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LISTENING TO THE LIGHT:
HOW TO BRING QUAKER SIMPLICITY TO OUR LIVES

AUTHOR: JIM PYM
RIDER
BOOKS ISBN 978 0 7126 7020 3
REVIEW BY STEVE LANE

 

This is not a recent publication (1999) nor is it about Pure Land Buddhism and yet it has much to say that is true of our tradition. If you haven't read it, this is a book well worth considering. Perhaps this is not surprising as it is written by Jim Pym. It was Jim who kept the Pure Land Buddhist Fellowship going after Jack Austin died, and created Pure Land Notes and who remained its editor until Gary Robinson took over in 2005. During those twenty some years Jim's commitment to the Quaker tradition remained undiminished alongside his dedication to Buddhism. He has published equally on Buddhism and the Quaker tradition.

The Quaker tradition, Jim explains, is based on the belief in 'that of God in us.' This is the divine, the spiritual truth at the heart of everything. He says, "If we accept the Divine within ourselves, we will feel able to turn to it for guidance. If we recognise it in others, we automatically set them free…" We have only to replace the word 'Divine' with 'Buddha nature' or 'Amida' and we have a clear statement of Shin faith.

Over more than 300 years, this Quaker practice of "listening to the Light" has developed a deep moral commitment and concern for justice. In different eras this has expressed itself in such fields of as the abolition of slavery, refusal to pay the portion of taxes that support nuclear weapons, penal reform and support of gay marriage. It is a practice that readily translates into action, and it has meant that this small religious group has played a significant part in the development of contemporary values.

Quakers believe that the divine, the Light, is a positive force guiding us for good if we will just 'wait upon it', or 'listen to it'. This is perhaps similar to our Shin concept of 'deep hearing' of the nembutsu. As we have seen, for Quakers the Divine is imaged as Light. We call this the Infinite Light. It is interesting that Quakers in their worship, "wait upon the Light." They cannot conjure it up, cajole it or force it. It is a power they have no influence over. It is, as we would say, Other Power. But it is here that the differences between the two traditions become clearer. The Quaker way is a passive waiting in silence for connection with the Divine. The Shin way is a joyous realisation that that connection is a 'given' if we can but realise it. But how often do we really feel it on a daily basis?

Interestingly, in recent years the Buddhist Churches of America has adopted silent meditation as part of its services. Jim's decades-long dual commitment suggests he has also found a way to combine both traditions.

In such a short space I cannot explore further the many fascinating connections between two traditions that seem so different: The Friends have no definition of the Divine beyond the metaphor of Light, no practice beyond silence. We have definitions, mythic figures, afterlife destinations, poems and sutras to chant, with no space in our services for silence. And yet, the two traditions seem very close in essence and their understanding of how a self-effacing faith can transform daily life.
Listening to the Light is a most rewarding read. Like all Jim Pym's books it is written with the kind of simplicity and clarity that only comes from a lifetime transformed by faith. In Jim Pym's case, a dual faith: each, I suspect, enriching the other.


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