The Turning of the Wheel (2): Buddhism and Quakerism

In my post of 4/24/10, I recalled Albert Schweitzer’s image of Jesus’ failed attempt to stop the turning wheel of history. In this post, I continue with reflections on the phrase “turning of the wheel,” comparing Buddhist uses of the phrase to an interesting use of it in an early Quaker essay in order to highlight an important difference between Quakerism and Buddhism.Two prominent uses of the turning wheel image in Buddhism are samsara and dharma.

The Wheel of Samsara
The wheel of samsara represents the cycle of life and death (or births and deaths), the seemingly endless round of suffering in which beings are trapped. (See the “Interactive Wheel of Samsara.”) In a way, this image reminds me of Schweitzer ‘s unyielding wheel of history that crushed Jesus. But whereas Jesus attempted to block the wheel’s motion, believing that his divine Father would stop it, the Buddha offered a means for individuals to live as if the wheel were not turning. The Buddha would free human beings not by attempting to stop the wheel of samsara directly, but by setting in motion another wheel, the turning of which would cancel, for those who were ready, the motion of samsara. That other wheel is the dharma (usually translated as “law” or “doctrine”).

The Wheel of Dharma
Dharma Wheel By preaching the wisdom he had discovered under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha is said to have turned the wheel of the dharma—to have set in motion the transmission of the saving teaching. By turning the wheel of dharma, he would counter the turning of samsara for those who could understand his teaching and put its prescriptions into practice. As the Buddha’s original doctrine developed over the centuries and new forms of Buddhism evolved, the dharma wheel (dharmacakra) would be said to be turned a number of times again, although the validity of later turnings would be disputed by adherents of the original doctrine. But the important point for us here is that for Buddhism the turning of the spiritual wheel, that which is offered as the means of stopping the worldly wheel of suffering, is a presentation of doctrine—one that includes practical methods of realizing the truth of the doctrine, but a presentation of doctrine nonetheless. That contrasts sharply with the Quaker approach, which proposes neither doctrine nor method as the means of salvation.

The Wheel of Love

Anyone acquainted with Buddhism would likely be surprised, as I was, to encounter the image of the salvific turning of the wheel in the writings of the early Quaker Isaac Penington (d. 1679). But Penington’s characteristically Quaker usage of the image illustrates a fundamental difference between Buddhism and Quakerism. For Quakerism, the saving “turning of the wheel” is not teaching or even practice, but something of a different order altogether. Here’s a brief excerpt from Penington’s Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At (1663, full passage on pp. 342-343 of Vol. 2 of his Works, emphasis added):

So that if I should yet speak further of … meekness, tenderness, humility, mercy, gentleness, patience, long-suffering, contentedness, [etc.] (all which I had much rather should be read in [Christ’s] book, even in the living book of the eternal Word, than in my writings), I should but speak further of [Christ’s] nature brought up, manifested, and displaying itself in and through the creatures, by his turning the wheel of his life in their hearts.

At first glance, it may seem that Penington, with his references to reading and books, is in fact speaking of a doctrine or teaching that can be written and transmitted. But the book in which he wants us to read virtues is, as he puts it, “the living book of the eternal Word.” That book is read and understood not by being grasped by the eyes and the thinking mind but, as we will see in the full passage below, by being “felt”—for that “book” is the living Christ, the new covenant written not in letters but in spirit, in the heart. (See Jeremiah 31:33-34 and 2 Cor. 3:6.) The virtues listed at the beginning of the excerpt are not qualities to be learned about and subsequently imitated or practiced; they are the presence and action in us of the nature, the very life, of Christ. The Quaker “turning of the wheel” by which we counteract the wheel of suffering in history is the movement, the activity, of the life of Christ within us. And Christ being, as we have noted many times here, the human face of the God who is love, it is in the activity of love—”his turning of the wheel of his life in [our] hearts”—that we find our salvation.

The Buddhist seeks to cancel the effects of samsara by right understanding and practice. Many of us, especially we who are not theists, find that more appealing than the traditional Quaker approach, which, as we see in the full passage from Penington, is a matter of obedience.

Quest. What is obedience?

Ans. It is the subjection of the soul to the law of the Spirit; which subjection floweth from, and is strengthened by, love. To wait to know the mind of God, and perform his will in every thing, through the virtue of the principle of life revealed within, this is the obedience of faith. This is the obedience of the seed, conveyed into the creature by the seed, and it is made partaker of the seed. He is the son who naturally doth the will; he is the faithful witness who testifies concerning the will; yea, and he is the choice servant also.

Mark how every thing in the kingdom, every spiritual thing, refers to Christ, and centres in him. His nature, his virtue, his presence, his power, makes up all. Indeed he is all in all to a believer, only variously manifested and opened in the heart by the Spirit. He is the volume of the whole book, every leaf and line whereof speaks of him, and writes out him in some or other of his sweet and beautiful lineaments. So that if I should yet speak further of other things, as of meekness, tenderness, humility, mercy, gentleness, patience, long-suffering, contentedness, &. (all which I had much rather should be read in his book, even in the living book of the eternal Word, than in my writings), I should but speak further of his nature brought up, manifested, and displaying itself in and through the creatures, by his turning the wheel of his life in their hearts [emphasis added]. But my spirit hasteneth from words, therefore can I not but cut short and pass over these openings in me, that neither my own soul nor others may fix or stay upon words concerning the thing, but may sink in spirit into the feeling of the life itself, and may learn what it is to enjoy it there, and to be comprehended of it, and cease striving to know or comprehend concerning it [emphasis added]. And then I am sure he that hath a taste of this cannot but be willing to sell all the knowledge that can be held in the creaturely vessel, for that knowledge which is living, and is laid up in that treasury, into which the thief and corrupter can by no means steal or break….

But we need not be put off by the theistic imagery of traditional Quakerism, which has always been a very practical religion. The practical Quaker seeks “living” knowledge, which is, in context of the Quaker reading of the Christian tradition, the actual life of love in the heart. In Penington’s theopoetic image, Christ turns the wheel of his love within, and that ongoing experience is “all in all to a believer,” for it is in that turning that Christ is known as the power of love, and it is in our turning inward to that power, and being turned by it, that we are liberated from the wheel of worldly necessity.

Nor need we hesitate for fear that “obedience” or “surrender” might mean subservience to a religious authority or doctrine. On the contrary, it is through surrender to the living love within and among us that we find freedom, the freedom of one who has ceased to resist the light and life in her heart. For the turning of the wheel of love is metanoia, conversion, the turning-around of the mind and heart, the radical change that is our heart’s deepest desire, the new birth into spiritual life. As turning wheels carry us to new places, provide means and power for getting work done, even—in the Ptolemaic system—order the cosmos, so does the turning or activity of the Christ-love in our hearts transform us, empower us, and set us in truthful relation to the universe. And, again, it is love itself, not we, that turns the wheel of salvation, for love is alive in us; we have only to surrender to that love whose beauty and power we already feel, if only faintly, moving within us. The Quaker needs no authority, doctrine, or practice and, in fact, sees them as hindrances; for the Friend, surrender to love is all that is needed, for love is “all in all.”

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