Category Archives: Buddhism

Fields of Grace

We do not manufacture our own existence. However much we may seek to emulate Frank Sinatra doing it his way, the best we can do with our “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver) is to improvise a little over the chords we have been given. We live by grace, by gift.

Satya Robyn writes, “Every day we are provided with oxygen, a place to live, food that has been grown and prepared by strangers, love from our friends and families… ” She goes on to speak of the humility that comes with this realisation: a humility that is “a very realistic appraisal of our conditions and of our [imperfect] nature which leads to a natural sense of contrition. Contrition is the gate through which grace can enter.”

All that exists rests in the ground of being. It cannot be otherwise – that is what being means. At the very root, the fundamental source of what is, we must come to isness itself, Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit. It matters more than we might think how we describe it, as Rhiannon Grant discusses in her recent talk for the Nontheist Friends Network conference at Woodbrooke, and yet as she points out there is behind all our words that which is forever beyond words, and cannot be held by them. I suspect that this is the insight behind the opening of John’s Gospel,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.1-5)

When things come into being, then we can encounter them, speak of them, but not before. Perhaps this is why Jesus, the Christ, the anointed of God, could say to Philip – who had asked him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” – “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14.8-9) It is only in whatever process of coming-to-be is represented by the term “incarnation” that we can encounter God. (A Buddhist might say, in parallel, that it is only in the person of a Buddha that we can encounter the Buddha Field – only in the living encounter with Amitabha in the Nembutsu, say, can we come to the Pure Land.)

But not being able to put into words the ground of being, isness, God, as apophatic theology rightly asserts, doesn’t mean at all that these encounters are not possible; it is only that unmediated encounter is not possible, as Moses found when he could not see the face of God (Exodus 33.17-23). In the silence of meeting for worship, in the stillness between the words of the Jesus Prayer, is the Light. It is within each of us, closer than our own heartbeat, nearer than the beautiful chemistry by which we breathe and live. William Penn saw this so clearly:

If you would know God and worship and serve God as you should do, you must come to the means he has ordained and given for that purpose. Some seek it in books, some in learned men, but what they look for is in themselves, yet they overlook it. The voice is too still, the Seed too small and the Light shineth in darkness. They are abroad and so cannot divide the spoil; but the woman that lost her silver found it at home after she had lighted her candle and swept her house. Do you so too and you shall find what Pilate wanted to know, viz., Truth. The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.

Qfp 26.44

Trikaya

I have been conscious for a long time (a really long time – I read DT Suzuki’s Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist in the early 1970s) of parallels between mystical Christianity and the Buddhist way, especially the Shin path of Pure Land Buddhism.

Recently, though, I’ve come again to look at the Buddhist doctrine of Trikaya, the doctrine says that a Buddha has three kāyas or bodies: the Dharmakāya or Truth body which embodies the very principle of enlightenment and knows no limits or boundaries; the Sambhogakāya or body of spiritual experience which is a body of bliss or manifestation of clear light; and the Nirmāṇakāya or created body which manifests in time and space.

Obviously there is an immediate parallel here with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which can be understood, from a mystical Christian perspective at any rate, as God the Father, the Ground of Being, uncreated and unknowable isness; God the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, spiritual counsellor or guide, who inspired the Scriptures, and still speaks in ministry and in spiritual gifts; and God the Son, the indwelling Christ, present in all who live, and most fully seen in Jesus of Nazareth.

It used to the fashionable, when I first began to read about these things, to caution the novice against too facile an equivalence between Trikaya and Trinity; but these days interfaith scholars seem more open to the idea. Similarly, many writers seemed to look askance at drawing parallels between one tradition’s practice and another’s, yet today there seems to be much more openness to these insights. Around ten years ago now, I think, I had an email correspondence with a Pure Land Buddhist leader in this country, in which we both recognised the close parallels, in practice and in intent, between the Nembutsu and the Jesus Prayer.

We have much more to learn from each other, I suspect, we of the Christian mystical tradition and we others of the Buddha’s path. Liberal Quakers have long been open to the striking parallels between Quaker activism and Engaged Buddhism; perhaps there are more connections to be made still, in the matters like practice (I have written more here, among other posts) and mystical theology. After all, our action, if it is to be right action, grows out of our practice; our practice does not exist merely to fuel our activism, as I’ve discussed here and elsewhere. I’m looking forward to reading more about, and looking further into the practice of, our sisters and brothers on the way…

Sisters and Brothers in Peace

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

Advices & Queries 7

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been feeling a little disconnected from my Quaker meeting recently. Partly I think it has been because of my own rootedness within the hesychast tradition of prayer, and partly because of my (quite unsought) rediscovery of the Bible as one of the motors of my own spirituality. I am a Christian, open as I may be to new light from whatever source, and despite the strength of my tenderness for Buddhist teaching and practice, especially within the Pure Land tradition, and there have been times when I have grown to feel somewhat uncomfortable among Friends due to the strength of some currents in what Craig Barnett called “the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’.”

As Craig went on say, though:

Anyone who is open to the possibility of encounter with some kind of reality beyond our own thoughts and opinions can enter into Quaker worship expecting to be changed, challenged and illuminated by a reality that is outside our control. Such an encounter may expand our understanding of reality, so that new words and images become meaningful to us. We don’t need to confine ourselves to narrow identity categories that exclude the possibility of change and growth. We simply need to be willing to meet whatever face of God is presented to us, to welcome and respond to it, and to listen and learn from the very different experiences of others.

Quaker worship, distinctive though it may be, does not stand alone as a discovery out of nothing sometime in the 17th century, but is part of a long tradition of direct encounter with God common to mystical Christianity as well as to other religions with currents of mystical experience and practice within their own paths. In our own time this tradition continues in many places other than Quakers meetings. It was Mother Teresa who said,

In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.

And yet, as it was borne in upon me in meeting this morning, there is something unique about Quakerism. What we have embarked on together is a radical, at times desperate, endeavour based simply in trust in God, and in the processes we as Quakers have over the years developed together. There is nothing else: no liturgy, no readings from Scripture, no sacraments other than this sitting together in silence, and the life that flows from that. The fellowship, the Friendship, that follows is so precious a thing that, if we let it, it can transcend all our differences in background, in language, in expression. This being sisters and brothers in peace and in silence together is what we are as Quakers – all we say and do must flow from this. Coming up to Yearly Meeting we are asked think of what spiritual preparation we might undertake. For me, perhaps this is a start…

 

Love seems to be the quality of death

A friend told me of a recent experience she had. After reading a story of a saint who had tried to live every day as if it was the last day of his life, she decided it would be interesting to try doing this herself. And so, that evening, as she got into bed, she began to plan her last day on earth. She thought about what she would do, whom she would see, whom she would ask to forgive her, to whom she would say goodbye. She began to feel quite sorry for herself, and even reduced herself to tears, but in the end she realised she was just playing a game, so she gave it up and went to sleep.

The next morning, however, as she woke up, a very clear thought came into her mind. “What would I do,” she asked herself, “if I knew that I was dying now, this minute, that I had only a few more seconds to live?” Suddenly it was no longer a game. She was really there, at the End, alone, and there was no time left to prepare or plan. There was nothing she could do or undo. And the most astonishing thing was, she said, that after a split second of panic she knew exactly what she must do. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” she heard herself cry.

The experience was, my friend believed, one of the greatest graces she had ever received. She realised that, for her, there was only one way of dying, and one way of “practising” it: to throw herself into the arms of God, not only at the end of life, but every day, and cry for mercy. To do it so insistently, so constantly, that the prayer that came to her spontaneously at the moment of her “death experience”, as she called it, would become a ceaseless prayer of the heart, that it would shape her life as well as her death.

Irma Zaleski, Door to Eternity

Some readers might find this almost a sick, perverse little story, thinking that a mature faith should “stand on [its] own two feet before God”, and that the whole enterprise of imagining one’s own death was macabre, medieval, pathological. But I can assure you that there is nothing pathological about the nearness of death. It is a place to which each and every one of us will come, sooner or later, with no exception at all. The sooner we get used to it, the better, actually, it will be for us. I have been profoundly grateful for the couple of times I have found myself facing the probability of my own death. It is a clean place, oddly a place of great freedom and peace; but it is not, as Zaleski’s friend discovered, remotely a game.

Mercy is a word many misunderstand. Irma Zaleski again:

We tend to think of the mercy of God as his “pity” for us, for which we have to beg, for which we have to humiliate ourselves and wait trembling and afraid. This is an awful distortion of the Good News… To ask for mercy is not to cringe in self-abasement or fear, but to look towards God in trust and hope. Mercy is a “summary” of all we know or need to know about God’s love for us.

Love seems to be the quality of death. The Buddhist psychologist Kathleen Dowling Singh has written extensively on death and the dying process, chiefly in her wonderful book The Grace in Dying. She writes,

As we return and/or are returned to our Original Nature, virtues that we have acquired, usually through deliberate cultivation, flow naturally as water from a spring. The qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, presence, centeredness, spaciousness, mercy and confidence all radiate naturally forth from our transformed being as we come closer to death. Many a time I have heard “I love you” whispered softly and easily to a spouse or child or parent who may never have heard those words before. Many a time I have seen the dying comfort those in pain around them…

Love appears to be the last connection the dying have with the world of form. We become expressive vehicles for the power of the Ground of Being, inhabited and vitalised by far greater Being… The Ground of Being is, in a very real sense, Love. As we merge with it, self-consciousness and all questions of self-worth and previous psychological issues of lovability spontaneously melt. Love simultaneously pours into and pours out of us. It begins to pour through us.

This is what Zaleski, I believe, is getting at. Certainly it is what I am getting at. To practice for death is consciously to approach that place of last connection: to abandon ship, as it were, and leap into the endless ocean of mercy that is the Ground of Being itself. (God is nothing less than this.) If we can begin to do this consciously – and it is not so far from the self-abandonment of contemplation – then that gracious power of “loving-kindness, compassion, presence… mercy and confidence” will have the chance to manifest in our very lives, poured out for those the Way places in our path.

Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes.

George Fox, 1652

Margins and Edges

There is important wisdom to be gleaned from those on the margins. Vulnerable human beings put us more in touch with the truth of our limited and messy human condition, marked as it is by fragility, incompleteness and inevitable struggle. The experience of God from that place is one of absolutely gratuitous mercy and empowering love. People on the margins, who are less able to and less invested in keeping up appearances, often have an uncanny ability to name things as they are. Standing with them can help situate us in the truth and helps keep us honest.

Sister Pat Farrell OSF at the 2012 LCWR Assembly

It seems to be a recurring theme with me that God appears nearer when we are undeniably fragile, incomplete and messy. When life is good, and we have our health and strength, it is harder, sometimes, to become aware of God’s constant presence.

No matter. God is faithful if we are not. In the words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, we acknowledge both our own fragility, etc. (in Pureland Buddhism, our bombu nature) and God’s unfailing mercy.

Richard Rohr, another Franciscan, wrote:

The edge of things is a liminal space – a very sacred place where guardian angels are especially available and needed. The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, “a thin place” and you have to be taught how to live there. To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honour, you are in a very auspicious position. You are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.

The challenge is to maintain that liminal space as a home, in the midst of present happiness, without, as some artists, writers and musicians have found necessary, wrecking one’s life and loves in order not to drift into complacent, fruitless mediocrity. Perhaps it is not a challenge after all. Perhaps it is enough simply to be aware of the fragility, incompleteness and inevitable struggle of the world in which we live – the turning seasons, our aging bodies, even the dear cat, still such a kitten at heart, beginning slightly to slow down in middle age, spending less time abroad and more asleep on the bed as I write, living close to us in the warmth of our shared and transient mortality. That is enough.

On not clinging, and love…

Impermanence is the first mark of experience common to all human beings. The second one is what Buddhists call no-fixed-self. Like uncertainty and unpredictability, no-fixed-self was a concept unique to the Buddha’s teaching. He took the radical step of applying impermanence even to what we think of as our self. Twenty-five hundred years later, neuroscientists are coming to the same conclusion; they’re finding multiple circuitry in the brain, but no fixed seat of the self. As Pema Chödrön noted… “nothing is static or fixed”. That would include this notion of self.

 

Toni Bernhard, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow

Some months ago I wrote,

It’s a great comfort to know that God’s presence is waiting in… times of emptiness and loss, but it is confusing to know that finding him in the good times is sometimes actually harder. I cannot find another way than the odd self-denial of silent prayer, ceasing even to ask for the awareness of God in prayer, but going on in plain faithfulness, without reward, simply out of love. Then, it seems, in the paradoxical way of these things, God will in the end, even in the sunlit days, find the emptied heart in its still place, waiting in the bare inkling of Light, even in the memory of Light, and fill it with isness far more real than words, or longing.

I think that for me, part of the problem is that when things are difficult it is relatively easy to accept impermanence; when they are good, then we want to retain them, guard them, just as we would keep those we love free from age and disease. Of course, if we were to manage to keep them safe from change, they would no longer live, since life itself is process, flux.

That is why clinging to the good times is so deadening. We can’t do it; but the mere attempt is enough to freeze our hearts, cut us off from the sweet life that burns in the fragility of now. All that lives is vulnerable, changeable, fleeting. That is its beauty, and its tenderness. Only the mercy of God is constant love; love is the Light that plays on the dappled stream of change. and we call it life.

Outside Help…

“You got to help me… I can’t do it all by myself…” These words from Sonny Boy Williamson II’s ‘Help Me’ sum up, really, what I have discovered about prayer.

In Shin Buddhism, the terms jiriki and tariki are often used – the former implying the belief that liberation may be obtained by one’s own efforts (as in, say, Zen Buddhism) and the latter complete reliance on a power outside of oneself for salvation. But whatever one’s faith background, all religious practice ultimately boils down to one or the other of these assumptions.

The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner“, is at root a prayer of surrender, of reliance upon God. It carries within it blind Bartimaeus’ recognition that he could do nothing to help himself (Mark 10.46-52) but that his only refuge was the mercy of Jesus.

Identifying Jesus as Lord, i.e. as source of power, we take refuge by turning to him, to his power, for mercy. By saying “a sinner”, we are not engaging in some act of self-flagellation, but merely acknowledging our helplessness, our inability to do anything from an entirely pure motive, anything, in fact, to help ourselves.

Emilia Fogelklou, the great Swedish Quaker theologian, wrote (speaking of herself in the third person):

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

Quaker Faith & Practice 26.05