A Quaker’s Buddhist Practice

This essay was originally published in 2000 in Universalist Friends, the journal of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship.

avalo-from shasta fuzzyAtop the small bookcase-altar at the front of my office, an ivory-hued statue of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, sits in serene meditation, a concrete metaphor of the Buddhist ideal that inspires me. The androgynous bodhisattva is flanked by a small vase of blossoms and a white votive light. Before the statue, sandalwood smoke ascends from a long stick of incense standing lingam-like in a gray ceramic bowl.

As the sun sets outside, I take my seat on the zafu, a plump round cushion, a few feet from the altar. The half-lotus posture is the best I can manage. Sitting erect but relaxed, an imperfect image of the bodhisattva, I bring my hands together before my chest. With my attention focused on those folded hands, I gassho in a small bow before the altar, expressing respect for the symbols there, for the practice in which I am engaged, and for myself. My hands return to a position just below my navel, helping to center me in the hara, the body’s hub. I begin recitation of my evening gathas, or verses, speaking them to the statue that I know is only stone.

I am of the nature to be diseased.
I am of the nature to die.
I am of the nature to decay.
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will change and vanish.

Later, I might reflect on the contrast between that gatha and the Christian prayers I learned as a child, prayers that seemed designed to deny the reality of death. But this verse’s words deny nothing. They sober me now, and sadden me. I give my sorrow some moments before continuing.

I take refuge in the Buddha, who teaches a way to peace.
I take refuge in the Dharma, the Buddha’s way of compassionate mindfulness.
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community of the Buddha-Dharma.

The three refuges do not diminish the truth of the first verse. But they begin to answer the question in my heart: how can I live in a world of sorrow and death? I can open my heart to compassion, first of all for myself. I can wish myself well.

May I be free of enmity.
May I be free of hurtfulness.
May I overcome all troubles of body and mind.

All beings suffer under sentence of death. All deserve my compassion. Indeed, I see that we are one in our impermanence and suffering. What I wish for myself, I wish for all.

Whatever beings exist,
May they be free of enmity.
Whatever beings exist
May they be free of hurtfulness.
Whatever beings exist,
May they overcome all troubles of body and mind.

Through the gathas, I have recognized impermanence, taken refuge in the way of the Buddha, and permitted myself to feel compassion for all of us who live in the shadow of death. What remains is to put that compassion into practice, developing mindfulness through meditation, living in such a way that my compassion translates into meaningful action for the relief of suffering.

The day is now ended; my life is shorter.
How have I lived this day?
I resolve to practice with all my heart,
that I may live deeply, as a free person,
always aware of impermanence,
lest my life drift away meaninglessly.

My focus turns again to my hands, which I raise slowly to my chest in gassho and then return to their position before the hara, one hand in the other, thumb tips touching as if I hold an empty world lightly but lovingly. As night falls, I settle into the calm alertness of zazen, “sitting Zen” meditation. My mind is focused on my gently moving breath, but thoughts come and go. Sometimes I get caught up in concerns or memories; sometimes I get caught up in wondering about what I’m doing and why. But always I return to my breath, at times counting the exhalations, at times simply watching. Rarely, I become aware that my center has shifted to the hara. But neither centering in the hara nor focusing on breathing is the goal of zazen. Zazen is a journey of exploration. The journey itself is the goal. If zazen has any conceptual lesson to teach me, surely it is that.

Behind me, a computer casts its soft light into the room. The machine is keeping track of time for me, and at the moment appointed to end my meditation it plays a recording of a small temple bell. Before rising, I gassho once more. As I blow out the candle, I recall that “nirvana” means extinguishment, not of the self (for Buddhism denies that a self exists), but of the ignorance that leads to the grasping and suffering of a life centered on illusion.

I place a fresh stick of incense in its holder, the action an unintentional metaphor of sexual differentiation, and my gaze moves up to the bodhisattva, in whom the sexual opposites are inseparably united. I am reminded of the saying of Jesus in the Gospel According to Thomas: “When you make the two one, … and when you make the male and the female one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, … then you will enter the kingdom,” and of Lao-Tzu’s

Knowing the male, be female;
Being the entrance of the world,
You embrace harmony
And become as a newborn.

In thirty years of Buddhist study and practice, I have learned that enlightenment is the experience and expression of that harmony here and now, and that it begins with recognition of the nature of existence. That all life is impermanent and involves suffering is the first principle of the Buddha’s teaching: no one escapes sorrow and death. That all beings are devoid of self is the second principle: each thing that exists is related to all other things, and nothing exists autonomously. Beginning with a theoretical understanding of those principles, we apply ourselves to meditation in order to move from theory to practice. As the clear mindfulness of zazen infuses our daily living, we come to know firsthand the fluidity and ultimate unreality of boundaries. We exist, yes, but inseparably with all that seems other than we. In awakening to our deeper identity, we meet ourselves as if for the first time.

Like zazen, Quaker worship can serve as a gate to that awakening. In a recent article, I used the metaphor of hearing the cries of suffering humanity to express something of my experience in our silent worship. Others, Friends without Buddhist backgrounds, have spoken of similar worship experiences. Deep, mindful silence dissolves borders and illumines our relationship to all that is. Silence, therefore, is a door to wisdom, the “gateless gate” of enlightenment. Metaphor can help guide us on the path to that gate, leading us to life. The metaphor of the Body of Christ, for example, is one of the most powerful in all of religious literature: those who can imagine themselves as members of one divine body understand that whatever we do to one another, we do to the life we all share. But metaphor is no longer needed when the (metaphorical) gate is reached. When we enter the inner silence of worship or meditation, the fruit of which is the practice of compassionate mindfulness in our daily lives, metaphor is both realized and transcended. Gazing upon the Bodhisattva of Compassion, I recall something that Huang Po wrote more than a thousand years ago: “All that is represented by the great bodhisattvas is present in each of us.”


10 thoughts on “A Quaker’s Buddhist Practice

  1. You wrote, “I can open my heart to compassion, first of all for myself. I can wish myself well” and “Buddhism denies that a self exists.”

    Sound contradictory. If your self doesn’t exist, then you can’t open your heart to yourself and wish yourself well. You can’t even reach out to others in compassion if you yourself doesn’t exist. For instance, in the NT, it says to love others as yourself–it assumes that you yourself does exist.

    I greatly appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s books which I have read with great benefit when it comes to meditation and compassion, but must admit that Buddhism’s general denial of the “self” makes no rational sense.

    Our consciousness, our ability to reason, to do math, to make decisions–all are based within our sense of self.

    I could agree that we have a true self and a false self.

    • Daniel, wider reading about the doctrine of no-self might be helpful. Briefly, Buddhism does not deny the sense of identity: it finds that the sense of identity does not reflect an independent reality. Self is no-self — or perhaps we might say that the sense of self emerges from no-self.

      For our purposes, I’ll note that you question “myself” but not “I” or “you.” So I’ll focus on that, which seems to me to be something of a grammatical issue. “Myself” (one word) is, as you know, a reflexive pronoun, referring back to the speaker, whereas the construction “my self’ (two words, the second a noun) tends to reify the sense of identity — and, in my view, to reify it as something other than the speaker. (If you have a self, then you cannot be that self, so who are you? Something of a koan, that.)

  2. Good morning George,

    This appears to at least partially be semantic, especially the fluid connotation of words such as “self”.

    A human doesn’t have a self; he is a self. Yet I often idiomatically refer to my self–meaning me, not some separate thing.

    Me –reasoning, computing, meditating, working for human rights, etc. is a “self.”
    This self–me, is the one creating, thinking, being aware.

    You wrote, “…referring back to the speaker…”

    Exactly, to the self who is talking.

    I’ve actually read many scholarly books on Buddhism. But like Christianity, Buddhism is a huge philosophical field, even a contradictory one on many issues. Some of Buddhism is very positive, some very negative. We mustn’t forget that many, maybe most, Buddhist leaders of the past claimed a woman couldn’t become enlightened unless she became a man!

    We, the selves, that some Buddhists claim don’t exist, are the very selves that choose to meditate or not, who choose to show compassion or not, who work for justice or not.

    Thanks for the dialog (That’s me typing that. I do exist:-)

    • Daniel, I suggest that your bare assertions don’t enter into dialogue with the philosophical position, well, itself. However, my essay simply refers to a Buddhist doctrinal formulation behind a practical approach: I have no stake in the doctrine’s relative accuracy. I do, however, find that it raises intriguing questions and possibilities, and that it may have some support from contemporary thinking about the brain: see, for example, Michael Graziano’s Consciousness and the Social Brain. It merits more than a commonsense dismissal.

      That said, I will note that you seem to have remained on the level of linguistic argument. After your assertion that you have a self has been rebutted, you assert that you don’t have a self but are one. You now define “a self” (note the reification) to mean “me” — at the same time acknowledging that such usage is idiomatic, which is to say that it violates the proper (reflexive) sense. That doesn’t seem straightforward to me.

      That tactic, I suggest, does not tend toward a reasoned critique of a venerable and nuanced philosophical doctrine. For a start, it begs the question, because the doctrine’s assertion includes precisely that “me” is not the same as “a self.” Nor does it offer any reasoning in support of your own objectification of subjectivity.

      It probably seems presumptuous of me, but I offer this: first, learn to bracket your preconceptions. That is a long and difficult process, but this very question of the objectification of “self” could be a good point of entry. As you gain some facility with that, continue to read books on the doctrine; work at understanding it on its own terms and in light of its historical context and evolution; explore what sympathetic contemporary philosophers (e.g., Magliola) make of it; and sit with it, listening but not commenting: then you might be in a position to begin a reasonable critique. If you can bracket major constraints of your worldview, you may find that minds which dared to question one of our most basic assumptions are worth engaging in a generous spirit and actually have something helpful to say.

      • George,

        I admit that I am not a philosopher. I will look into the philosophers Grazuano and Magliola that you have suggested.

        What confuses me is how “I” can even think about this, if “I” don’t exist.


        • And I thank you for your graciousness.

          I think that your final sentence, “What confuses me is how ‘I’ can even think about this, if ‘I’ don’t exist” contains an excellent starting point: that very confusion. One’s own confusion (or inability to understand) is not, of course, a cogent argument against whatever is being proposed, but it raises its own useful questions. Might I be confused because I have misread the doctrine? Might I be confused because I can’t think human existence in a way that would radically challenge my worldview and situated experience? Might I be confused because the doctrine really is incoherent? It could be any and all, but a confused situation can be a door that opens onto a different horizon. At least, that’s how it’s worked for me.

          If you do read Magliola, I suggest his Derrida on the Mend. It situates doctrines such as anatma within the broader Buddhist philosophical traditions. You might be able to preview it on Google Books: page 91 discusses the doctrine directly, but the discussion assumes some familiarity with the preceding material on Buddhist philosophical schools.

  3. Just finished a couple of articles and an interview with Michael Graziano. It would appear that Graziano does think each of us is a “conscious self.”

    For instance, “It’s presumably a long, slow evolution to our human-like awareness, especially an ability to recognize awareness in others as well as ourselves. Are monkeys conscious? They obviously don’t have human consciousness, but I’ll bet they have monkey consciousness. Same for dogs and cats, probably for birds.”
    The Psych Report, July 29, 2015

    It sounds like Graziano not only thinks each of us humans has a conscious self, but that monkeys, dogs, and cats do, too.
    I agree with that and with other points Graziano makes.

    I will keep reading–the conscious self will;-)

    • Buddhism does not deny consciousness or reflexive consciousness. (Indeed, one philosophical school is sometimes called “consciousness only.”) I’m thinking that Magliola should come before Graziano (who, of course, is not writing Buddhist philosophy): it appears that your understanding of the no-self teaching needs a proper Buddhist context before any similarities to non-Buddhist thought can be recognized. It’s not a concept that can simply be plucked out of Indian thought and dropped into a Western worldview: it is an integral part of a different context. So I’d start with an attempt to understand that context better.

      You’ll probably need to read most or all of the book if you want to understand Graziano’s “attention schema theory” well. (That was my experience, anyway.) Whether Graziano, Magliola, or the Buddha, though, If you read for proofs of your own way of thinking, you’ll surely find them, but that doesn’t mean that you have encountered the author’s thought, that the process was authentic, or that the results are valid. So yes, to keep reading seems best, but reading with preconceptions (including confirmation bias) bracketed.

      • But what else is a self but “consciousness”?

        I went to google books and to amazon and tried to get page 91 to come up but it wouldn’t. After I finish our bookclub book, Better Angels by Pinker, I will need to get a book by Magliola.

        I don’t seem to be looking for “proofs of [my] own way of thinking.” I’m actually in transition.

        Rather, I’ve had very bad experiences with Asian philosophical thought in the past.

        #1 The first time I studied Asian thought, a priest in L.A. told me I ought to accept the U.S. government’s order (and the pro-war view of nearly all the people I knew) and go to to Vietnam and kill.

        The second time I studied Asian philosophy, in a modern context, 4 years ago, I kept coming across writers who made claims such as that 9/11, the Iraq War, cancer, etc. are good or necessary, etc.

        It seems to me that the denial of self, while avoiding some of the pitfalls and horrors of western enlightenment thought, also has its own pitfalls and horrors.

        So, I admit that my past experience is biased against this denial of a conscious self.

        #2 Consciously, I am typing this so I am somewhat confused:-) to think that I don’t exist, am an illusion. Well, who’s typing this then? LOL. 🙂 I know that Sam Harris thinks a “puppet” is and that various Calvinists claim that God has foreordained the typing, and that Hindus think that it’s all a dream of Brahma, etc.

        My understanding of the Buddha’s view is probably clouded by too many different contrary books by opposing Buddhists.

        I’ll keep reading:-)

        Now, I need to get back to work, and stop bugging you;-)

        • Just a quick comment, and then let’s close this thread so we can get to that other work!

          Denial of self is not denial of consciousness; therefore, to ask “But what else is a self but ‘consciousness’?” (although I might want to remove the quotation marks around the word) looks like a good question to begin the inquiry with. We may think of consciousness as constituting a self; Buddhists may think of consciousness as not constituting a self: what’s going on? Is one group right and one wrong, could both be right, or …?

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