Metanarrative & Metanoia in Zen & Quakerism

In what follows, I continue to simplify — to the extreme.

Zen, which claims to be beyond language, is nonetheless a religious meta­narrative. As is evident from Zen’s literature, its ideology developed from the scriptures of a number of Buddhist philosophical schools as well as from Taoist thought. The Zen ideology is actualized in enlightenment, i.e., realization (making real) of Buddha-mind or Buddha-nature, a construct that makes sense only within the linguistic world of Mahayana Buddhism. Zen enlightenment requires a “turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness” — a phrase that has some similarity to the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, often translated as “conversion,” a deep change in the mind.

I have sometimes thought of Quakerism, with its reliance on inner experience and its spartan aesthetic, as the Christian tradition’s analogue to Zen. Quakerism, too, is a scripture-based tradition claiming to have, as Zen’s self-description goes, “no dependence on words and letters; a special transmission outside of scripture; direct pointing to the human mind/heart [hsin].” And original Quakerism was a metanarrative that sought to lead to metanoia.

Each tradition has offered its own grand religious story as a critique of accepted “normal” metanarratives; as a vision of an alternative, more authentic kind of life; and as a catalyst for radical (i.e., root-level) inner change. At the heart of Zen is the myth-based process of the awakening of the Buddha-mind through meditation (sometimes called “turning the light around [i.e., inward]”); at the heart of Quakerism is the myth-based process of becoming a new being in Christ through submission to the guidance of the Inner (or Inward) Light. In both cases, the process is embodied in the mythic element, which is integral to the metanarrative, so that the transformational experience of illumination results in the actualization of that narrative in daily life.

It may be that Zen, with its finely honed meditation discipline, rigid teacher-student hierarchy, and allegiance to its traditional ideology, has been relatively successful in preserving its ability to bring about its Mahayana Buddhist form of metanoia. Lacking those characteristics, however, Quakerism has had little success in maintaining its ability to effect its Christian form of metanoia. In large measure, I think, that is related to our loss of a single, coherent, and distinctly Quaker meta­narrative: we have lost that by which we discerned and were freed from normal cultural and self-metanarratives and were led into a new, comprehensive metanarrative in which “universal love” was central. In most forms of Quakerism today, what remains of our meta­narrative has become enmeshed in and subverted by dominant cultural paradigms, both implicit and explicit. Quakerism has become, to a greater or lesser extent and on one side of the aisle or the other, an arm of the dominant culture. The life- and world-changing experience of Quaker metanoia eludes us.

Liberal Quakerism is my religious home. Leaving thoughts of Zen and other varieties of contemporary Quakerism for now, I want to focus on liberal Quakerism’s situation in the modern and postmodern worlds. I plan to continue along that line in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Metanarrative & Metanoia in Zen & Quakerism

  1. Interesting . . . I see this was posted in 2009 – I hope you are still here in 2017!

    You say in the post above: “And original Quakerism was a metanarrative that sought to lead to metanoia.” I certainly agree about ‘seeking to lead to metanoia’. As I see it, George Fox had a spiritual awakening of a similar nature to those of many other people, and necessarily clothed it in the religious language of his time. Such awakenings are to a sense of wholeness and non-separation that lies beyond words and constructs (but must necessarily be described using language). It’s very clear that Zen is pointing in this direction.

    In another of your posts (I think it was an article for Quaker Theology) you spoke of your spiritual journey, and about your realisation at a Quaker Business Meeting of the primacy of love in Quakerism. I also think that love is at the heart of Quakerism, and that the listening that is encouraged and engendered in Meeting for Worship is a wonderful tool for orienting people in the direction of love and spiritual understanding. The metanoia (which could equally well be described as gnosis) that is sought is a radical change of perspective: the falling away of the primacy of the conceptual mind, and the direct seeing of the nature of reality in a unity of mind, heart and love. I think you touch on this in your other posts.

    I appreciate your posts!

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