January 20, 2008

A koan by any other name...?

I haven't posted for a while because of a long trip I was on... which unfortunately involved a fairly significant illness and a long recovery process. Not for me: I was the caregiver.

An unexpected bonus, if you could call it that, was spending 12 days at my parents' place... and having a visit from my brother and his girlfriend. The two of them had changed their New Year's plans to be in New Hampshire and instead came into New Jersey to provide support to us wayward travelers.

Another unexpected result was an opportunity, with fellow blogger Anj, who happened to read my earlier post, went to Summit-Chatham Meeting that First Day, heard an announcement about what I was dealing with, and called me with an offer of support.

I took her up on her offer and we ended up getting together for about an hour--a very much needed break and bit of fellowship for me. She and I stayed in touch by phone as time went on: I'd say another friendship has been born, thanks to the Quaker blogosphere! (Hi, Anj!)

Thanks, too, to Claire and Kay from Summit-Chatham Meeting: they bouyed me with their kindness and listening presence early on in the process.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

During the first seven days since I've been home, I received two pieces of communication from two different long-time Friends that referenced what in Buddhism is known as a koan: a paradoxical question or statement that aids in meditation or reflection (my paraphrase).

The first case was a Friend who was reflecting on her reaction to an address given by a Rwandan Friend about the genocide there. She explained, as I recall, that she was aware of the desire to want to fix the situation and take away the hurt, while also being aware of the need to feel her feelings and live into the discomfort of knowing far more about Rwanda than she had before.

The second case was another Friend who serves on a planning committee for an upcoming committee retreat. The committee lifted up a paradox about the condition of the monthly meeting that might serve as a focus point for the retreat, and the Friend suggested that the committee consider the situation as a koan--that is, something to consider rather than to fix.

Both these Friends have a long tenure among Friends... and yet they looked to a tradition outside of Quakerism for a phrase or a practice that spoke to what they wanted to articulate. What concerns me, though, is that Quakerism does have phrases and practices that parallel those within Buddhism:

living into the Cross;
standing still in and submitting ourselves to the Light;
being exercised by the Spirit.
What does it say about the condition of our meetings and of our Religious Society when we ourselves don't know enough about our own tradition that we go reaching into another faith tradition...?

Such lack of knowledge brings to mind for me what I see as the underlying, unstated reasons for introducing and promoting a "Quaker sweatlodge":
We Quaker adults have lost the ability to convey our faith, our beliefs, and our practices in meaningful ways to our Quaker youth.
And religion, like nature, abhors a vacuum. We'll fill the gaps of our knowledge with whatever else in within our grasp, with the best of intentions.

To be fair, I myself was guilty of this for a number of years before I began reading the writings of even a few early Friends.

Here is what I affirm today:
Quakerism is not lacking; our understanding of it is.


Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Hi, Liz! Glad you're back.

I may be missing something, but it does not seem to me that the Quaker phrases you mention actually convey the same thing that the word koan does. "Living into the cross" may work for the Rwandan situation, perhaps... but that sense of being empty and open to an unanswered question, and of an openness that brings enlightenment, seems different to me than the phrases you suggest.

I think it's worth bringing up for discernment, if the term comes up in the process of a meeting, which way of expressing the sense actually fits best. But I'm concerned that we may be afraid to allow borrowed language to enter Quaker discourse, from a fear of losing our Quakerliness.

It seems to me that I see more self-censoring than I would like among Quakers, and among Christ-centered Friends as well as the more universalist types like Peter and me. We're afraid of being told our language is no good, is out of order, and I just don't think Spirit is that concerned. I think Spirit wants us to communicate through openness and listening, using whatever words and metaphors seem to suit our experience, moment by moment. There's an aspect of listening together into discernment and truth that comes from careful, open dialog that, yes, incorporates the vocabulary and traditions of Friends, but welcomes whatever language reflects the understandings of the speaker.

I'm not talking about becoming an uncritical hodge-podge, where we never challenge or develop an idea that's been couched in novel terms. But we need to hear the terms first, and then test the revelations, perhaps with more novel terms, and perhaps with traditional terms explained--no, explored together.

I don't think Quakers need to worry about getting lost in our ongoing revelation, as long as we are open to the voice of God and to one another. But just as one can be a Friend in many native languages, one can be a Friend in many terminologies. The key is listening openly and courageously to each other and to God, which only sounds easy on paper or a computer screen. But it's still the way forward, I think.

It's good to speak of koans in a Quaker context--but also good to compare them and to weigh them inwardly, discerning them together in the Light, with traditional Quaker terminology.

I hope all that came out more coherently than I think it did. Ah, well... Sometimes incoherence is the price I pay for exploring an idea that's in process. Here's hoping others have thoughts to contribute to this thread!

Paul L said...

I'm not sure the three examples you give are correlate very closely to the koan, but I'm not sure of any other stock Quaker concepts that do. That is, the paradox of "living into the Cross" is a kind of koan (like "he who loses his life shall find it"), but I don't know of any Quaker catchphrases that capture the idea of the koan itself, i.e., that wrestling with a paradox unsolvable with the rational mind can eventually open you to enlightenment.

The best I can think of are some of the parables told by Jesus which can have a similar effect.

That said, a Quaker familiar with George Fox's openings would understand them to be identical to the experience of satori that wrestling with the koan is intended to produce:

But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the Separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition.

And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do; then, oh! then I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition': and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.

David Carl said...

I used the term Koan recently. Ironically, it was in the context of explaining why I've become fascinated with the Christian atonement. I used the term to describe my suspension between intellectual discomfort on one hand and a desire to find a heart-connection to this centerpiece of Christian thought on the other. Like Paul L, I can't think of a good parallel term in Christian or Quaker thought, although my usage probably lacked fidelity to Buddhist practice as well. Although the concept of holding both ends of a paradox until resolution is found at a deeper level is known to Quakers, that's not a very succinct phrase! Maybe we need a word for that.

I have both some sympathy and some aversion (there's a good Buddhist word!) to your main post though, Liz. I have received so much light through my explorations of Buddhist and other forms of Eastern philosophy for so many decades that at this point an attempt to purge myself of such concepts would seem unnatural and narrow. I'm thinking of a quote by Barclay about many candles providing more access to the light that I read recently. On the other hand, I share your concern that we not overlook the treasures in our own tradition. I am also concerned that by bouncing around amongst concepts we don't really understand too well we will find depth nowhere. Still, part of the Quaker tradition is to see and seek light in those "unlike" us. I suppose as a musician I analogize to learning new scales, modes and chords without too much consternation about which tradition they are from! Its good to know how to use them appropriately within a given style, while at the same time being free to mix them up to create new musical "revelation!"

I suppose my own response to the issue you raise (and it is an important one to me) is to keep learning as much as I can about my adopted faith, and share with others when the opportunity arises: "when you say 'Karma,' that reminds me of 'as you reap...."



David Carl said...

"As you sow," rather.

I've been thinking about this overnight. I guess my concerns about this are that 1) we do not narrow ourselves too much -- isn't it possible that Yawheh has brought the Dharma to the West for a reason? -- and 2) that we do not neglect the riches of our own tradition. One factor in bringing me to the latter was encountering several quotations by Gurus and Zen masters saying to their western visitors, "why are you here? Why don't you explore your own tradition?" But I still don't see it as an either/or proposition. From a nutritional standpoint, a salad bar is actually a good thing. Rotating crops keeps the soil healthy, while monoculture depletes it. I would like to nurture joy in and understanding of our own tradition while at the same time welcoming the light from whatever source, however expressed.



Liz Opp said...

Thanks so very, very much for your honest and thoughtful replies, everyone. Ahhhh, it's good to be back online and have these refreshing exchanges! They feel like exercise for my brain and spirit after a long stretch of what feels like being flat on my spiritual back...

Before addressing your comments individually, I want to touch on a theme that each of the remarks seems to bring forward in me:

When we describe an experience or a gestalt or a tradition, words will inevitably come up short. Paul L and others have cautioned us not to confuse the map with the terrain itself.

In addition, when linguists translate from one language to another, they have an intrinsic understanding that the translation itself will not be a perfect rendition of the original, because language and culture are intricately connected.

So when a Buddhist or Buddhist Quaker uses the word "koan" to describe something in Quakerism, and I myself have no experience in Buddhism, I will look for an approximate translation--and a personal experience of my own--to help me connect with that Buddhist or Buddhist Friend.

Which leads me back to how I identify, as a Conservative-leaning Friend, not a Liberal one. Conservative Friends strive to conserve our faith and tradition--I presume this includes conserving a certain amount of language, as well.

Now let me see what specifics I can respond to in each of your comments...

Cat -

A special hello to you, since there had been a chance that you, Peter, and I might have gotten together in early January, had my travel plans not taken a hard left the way they did...

As to your comment:

Your own description of "being empty and open... and openness that brings enlightenment" sounds and feels much more in tune with the Quaker vernacular than does the word "koan" to me, so as a Conservative-leaning Friend, I will resist the word "koan" because I find the Quaker vernacular sufficient.

On a related vein, this morning I picked up Brian Drayton's pamphlet on living in the Cross, and came across this quote from James Nayler:

"Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in the patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee." (p. 19)

So it was that Nayler and other early Friends often encouraged one another to "stand still in the Light" or "stand still in that which is Pure..."

So for me, there is a Quaker "short-hand" of what to do when faced with a difficult intersection of circumstances: when a Friend reminds me to "stand still in the Light," I don't have to ask what that Friend means (though I did when I was younger in my development as a Quaker). Neither do I have to reach beyond the Quaker faith to help me understand what I'm going through, though at times we may need to go beyond our monthly meeting to find the language that speaks to our condition.

And ultimately we may need to turn to God and leave all else behind, similar to how Fox needed to.

...As I take a step back and review your comment, Cat, I agree that for some of us, we must borrow language in order to enter and/or stay engaged in the tradition.

I would also offer that as we develop and mature as Friends, we must stretch ourselves and learn more about our faith tradition so that we might go deeper into it, if we are to find spiritual nurture in the Quaker tradition.

Now, how does that point intersect with your appropriate concern that the goal is to "communicate through openness and listening, using whatever words and metaphors seem to suit our experience"?

I would say this is a query for us to live into and not to rush to answers or fixes.

But I myself dread the substitution of early Quaker language with terms and phrases from another tradition when long-time Friends are (unintentionally) modeling for attenders and visitors that it's okay to borrow, borrow, borrow from elsewhere.

I simply am not easy with that, which is why I see myself on the Conservative side of Liberal.

Paul L -

I appreciate the George Fox quote, and it speaks to me of the anguish we feel when we are caught in a situation where we do not immediately see our way out. It's from this opening, and later in Fox's Epistle 10, that I take to heart the caution to "stand still in that which is Pure...."

David Carl -

I'm struck by your description of "holding both ends of a paradox until resolution is found at a deeper level," for this very much describes the experience I've had of feeling exercised by the Spirit.

Also, as I referenced in my comment to Cat, I want to be clear that I am not asking Friends to "purge" themselves of language that holds meaning and power for them. I am lifting up that there is a danger when Friends think there is no language or concept in Quakerism and therefore quickly borrow from another tradition, rather than ask around.

Again, what are we modeling to the worshippers who sit on our benches...? The distance between borrowing language from other traditions and incorporating the outward symbols, prayers, or ceremonies from those traditions into our Quaker faith is not far.

As you say, let us not "overlook the treasures in our own tradition." If we borrow from elsewhere, let's make it clear that Quakerism itself is not deficient, but that it is according to our own spiritual development among Friends that we come to be ready to use the language and manners of Friends in more and more contexts.

And yes, for some people, a "salad bar approach" to religion or even to Quakerism appears to be what works. But let's not confuse an individual's spiritual approach as the faith tradition itself.


Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting that early Quakers eagerly embraced the charge of heresy, and went to prison rather than renounce their singular beliefs, but they lived in raw horror of paganism. That business of numbering days and months? Purging the names of pagan deitys. Water baptism? Yes I know, Jesus didn't baptise anybody, but still it smacked of the ritual purification baths done by, you know, those people. There were none of those "people of the book" niceties in those days.

I think we have moved a bit beyond that. I can now refer to thor's-day or saturn-day without offending anyone at my local meeting, and I don't think we need to be offended by the occasional borrowing from another faith tradition. After all, didn't Fox say that one could live by the inner light even if s/he had never heard of Jesus?

David Carl said...


It seems to me that what you are concerned about is conserving traditional Quaker language. I'm not sure that this is the same thing as conserving the tradition. The tradition as I understand it is fairly simple: there is Light and darkness within us, and if we turn to the light, it will overcome the darkness. We do this by sitting quietly and letting God work in us. We will then notice that we are impelled to live in a more loving and spiritual manner, hence the testimonies. Now, I don't see that this tradition depends on the use of particular linguistic patterns. The Bible, from which a lot of traditional Quaker language derives, was not seen by Fox as "the word of God" but "the words of God:" evidence of the holy Spirit working in the writers -- but "the Word" is Christ himself in us.

And I don't believe that Christ is too concerned about whether we say "koan" or "exercised by the spirit." Jesus excoriated the scribes and pharisees for placing too much emphasis on outward forms while missing the substance of the faith. He didn't seem to care so much about terminology as he did about what was in his listener's hearts and how they behaved as a result.

Of course, he also knew his own tradition very well. I'm glad you are keen on preserving ours. I hope you will continue to share your wisdom on this subject in a loving spirit when the opportunity arises. Broadening Friends' ability to express their light can only be a good thing, not so much in order to conserve tradition for its own sake, but so that they may speak to human beings in a variety of conditions.



Liz Opp said...

David M -

Thanks for taking the time to add your comment. I'll clarify that I am not "offended" by the borrowing of terms from other traditions. I wish only to understand why it is that we so quickly do so... and when I've asked about the use of a term other than a Quaker one, in recent months it's been the Friends themselves who say they haven't heard of "being exercised by the Spirit" or "living in the Cross."

And keep in mind: I'm concerned that some of the Friends who are using these borrowed terms are looked to as elders of the meeting. Yet how can we, a peculiar people, effectively pass down our faith tradition if we don't know the language or even the practices that lead us into faithfulness, obedience, and love?

David Carl -

Thanks for continuing to lift up the tension that is between how we speak and how we live.

I would repeat, however, as I have said elsewhere, that there is a tight connection between language and culture... and culture is a set of norms, values, and behaviors (i.e. traditions) that a people share over time.

As we lose our ability to speak about our faith tradition, we jeopardize the ability to draw on it for sustenance--hence, fewer Liberal meetings grasp and appreciate the concept of "corporate discernment," for example, or the search for living into "Gospel order."

We seem to lose the incentive or motivation to "live into the More" when we are detached from such language...

In my own experience, when I came across certain essays that put language onto the parts of the Quaker tradition that I intuitively knew was there, a much richer and more vibrant Quakerism opened itself to me, and I have heard of similar experiences from other Friends as well. Lots of other books are written about the tradition, but only a few describe so well the peculiar vernacular that goes hand in hand with it.

So of course I take notice of how we Friends are talking about our faith tradition, even as I also am reminded to look at the fruits of our actions, not the use of our words.


David Carl said...


Thanks for sharing your experience. That sounds uplifting and helps me to hear where you are coming from. When you talk about what this has meant to you, I feel a lot more open to your message than I do when you put it in terms that I interpret as "critical."

I suspect we are in somewhat different places on the question of, not only language, but perhaps the place for blending -- for lack of a better word -- with other traditions. My understanding of the Quaker tradition is hugely enhanced and deepened by exposure to the light from other traditions. In fact, exposing ourselves to the light from others is a part of our tradition, for example, Woolman going to visit the Indians in order to see what he could learn from them; Penn lifting up the writings of Greek "gentiles"; or Mary Fisher acknowledging to the Sultan of Turkey that Mohammed could be a genuine prophet. When I sit with Buddhists, I genuinely feel that I am practicing my Quakerism, because of the Light that this brings me. Many of the terms and concepts correspond to Quaker and Christian tradition and help me understand it better. I understand you are saying, "OK but that's not conserving our tradition," but in a way I think it is. "Continuing revelation" is a part of our tradition and that which enhances but does not contradict is "fair game" in my book.

But I have a conservative streak too. I've read Lloyd Lee Wilson and am plowing through Fox's pastoral letters. Your example of "corporate discernment" has been a big issue for me with my meeting. I've also started inquiring in committee meetings about the spiritual basis for what we are doing or discussing. I guess I don't see any of this as inconsistent with using the light and language from other traditions when it seems appropriate to do so. Nevertheless I do share your concern that we not "skip over" our own tradition. Your blog over the years has been a source of inspiration and education for me on this very topic, so thanks for that "good raising up!"



Liz Opp said...

David -

Thanks for hanging in there with me and for gently lifting up what has been your experience and the fruits you've seen when drawing on other traditions and language.

I am helped very much by these honest and tender exchanges, and I so very often practice being a "watchdog" for my own judgment when blogging... but sometimes I just drop the ball or write/publish when I'm too hot-headed.

I'll continue to sit with your reminder that Friends also learn from other traditions, though I don't know that early Friends thought to insert those newly experienced rituals or notions into Quaker practice itself.

Thanks again for the time and care with which you've written.