Pagan Dharma

Pagan Dharma

Putting the Pagan back into the Dharma

Zen Druids


James Foster and I were discussing the possibility of Zen Druids today in email. This was the idea of the intersection of the immediacy and focus on presence and mindfulness of Zen practice (among other aspects) with the idea of a sacred or holy nature as present in Druidry, as well as the focus on hearth culture, celebrating the seasons of the year, and other aspects of Druidry as a modern, Neopagan practice.

In part, this came up because I recently joined Ár nDraíocht Féin, A Druid Fellowship (which is popularly known as the “ADF”). I did this in large part because of the work going on at the Solitary Druid Fellowship. This group within the ADF is working with individuals to craft their own rituals and work with a practice as solitary practitioners. Druidry was a path in which I was not involved during my Neopagan years, though the Druidry of the ADF and my own practice within Asatru and as a Wiccan were not far apart, really. As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been a member for a few years of the Shinto shrine in Granite Falls, Washington. I visit it when I’m up in the Seattle area, which is a few times a year to see my daughter and old friends. One of the things that I really appreciated when I visited Japan in 2007 was the extent to which their Buddhism was not wholly distinct from the common Shinto practice and you would commonly see nature oriented shrines and altars to the Kami even in nominally Buddhist places. The recognition of our place in a larger world, the natural world (to compare it against our created world, in a way) was very much present. One of the things that I’ve found really lacking in Buddhist practice where I am is any real recognition that the natural world is important, valuable, or that we are part of its webs of interconnection. For many Buddhists, we could be living in concrete boxes without any outdoors and it would make no difference to their practice or the relationship with the world. For these Buddhists, the Dharma really is a world denying faith and practice as so many people think of Buddhism. While I’m not an outdoorsman by any stretch, I do enjoy being part of the world and observing it and interacting with it (cue my hundreds of flower photos on flickr).


As I’ve made clear in other posts, I’m still very much culturally a pagan and my attitude towards the natural world plays a part of it. I’ve been surprised that this is the case at various points over the years. I thought when I became a Buddhist practitioner that I would leave that all behind but it turned out that the pagan (well, Neopagan) way of doing things and interacting with the world and spirituality doesn’t go away easily. I find that elements of pagan culture call to me much more than the way that the Dharma is popularly interpreted in the West. Buddhism in North America smells as much of Protestant Christianity or a need to get away from anything smacking of religion as two of its strongest elements. I don’t have a need to incorporate either of those into what I do or practice. This feeling is much of what led to this blog even existing.

So…Zen Druidry. This discussion was of a more personal nature for James and me, since we’re Zen practitioners (and he is, in fact, my primary teacher within Zen). How to take what we value from the Dharma and incorporate it in what we value in Neopaganism, specifically in the ideals of modern Druidism… This is an interesting idea and kind of a thought experiment at this point though I suspect that he and I may go further with it.

We tried to come up with what the Dharma, mostly Zen but not just Zen, has to teach Druids and other Neopagans:

  • Disciplined, well tried, and well organized methods of meditation (shamatha, vipasyana, mixed, esoteric)
  • A focus on practice retreats, alone and with others
  • Methods of teacher/student interaction for insight (koan interviews and the koan curriculum)
  • Well-developed underlying philosophical/metaphysical structure that supports awakening
  • A focus on the goal of awakening to the nature of the world but also on the Bodhisattva Vow, which makes the goal of awakening to be for the good of ALL beings, and which focuses on helping others on the path.

What does paganism have to offer to Zen folks that they might be missing?

  • A different view of community/grove/sangha
  • A western approach to engaging with nature (important in Japanese Zen moreso than anywhere else)
  • An established lexicon for “translating” and understanding the aforementioned philosophy/metaphysics
  • A freedom to change/play/innovate with methods and ways of practice or teaching (less rigidity)
  • Less of a dogmatic attachment to history and 2,600 years of ongoing tradition leading often to ossification
  • Ties to Western cultural roots instead of visions of Asian exoticism and “orientalism” (as a way of making Asia into an “other”)

One of the nice things about practicing from the Neopagan (and especially Druid) side of things, is that pagans *realize* people are putting things together and making up things as they go. They work out new things, inspired by tradition (or romantic ideals of tradition) and keep “what works.” Everyone involved with Neopaganism knows that people are making it up and folks are largely fine with it. There is no mystical Druid College off on the Emerald Isle to come offer oversight here. If an organization or grove does things in a way you don’t like, you can always leave or make a schism without *that* much of a problem. Buddhists, especially in the West, are often very conservative in approach and practice. There is little room for trying new things, making stuff up, and jettisoning things that don’t work well here. Instead, we become scholars of the Pali Canon and engage in Talmudic interpretation of what the Buddha said. There is a place for such things (and knowledge of history and traditions never hurts anyone!) but it can often feel quite stifling and rigid.

Right now, I’m very tempted to find a way to explain common “calm abiding” (shamatha) and “insight” (vipassana) practices in Druidic (or even larger Neopagan) terminology and combine teaching those and doing some celebratory and other rites into something similar to a short Buddhist retreat. Wouldn’t it be interesting for both pagans and open Dharma practitioners to come to a three or four day practice retreat near the woods or the ocean where we combined sitting meditation, instruction in some koan practice, hiking and nature walks with observation, and some actual celebration of being alive in this world and of the world around us. It sounds, to me, to be a lot more fulfilling than either a number of the Dharma practice retreats I’ve been on (sit…walk…sit…walk…eat…clean…sit…walk…) or just hanging out dancing around a maypole while having a campout. Both of these are caricatures but I do think there is a place where the union of the techniques and views of the Dharma could enhance the experience and views of Druidry and other forms of Neopaganism (and vice versa). I think that the Druids are likely to allow space for this kind of thing to be tried without being too against it. I fear that the Buddhist groups would be far less open to such ideas.

Does this sound interesting to you? I’m sure that Steve and the Zen Odinists would be open to this sort of thing (though they are on the other side of the planet from me).

Tree Shrine in Okunoin Cemetary on Mt. Koya

People Are Fundamentally Breakable

(This was originally posted to my personal blog. Al suggested it be reposted here.)

I didn’t know Aaron Swartz. I knew of him, and admired his work. It turns out that a number of people I know did know him, and his suicide has hit the community hard, not only in terms of friends and friends of friends, but in terms of all of the people who were inspired by him, and were horrified by the governmental response… and all the people who were just horrified that he killed himself, for whatever reason. I’m there, on all counts.

Even more than I am saddened by the dead, I am frightened for the living. And yeah, while I personally see Aaron as someone who was fighting the good fight, and who went down tragically (and I think it’s entirely possible to do this even if you don’t entirely agree with someone’s aims) what haunts me is the near certainty that just as he was not the first member of my community to take his life, he also will not be the last. There are also plenty of ways of running around and taking a lot of damage that don’t involve death. I’ve been holding off on writing this post for a bit now, hoping that I’d come up with a good way of saying what I want to say. Lacking that, I guess I’ll just pound on the keyboard some. This isn’t really about depression or suicide. People have written about those things far more eloquently than anything I have to say on the subject. I wish I had more to say. Or something useful to say.

I’m going to start from a slightly different place: People are fundamentally breakable. I don’t mean breakable in just one way. We can break to many degrees in an incredible variety of ways. Mostly we stagger on, recovering more or less, but also, yeah, we die. At different times, and for a lot of different reasons. This is what being people means. We don’t get safety, we don’t get immortality, either. (At least not in this world. And I’m not much of a theist, myself.)

We all have a lot of choices about how we live our lives. They may seriously not be the choices we want, but they’re still choices. Some of these choices might help keep us our of harm’s way. Though this is a pretty tenuous sort of thing – is it less harmful to have a safe life, or a meaningful one? There are trade-offs, and not just that one. For most of us, sometimes, it will be very hard. For some of us, it will often or usually be very hard. And sometimes, in whatever way, it will be too much.

This is a big part of why I practice. Let me digress before I follow that thought further and reassure you that this isn’t Why You Should Be a Buddhist. Really, I care not at all whether you’re a Buddhist, or are a member of any other particular tribe, for that matter. I’m a big fan of folks living good lives, and being good people, and I’m pretty flexible when it comes to what good means. Tribal identity of whatever sort is a lot less relevant. This isn’t about believing in things. It’s not even about doing particular things. It’s… about structured methods of coping. Of learning to be, perhaps, a little more nimble in the face of the rigors of life. Maybe a little more resilient.

Those of you who know me know I spend a lot of time sitting on a pillow staring at the wall, and even more practicing martial arts. In another context, I’d be happy to go on at length why this is so and what I love about these practices. They’re pretty great ones, I think, for me, for health in the broadest sense. But this isn’t about those practices in particular. What I care about are the results. For me, hey, my life is better, most focused, productive, and joyful because of them. (Yeah, I get to define all of these things for myself. So do you.) These don’t have to be the things traditionally defined as meditative. I can’t say what it would be for you – tennis and the social bonding of one’s writing group, perhaps. Music. Rock climbing. Family. Does it give you strength? Stability? Does it support you in being the person you want to be?

There is often a perception that meditative practice (not the only kind) is an escape from life, or a way of retreating from the stresses of the world. I guess that’s probably true for some people, and really, if that’s what keeps you going, more power to you. I really want people to keep going. But retreat is not why I’m in it. There are a lot of reasons why, for me, but the relevant one here is that I want to be able to engage more deeply, and more skillfully with the world. I want the skill to ride out the tumult, and the resilience to be able to to do more, to go deeper, work harder and survive it. Well, survive it until I don’t, anyway.

I look at so many of the people in my community… and I feel like a wimp. Well, okay, not exactly, or at least, only sometimes. But so many people I care about are fighting many different very good fights. So many people are doing things that are really hard, and sometimes punishing. (I should mention, here, that though I use words like “fight” I don’t limit the hard things that people are doing to causes and contention. Getting through and surviving to do the next thing is the good fight. So is finding that next thing.) And sometimes, people sound like they are on the edge of being overwhelmed by anger, sorrow and bitterness.

For good reasons. There is a lot of suck in the world. And often, if you’re trying to work directly against that suck, it gets on you. Horribly. Or even if you aren’t doing anything towards that particular suck, sometimes. I really, really don’t want to minimize this. There are few things I hate more than folks who go on about how you just need to learn to be serene, and all the suck is in your head, anyway. Or any variant of that. No, suffering is real, and if you turn your back on that you’re an asshole. (And we all do it, at least sometimes. Yes, you can learn to suffer less. But that doesn’t just happen, and doing so doesn’t remove the painful things from life.)

What you are doing is hard. Take care of yourself. Take the long view (at least some of the time). Find the things that nurture your spirit. Find the things that help you stay sane. Find the things that give you stability, perspective, and yes, serenity. And joy, and love, and hope. Because you need them, and cannot live long without them.

And keep in mind that resilience, of mind, body, and spirit (oh, hell, I don’t really think these are separate things – and for the first two, that is a professional opinion) is, for most people, not just something you work on occasionally, when you are having a bad day. It’s not just the random little things any more than health is about band-aids. Though the little things can help. It’s something to build, over time, into the structure of your life. It takes a bit of time and thought. And… practice. It’s called practice because none of us start out particularly good at it, and the only thing to do is keep at it.

I’ve been thinking about what I want to write here for the past week, and on Friday this popped up on the zendo’s daily calendar:

As Layman P’ang was dying, his friend, the Governor Yu Ti Yu, came to visit one last time. P’ang put his head on his friend’s knee and spoke his last words:

“I beg you, see all phenomena as empty. Beware of thinking as real what is non-existent. Take care of yourself in this world of shadows and echoes.”


Maybe this is too Buddhist. All the emptiness and non-existance stuff can sound pretty nihilistic if you don’t have context to place it in. But I love the thought of the nearly dead fearing for and giving comfort to the living.

I am not saying that you should walk away from the hard things, or even step back and take it slowly and carefully. (Unless, you know, slowly and carefully seems likely to do more in the end.) I’m certainly not going to tell you not to die. When it’s time, die well. Choose what you care about and work for it with all the skill and strength you have.

But live, also, with all the skill and strength you have.


I am trying to imagine a pagan dharma. Not everyone’s pagan dharma, just, perhaps, a piece of it. It’s been a little bit hard to get my footing, because after all my years in the pagan community, I’ve landed first in a Chan order and then as a resident in the CZG zendo, and I really like my life, and my life it very full. (Beyond what is mentioned, throw in doctoral work on a degree in Neurobiology, and studying and teaching martial arts, and really, that’s pretty much it. The kind of life people talk about with regards to having a life, I pretty much do not have.)

Some of what has been said here resonates strongly with me. The emphasis on practice and cultivation of being. The fostering of community and celebration. The importance placed on connection with the natural world. I’m not personally that big on gods, though I can get into mythology when I feel like it says something important about the human experience. (And I do enjoy other people’s practices as a tourist. Sitting in on someone else’s rite? Great fun!)

My feelings about ritual are complicated. For me, personally, less is generally more. Not necessarily fewer rituals, but simpler, pared down ones, where the emphasis is more content than form. It is a rare thing, for me, that a ritual can come even close to rivalling the wonder of the natural world – so mostly, I’d rather avoid the attempt. Let the ritual not be the center of focus, but the frame for what is important. Pomp and ceremony are for me most effective for being rare, where the well-worn quiet forms can be useful in their soothing repetition. Ah, yes, I am back in the zendo and it is time to sit. Ah, yes, I will stop in my daily activities and make a point of turning my attention to the world around me.

Celebration is another thing for me, and celebration inside of a minimal ritual framework – i.e. “Hey, let’s call attention to some natural event! Great! Now a party!” tends to be something of a favorite. Sure, this isn’t heavy duty spiritual work, but then I think heavy duty spiritual work in an ornately ritualized context pretty much got burnt out of me during my Hermetic days. These days mostly it seems like a lot of fuss and bother that is for the most part a distraction at best. But my community is much broader than the people who also want to dedicate much of their lives to practice, and not all of the practices are much like mine. Celebration brings many more of us together.

I don’t pretend this is anything more than personal preference. But I like the idea of building many dharma gates, so that, eventually, all sentient beings can pass through them.

One of the things that drew me to the pagan community was the focus on the natural world. Of course, it sometimes seems interactions with actual nature are honored more often in the breech in the pagan community, but there’s plenty of variation there as elsewhere. Once upon a time, I ran a hiking club explicitly to try to make it easier for folks to get out into the woods and mountains. I imagine a line of people walking along a forrest path, at night, in silence, to an overlook with a good view of the moon. Honoring the sun’s set and rise on longest night and longest day. Cutting each week the branches, blossoms or fruit of the season for the altar. (Okay, I don’t have to imagine this, they keep letting me arrange the altar decorations at the zendo.)

Can we sit outside? Or by the river? Or turn off for an evening all the electric lights and heat, to feel the cold and darkness of the season. (Or, um, maybe we can just wait for another hurricane to manage this for us. But I must say, it’s a great lesson in impermanence, and the tendency of the ‘outside’ world not to be content staying in that outside position we have crafted for it in our minds.) Who doesn’t celebrate spring, whether formally or no? Does not the sunlight on the floor or the sound of the wind outside awaken you to the world? I used to keep feast days with the full moon and fast days with the new moon. I try to eat food as it is in season, though I’m not slavish about this – January in Ohio is hard enough, thanks. But I like to reinforce these natural cycles in my body and my life, to remind myself to feel them and taste them.

On the flip side, the practice of the dharma seems to me to have a huge potential to fill in, fill out and give roots to pagan practice. I am not, to be clear, characterizing pagan practice generically as hollow – there are many practices, and many people, and some who have carved out for themselves practice that I am quite in awe of. And yet, I am also aware that some of the problems I ran into are not exclusive to me. I have been in more than one working group that in effect ran up against the question of why, exactly, are we doing this?

Celebration tends to be self explanatory. As does, perhaps, devotion, to those who are drawn to it. Magical practice, though, without personal cultivation, tends to be shallow and egotistic. For me, while the forms of meditation presented in the hermetic group I spent time with in my teens suited me at that time, they seemed more arbitrarily complex as I grew older. I was thirsty for personal experience of awakening, but had tasted enough that the rituals I had put so focus into seemed hollow, more about form than substance. And while I found trail markers here and there, for the most part the pagan community did not offer me much practical support in this sort of practice. For myself, I found, over time, that I tended to do better following my own nose, for all that I missed having a community of practice.

Not everyone needs to spend time every day sitting on a pillow and staring at the wall. But this, as with other dharmic practice, is a practice that eventually calls to many who were drawn to the pagan community, and drawn to spiritual practice. These are practices that can nourish us and help us find in the world, a home.