Eastern Light: Awakening to Presence in Zen, Quakerism and Christianity
by Steve Smith
reviewed by Irene Webb
Steve Smith is a lifelong Quaker who went to Quaker schools, earned a doctorate in Philosophy from Harvard University, and went on to teach for forty years in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College in California. One might say, “He really knows his subject.” His latest book, Eastern Light: Awakening to Presence in Zen, Quakerism and Christianity recounts both Steve’s personal spiritual journey as well as a philosophical excursion into our contemporary quest for connection. As he writes in the introduction to the book, “...when we return to the infinite depth and breadth of this moment, we rediscover our underlying connections with others and with all life.” In the course of his own life, he found his connection back to his Quaker roots through a “dark night of the soul” that led him to Zen Buddhism.
Smith’s awakening occurred as he began Zen practice early one April morning in 1981 while on sabbatical in Hawaii. Although accustomed to sitting in Quaker Meeting, he finally had a deeper understanding of George Fox’s injunction to “Stand still in the light” as he learned to meditate in the Zendo. He writes: “Seeing my thoughts, cravings and fears without being drawn into them, I move from self-preoccupation to awareness of a larger reality. This liberating viewpoint is the Light – not a glowing object in my mind’s eye, but rather that which enables me to see my troubles while freeing me from immersion in them. Standing still in the Light, I yield to expansive openness and presence; in the words of Penington and Fox, I find ‘sweet experience’ and ‘contentment.’”
When I first read Steve Smith’s Pendel Hill pamphlet A Quaker in the Zendo in 2003, I must have read it eight times. I had begun to meditate with Vipassana groups and had a strong interest in Buddhism… and yet I knew I was a Christian. I couldn’t help it. I just was. I had started attending Santa Monica Friends Meeting in California in 2001 after many years in the Episcopal Church. The quiet, the simplicity, and the lack of dogma (and preacher) appealed to me at that stage of life. As I settled into Quakerism and the beauty of “waiting upon the Lord” and “seeking the Light,” I felt that sense of mysticism I had been seeking for a long time. I recall thinking, “This is it – I’m a Buddhist Christian now.”
In this full-length book on Zen and Christianity, Smith does an exceptional job of casting light on the similarities between Buddhism and Quakerism, especially through quotations from George Fox, Isaac Penington, and other early Quakers. As Smith shows, the words of the Buddha and those of George Fox carry amazingly similar messages. It’s refreshing and quite freeing to see this.
I highly recommend not rushing through this book. There are gems of wisdom, inspiration, and knowledge on every page. The book covers some of the most important issues of our time, including the need for Quakers and Christians to become more grounded in the connection with the divine in our work for social justice and equality, the necessity of opening our eyes and hearts to the hurt that can be so prevalent in our relationships, and the joy of nature and terror of ruining it. All these important issues and more are discussed through the lens of a quality of religion that is found in both East and West.
The book is filled with meaningful quotes from a wide range of influential spiritual leaders such as Pema Chodron, Victor Frankl, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Thomas Kelly. The book has an excellent bibliography and very helpful endnotes. Eastern Light would be an obvious choice for book clubs and spiritual-growth classes. Quakers might want to seriously consider forming study groups around this important book. But first of all, read it for you own enlightenment and peace. ~~~
Irene Webb conducts Alternatives to Violence trainings in jails in New Mexico, volunteers with an interfaith homeless shelter, and is a member of Santa Fe Monthly Meeting (IMYM).