Following a Friday night gathering for song and fellowship with Molly Hicks, 68 Friends joined Continuing Sessions virtually on the morning of Saturday, November 6th. The day’s program began with All Ages Worship at 9:30 a.m. followed by a talk on Buddhism and Quakerism and a mindfulness meditation session with Deborah Cooper. The talk was developed by Deborah in consultation with George Schaefer, PYM’s Care and Aging Coordinator.
Deborah Cooper (Germantown Monthly Meeting) is a licensed professional counselor in private practice and is a counseling services provider for the Friends Counseling Service. She has been practicing mindfulness and Buddhism for the last 15 years and studied Mindfulness Stress Reduction at Thomas Jefferson Hospital. For those who missed it, the talk is captured below.
Deborah Cooper’s Talk: On Buddhism and Quakerism
As a convinced Quaker and now as someone practicing and studying Buddhism, I have become very interested in the ways in which the two traditions intersect and sometimes complement each other. Of course, there are fundamental differences too. In this essay, I want to explore the places in which there is some agreement.
To begin with, there is an interesting similarity in the way that the Buddha and George Fox came to their spiritual quest. Both were young, George Fox in his late teens, the Buddha in his mid-twenties, both experiencing a deep existential crisis.
The Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama, was raised as a prince surrounded by the luxuries of court in northern India. He was shielded from anything that might disturb his life of pleasure. The story goes that his life had been confined to the royal palaces and grounds by the design of his father, the king. However, one day he persuaded his charioteer to take him outside the palace walls so that he could explore the surrounding countryside.
On his journey to the local village, he was horrified to see an old person, a sick person, and one who was dead, a corpse, by the side of the road. The suffering he saw profoundly disturbed him, and his view of the world was changed forever.
As a teenager, George Fox was a serious and somewhat melancholy young man from the English midlands whom many thought was destined for the ministry. But the village clergyman convinced his parents that it would be best if he was taught a manual trade instead. And so, he was apprenticed to a leather maker then worked as a herder of cattle. This situation brought on a profound depression in young George.
At nineteen, Fox was praying to God for a way to understand his condition when he heard a voice saying,
Thou seest how young people go together in vanity and old people into the earth, thou must forsake all, both young and old, and keep out of all. – George Fox
This directive set him on his own path to discover the truth of his existence and his calling.
Both George Fox and the Buddha removed themselves from the entanglements of the world and sought answers to their pain in solitary searching. The Buddha left home and became a seeker, taking on a very ascetic life, studying with many of the renowned teachers of his day. Yet, he found none who could assuage his deep pain at knowing the suffering of the world.
George Fox did the same, after months of searching, he records:
As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I knew there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. – George Fox
George like the young Siddhartha, came to a deep crisis point in his search to understand suffering and how to live a worthy life.
Siddhartha persisted in his ascetic practices to the point of becoming so emaciated he scarcely had the strength to pull himself out of the stream where he was bathing. At this point, a young maiden passing by offered him a jug of milk. This nourishment and the kindness with which it was offered, revived him.
Siddhartha then understood that he had to find a different and less austere and more compassionate way to seek the answers he craved. He vowed then and there to sit in meditation until he could find for himself the answers he sought. After a dark night of struggle, as the dawn of a new day broke, he saw deeply into the nature of reality and achieved his enlightenment: understanding the root of suffering and realizing the way to overcome it. Living into this insight, those who met him and heard his teachings began to call him the Buddha, the awakened one.
George Fox also reached a similar point of despair in the teachings of others. After having left the towns and villages where he sought answers to his questions, he took to wandering in the fields and woods alone. He reports:
When all my hopes in all men were gone, then and only then, I heard a voice which said, ‘there is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to your condition. – George Fox
With this opening, Fox understood that the spirit of Christ within, the inward Light, could guide and teach him how to live with faithfulness and joy despite the suffering of the world.
This is the juncture in our story where the two young spiritual seekers began to follow outwardly different spiritual and religious paths.
One of the aspects of the Buddha’s teaching that has been so profoundly important to me is his dictum that one does not have to believe anything one has not experienced for oneself. When asked about the possibility of a deity (God), the Buddha refused to answer, famously saying that his mission was to help people find a way out of suffering; all else (theology) was a distraction from this important work.
At this point, it may be useful to highlight the central purpose of both men: They were both in deep despair as they looked at the world and came to admit that there seemed to be no help outside of themselves. So, they looked within!
I am reminded of the Chinese proverb that states that a crisis is also an opportunity. Why embark on a spiritual quest if your life is comfortable and easy? For many of us, the compelling need for relief from suffering provides the impetus to undertake the spiritual search.
In his Pendle Hill pamphlet, A Quaker in the Zendo, Steve Smith shares that he was in a deep personal crisis when he stumbled upon a Buddhist Zendo close to where he had temporarily moved. He studied and practiced Zen meditation techniques, which brought him relief and also, interestingly enough, brought him back to a deeper appreciation and connection with his Quaker roots.
I, too, came to study Buddhism after the death of my son. And I know there are many others who could echo this journey. For us as Quakers, I think it is worthwhile to ask the question:
What can we learn from the Buddhists and incorporate more deeply into our way so that more people can come and find relief and healing within the faith rather than having to seek it elsewhere? – Deborah Cooper
It occurs to me that many people come to meeting seeking comfort, community, and care, and I wonder how many of us really find that which ‘speaks to our condition’ within the meeting? I have discovered that Buddhism offers a practical how-to manual to seekers wishing to understand their own hearts and minds. I was moved personally to hear the Dalai Lama say,
If Buddhism has anything to offer of help to the world, let them take it. They do not have to become Buddhists. – His Holiness the Dali Lama
Now we come to the central reason for this essay. Why did I and Steven Smith and countless others turn outside of our Quaker meetings to find a solution to our pain in Buddhism?
I think some of the answer is that we are deeply embedded in our culture. In modern European and United States culture, there is an emphasis on being capable, independent, strong, and happy. The old and sick are hidden away in care facilities, the grieving are expected to “get over it and move on.”
In fact, the latest psychiatric diagnostic manual labels grieving that continues for more than 3 months to be pathological and in need of treatment. We are afraid of pain, either physical or mental and there is an ever-growing range of medications geared toward providing temporary relief to emotional suffering.
However, as we saw with the Buddha and George Fox, their relief only came when they were able to go through the pain, experiencing it deeply rather than avoiding it.
This is where the relevance of the teachings of the Buddha come in. They state that we need to accept that old age, sickness, death, and the general dis-ease of life are inevitable. We need to look these facts all squarely in the face and deeply know and accept the discomfort and pain we are experiencing.
Most of us learn from an early age to ‘get over it’, ‘get on with it’ ‘suck it up’. We numb ourselves to pain both physical and emotional and try to sort it all out in our minds. We tend to go round and round in circles, ruminating, emotionally beating ourselves or others up, circling deeper into despair. The answer, says the Buddha, is to simply accept things the way they are, the suffering, without blame, just deeply knowing the grief and despair that are part of life.
The question is, how do we do this? How do we stay with whatever arises in our awareness, however painful or hard? I found the answer in mindfulness meditation, a pathway based on the Buddha’s teaching: learning to harness the mind so that we can gradually choose where to rest the attention; learning to redirect the mind’s propensity for confabulation and dissociation by using specific anchors for one’s awareness: relaxing into the bodily sensations and resting deeply in the truth of exactly what is revealed in the present moment.
It is important that we as Friends in meeting learn also to accept and accompany members who are in pain. Here too, the work of pastoral care is to recognize and accept any discomfort we feel in the presence of someone in pain. I know my tendency has been to offer solutions, try to make things better. Very admirable, perhaps but is this really what is needed?
I remember when I was in much pain, what I really wanted was for someone to just be there. I have learned to recognize that when I instinctively jump to offer a solution, it is usually out of my own need to alleviate my anxiety. The question to ask ourselves is ‘Is this really what is needed? Of course, if we do not know, we can always ask. But before asking we should be able to provide a non-anxious presence in witness to the pain experienced by the other person. That is essential.
This brings us to William Penn’s dictum ‘Let us now see what love can do?’ As a teacher of mine said, it is easy to love babies and little fluffy kittens, but what about the meeting member who always seems to annoy, the person who tends to talk too loudly, dominate business meeting, or contribute disharmony in general in the life of the meeting?
Perhaps we generally find some people, including some Friends not to our taste. Can we love them? The chances are these “difficult persons” have a lot of interior pain, well masked. Are we going to add to their pain by avoiding them or more actively distancing them from the meeting or are we going to listen deeply both to them and ourselves? Are we willing to acknowledge and accept whatever comes from listening? Perhaps this person is a profound source of learning for us if we can tolerate our own discomfort long enough to see what is really going on.
There is a lovely book, A Small-Town Boy, by Rufus Jones who grew up in South China, Maine in the late 1870s. He writes how the old farmers would come to meeting every week and drone on about the same issues time after time. He relates that everyone knew these old men as bachelor farmers who saw no one for most of the week. This was their time to be in community. The meeting held them with kindness and total acceptance.
I want to end with another story. There was a very renowned teacher of Buddhism named Ajahn Chah who had a large forest monastery in Thailand. His main disciple was Ajahn Sumedho. At some point, Sumedho became very aware and upset with some things he felt that were not going well at the monastery. He went to speak to the abbot about it. Ajahn Chah’s response was very matter of fact: “Oh, is that so?” He listened patiently and then did nothing more.
The story goes that after a few weeks, everything settled down at the monastery. I wonder what inner work was going on. I bet Ajahn Chah was not spending time thinking about the situation in all of its negative ramifications! He was listening with non-anxious attachment and deep spiritual presence to the complaints of his student, and this was enough to help them both find peace.
Photo credit: Evgenia Basyrova on Pexels