:26am

Good Morning:

Elemental symbols like 'fire' can be used in a variety of ways.  However, I was responding to several recent posts by Quakers, ones that called for 'burning down the Meeting House' and having an 'incendiary' life.  From reading their posts I don't think they were referring to 'fire' in its cozy, hearth-like, manner.  Rather I think they were making as dramatic a point as possible by plugging into the destructive and literally incendiary nature of this force.  Hence, my response.

My overall point is that such an approach is not, in my opinion, really an alternative.  From my perspective it is, as I wrote, simply acquiescing to the ways of the world.  I don't think it is really radical; it strikes me as ordinary and what you find among people all the time.

Again, from my perspective, what is needed is a reconnection with our heritage of Quietism, our heritage of separation from the world, our heritage of offering a genuine alternative.

Best wishes,

Thy Friend Jim

Comment by Stephanie Stuckwisch on 10th mo. 4, 2012 at 10:56pm

I also read Micah Bales' blog and I did not have the same response. People got too caught up in the extreme imagery.

I saw his blog as a call to return to the basics of Quakerism. Basically, burning away that which blocks us from hearing God's call and radically surrendering to the Spirit.

In response to comments, he wrote "I hoped to encourage a conversation about what it might take for us as a community to awaken from the fitful slumber of comfort and to embrace the fullness of the gospel."

Comment by John March on 10th mo. 5, 2012 at 11:57am

It is hard to know with passion whether the speaker is speaking from that aspect of love which is fierce and brilliant like a burning fire or whether it is from self-righteousness cloaked with spiritual language, a kind of spiritual materialism if you will, or some combination of personal ambition and the Light.  My guess is that some of both is true among every Friend's revival movement, including today's revival of the primitive church.  The more the incendiary post, the more it is likely but not certain that the post trends more toward the creation of virtue as a way to prop up a fixed and deficient sense of self.  It takes a very wise and clear human being to be filled with the Lord's passion as compared to one's own.  For this, the fires of self-cherishing must be burned out standing still in the cross.  

Here's one of my favorite quotes from Elias Hicks that speaks to just this sense that we must first be crucified of self-cherishing before we act:  "Now all this life, power, and will of man must be slain and die on the cross spiritually, as Jesus died on the cross outwardly, and this is the true atonement, which that outward atonement was a clear and full type of. This the Apostle Paul sets forth in a plain manner, Romans vi. 3 and 4. `Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ, were baptized into his death?   

Jim speaks my mind on the need for more inward silence--we have as a Society insufficient stillness to inform faith in action and it is leading us astray toward more worldly forms whether it be mission work or political action or trying to remake Quakerism.  It is being perfected and carrying this sense of interior quiet that makes our witness so powerful.  This is the true Quaker spark and it is universal and not restricted to form.  There are Quietists (like Hicks) who are optimistic by nature and who believe as Fox did in perfectibility while at the same time (like Buddhists) seeing humans as to some degree deluded in that they lack a full measure of the Light. Convicted we should be in this and intend not to be correct in view but to be corrected in character so that in humility the Light's measure will increase in us. 

You'll note that I've used mostly Christian language to point to something that is actually ineffable--could have use Buddhist language as well, but I'm feeling lead back to our roots in the Christian articulation of perfection in the Silence as articulated by the early Friends, especially Robert Barclay and Elias Hicks but others among pastoral Friends like  Rowntree, for example.  Doubt they would have recommended burning down Meeting houses though they likely would have loved the passion for reviving the primitive church.  

May thee both be well and happy these next days. I'm off to a Meeting men's retreat where you've gifted me with some new things to ponder.  Thank you for this chance to speak together and blessings to you both.

Comment by Stephanie Stuckwisch on 10th mo. 6, 2012 at 1:01am

Ironically, I see connections between opinions expressed in these posts and in Micah Bales' blog.

John said: For this, the fires of self-cherishing must be burned out standing still in the cross. 

From Micah's post: Burning down the meetinghouse is a metaphor for the true freedom that we find when we renounce all the things that we put before God.

Jim said: Again, from my perspective, what is needed is a reconnection with our heritage of Quietism, our heritage of separation from the world, our heritage of offering a genuine alternative.

From Micah's post:We can turn back to the same God who taught our ancestors how to lead lives of radical faithfulness. We can embrace the exhiliration and the riskiness that comes when we choose to walk beside Jesus on the water.

I hear all of you calling for us to go beyond superficial faith.

I admit that I've never been drawn to Buddhism. I am Christocentric and strongly drawn towards early Quakers. Much of my approach can be summed up in these lines from nature writer Barbara Hurd "it's the exuberance of growth against the process of clearing that interests me, how to hold the woolly texture of passion in the wide spaces of wisdom."

Perhaps that's why I don't see Micah's words a threatening but rather place them within prophetic tradition.  Whatever his choice of words, I see a message there that I don't think should be dismissed.


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