The Zen of Quakerism

If, when I’m feeling a little playful, someone were to ask me to summarize Quakerism in a sentence or two, I might say this:

You have a heart. Use it.

If the person looked puzzled or expectant, I might say more: It’s not the heart your parents gave you. Perhaps you would ponder a Quaker koan awhile:

What is your original heart before you were born?

Sometimes you have a fleeting feeling that is deeper and more embracive than the heart you think is yours; sometimes you experience a sharing in the suffering of other beings and a desire to help them, even if doing so is painful or dangerous. That is the stirring of the prelapsarian heart, your pure heart before your parents, “Adam and Eve,” gave you birth. It is your treasure-house. As Baso’s student Daiju liked to say,

Open your own treasure house and use those treasures.

But you may fear to do that: just to open the house is to risk losing, or spending, the treasure. But is treasure really treasure if never used? And does your original heart, which knows that “love can be kept only by being given away,” not long to give itself? And does Lazarus not lie bleeding at your gate? Do you not long to plunder your treasure for him? Master Jesus said,

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Your original heart already does that. Why not live in that heart? Why settle for a lesser life?

When an armed thief entered Shichiri Kojun’s house, the master interrupted his sutra chanting to say, “Don’t disturb me. The money’s in that drawer. Help yourself.” As the thief opened the drawer, the master said, “Leave me a little for tomorrow’s taxes.” The thief took most of the money and approached the door. “You didn’t thank me,” said the master. The thief thanked him and left, shaking his head. Later, at the thief’s trial, the master gave testimony: “I gave him some money, and he thanked me for it.” Upon his release from prison (for he had stolen from many), the former thief studied Buddhism under Shichiri Kojun.

Master Jesus said, “Take no thought for the morrow.” But Master Shichiri knew to keep something for tomorrow, lest he, too, lose his liberty; being, like Jesus, a teacher, he had work to do. Love gives by nature, not by law. Therefore it is free. Therefore it is perfect.

Be you therefore perfect, even as your Father in the heavens is perfect.

Not believe that you are perfect, but really be perfect? And act like it? Who can do that? One who real–izes the perfection already in her, however small its present measure; one who puts her faith in the Christ-nature and so expresses that nature in thought, feeling, word, and deed. For “Christ” is the name of your perfect original heart, the power and wisdom of love.

To find that heart and abide therein is to have life and have it ever more abundantly. It is to “come into the unity of the faith and of the real–ization of the Son of God, into a perfect person, into a mature measure of the fullness of the Christ.” The Christ-heart is the priceless spiritual life that no one can give you nor take from you. It is your eternal treasure, but only if you spend it.

You have a heart. Use it.

NOTES for “The Zen of Quakerism”

Rather than pepper that brief piece with note numbers, I’ll identify non-biblical references here and leave the biblical quotations and references, including Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man, to the reader’s knowledge, search engine, or apathy. (Note that in my translation of Eph. 4:13 I have, following the interlinear rendering, used “realization” — which I have hyphenated in order to bring out the sense of “making real” — instead of the usual “knowledge” for epignoseos.) In order of appearance:

  • “What is your original heart before you were born?” is a play on a famous Zen koan, or meditation paradox, attributed to the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-Neng, who asked (according to D. T. Suzuki), “When your mind is not dwelling on the dualism of good and evil, what is your original face before you were born?” — see Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p. 104;
  • Daiju’s statement is from story # 28 in Reps & Senzaki, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, p. 48;
  • “Love can be kept only by being given away” is from Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, page 1;
  • The story of Shichiri Kojun and the thief is adapted from story # 44 in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, p. 59.

4 thoughts on “The Zen of Quakerism

  1. I’m not exactly an orthodox Christian, but I would ask a different question: what is your new heart after you die?

  2. I have never been able to find my original heart. When I pray or meditate of just attend to the moment there is always thinking, fearing, wanting, etc. no matter how many times I peel back the layers to see into my true nature. In other words, there is always someone there, someone who carries all the stuff I normally do, and I know that someone is none other than me. Where there should be silence and nothingness and hesychia and the place of light, according to the mystical traditions, there is always only me in the infinite reflection of mirrors, the all-too-human me. That’s why I remain in a community of traditionally Christian faith: I have to believe that my true self, the one that has a feeling and loving heart, is an eschatological reality. and that he is waiting for me in God’s future. Jesus is the icon for that hope, and I have come to the place where I accept that I cannot “wait without hope” but must risk hoping, even if it is hope “for the wrong thing.”

  3. It may help to think of “original heart,” as well as phrases such as “original face” and “original mind,” as rhetorical devices that are intended to point not to an ontological or metaphysical entity but to an already-present potential. If I may, I would suggest abandoning any concerns with concepts such as “true self” and “nothingness” — those may make sense as descriptions of  experience, but, as you seem to have seen repeatedly, they can be quite unhelpful as prescriptions for experience. But the “someone there” which you always find, the “me,” is precisely the locus of what I have playfully called “original heart.” As Baso said, “You have your own treasure house”; that house is nothing other than the “someone” you are.

    A house may be (in a non-scientific sense) walls around nothing, and the nothingness may be that which, as Lao Tzu would say, makes the house useful, but one becomes aware of that nothingness soon enough. (And if it’s really nothing, then the discovery is, as it were, nothing special.) The light shines in the darkness: the nothingness within is that darkness, and the light is the treasure of love that redeems it when you allow love to move from potentiality to actuality. You do that by opening the door and giving others access to your treasure — an experience which is also your discovery of the richness of that treasure. According to Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46, that sharing of treasure is the only thing that matters.

    The main point of the post is that you already have a feeling and loving heart, although you may be missing it in your seeking for something else, perhaps something more mystical. If you didn’t already have that heart, you probably wouldn’t be driven to search for it or to hope for it: love wants to love more effectively, to open its doors to the other. The original Quaker way, which was thoroughly Christian, was to learn to feel that heart — which, again, is something you already do, although perhaps you are distracted by seeking — with confidence, and to place one’s full faith in it. In our theological tradition, that heart is the intersection of the human and the divine, the working of the life and power and wisdom of God — that is, of Christ — in you.

    First Friends such as George Fox and Margaret Fell insisted, therefore, that the eschatological moment is now: Christ is come in his people, enlightening all who accept his light which waits to work within them, graciously engrafting them into his body and mind if they will but allow it. From my perspective, that’s a mythological, or theopoetic, way of stating an experiential, psychological truth: you have the capacity to love (in the sense of agape), and, when you teach yourself to wait upon its motions patiently, attentively, and trustingly, you come to know with certainty what love is. And as you increase in the knowledge of love, you live love with increasing fidelity. In theological language: you are able to know God and to live in God here and now, and in so living you can mature into the fullness of Christ — in this life. That’s the essential Quaker experience.

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