Monthly Archives: August 2014

It just happened?

In her beautiful book The Other Buddhism, Caroline Brazier tells the story of a swarm of bees who return years after their removal, to their home in the roof above her mother in law Irene’s bedroom window, the morning after her death. Caroline and her husband had walked into the garden, among the trees and plants Irene had so loved, at the very moment the swarm arrived and settled. She writes:

Why did the bees come? What brought them to Irene’s window that morning? Why did we go into the garden? Why did I look up? The questions bring further questions. Answers do not come. And if they do, perhaps something is lost.

No answers.

In their arrival, the bees help me to touch something beyond expression. I cannot say why they arrived at that point. I have no metaphysic or natural explanation to fall back on. The timing seemed to belie coincidence, and yet my practical mind finds no reason for their coming. They speak to my being in a different language.Their presence resonates with ancient stories of portentous occurrences. It connects me with feelings and intuitions that go beyond words. Like the rising of a snipe [she is referring to Saigyo’s poem ‘The First Winds of Autumn’], the bees are as messengers of the gods.

Stepping onto a different path we go beyond our rational minds into another kind of knowing… We feel held by a deep bodily knowledge of truth, without having words to ascribe to the process of knowing. This is the foundation of faith, and faith is the starting point and the end of the spiritual journey…

Beyond the ordinary is the unseen. Beyond the extra-ordinary the unseen becomes a little more visible, but yet remains shrouded in its own mystery. Faith involves the recognition of a world beyond self… It is the acceptance that forces shape our lives which we do not and cannot understand…

CG Jung, with his passion for explaining spiritual things, came up with the term “synchronicity” to describe what he termed an “acausal connecting principle”, in which, following discussions with the theoretical physicists Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli, he related the concept to relativity theory and quantum mechanics.

Jung may or may not have been right – despite Marie-Louise von Franz’s plea for further research, no one to my knowledge has seriously explored the theory’s implications – but what he was speaking of resonates with the life of faith on more than one level.

We recognise synchronicity by a deep instinct. Something within us cannot ever quite accept that things “just happen”. We think of people, and they suddenly ring up out of the blue. We ponder whether we are called to some role or occupation, and within a few days receive a job offer. Most strikingly, we pray, and in Tennyson’s words, “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of…”

Increasingly, my heart is “held by a deep bodily knowledge of truth, without having words to ascribe to the process of knowing.” Yet my own knowing is for me deeper and more sure than any awareness of fact, or academic discipline. I long for this path, for the flying up of snipe in the marsh at evening, for the voice of the tide along the sand as the sun sets.

Love, coolness, gentleness and dear unity…

Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power. If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands. In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty…. The step into the situation where faith is possible is not an offer which we can make to Jesus, but always his gracious offer to us. Only when the step is taken in this spirit is it admissible.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

I have always struggled with this. In so much of church life, as indeed in much political and campaigning matters, hardening of the oughteries is an occupational hazard I’m particularly prone to. There are so many activities that can be taken as “obedience to the call of Jesus”: feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the sick, welcoming strangers, visiting those in prison, spreading the word of truth, working for justice, peace and the integrity of creation… not to mention coffee mornings and bring-and-buy sales!

Clearly one person cannot do them all, and yet neglecting to do any of them feels like disobedience, or at least callousness. I have literally lain awake at night with it all buzzing around my head.

I had not expected to find any kind of answer to this when I found myself called join Friends in meeting. Yet embedded not only in the silence, but in the structure of the Quaker business method, is a process of discernment that is deeply liberating, and full of “love, coolness, gentleness and dear unity.

In our meetings for worship we seek through the stillness to know God’s will for ourselves and for the gathered group. Our meetings for church affairs, in which we conduct our business, are also meetings for worship based on silence, and they carry the same expectation that God’s guidance can be discerned if we are truly listening together and to each other, and are not blinkered by preconceived opinions. It is this belief that God’s will can be recognised through the discipline of silent waiting which distinguishes our decision-making process from the secular idea of consensus. We have a common purpose in seeking God’s will through waiting and listening, believing that every activity of life should be subject to divine guidance.

Quaker Faith & Practice 3.02

It has been my experience that this can work in the individual just as well as in the “gathered group”. Dilemmas not only in matters of service, but of leadings, gifts and abilities, seem to come naturally under the “discipline of silent waiting”, whether alone or among Friends. I had not thought of this.

I may have quoted John Bellows before in this blog, but his words express here so clearly what I have found: “I know of no other way, in these deeper depths, of trusting in the name of the Lord, and staying upon God, than sinking into silence and nothingness before Him… So long as the enemy can keep us reasoning he can buffet us to and fro; but into the true solemn silence of the soul before God he cannot follow us.”

Celebrating Quaker Work

A film about the work of Quakers in Britain, as seen through the eyes of Friends from Northumbria Area Meeting.

This moving and involving short film looks at selected examples of centrally managed Quaker work in 2013 from the perspective of Friends from Northumbria Area Meeting. The film also looks at the relationship between local Quakers and the central staff and committees, and features personal reflections on the joy of being a Quaker, and what it means to be part of a Quaker community.


Listening to the stories…

Like so many others I have been haunted and troubled by the news coming from the Middle East and from southern and eastern Ukraine. Images from a UN-run school used as a shelter which came under Israeli fire in Gaza, from a bus overturned in Jerusalem by an as yet unknown man driving a heavy digger, from the wreckage of Flight MH17 in the beautiful fields outside Grabovo, just will not go away.

The pressure to take sides is all but overwhelming. The news media report atrocities and the responses to atrocities, the Facebook and Twitter streams are full of grief and the demands for justice. As Quakers with a history of “speaking truth to power” we seem to ourselves to be called to take sides in the appalling conflicts which have given rise to such bitter suffering on the part of the innocent.

Yet the taking of sides leads inevitably and logically to violence. Ghandi said, “There is no escape from the impending doom save through a bold unconditional acceptance of the non-violent method. Democracy and violence go ill together. The States that today are nominally democratic have either to become frankly totalitarian or, if they are to become truly democratic, they must become courageously non-violent.” We can see this clearly in the responses, both here and in the United States, to, ultimately, the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. In the years since then, both our nations have become more nominally democratic, more effectively totalitarian.

Dharmavidya wrote recently in Amida Newsletter Number 19:

There is “little faith” and there is “great faith”. Little faith is the kind of faith that unites a practice community by separation. The community could be a branch of any religion or it could be an ideological group of some kind. Little faith is essentially about identity. It says, “We are X” with the implication that “We are X and not Y”. Little faith always relates to an out-group from which people are distinguishing themselves and, implicitly, condemning. It says, “We are the true believers who are different from the infidels,” or “We have the right practice unlike those others,” or “We are the virtuous and we oppose the sinners.”

“Little faith” leads to violence as surely as dropping something leads to its impact on ground beneath. The cries of the media, whether on Facebook or in the tabloid newspapers, for a justice which is indistinguishable from revenge, are the rallying cries of little faith – the assertion, often spoken but always implicit, that if you are not fighting the enemy then you are yourself the enemy.

Dharmavidya goes on:

Many faith groups operate in this way. Membership cements a person into a way of practice and belief and provides strength and courage to face a difficult world. Even humanistic and supposedly progressive groups can be in the same kind of mentality. How many progressive groups do you know that thrive on petitions and campaigns to condemn this or that idea or practice that is different from their own? One might then ask… But should one not condemn what is bad, cruel or corrupt? Isn’t progress a function of eliminating the bad? It is easy to see how an oppositional way of thinking comes readily to the human mind and appears to be self-justifying. Yet, it is not our way to condemn. We are not in the business of demolishing Hell; we are in the business of building an alternative; yet we cannot do such building alone and unaided; we need the help of the Buddhas.

In his recent book Consider the Blackbird: Reflections on Spirituality and Language, Harvey Gilman quotes Peter Bien (Words, Wordlessness and the Word, 1992):

Naming divides. Grammar divides, distinguishing subject from object, masculine from feminine, past from present, even the self-consciously perceived ‘me’ from the perceiving ‘I’. But silence unifies… Whether we consider the Godhead as being or becoming, language stands as an impediment whereas silence is a perfect ritualistic means to renew our connection with true reality.

In our contact with that which always stands over against, above if you will accept the term, our human dividedness, we are always at risk of losing that separate, wilful individuality with which we are named and defined. Gilman writes, later in the same chapter which opens with the Peter Bien quote:

At its most intense the question of who is communicating with whom ceases to matter. The individual is expressing him or herself with others in the presence of God or something for which ‘God’ is the agreed metaphor. Although Orthodox Judaism is wary of talk of union with God – since God is always the Other – there is blurring of the self in an outpouring into otherness. Prose becomes poetry, silence becomes music, the body dances, words become wordless.

Dharmavidya goes on:

It is important, therefore, to understand great faith. Great faith is faith that transcends difference and does not rely upon rejection. Great faith encompasses faith in great compassion and great love, great peace and great equanimity. Great love is the love of Buddha who loves all sentient beings. We might not be able to manage that personally, but we have faith in it. We have faith that that is the way of the Buddhas and it is to them that we look for refuge.

This means that while we express our faith in a particular form, such as saying Namo Amida Bu, we do not understand that expression as excluding other expressions, but as embracing them. The hundred names of Allah are simply more names for the same great faith. The prayers of Christians and the dancing of Sufis, the rituals of Confucianists, the hopes of Humanists and the sitting of Zenists, are ultimately expressions of the same essential heart. The actual practitioners of this or that approach may or may not be enmeshed in small faith just as members of our own congregation may be, but true refuge is not exclusivist. True refuge is an expression of faith on behalf of all beings.

When we say Namo Amida Bu, we are also saying “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me, a sinner”, we are also saying “Hari Krishna” and “By the mercy of Allah, the compassionate.” This is not to say that all these different faiths are really the same. They evidently all have different forms and customs and different ideas. Yet there is a parallel between the spectrum from bigness of heart to littleness in all groups, and to say Namo Amida Bu is to celebrate the prevailing of bigness of heart and bigness of faith not only in one’s own group but in all.

Language is so often defined in terms of definition, if you will forgive the pun. I mean that it is used to describe distinctions, to set apart one thing from another, so that we can think about things, tell each other things, debate things, argue about them. But Wittgenstein, as Gilman himself points out earlier in Consider the Blackbird, famously made the distinction between what language could say and what language could show. (When I was teaching creative writing many years ago, I often used to ask those who were learning to write poems to give up trying to tell us about things, and instead to show us the things themselves.)

Gilman again:

The division for me in the religious life is not between members of one religion and another, or even between sceptics, atheists and followers of religions. It is between those who include the stories of their fellow humans and those who exclude them.

Our stories are so often the places where we find ourselves, and each other. In the Australian Aboriginal world view, the Dreaming stories “cover many themes and topics, as there are stories about creation of sacred places, land, people, animals and plants, law and custom. It is a complex network of knowledge, faith, and practices that derive from stories of creation. It pervades and informs all spiritual and physical aspects of an indigenous Australian’s life.” (Wikipedia) Our stories can be told among our fellows, or they can be told in exile. But the greatest gift we can give another is to listen to their stories.

Dharmavidya concludes:

In Buddhism we have the teaching of truths for noble ones. The first truth for noble ones is dukkha. Dukkha includes having difficult neighbours. Sometimes this even means having neighbours who throw bombs over one’s borders. One might be tempted to throw bombs back. When things reach this degree of animosity something has already gone badly wrong. Too much little faith has been going on for too long already. Yet, from the perspective of great faith, one knows that there are people of good heart on both sides and those who are lost in littleness are only so because of their fear. One, therefore, prays for and takes refuge in a bigger faith that can encompass both sides. One seeks to take away the causes of fear.

The reason for dukkha is so that we can find liberation by liberating one another. Liberation starts in our hearts, extends into our open arms and finds fulfilment in expressions of love, or, it starts in expressions of love, extends into open arms and finally lodges deep in our hearts. All true religion is a reminder of this inner and outer movement. In Buddhism, we say that our neighbour is our teacher. It is through such relations that we find the barriers to our own freedom and if we find them then we can take them down. This is, perhaps, a never-ending task in our own case, but it is sustained by that greater universal love in which we find refuge and take faith. Let us, therefore, not condemn little faith, but seek always to go beyond it into that great faith that encompasses all sentient beings and is the unique and sacred vow of all Buddhas everywhere, no matter by what names or forms they present themselves.

Let us listen. And then we can pray.