Buddhism, Meditation and God

Buddhism, Meditation and God
One of the problems of an individual maintaining a small group website (and we are a small group in terms of both our membership and followers of the website) is that, if no-one else contributes, then it is difficult to steer the line between ‘personalising’ the website (which generally makes it more interesting and readable) and stopping it from becoming that individual’s personal or pet project.

Whilst we have many interesting articles on the website written by speakers at our conferences, and many other members of the network, which should in many cases still be of great interest to anyone interested in nontheism or aspects of religious belief and theology, there are very few ‘live’ contributions in terms of pages or ‘posts’ to the website itself which have not been written by ‘yours truly’.

We do get a fair number of comments on existing pages or posts which very occasionally develop into a ‘conversation’, but it is quite hard to provoke these.

I think ‘provoke’ is definitely the right word, so from time to time, I try to write something provocative in the hope that this will result in numerous comments which might become such a conversation.

Our ‘Aims’ include: being a forum; being ‘a supportive framework for Friends who regard religion as a human creation’; ensuring that the RSoF is inclusive rather than exclusive; exploring theological and spiritual diversity whilst being ‘in respectful acceptance of different views, experiences and journeys.’

So far, my post seems to have little or nothing to do with its title.

Other members of the RoSF criticise both nontheist and universalist Friends as being ‘inclusive of all’ and therefore ’standing for nothing’. How can you accept ‘anyone’ into membership (of the ‘Religious Society’) of ‘any religion or none’, regardless of belief and so on.

The Society has always kept its ‘Meetings for Worship’ open to all (as ‘attenders’) presumably in the hope that something of the practice of silent ‘worship’, its possible benefits and/or the Society’s ‘testimonies’ of ‘good behaviour’ will somehow ‘rub-off’ on those who attend. Some of those who attend (possibly for decades) might eventually become members and perhaps contribute both financially and in ‘service’ more consistently than they might have done as ‘attenders’ and this helps to pay the bills, maintain old buildings and ’keep the show on the road’.

The ‘necessary minimum’ qualification for membership has always been a matter of some argument – what does it mean exactly to be ‘convinced’ (or ‘convicted’ in older language).

Once it (membership) meant to be ‘Christian’, a follower of Christ or a follower of Jesus. But Friends were never followers of the Nicene Creed, often, perhaps justifiably, regarded as heretical by other Christian churches, although they did emphasise the importance of the personal experience (of Christ). However, this ‘personal experience’ (once, after George Fox, to ‘know it experimentally’) was never dependent on declared belief and even held to be available to all, Christian or not.

This ‘open’ position was assisted by the open and varied language used to describe the experience or ‘experiment’. Experience of what? The inner/inward light; ‘Jesus come to teach his people himself’; just ‘the light’; ‘that of God’; ‘the kingdom of heaven’; and a number of other expressions or variants biblical and non-biblical. Coupled with a belief in ‘that of God in everyone’, it is not difficult to see how this was not exclusively christian, though at first it was perhaps assumed (maybe until the middle of the twentieth century) that those who were ‘convinced’ were in effect ‘Christian’.

Whilst, after a number of ’schisms’ especially in America (perhaps after British ‘interference!), some Friends became christian and evangelical (so today we have some (Yearly) Meetings styling themselves as ‘Evangelical Friends Churches’) others including Britain Yearly Meeting set off in another direction, emphasising the ‘unprogrammed’ silent meeting and in some cases tending to become ‘universalist’ and accepting into membership Jews (not surprising); Muslims; Hindus; Sikhs; Buddhists; ‘Others’ and eventually ’nontheists’.

In addition to this, from about the middle of the twentieth century again and perhaps not co-incidentally, some Christians and some ’non-believers’ and latterly, some Friends, found Buddhism and then aspects (including ‘meditation’) from other Eastern religions (including ‘Hinduism’ and Islam/Sufism) of benefit to them in their spiritual seeking.

From being substantially Christian (or at least ‘Jesus following’) unprogrammed ‘liberal’ Friends only needed to be ‘Godly’ (believing in God?) to come into membership. Even this developed further as understandings of ‘God’, influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Eastern Christianity and Biblical criticism, changed, so that the question ‘Do you believe in God’ could be answered by ‘It depends what you mean by God (or ‘belief’)’ as well as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. (And even ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ could be interpreted according to different understandings of ‘God’.)

Amongst nontheists, we have in membership of NFN or attending our conferences, sometimes as our keynote speakers, theists, non-theists, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, ‘lapsed Anglicans’, Christian Atheists, ‘converts’ to some of these religions or ‘positions’, agnostics, ‘naturalists’ and ‘materialists’ (believing in only the ‘natural’ or ‘material’ world, not some other spiritual or ‘transcendent’ world), ’non-theist theists’ and so on. (See the wikipedia article on ’nontheism’ for further ideas).

I’ve not even mentioned Unitarians (‘Quakers with hymns’) who have perhaps gone further in welcoming ‘Pagans’, ‘Traditional religions’ and so on. Some individual Friends may also attend Unitarian services (to sing?), Anglican or Methodist services, or retain some of their practice of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc. (a number of Anglicans being in joint membership for example), whilst others come to Friends and drop their former religious belief or practice. In this way, and at this time, the RoSF welcomes all to attend its meetings and often to become members according to an individual’s inclinations and the ‘discernment’ of their local and Area Meeting.

NFN, I believe, welcomes this ‘unity in diversity’ with fluid boundaries and a feeling that this is in accordance with and not at variance with Friends’ practice through the ages.

At this point (not quite finished my labouring) I will turn to the bible:
Mark 3:28-29 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”
Luke 12:10 10 “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

or in the non-canonical (and clearly heretical) Gospel of Thomas:
44. Jesus said, “Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven, either on earth or in heaven.”

I last used these quotations in the post “Theism vs Non-Theism” or Quaker Spirit? in June 2018 where I commented: In the end then, what Friends think, believe or experience of the ‘spirit’ might be a matter of some significance.

aSo, what do we then, as Friends, whether identifying as ‘non theists’ or not, have to say about the ‘Spirit’. (See the above post for some discussion of this).

It is, quite often, asked ‘what do nontheists do in Meeting for Worship?’ Some Friends who have been quakers all their lives from long established quaker families like to refer just to ‘Meeting’ so that the possible question ‘what are you worshipping’ is not asked.

Surveys have shown that Friends, including non theist Friends, do many different things in Meeting for Worship. Perhaps we worship, venerate, adore, pray, reflect, think, meditate, contemplate, sleep, snore, rest, sit quietly, dream, minister or all of these, none of these and some I haven’t thought of. Is there some ‘core’ to the practice (of ‘silent worship’) that we all agree on or partake of in some measure. Is it ‘communion’ or communing. How does it sometimes come to be ‘diagnosed’ as a ‘gathered’ meeting?

Friends have different experiences and understandings (not to mention misunderstandings or misconceptions) about what ‘meditation’ might be. (There are of course quite a number of different meditation or ‘meditative’ practices). Is Buddhist (or other) ‘silent worship’ (meditation) of some use or benefit to non-Buddhist Friends? Is (not) meeting for worship in part a special kind of ‘Christian’ meditation? (Please don’t just say ‘No’. Research the topic!). Is ‘Experiment with Light’ a genuine reflection of some early Friends’ practices and whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is it useful to (all of?) us as a conjunct to or preparation for Meeting?

Some nontheist Friends (materialists or naturalists perhaps) are distinctly unhappy with the idea, notion, concept or word ‘divine’. Other self-identified nontheists are quite happy with the idea of the ‘divine presence’. Is that the same as the Spirit (Holy Ghost or otherwise)?

Can I, at this point, say, in short? Perhaps not. Enough. Have I provoked sufficiently?

If not, why don’t we have a conference (or other event) on ‘The Spirit without God’. (or would ‘The Spirit, with or without God’ be better?).

(Answers, replies, comments, expressions of disgust etc. here please – below –  rather than on a postcard).

5 thoughts on “Buddhism, Meditation and God”

  1. I will give it some thought and probably reply. You wrote a good piece and it deserves reply.

    In Friendship

    Malcolm (Mike) Bell Leeds LS16


  2. Hi Trevor
    I see four defining features of Quaker:
    1. The top unique Quaker thing is the Sunday meeting…a place where (in theory) anyone may come and speak about anything (provided they don’t bore or offend people). In that spontaneity there’s potential for danger/excitement and authentic connection. It’s a unique form of gathering, very un-English, more akin to hunter gatherers. Though it often gets abused (eg intellectual posturing and spiritual smugness), it’s still something important to preserve as a community resource. So a meeting can seem like an oasis where strange beasts come to refresh themselves. We are its guardians, with responsibility to preserve open access.
    2. Alongside that is an attitude of openness and friendliness to the stranger. At least in theory, though this too is often breached…after all, Quakers can be an awkward bunch.
    3. A commitment to Quaker principles seems a good starting point for identifying a Quaker. Though even that can provoke disagreement (especially the Peace one). But the attempt to codify principles of living in nontheistic terms is interesting in itself. Googling, I see that there’s a nice US acronym SPICES (simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship). Actually, is it an omission not to have openness/friendship on the list?
    4. For me an important defining feature is the ‘seeker and activist’ label. For me they are linked, and one without the other is no good.
    So I’m happy with those four things to define Quakerism, without having to mention god or spirit. Diversity is important if there’s to be openness. There are no spiritual police.
    The word ‘spirit’ is interesting. Since being with Quakers I have come to use it, though I’m always cautious. Originally breath of god or life spirit, it can now refer to ‘deeper values by which people live’, and can also be used in the sense of ‘essence’ (eg the spirit of democracy) and of ‘spirited’ (enthused).
    Here’s a summary of my ‘spiritual’ understanding. There’s an instinct or impulse within us to make things better, not just for ourselves but for others too. All primates have it. It’s suppressed in modern Western society. It’s much needed now. When developed properly it’s accompanied by a feeling of happiness or bliss. It’s the route out of suffering in the Buddhist sense…the path of loving-kindness/compassion (as action). Early Puritans saw a world wrapped up in pursuit of pleasure or profit, with only one in a thousand interested in anything less selfish.
    A couple of years ago I wrote a piece in The Friend about this impulse to make the world better, which I called the gudda impulse (it shares root with ‘good’ and ‘gather’, from an Indo-European word meaning to herd cattle). Perhaps another way of expressing it is ‘the spirit of universal goodwill’, though that’s a bit more passive. As far as I’m concerned, any activity (or spiritual practice) that nurtures the gudda impulse is of value, and conversely not if it doesn’t. So I think of myself as Guddish.


  3. Thanks for this Piers. I’m not sure why but it disappeared for a bit today. (And again on 12th May). Anyway I’ve managed to restore it.


  4. Thank you, Trevor, for your thoughtful article and to Piers for his equally thoughtful reply.

    I rather like the acronym PESTS – Peace, Equality, Simplicity, Truth and Sustainability. Although, like SPICES it also omits friendship. Maybe that’s because both are used by the Religious Society of Friends 🙂

    I’m not sure there is an instinct or impulse to make things better. Human beings can be amazingly selfish, and our collective selfishness is currently destroying the planet, while condemning many of our fellow human beings to a short life of suffering. For example, we currently produce enough food to adequately feed the world’s population, so why are some people morbidly obese while others are quite literally dying of hunger? If we were willing to share, we could meet everybody’s need, but we can’t meet everybody’s greed.

    Finally, while I’m totally failing to address any of Trevor’s questions, my own experience of Meeting for Worship is that some weeks my mind is busy and I can’t still my own thoughts; other weeks I can still my mind and enjoy the peace of the meeting; just occasionally I still my own mind, settle into the peace of the meeting and feel something else, something I’ve never found the words to adequately express but which – when there has been a comment made about the meeting as we drink our cup of tea – has been referred to by others as a deeply gathered meeting. I know that doesn’t really help to define a deeply gathered meeting, and probably flies in the face of ‘all religion being a man-made construct’, but I have definitely sensed something special about a deeply gathered meeting, and it’s a feeling I don’t get anywhere else.


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