My Quakerism and Eastern Spirituality


My introductions to Quakerism and Eastern spirituality both came around the same time. This was in the late 1960s, a time of ferment around the Vietnam War, the counterculture movement, and various traveling Indian teachers and gurus. I would go to their lectures but was never drawn to join a particular group. During this time I read a book on the life of Ramakrishna (a nineteenth-century Indian mystic and advocate of the devotional spiritual path) that introduced me to the concept of Enlightenment as a life goal. My understanding was also shaped by Ramana Maharshi’s simple, spare, and direct approach to spirituality and Sri Aurobindo’s strongly intellectual framework.

At the same time, I began attending a Quaker meeting in Iowa. As a peace church, its values were close to the Church of the Brethren in which I had grown up. It also appealed to me for its simplicity. So for many years, I was an active participant in Quaker affairs and worship while engaged in parallel meditation, all the time holding a secret desire for enlightenment.

Within the last few years I’ve had more contact with the Indian community, traditions, and spiritual teachers. I’ve had opportunities to visit India at last. The relationship between my dual interest in Quakerism and Eastern spirituality has become clearer. What began as a simple curiosity about Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, and other Indian spiritual teachers now looks like an ardent desire to know God. In addition to what I had been told about God from Quaker and Brethren perspectives, I wanted to know other traditions’ concepts of God? What might inform or clarify Christianity and a spirituality for me without the limitations of a name?

A common Eastern spiritual teaching is that ananda is God. “Ananda” is often translated as “bliss,” but perhaps a better description would be spiritual ecstasy. I wasn’t willing to agree that this was God but thought instead that it might be something sensed near the presence of God. It might be like the scent of perfume in a room that someone had just passed through, but God Itself is something different, larger, more profound than ecstasy, spiritual or not. As I sat with my discomfort, I thought about what we say easily about God, such as “God is Love” (not the same thing as ecstasy but at least related). The more I thought about God, Love, and the fruits of the spirit that were enumerated by Paul, the more I came to see ananda as a perception of God—an ever shifting spectrum of qualities of peace, love, joy, and wisdom that can come to us if we’re sufficiently open to the Presence.

Indian scriptures tell us that “God is one without a second,” suggesting that there is nothing outside of the existence of God. There is a unity about God because there is nothing else to compare or contrast God with. This reminded me of the Genesis creation story, which begins “In the beginning God.” At that beginning, God existed and nothing else besides. If there was nothing else, then what was used to make that creation? If there had been something else from which to make the creation, then it could not have been the beginning. One visualization is that God produced creation from nothing other than an extension or investment of God Itself. This would be consistent with the notions of the sacred earth, that of God in every person, and panentheism. We don’t worship the creation but recognize that God is everywhere and closer than our breath itself, if we can only see.

The branches of yoga also clarify Christian faith and Quaker life for me. Yoga practices are not intended to be ends in themselves (though many have found benefit in physical fitness and tranquility in meditation) but are intended to lead one to union with God. There are a variety of yoga paths suited to different personalities and circumstances of life. In addition to hatha yoga with its physical movements, there is bhakti yoga, the path of devotion; jnana yoga, the path of knowledge; and karma yoga, the path of selfless service; all are pointed to the same goal. We might to do well to recognize that different people have different needs in their spiritual path and different needs from their meeting. As the apostle Paul points out, we bring different things to our meetings, but we are all one body in Christ.

On a pilgrimage to Himalayan holy places, one of my Indian companions said in conversation, “Oh, all religions are saying the same thing.” I wasn’t sure. Hinduism certainly talks about sin and the Ganges River’s ability to wash away sin, but there isn’t the same pathway to salvation that Christianity asserts. But as I thought more about it, I found a similarity between the concepts of enlightenment and salvation in this lifetime. In Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus J. Borg says in his discussion of the Gospel of John:

So it is in John: enlightenment is a central metaphor for salvation. To have one’s eyes opened, to be enlightened, is to move from the negative pole of John’s contrasting symbols to the positive pole. To move from darkness to light is also to move from death to life, from falsehood to truth, from life in the flesh to life in the Spirit, from life “below” to life “from above.”

The language of enlightenment connects to John’s emphasis upon knowing God. For John, such knowing is the primary meaning of “eternal life”— not a future state beyond death but an experience in the present. To know God is eternal life: “This is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God.”

Quakers have found that the inner search for “that of God” in time leads to a knowing of that Spirit and a transformation of our lives. We can have union with God—an inpouring of Spirit—that brings joy, peace, wisdom, the fruits of the Spirit, and (speaking from my experience) a spiritual ecstasy.

When I think about where Quakerism is today and what may attract and keep other seekers, I consider the story of Ramakrishna. His goal of enlightenment motivated his seeking and his spiritual discipline, his sadhana. What do today’s Quakers imagine they’re working for in this lifetime? Being a good or moral person may require some attention but is hardly the work of a spiritual discipline or search. If there is an enlightenment or salvation in this lifetime, what does it look like and why should we work toward it? I believe that some have found it, but I don’t hear many voices speaking about it or encouraging others on the way.

Let me postulate an enlightenment process for Christianity with a Quaker viewpoint: It is a different state or point characterized by union, close relationship with, or knowledge of God. Perhaps it has the “bliss-fire” concept of hesed from the Hasidic tradition. It is living tuned to the fierce but gentle love God has for everything. It is marked by a constant opening to the whisper of the Spirit: how can God’s Kingdom be brought to earth in individual acts through us, as both God’s expression and God’s agents of change? It brings a sense of being “in the world but not of the world,” empathizing with the pain of others and the need for justice and healing. These senses can coexist with the understanding expressed in the Upanishads that “from joy all things are born, by joy they are sustained, towards joy they move, and to joy they return.” We come to an understanding that in some divine alchemy, as we seek the Source of All with all our heart and mind and strength, we are also changed from the creature we used to be, from life in the flesh to life in The Spirit. It is a place or state we can come to—probably with time and effort seeking God—that is noticeably different from what we had known before.

I’m continually grateful to those from other faiths who have encouraged and motivated my own spiritual search and have shown me features and treasures of my own tradition. I might never have seen otherwise.

Jan Michael

Jan Michael is a member of Stillwater (Okla.) Meeting and a graduate of the School of the Spirit Ministry's program On Being a Spiritual Nurturer (class of 2014).

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