Quakers (aka the Religious Society of Friends) stand at one end of the Christian spectrum, while Zen Buddhists also stand at one end of the Buddhist spectrum.
As I’ve been discovering, Greek Orthodox (and the other Eastern Orthodox churches) stand at the other end of the Christian spectrum, much as Tibetans do in the Buddhist world.
Has me recalling a comment by Gary Snyder when he noted, arms outstretched, how one branch starts at one end and, as a practitioner advances – raising his arms in an arch overhead – they eventually pass each other to end up at the opposite end.
That said, let’s look at the Quaker/Zen starting point and what they have in common.
An ethereal ascetic. Strip away distractions, down to a stark black-white dichotomy. Maybe with distinctive Quaker dove gray.
They’re both minimalist.
Use of questions to guide aspirants. Queries, for Friends. Koans, in one branch of Zen. No easy answers, in either.
Worship as “just sitting.” OK, few Quakers focus on their breathing and most are sloppier in the posture. Even so …
Emphasis on the here-and-now, rather than the afterlife.
Concentration on daily practice and awareness.
A practical outlook. As they teach in Zen, “Before enlightenment, chop firewood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop firewood, carry water.”
Direct personal experience focusing on the inner self. As in experimental, by trial and error.
Sin is not discussed. Well, among Quakers, rarely, as in “missing the mark” rather than a human defect.
Both originated as reform movements and are open-ended.
One of my favorite lines I cut out of my novel What’s Left, was this quip:
I want some backbone in my religion. You can’t sit without it.
But as I looked at the flow of the story, I just couldn’t find a good place to develop some pushback from Cassia in her teens, where it would have been most appropriate.
Still, if you know anything about the practice of meditation itself — often called sitting — you just might enjoy the double-meaning.
Another way I thought of raising more color regarding their Buddhist identity was through rounds of Tibetan holidays. The names and special touches alone can be charming: New Year’s archery; incense to drive away evil ghosts; Sho Dun “yogurt festival”; the Meeting of the Eight Guardians (stay inside to avoid evil outdoors); Golden Star to wash away greed, passion, jealousy and to abandon ego; the washing festival. Think of the picnics and ritual bathing.
I might have also built something on the Eight Auspicious Symbols, including conch shell, parasol (crown), victory banner, golden fish, or treasure vase. The Endless Knot is the name of a chapter, though.
Beyond that, I kept looking for synonyms for Buddha or Buddhism. One of my favorites, which I didn’t use, is the hanging cliff-side wonders. Some of those monasteries are no place for anyone with a fear of heights!
Many traditions have special dishes for specific holidays — secular or religious. Sometimes it’s even a family thing, rather than something everyone does.
Having Cassia cast a Buddhist chant as a spell in my novel What’s Left, is a bit of an inside joke. She may be trying to intimidate her middle school classmates, but what she utters, Su To Ka Yo Me Bha Wa, translates as “Grant me complete satisfaction” or “Grant me complete satisfaction within me.” Not that they have a clue.
Besides, I feel a shade of Harry Potter here, without an ominous wand. These words can simply feel magical.
By the way, Cassia’s chant is one letter off from Su Po Ka Yo Me Wa, “Grow within me” or “Increase the positive within me,” which also fits.
Just in case you’re wondering.
Think of some word or phrases you repeat often.
Do you have your own “mantra,” a word or phrase to raise your spirits?
(My favorite 9-year-old introduced me to “Yay!” So yours doesn’t have to be the least bit exotic.)
Until the next-to-the-last chapter of my novel What’s Left, the resident Tibetan Buddhist master, Rinpoche, stays largely in the background.
He’s a stabilizing influence of Cassia’s family, all the same.
As she realizes, in earlier drafts of the novel:
I am impressed by Baba and Tito’s roles — the entire family’s role, in reality — in establishing the Buddhist institute. Our charitable foundation was established as a vehicle to support Baba’s research time as well as the institute and the new Pan Orthodox church — along with college scholarships for family children as well as those of many who’d worked for us. The foundation, then, was another enterprise from Dimitri’s socialist cognizance as it blended with our growing spirituality.
The family’s financial security was especially important in supporting her own parents through some transformative years:
For my parents, it provided enough income for them to pursue their dreams, even before we kids came along. Manoula’s share of the dividends and, I’m inclined to think, a consulting stipend from the company itself also allow Baba to focus on establishing the Tibetan institute here. For the first year, the Tibetan research operates out of their apartment, along with our publishing setup. And then, with Rinpoche in place, the institute settles into a small house more or less in the middle of Mount Olympus, where the guru can live in proximity to selected students the way Baba had.
But over the years, their individual practice wavered. With Barney, for instance, as Rinpoche explained:
More and more, we argued. Your Baba could still converse with him about these matters, but Barney kept quoting another teacher, far more permissive than me. What he allowed, we wouldn’t. But a few years ago, that guru died of complications of his wild lifestyle. It was scandalous.
As for her aunt Pia?
Rinpoche tells me she attended the weekly sessions with Theos Barney and the rest of the family, but her heart remained with the church.
And then Cassia has more pressing matters:
Pain? You say it’s an illusion, not real.
Oh, I’ve had some long discussions with your priest about that! From a Buddhist point of view, pain’s not real the way material things aren’t real. That doesn’t mean they don’t get in the way. You just have to learn to see through them. You can’t refuse to directly examine an obstacle, though, and expect to be liberated from it. You just have to remember what’s beyond it.
There’s no avoiding it.
In Cassia’s family her father finds much more than a circle of faith. He gives and receives support in everything he values.
How do you support others? Is there one place you feel is especially important? What causes or organizations do you help?
In my four Freakin’ Free Spirits novels, Cassia’s father is a Tibetan Buddhist scholar as well as a noted photographer. There’s even a rumor he was accidentally reincarnated in Iowa rather than in the Himalayas.
In my survey of other ebooks at Smashwords, I’ve found a range of helpful books on Buddhism. Most are of the nonfiction variety, but some tell of personal experience more than textbook classifications. A few even go for flip, self-deprecating humor. Especially illuminating are the ones by Westerners who have long practice to draw on.
Of the lines of teaching, my bias has long been toward Zen, with its spare aesthetic, and Tibetan, which is far more liturgical, esoteric, and colorful. In fact, the more I investigate, the more I’m convinced that Tibetan is a lot like Greek Orthodox Christianity (as I intuitively assumed when drafting my first novel). Zen, meanwhile, is more like Quaker Christianity – something others have also noted.
Without getting technical, what I’ve found most informative in my recent readings is the much different nature of the Buddhism that headed from India into Indochina rather than the branch that headed north in China and then on to Tibet, on one side, or Japan, on the other.
When she sets out in the task that’s become my novel, What’s Left, she doesn’t expect to be creating a family genealogy going back through her great-grandparents. But there’s no avoiding it.
As I explained in an earlier draft:
Theirs is a unique odyssey – one where the final homecoming is far from its point of origin. As a tragedy, the suffering comes at unmapped turns in the quest for the American dream. As a comedy, well, there are hot dogs, hippies, Hoosiers, and hope. Take your pick.
She gets insights on her parents’ generation:
Thea Nita notes that children in her generation grew up hearing of the woes of the Great Depression as a staple of conversation at big family dinners. In our case, that included the diner shooting.
A good genealogist doesn’t turn back when the details get disturbing:
By now I’m rather astonished at the events Thea Nita’s uncovered. Every family has things it wants to keep secret, but as a journalist, she’s driven toward disclosure. What did I tell you about listening closely to arguments? The dirt that comes up, even years later? Or even in what might transpire in mother-daughter confabs.
Does it work for the reader? I certainly hope so.
One reason, I suspect, is because Cassia is part of a family that holds many experiences in common. They live close to one another, work in the restaurant or related enterprises, play and grow up together, worship in one of two streams they’ve blended. Whatever they have flows from a shared source.
Speaking of family, Cassia’s oldest cousin, Alex, would be quite a catch. Where would you want to dine with him – romantically or just as a friend?