Wednesday, January 6, 2016

George Fox, Meet Siddhartha Gautama

Long before I fell in with the Quakers, I was attracted to Buddhism. I have stacks of books on Buddhism, from scriptures to commentaries to descriptions of the various sects and how they practice. After growing up with a very rigid Catholicism, Buddhism felt liberating, and I wanted to learn all I could. I devoured information on the tradition in all its forms. Buddhism explained to me why humanity suffers, and what we can do about it. It taught me the value of kindness, not just for its own sake but for how dramatically it can change us and the world. In short, it put the power for transformation directly in my own hands.

I wanted to dedicate myself to the Buddhist path. I tried many, many times to dedicate myself to a regular meditation practice, understanding that going within oneself to cultivate mindfulness was the key that unlocked everything else. Once you can find peace within yourself, you can begin to radiate that peace out to the world around you.

But it never really stuck. I think I simply lacked the discipline and the courage to stick with a meditation practice. And I say "courage" because when you're sitting silently with yourself, you eventually begin to unearth things about yourself that the noise of the world has allowed you to shut out and ignore. Self-examination is not always a pleasant endeavor, to say the least. But beyond that, there was the physical discomfort of maintaining a meditation posture for a prolonged amount of time, and there was the constant battle with what the Buddhists call one's "monkey mind," that part of your brain that jumps incessantly from idea to idea, like a monkey swinging from one branch to the next. Your monkey mind often gets louder the more you try to quiet yourself down. When all you want to do is count your breaths and let your mind relax, Monkey Mind reminds you that you have to take the trash out, or it replays that conversation you had with your child yesterday.

Aside from all that, though, there was always something that felt distancing about Buddhism. I never really felt it was something I could claim as my own. It felt like something exotic that I was borrowing from another culture. It didn't belong to me. Right or wrong, I always felt as if I was appropriating something not intended for a Western Caucasian.

But I continued to read about Buddhism as a philosophy, and over the years I drifted away from putting the teachings into everyday practice. I accumulated more spiritual influences along the way, including Taoism and Confucianism, and the teachings of Gurdjieff and Paramhansa Yogananda and Alan Watts, among others. But as fascinating as I found all that I read, I never really embraced any of it as a guidepost for living. The Tao Te Ching probably came the closest. But in the end, I was left feeling frustrated, and my agnosticism grew into atheism and a feeling of apathy toward spirituality.

That's pretty much where I was when I stumbled across the Quakers in 2014. My spiritual life began to open up again as I found something that in a way felt like Buddhism, in its quiet, contemplative meetings for worship, but was rooted in the Christianity I grew up in. It felt more familiar. I finally felt as if I belonged in a spiritual community.

And now, as fate would have it, Buddhism makes a re-entry into my life.

It all began around this time last year, when I saw that the Seattle Insight Meditation Society was offering a refuge and precepts ceremony for anyone who wished to come. Though lacking formal rites of passage such as baptism and confirmation, Buddhism does offer the taking of refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (community). Once you've taken that vow, you can hold yourself out as a Buddhist if you wish. The ceremony for taking refuge usually also includes vowing to hold to the Five Precepts: not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in sexual misconduct (which is to say that we avoid using sex to harm ourselves or others, not that we agree to a list of moral shalts and shalt-nots), not to use harmful speech, and not to use intoxicants that can compromise our mindfulness. (The Quakers aren't keen on reminding people these days that they were instrumental in the temperance and prohibition movement. Their hearts were in the right place, though -- like the Buddhists, they desired for people to maintain a clarity of mind.)

I thought about going to that ceremony last year. I was thinking that maybe making my Buddhism "official," so to speak, would help me warm up to the teachings, embracing them and bringing them alive in my life, rather than admiring them at arm's length but never engaging in them. Ultimately, I decided not to go.

But the ceremony came around again this year, and I decided I'd give it a try this time. Even as I'm immersing myself in Quakerism, I thought it could only enhance my spiritual life to try to welcome in once more this tradition that's been a part of my life for over a decade, in varying degrees of importance. If I went to the ceremony and it still didn't feel right, maybe I could finally put Buddhism behind me. But maybe something would click and I could incorporate it into my spiritual path.

There were probably about 200 people at the ceremony. I dusted off my neglected zafu at home, thinking I may need to sit on it for meditation, but as it turned out, most of the seating area consisted of chairs, with only a small section near the lecturer set aside for those who wished to perch on a meditation cushion. So I returned my zafu to the car, settled in to a chair, and quieted myself for 40 minutes of meditation.

Almost immediately, the old feeling I used to get when I sat down to meditate washed over me. It's not a particularly pleasant feeling. Part of me feels very anxious -- and it's not even an anxiety I consciously work myself into. It feels as if it rises up all on its own, as if my mind is going into a defensive fight-or-flight mode, trying to fend me off from digging into whatever it's trying to keep suppressed. Yet another part of me feels open and receptive. After I meditate, I always come away with kind of a light-headed, fuzzy, floaty feeling, as if I'm being transported off to another dimension. And these two opposing forces do battle inside me, when all I'm trying to do is count my breaths and calm the monkey mind.

I was also reminded of how different meditation is from Quaker silence. Meditation is a much more solitary, inward-focused pursuit, whose goal is self-cultivation. Quaker silence is more active and more communal in nature. We sit quietly as a group, allowing ourselves to be receptive to any messages that we feel the spirit may be trying to communicate through us. There is no disciplined posture to maintain, and there are no mantras or counting of breaths -- just a calm, receptive, contemplative silence.

After the meditation, the lecturer, Rodney, gave a talk on the importance of sangha in growing on our spiritual path. He emphasized that he himself downplayed for a long time the crucial role that a spiritual community plays in our personal growth, and he eventually came to see that it's nearly impossible to carry on a spiritual path as a solitary pursuit, pointing out that even Jesus in the Bible talked about how he was there in spirit with his followers whenever two or more people were gathered in his name.

That was a point that stuck with me. Ever since leaving the Catholicism of my youth, I've been a solitary spiritual path, with nobody to share it with me. I had a friend once who was involved pretty heavily in Buddhism, but he eventually abandoned his Buddhist path, leaving me again on my own. That was hard for me, because I know I do better when I'm surrounded by like-minded people. When I get away from that community, I easily get derailed. Cynicism tends to swallow me up, and I get short-tempered, intolerant, and judgmental. Some people need a support community to keep them focused; I seem to be one of them.

So I wondered: If I did come back to Buddhism, would I try to pick a community to belong to somewhere in or around Seattle, the same way I've settled in with one particular Friends meeting? I couldn't make this community mine, because Rodney's talks are on Tuesday night, and I work on Tuesday night -- I had to take the night off to go to this particular gathering. But I could do this, right? I'm a hardcore introvert with severe social anxiety, but I can do this. I can do this.

Rodney went on to talk about how seriously following a spiritual path is never easy, because if you expect to grow, you have to walk toward your problems and confront them. Yeah, that spoke to my whole meditation practice. If I stick with this, it won't be easy. But then again, as I always say, nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

Before we got to the ceremony itself, Rodney made another comment that resonated with me. Knowing a lot of people had probably come for the evening to profess a new faith, he explicitly told us, "Don't become a Buddhist. In fact, don't become anything. That just makes everything harder." That statement would probably leave a lot of people perplexed if they didn't understand Buddhism's spirit of testing things out to see if they work for you, and its emphasis on not getting so caught up in the teachings that we lose sight of the fact that the teachings are merely tools for self-cultivation, not an end in themselves. As the Zen folks are fond of saying, keep your eyes on the moon, not the finger pointing at the moon. Or as some of the more provocative Zen practitioners like to say, "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him." Don't get hung up on the Buddha as an object of worship and lose sight of what you're setting out to do. The Buddha's only purpose, in effect, was to impart the teachings that we could then use ourselves.

Then came the time to recite the vows and take refuge. Rodney led us, chanting in Pali, the language of the Buddha, and then in English. We recited the vows three times:

Buddham saranam gacchami (to the Buddha I go for refuge).
Dhammam saranam gacchami (to the Dharma I go for refuge).
Sangham saranam gacchami (to the Sangha I go for refuge).

Dutiyampi ... (for the second time ...).

Tatiyampi ... (for the third time ...).

After that we chanted and recited the precepts, first in Pali, then in two different forms in English -- once in their more negative form, and then once in a more affirming language:

Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
(I undertake the precept to refrain from killing.
I vow to cultivate boundless compassion toward all beings.)

Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami 
(I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
I vow to practice generosity.)

Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami 
(I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual harm.
I vow to cultivate responsibility.)

Musav ada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami 
(I undertake the precept to refrain from harmful speech.
I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening.)

Sura meraya majja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami 
(I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating liquors and drugs that lead to carelessness.
I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy.)

Finally, to seal the ceremony, we were all given a simple red string, which Rodney called an "intention cord." We were all asked to have a neighbor fasten the cord for us (I put mine on my wrist, as most did), while we helped our neighbor do the same. Sitting in silence, he asked us to think of an intention we wish to focus on for the year ahead, with the vows from the refuge and precepts ceremony still fresh in our minds. He encouraged us to focus on a single word, and to imbue the cord with that word, so that it might serve as a reminder for us as we go about our days.

And that was it. We all went our separate ways. I went home with a renewed sense of purpose, not certain I'll jump back into a Buddhist practice, but determined to do my best to live by the vows I took. In all these years, I never "officially" became a Buddhist, and maybe having done so will help keep me more focused on the teachings. I feel a sense of obligation now to represent the Buddha well with those I interact with.

After all, anyone can recite some words, but they don't mean much if you don't put them into action. And the wonderful thing about the precepts in particular is that they aren't rules you have to follow to appease a deity or dodge hellfire. They're a promise you make to yourself, to cultivate mindfulness and loving-kindness, helping to foster a more harmonious mind and a more peaceful world. They're rooted in love, not fear. And that is a wonderful thing indeed.

This path won't replace my Quaker journey, but it may well supplement it. I may end up becoming a Quddhist by the time everything is said and done. 

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