Zen and the Quakers: A Meditation

At Friendship Meeting in Greensboro, N.C., a few years ago, our Friend DeWitt Barnett told of the time he was stationed in Japan with AFSC when Douglas Steere wrote him to arrange a meeting between Friends and Zen Buddhist monks. Those monks, we were told, meditate on koans, the best known of which is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" What, I wondered, could possibly be of interest to Douglas Steere in a group that emphasizes such strange questions? The peculiar aspect of that koan is that although there is no logical answer to the question, it is grammatically correct, and it would not be questioned in a computer’s spellcheck. I recently learned that koans are not essential to Zen practice. Guilford College organized a Zen retreat led by the head of the Asheville Zen center where no koans are used. But still—what is the purpose of koans? I was reminded of Albert Schweitzer’s comment I had come across perhaps 60 years ago: that mysticism begins where logic comes to an end. So there is a limit to what we can fathom through logical reasoning, but that limit does not signal failure. Rather, it is an invitation to us to make the transition beyond logic to a new level of understanding.

I remembered, too, that just after finishing high school in England my former history teacher suggested that I read R. G. Collingwood’s An Essay on Metaphysics. The book was a revelation to me, for it pointed out that all logical systems, from Aristotle’s to Hegel’s and others, are based on "presuppositions," and those presuppositions, since logic is based on them, cannot be proven logically true or false. Thus, all our logical reasoning and all our searching for causes rest on shaky foundations, making us wonder if there is a more secure ground on which to base our beliefs. John Woolman had reported that when he had prayed without an interpreter among a group of Native Americans, one of them had commented, "I love to feel where words come from." Douglas Steere was seeking for the common ground underlying Zen practice and Quaker worship.

On Christmas Eve, Friendship Meeting joined with our Friends Homes retirement community for a meeting for worship around the fireplace in its living room. A member of the meeting read from the Bible story of the shepherds heeding the call to come to Bethlehem to see a babe in a manger. That awareness that something new and unprecedented had entered history and was about to reshape the fate of humanity was heeded by two groups of people, the shepherds and some wise men from the East. Shepherds and people of wisdom are at two ends of the degree of training in reasoning, legal systems, and logic. These shepherds were open to new truths because they had not been taught to limit their beliefs to things about which they could logically make sense. And people of wisdom have reached beyond knowledge to a level of awareness yielding a much greater sense of certainty than what logic can provide.

After Jesus had begun his ministry, he once asked a child to sit in the midst of a group of questioners and commented that unless they be converted and become as little children they would not be able to enter the kingdom (Matt. 18:2-3). He was not asking us to revert to our childish ways, but rather, to go forward beyond our little systems of logic and reasoning and habits, and to discover again that openness that children have to new truths and insights, from wherever they might come.

At the end of a later meeting for worship, in which I had shared some of these thoughts, a Friend suggested that it is in Quaker silence, perhaps, that we can hear the sound of one hand clapping.