Category Archives: Spirit

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…

Drift lines

It is just over a week ago now that I had a cardiac procedure carried out at the Dorset County Hospital, which by great good fortune is just across the road from us, and has an excellent cardiology unit. I was able very carefully to go to meeting last Sunday, feeling tired and somewhat battered, but already in better health than I had been for a long time.

I have written elsewhere about the liminality inherent in life itself. Sitting in meeting last Sunday it came to me that I was conscious of this in a new way now. I had heard on Saturday that a Friend from our previous Area Meeting, a man I had felt close to since being one of his visitors when he applied for membership some years ago, had just died from precisely the condition for which I’d been treated.

Richard Rohr once wrote, in a slightly different context,

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.

Margery Abbott, in her excellent Pendle Hill Pamphlet Quaker Views on Mysticism, writes, 

…mysticism as known within the Society of Friends is our awareness of (or belief in) God’s presence, individually and in the corporate Meeting for Worship, an awareness that results in a changed perception of the world and a willingness to be guided by the Spirit, the Inward Light, the Christ Within. Quakerism is strongly prophetic – it is about listening for that which is eternal and bringing the divine word to the world.

We are liminal creatures, we humans; the difference between us is never so much a difference in liminality as it is a difference in our awareness of it. Over recent months I have been blessed to see this liminality for myself with a new clarity and immediacy. Our lives here seem so all or nothing to us, so identified with who we are, that we forget we live on the shoreline of something so much deeper and wider than we have imagined, the ground of all that has been made. We are just beachcombers, really, walking the drift lines amid the seaglass and old lumber, dazed and entranced by a light we cannot understand.

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 12

Loving care is not something that those sound in mind and body ‘do’ for others but a process that binds us together. God has made us loving and the imparting of love to another satisfies something deep within us. It would be a mistake to assume that those with outwardly well-organised lives do not need assistance. Many apparently secure carers live close to despair within themselves. We all have our needs…

To be without an ordained clergy is not to be without either leadership or ministry. The gifts of the Spirit to us include both. For us, calls to particular ministries are usually for a limited period of time, and those gifts pertain to the task rather than the person. In one lifetime a person may be called to a number of ministries…

With our structure, we risk failures in understanding and transmitting our tradition, and failures in pastoral care. We do not always adequately support one another. When we appoint people to carry out tasks for us, there is a danger of approaching this in too secular a way… We can and must pray for them to receive the necessary gifts and strength from the Spirit.

Quaker Faith & Practice 12.0112.03

Coming, as Susan and I did last year, from an area meeting with traditional roles for elders and overseers, into one where corporate eldership and oversight are practised, brings an oddly different perspective. These words carry greater weight than they appeared to when I first read them, and the sense that one needs to be faithful to one’s own gifts is that much keener. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (1 Corinthians 12.4-6)

I am only just beginning to learn what it means to share the responsibilities of eldership and oversight as a community. The process is one of continual learning, of building upon lived experience: we are not working towards a time when arrangements are settled, and Friends can sit back and let things progress along well-worn tracks. Each of us must watch for the others, as we are watched for ourselves. Only the Light can show each of us where the path is taking us, and this calls for faith. Change and uncertainty are all we can be sure of, and we rely on the Spirit, rather than tradition, or on the structures of our roles and responsibilities.

Change and uncertainty extend too to the words we use to describe our journey to ourselves and to each other. One of the glories of being human seems to be our uniqueness, the quality we share with all creatures of being individually different though recognisably members of the same species. If we are faithful to our defining Quaker insight of “that of God” in each of us, we will have to recognise that our perceptions and experiences of that will be as various as the people who have them. As Zélie Gross writes,

The way forward lies in having confidence in our ability to to live creatively with difference and to learn from it, which is a much more resilient and enduring kind of strength.

The role of eldership in building confidence will be to encourage a spirit of respect for people’s own experience and their genuine concern to find the language that embodies it. Friends from anywhere on the spectrum of belief or spiritual understanding can feel marginalised and not heard in a meeting where discussion feels too risky or it takes place in private corners only between people of like mind…

Where pastoral and spiritual care are shared across the meeting, as in ours, there is at least the potential, given sufficient faith and courage among Friends, for this kind of creative living to be grow and be nurtured, rather than depending upon the gift of open-mindedness in one or a few Friends in particular roles.

Living by faith is a great adventure, possibly the adventure of being human; and though we may be called to do things as apparently absurd as walking on water, the Spirit is faithful, and will, if we trust, lead us precisely as we come to “know one another better in things that are eternal as in things that are temporal.” (OFP 3.02)

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 10

We recognise a variety of ministries. In our worship these include those who speak under the guidance of the Spirit, and those who receive and uphold the work of the Spirit in silence and prayer. We also recognise as ministry service on our many committees, hospitality and childcare, the care of finance and premises, and many other tasks. We value those whose ministry is not in an appointed task but is in teaching, counselling, listening, prayer, enabling the service of others, or other service in the meeting or the world.

The purpose of all our ministry is to lead us and other people into closer communion with God and to enable us to carry out those tasks which the Spirit lays upon us.

London Yearly Meeting, 1986 – Quaker Faith & Practice 10.05

Coming a year ago into an area meeting where eldership and oversight are handled corporately, from one where the traditional roles are maintained, my eyes have been opened in many ways, not least to the differing ministries within a local meeting. We’re not all the same, nor should we expect others, or ourselves, to be the same. As the apostle Paul wrote of the 1st century church, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.” (1 Corinthians 12.4) Strangely perhaps, this fact seems clearer, more sharply defined, when Friends are acting in cooperation as they are led, than when they are working within roles defined by tradition, or by the vision of a nominations committee.

There are many ministries, though, as this section from QFP explains, not only the ones that belong to the office of clerk, elder, overseer, treasurer or whoever. Sometimes the Spirit’s leading seems to be reflected in the very character of a Friend called to a particular ministry: the love that underlies pastoral care, the courage of one who speaks truth to power, the stillness and vulnerability behind the call to prayer. What’s needed, it seems, is the sensitivity to recognise these things in the lives of Friends around us, and the humility to accept their recognition of them in ourselves!

I’ve written at some length about ministry in the sense of words, vocal or written, elsewhere in this blog. It’s interesting, as I mentioned there,  that I found it a surprise when a Friend pointed out this blog as a ministry of my own. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but obviously she was right. Our ministries may be many diverse things. The role of warden or resident Friend, doorkeeper, librarian. Someone who listens. A giver of lifts to frail Friends. The one who rarely if ever stands to give ministry, or gets involved in committees, but in whose silence the whole meeting is held, and by whose prayer it is helped to keep faithful to what the Light uncovers…

I remember reading this passage when I was very first considering becoming a Quaker, and thinking that if this were lived out in practice, what a very good place a Quaker meeting would be. And it is, by and large. Friends do seem to live these things out, often in the quietest and least obvious of ways, despite, or at times because of, the occasional difficulties that may arise. Perhaps I’m not often enough, or sufficiently, grateful that this is so.

Giving up our little lives

There is a dim sense in us that we must always be seeking completeness; it is, after all, the spiritual (or at least, psychological) drive behind consumerism. “Get this product, subscribe to this service, and your life will be complete!” But incompleteness is the natural, inevitable state of the human being: we are small, and partial, and temporary, yet there is something deep in every one of us, however hidden from the conscious mind, that knows the infinite fullness of God as real and touchable.

It is only in the unthinkable – literally, beyond the possibility of thought – release of dying into God that that the empty heart can be loved and filled. And yet the little human thing fears to die. All it has known is its little, bounded self, and it cannot know unknowing.

Dorothy Havergal Shaw once wrote, “Even if it were possible to be a member of every church at once, there would still be incompleteness; the infinite fullness of God will always exceed our powers of understanding and obedience, even our powers to receive vision and joy.”

The paradoxical thing is that we can only touch God by laying things down: the tug of the senses, the continual reaching of the thinking mind. (Oh, these things are good in their place – only they will not bring us close to what is real.) If only we will consent to die to all we know, all we want, all we are, then our life, hidden now with Christ in God (Colossians 3.3) will find itself alive in peace, held adrift in the Ground of Being itself.

From this still place, all truth springs: all true words, and all true actions. Any attempt to avoid this self-emptying will only lead to foolishness; to give up our little lives into this death, by our practice, through our silence, is the light of life itself.

A Mystical Religion – Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 2

Quakerism began as a mystical religion. The earliest writings, like George Fox’s well known, “Friends, meet together and know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was” (QFP 2.35), attest to this, as does William Leddra’s moving testimony the day before he was martyred:

As the flowing of the ocean doth fill every creek and branch thereof, and then retires again towards its own being and fulness, and leaves a savour behind it; so doth the life and virtue of God flow into every one of your hearts, whom he hath made partakers of his divine nature; and when it withdraws but a little, it leaves a sweet savour behind it; that many can say they are made clean through the word that he hath spoken to them. In which innocent condition you may see what you are in the presence of God, and what you are without him… Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation, whose testimonies are sure, and righteous altogether.

QFP 2.19

We forget this too easily, and at our peril. Craig Barnett, in his post yesterday on Reading Quaker Faith & Practice, Chapter 2, reminds us that “[t]he Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote that God has both ‘personal and impersonal aspects’.” He goes on to explain,

Contrary to the way that this is often caricatured, a personal understanding of God does not mean believing in ‘an old man on a cloud’. Instead, spiritual reality is known as an active, intentional, loving, guiding and protecting presence…

Another common way of experiencing God is as an impersonal energy, principle or universal interconnectedness. This perspective is particularly emphasised in religions such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. It also runs through the Christian tradition from very early times, especially in mystical writings such as Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as modern theologians such as Paul Tillich.

and he points out the parallels in Quaker language: Guide, Lord, Seed, Inward Light, Principle of Life and so on.

Craig Barnett shows that the differences in approach and understanding between those who experience God as personal presence, and those who experience God as impersonal principle, form a creative tension present throughout Quaker history, and as far back in the history of spirituality as there are records. He continues:

Rather than defending my images and opposing yours, we could accept the necessity of multiple images for appreciating the many-sided nature of God. This requires me to acknowledge the validity of other people’s experience of spiritual reality, even where it differs from mine. This presupposes, of course, that I do not already ‘know’ that everyone who claims to have any kind of experience of God is deluded, and that there is ‘really’ no such thing as any spiritual reality at all.

It is not coincidental that it is the small number of Friends who reject even the possibility of spiritual experience who have been most active in promoting the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’. In fact, the most significant distinction for the practice of Quaker worship is not between those who adopt personal or impersonal images of spiritual reality, but between those Friends who are open to the possibility of spiritual experience in any form, and those are not.

This seems to me to be the crux of the matter, and in reading Chapter 2 of Quaker Faith and Practice it should be immediately obvious that the possibility, and indeed the actuality, of spiritual experience lies at the very heart of Quaker worship, and at the very heart of what it means to be a Quaker at all; and all the works that Quakers have done, and still do to this day, exist and flourish out of, because of – not despite – our shared spiritual experience in worship, and in our own lives of prayer. Without this, there is nothing, except a vague inclination towards good…

The little yards and gardens of our bright attention…

Sitting together, we noticed how swiftly winter is coming to the garden. Behind the fence line almost all the trees are bare – only the ivy leaves are glossy and green among the twigs. The exception seems to be the big sycamore by the water tower, all its winged seeds gone, that hangs on to tattered leaves barely coloured by the wind and rain. The mahonia has flowered, holding its small stars of clearest yellow against the shadowed fence and the coming cold. In the tips of the branches this morning a little flock of goldfinches fluttered by, not stopping to fly down and feed, evidently on their way somewhere with settled, if slightly scatty, purpose.

I found it hard to settle this morning. There were restless gusts of broken rain, my mind full of odd, distractingly affecting thoughts and memories; but gradually the shifting edges of awareness began to allow a little light through from what is real, hidden by the patterned shadows of our daily lives.

What we see, and hear, and feel as we go about our usual tasks and habits is not illusion exactly, but it is entirely conditioned by the structure of our senses and all the accidents and qualities of our human minds. What is cannot be less than this; but despite the bathroom-glass distortion of our perceptions, what light does reach us is of God, and true. Were we only to be still enough, the Spirit, dove-like, would be at home in the little yards and gardens of our bright attention, and we should be free in love, among the tattered scraps of time that fall and drift in the holy, healing wind.