SITTING UP STRAIGHT in tall Shaker-style chairs, the members of Lilac Breeze Sangha follow their breath to the tune of Quaker silence. Like many other Westerners, they’ve taken to Buddhist sitting practice without giving up their religious roots, combining traditions for a customized spiritual experience. For math teacher David Shen, who combines Catholicism, Taoism, Quakerism, and Buddhism in his practice, mixing faiths works to their mutual enrichment: “In Quaker meeting,” he says, “when people speak, I now listen deeply, the way Buddhists would listen.”
Lilac Breeze Sangha gathers at Friends Center, the Quaker meetinghouse in Center City, Philadelphia. It is here, in the town that William Penn built, that members of the sangha follow their breath in Buddhist sitting meditation while communing directly with God in the tradition of their Quaker predecessors, blending faiths with each in- and out-breath.
Lilac Breeze has traditionally been a haven for those who identify themselves as some combination of Buddhist and Quaker, although, as in Shen’s case, the full range of faiths represented is broad. Formed by Lynne Shivers in 1991, the group was established in the tradition of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Shivers, a member of the Quaker group, Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, has been a Quaker since her teens and a follower of Thich Nhat Hanh for nearly forty years. In 1992 she took the Fourteen Precepts, or Mindfulness Trainings, of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing.
“I’m clear that my feet are in Quakerism and probably always will be, but it’s also very true that I believe that Buddhism, particularly the order that I belong to, has some spiritual insights that Quakerism has not yet figured out,” Shivers said.
Superficially, the two religions have much in common: both faiths tend to be populated largely by unabashed liberals, both emphasize peace and compassion, both recognize the importance of the inner life, and both require long periods of silence. But there are obvious differences. Quakers are Christians, practicing a style of worship unfettered by sacraments and free of any ministers, priests, or official teachers. They believe there is “that of God” in everyone, and worship in silence in order to commune with the Divine. Quaker silence is just that: silence, not meditation. There is not the emphasis on individual meditative practice so common
to most Buddhist traditions, but instead a sense of communal support, each person holding up each of the others “in the light” as the worship unfolds. Thich Nhat Hanh’s conception of “interbeing” also speaks to the importance of community, but Shivers said she feels a greater sense of a group in Quakerism. “Quakerism has much more to say about the spirit moving through a group of people and collective worship.
“When I’ve experienced that spirit in a Friends’ meeting, there’s no doubt in my mind or anyone else’s that something electric has happened, but we barely have words to express what it is,” Shivers said.
A writer who focuses primarily on issues of social change, Shivers also said she appreciates what she finds to be a more organized commitment to social action among Quakers. But at the same time, she said, Buddhism offers deeper insights into human psychology; for her, the Buddhist conception of compassion strikes a deeper spiritual chord than does the closest Quaker parallel, Christian love. The idea that a clear mind is necessary for insight, the cornerstone upon which compassion and wisdom are built, is also key to her faith, Shivers said. “And Quakerism doesn’t say anything about that.”
“So sometimes I feel more committed to the Order than I do to Quakerism, and sometimes I feel vice versa. But there’s clearly an interplay between the two.”
Shivers no longer leads Lilac Breeze Sangha, and is searching for a sangha closer to her home in New Jersey. David Shen has stepped in as the current leader, bringing with him his own unique amalgam of faiths.
Shen, who is Chinese American, has a soothing voice that breaks a sangha’s silence softly. Cherishing the community that Philadelphia’s Quaker network offers, “I retained my membership in Quaker meeting, but I really feel like I’m a practicing Buddhist. If I were truly orthodox, there would be contradictions. Buddhists don’t believe in God; Quakers believe in God. Well, I believe in God, but I’m more of a practicing Buddhist.”
In the Lilac Breeze Sangha, the gentle ringing of the bell separates the forty minutes of sitting meditation from the twenty minutes of walking from the fifteen more minutes of sitting that precedes dharma discussion and tea. In Quaker meeting, it’s all a bit less structured. Someone does officially close the meeting at a preestablished time, usually one hour in, by reaching over and shaking the hand of the person sitting closest. But throughout the otherwise silent meeting people can stand up if they are “so moved” by the spirit to share their insights, struggles, or simply place a loved one “in the light” for their peers to keep in mind. “When I listen to people speak, what I find is that they want to be connected to God,” Shen said.
How to attain that sense of connection–with God or whatever spiritual entity an individual may believe in–is a matter of personal preference, and if it takes more than one religion to get there, many would say: So be it.
As Phil Mullen, a member of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting who teaches workshops on “Basic Buddhism for Quakers,” tells it, you can be a Buddhist who worships with Quakers, a Quaker who uses Buddhist meditative techniques, or a definitive Buddhist-Quaker, with the hyphen implying that one faith is not preferred over the other. “You can do it any way you want,” said Mullen.
Brad Sheeks, for instance, an occasional attendee of Lilac Breeze and a member of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, uses meditation as a way to focus during Quaker worship, to enter that clear space wherein concerns can be processed. “I use the meditation practice as a way of centering and becoming spiritually open during Quaker worship,” he said.
Sheeks’s Buddhist practice is not informed by Buddhist philosophy, but instead is a way to discipline himself, to prime himself to become receptive to what might stir him during the silent Quaker worship. “Within the Society of Friends, there’s a theological assumption that what comes to your mind, if you’re lucky, is some movement of the spirit. There’s a question of discernment for Friends, the question whether what comes is divine, or is it just indigestion?”
Mullen said Quakerism doesn’t always do a good job of providing new practitioners with a set of tools for getting to that clear space that Sheeks spoke of, to do more than just passively wait for the stirring of the divine that may or may not be last night’s dinner talking–to get to that place where what comes to mind could hardly be mistaken for anything else.
Shen described how there was a time when he attended three services a day in search of such a place: Catholic worship in the morning, Quaker meeting in the afternoon, and sangha in the evening. “I thought it would exhaust me, but it really just energized me.”
Knowing he had to be pragmatic, Shen focused primarily on Quakerism and Buddhism, adding Taoism later on, so now he follows the flow as well as the breath, all the while knowing he can still go to a Catholic service to enjoy the singing he so loves.
“It all enriches my spiritual life. I think that’s the point, right?”
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