Mining the Wisdom of the East

I was introduced into the Buddhist and Advaita Vedanta systems of thought by friends around 1985 or so. While never comfortable identifying myself as a member of either of these long-standing traditions, I found their teachings lit corners of my Christianity that prior to this had been hidden. (I even wrote a book on the topic, Taking Jesus Seriously, Buddhist Meditation for Christians.) When I moved in to Quakerism in 2004 the compatibility between Quakerism and the Eastern Religions was startling.

For instance, Dogen Zenji, (Thirteenth Century,) the founder of the Soto school of Zen, describes Zen this way: The work of Zen is to study the self. If we study the self we know the self. If we know the self the self will dissolve and we will see the ten thousand things.

What he is saying , to put this a little too simply, is that we are blocked from living in the real world by our busy egocentric minds, and watching our minds at work will allow them to get out of the way and put us in touch with reality. “The Kingdom of Heaven is among you, and you do not see it.” Zen points out the blockage, and the remedy to this Jesus problem in stark, cold terms. (Note that the Kingdom of Heaven or the Enlightened State is the real world; it is the one we are seeing that is not real. Its accuracy disturbed by our anxious cloudy manipulative minds.)

Jean Klein, a contemporary teacher of the Advaita Vedanta, takes us on a search for “Who am I?” The sorting principle is that if you can observe it, it is not you. So begin by observing your surroundings, which are not you, and proceed backward to the only thing remaining, the observing itself, which is you, and since he is a non-dualist, (nothing is two) the observing is God also. (In seeking the presence of God, seek it within you.)

Lay these alongside the Quaker sitting in silence, observing self, seeing our errors, watching them vanish because of our sight (which we refer to as the light, hinting at the divinity and unity of our consciousness), seeing God in ourselves and others, surrendering our lives to the good of the whole.

There are differences. One of the differences is that the Eastern end-game is the seeing of reality from the calm center of the observing, which will put the observer (in so far as such continues to exist) in what we Christians call the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Since we are dualists (things are two) during this process of self-discovery and after it there remains a world to be fixed, and we do not linger in the Kingdom of Heaven but in the best case bring it with us as we go to jail, or feed the hungry, or teach, or run an ethical business, or raise a family. So despite the fact that George Fox et al were bubbling along through life with a shocking level of merriment and energy considering the punishment that was happening to them, their primary focus was not on their own joy, (although they certainly do mention it) but on the task ahead.

The down side of this is that we do not have the rich conversation on how to enter this Kingdom of Heaven and what it is like to live in it that the East has. This is the life and power that sustained our ancestors through their trials. What would it do for us to be seeing life from their perspective? We do not even hope for it. Many of us settle into Meeting for Worship expecting only the quiet of meditation, a little rest from the din and pressure of life. Many do not expect to now see the world with fresh eyes, understand life in a way we never have. We do not expect to be changed.

I have found reading and learning from the East valuable in the endeavor of finding and living in the Kingdom and I will offer two books I have recently read and found helpful.

Living Enlightenment: a Call for Evolution beyond Ego

Andrew Cohen

“This is one of the most passionate calls to awaken that I have ever heard. Andrew Cohen’s words are crystal clear, fierce—and urgent. If you like to procrastinate and wait till you’re ready, don’t read this book. If you’re ready to jump in and risk all, then Living Enlightenment is for you.” Roshi Bernard Glassman. Author of Bearing Witness.

If you will read the Amazon reviews of this book you will note there are several viciously negative reviews. They are from people who have experienced him personally and they are about how he dealt with them in a teaching situation. The egocentricism that they resented in class does not come through in the book, and I also note that many of the early Zen masters were not nice guys I think Andrew true to the Zen tradition.

For decades now I have been reading explanations of the path to the enlightened state similar to Andrew’s explanation and while I appreciate his clarity what comes through to me most over others I have read is his passion for diving in, whole heartedly, now. He reminds me that my pursuit of the Kingdom has become routine. He reminds that my time is coming to an end and I am not finished.


Radical Awakening: Cutting through the Conditioned Mind

Stephen Jourdain

This book is a series of interviews with Stephen Jourdain who at age sixteen had a radical awakening that still persists now to his old age.
Despite the fact he had the awakening before he studied about “awakening“ he rings very true next to descriptions from the Advaita Vedanta tradition. He has been taken seriously by some of the few people on earth capable of evaluating him.

One of the things keeping me and you from this leap is that after we have lept we will be egoless and then what will happen? We might look like Stephen, who frankly is a bit of a nut. Oh, oh. Or to put it another way, do you really want to be like George Fox? Or Jesus for that matter?

“In our culture, where spirituality has become a trade-word, there is something truly refreshing in Stephen Jourdain’s irreverent voice. He sounds at times like the Chan/Zen Masters he has never read. His awakening and the way he expresses it is, as it should be, perfectly original.” Bernard Faure, Professor of Asian Religions, Stanford University.