February Friends Journal Article on Zen Buddhism & Quakerism

The latest Friends Journal, February 2016 (page 32), has a thoughtful article by Peter Taylor about the relationship between Zen Buddhism and Quakerism.  The article appealed to me because I have a similar background.  I studied Buddhism of the Zen variety in Korea and Japan and was dedicated to this type of practice for a long time.  At one point I took vows as a Zen monastic.  Because I was raised in a secular household Zen was the first religious tradition that I had experience with.  Only later did I encounter the Quaker tradition and make a transition.  This contrasts with Taylor who started out in the Quaker tradition, then practiced Zen, finally returning to Quaker Faith and Practice.  What follows are a few remarks on Taylor’s article based on my own journey and experience.

 1.         Taylor writes that both Quakers and (Zen) Buddhists share ‘a commitment to creating peace in the world.’  Most Zen practitioners in the west share this view.  But I don’t think it is actually supported by the history of Zen in East Asia.  Traditionally Zen has been strongly associated with the warrior classes and has often aligned itself with militarism; this is true in China, Korea, and Japan.  An example of this is how the Japanese Zen establishment enthusiastically supported the Japanese Imperial Project during W.W. II.  This is well documented.  Those interested can refer to the book Zen at War by Brian Victoria.  (It is worth pointing out that there were Buddhists in Japan who opposed W.W. II; but invariably they were Nichiren Buddhists, not Zen Buddhists.  In many ways Nichiren Buddhism is more aligned with the values of Quaker Faith and Practice, I think, than is Zen in spite of the fact that Nichiren Buddhism practices chanting rather than silent meditation.)

 2.         Sectarian rivalries and conflict in the history of Buddhism mirror rivalries found in the history of western religion.  In Medieval Japan monastic armies would periodically fight each other over land and temples.  Recently, Buddhist monastics have been a significant force in religious violence in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Korea.  In Tibet there is a long history of sectarian strife, including forced conversions from one tradition to another.  In general, I have found that westerners have a profoundly romanticized view of Buddhism and its history.  Buddhists are just people and they exhibit the same kinds of shortcomings found by people in the rest of the world.

 3.         I am not convinced that meditation in and of itself leads to peace; either socially or inwardly.  What meditation accomplishes is an increased ability to focus and maintain greater clarity.  But this clarity and focus is ‘value free’; which means that it can be used for any purpose.  That is why Japanese Zen Buddhists did not find any contradiction in their pro-war advocacy during W.W. II.  Meditation really does make the mind clearer and more focused.  But you can use that clarity to be a better accountant, better athlete, cook, carpenter, warrior, conqueror, or torturer.  By itself it does not actually improve the human condition.  Only when the clarity of meditation is placed in a vessel that shapes that clarity into a tool for peace will meditation assist in uncovering inward serenity and fostering social interactions that are conducive to peace.  Without that vessel meditation will just make you more relaxed.  That is why corporate entities are introducing meditation into the workplace; because it makes employees more docile and more focused on their work, and therefore more of an asset to the corporations’ bottom line.  Is that a good thing?  I would argue ‘not necessarily’.

 4.         Still, I think that the Quaker tradition could learn some things from Zen.  For example, Zen has developed a body of literature about how to sit in meditation.  This includes simple instructions on body posture, breath, mental stance, and other factors that are very ordinary, but easily overlooked.  I think that the Quaker tradition could benefit from a similar literature about how to approach Waiting Worship.  There is some material in the Quaker tradition on this topic; e.g. A Guide to True Peace, and Quaker Prayer Life.  But in some ways these manuals of Quaker prayer practice could, I think, benefit from the simple directness and practicality of the Zen manuals. See, for example, Cultivating the Empty Field by Hong Zhi or Rules for Zazen by Dogen.

 5.         I am not convinced that the ‘enlightenment experience’ found in Zen actually resembles the experience of the inner light found in the Quaker tradition.  This is, perhaps, just my own experience.  Nevertheless, they feel very different to me.  In Zen, ‘enlightenment’ is about awakening to one’s true nature.  In the Quaker tradition the inner light is the presence of grace which flows from the ultimate source of love; it is not one’s true nature but, rather, transcendental to any particular person (see Barclay’s Apology).  Perhaps this difference is only a verbal one (some people think so), but my feeling is that it is an actual difference.  As the two traditions interact over time perhaps more clarity will be given on this.

 6.         The world is getting smaller and traditions that were separated by distance and language are now right next door to each other.  I enjoyed Peter Taylor’s article and think it is a heartfelt contribution to the ongoing interweaving of these traditions.  I hope he has more to say in the future.


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Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 15, 2016 at 9:01pm

"One's true nature" is supposed to be "transcendental to any particular person"... even though a person who gets there is supposed to become even more themself, in a sense. Back when I had a vague sensitivity to auras, I had a chance to see a Zen teacher giving a talk at UC Santa Barbara -- and while his interpreter seemed to have a palpable presence, he himself felt like an empty stage...

Anyway. Shunryu Suzuki was one prominent exception to the general Japanese support of WW II, although he was evidently too polite about it.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shunry%C5%AB_Suzuki


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