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 ( 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).

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." -Hsuan-chien

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.

Basic Buddhist Big Ideas: Part I – The Introduction

While in my last post I stressed the importance of what a Pagan Dharma might look like in action, I’d also like to spend some time exploring exactly what it might mean.

For some, especially those most familiar with the Japanese Soto Zen style of Buddhism, it might simply mean the inclusion of traditional Buddhist meditation into their generally pagan routine. For others, it might mean that, plus a general acceptance of some basic Buddhist ideas like the Four Noble Truths. Much as “what it means to be Pagan” and “what Pagans believe” will vary group-to-group, tradition-to-tradition, and often person-to-person – so too, I suspect with a Pagan Dharma.

In this, and a continuing series of posts, I’m going to take a look at some Basic Buddhist Big Ideas, and explore how they might be understood through a Pagan lens. In some cases, this will bring new ideas to the general Pagan weal. In other cases it might enhance current Pagan notions – and in several cases there are Pagan ideas, perspectives, and approaches that I think will enhance Buddhist concepts.

These posts will, of course, be far from definitive. For perspective, my personal experience with Buddhism lies mostly within the Indo-Tibetan, Japanese esoteric (mikkyo), and Korean Son (Zen) schools. I have an academic knowledge of many other schools, but of course that’s never the same as knowledge gained in vivo. My Pagan perspective is generally ADF influenced, and more specifically Anglo-Saxon Heathen. What this means is that someone with experience in, say, Chinese Pure Land and Celtic Druidry might ask different questions and draw different conclusions from them than do I. I hope that exercise happens.

Of God and Gods

I’d like to start by taking a few brief moments to discuss the nature of deity. This is where most Western Buddhists balk when considering Jewish, Christian, or Pagan “Buddhists.” I think the Jews and Christians have a higher hurdle here than do we.

It’s true that the Buddha unequivocally denies the existence of a supreme, all-knowing, all-powerful, eternal creator god (sorry YHVH). Two things immediately come to mind:

1) In Paganism, that kind of “god” typically isn’t with whom we’re concerned. Rather, our pantheons tend to include beings of great power, long-lived mysterious beings hardly ever seen directly, but frequently not too unlike us. These beings watch over us, and occasionally even intervene in our lives – often after we have made some sort of offering. And no, I’m not talking about the Federal Government (though damned if that doesn’t seem to describe them, too - hmmmm). So what did the Buddha say about those types of deities? Frankly, they’re all over the place in Buddhist Sutras. From Ancient and Wise talking Sea Dragons, to Thundering Gods of the Sky, not only did the Buddha not deny their existence, he would offer teachings to them, and many of our “Traditional” Buddhist rituals have sections requiring making offerings to appease them. I think we Pagans are on safe ground here.

2) My second thought is – so what? The Buddha said a LOT of things, and frankly, only the most fundamentalist of Buddhists believes he was right about everything. Honestly, even the Buddha himself acknowledged he might get things wrong from time to time (echoed in the modern teachings of the current 14th Dalai Lama, who famously said that if science and Buddhism conflict, go with science). Don’t even get me started on the whole “women in the sangha” debacle.

Which leads me to one of my few operating principles for this series:

_Just ‘cause the Buddha said it, doesn’t make it so. _

I know this to be true because the Buddha said so. ;-)

Setting the Stage

The spiritual science known as Buddhism is a system for the cultivation of positive insights into the workings of ultimate truth. The point of the practice is to allow us to “wake up” to the higher order of actuality in operation behind the individual events of our daily lives, and discover who and what it is we truly are.

This method of spiritual exploration was taught by the sage Siddhartha Gautama (roughly 560 BCE – 470 BCE), who is said to have been born a prince on the full moon day of May in the Lumbini gardens of the city of Kapilavastu, in a region of modern day Himalayan Nepal. After years of spiritually disciplined exploration, he sat beneath a tree and vowed to remain there until he reached the realization of ultimate truth. There, under what came to be known as the Bodhi-tree in the place called Bodhgaya, he went through a series of deepening meditative states to the point of reaching ultimate realization. From that point on he was known as Shakyamuni, the Buddha (Sage of the Shakya Clan, the One who is Awake).

The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha’s first revelation of these wisdom teachings is a description of the principal cause of human distress. In this opening exposition, the Buddha offered what is now referred to as his first teaching.

The Buddha explained that life is bound to hurt as long as we go into it with a set of expectations and beliefs that do not match up with the workings of reality. The truth is that there are problems in life. Wanting something that cannot exist (like a pain-free existence) is a sure path to exasperation.

Much of what we call knowledge should really more accurately be described, as a “memory of our beliefs,” and this conceptual mistake is the reason that so many false or misleading ideas about the ultimate nature of life have persisted for such a long time. Hoping that we are correct in our narrow misconceptions of how life is “supposed to work” is the cause of all suffering in life, according to the original teachings of the Buddha. This identification of the source of human anxiety, and an eight-part prescription for beginning the cure for anguish, are popularly referred to as the Buddhist Four Noble Truths.

1) Life contains difficulty and existential dissatisfaction. Yes, I know that isn’t how the first of the Noble Truth’s is typically translated – but this is what it means. Without the ability to see things clearly, everything that touches us has the possibility of causing discontent and heartache. To the un-awakened mind, the experience of life is characterized by dukkha, the anxiety of discontent. Life inherently includes problems, aging, and eventually death. All things, even pleasant experiences, can end up disappointing us.

And so, this first truth is that we long for an eternity that simply does not exist. Nothing is permanent. There are no exceptions to this clause – even for the gods. In the Norse myths, we have the oncoming battle of Ragnarök, where many of the gods themselves meet their final end. This longing we hold for permanence – is Noble Truth number two.

2) Existential dissatisfaction comes from desiring things to be other than they are.  Dissatisfaction with life arises from flawed understanding of the workings of the universe. It is the aching hunger for that which is not possible to attain, to long to have what cannot be had, and to struggle to avoid what cannot be avoided.

3) There is a cause and effect process to existential dissatisfaction. The root of the Buddha’s wisdom here is Karma – cause and effect. What we term “Wyrd.” One ramification of wyrd in personal human terms is that our past (both our ancestry and our personal history) affects us continually. Everything we think, say, or do is dropped into the Well of Wyrd at the base of the Tree of the World, and is woven into our ongoing experience. Who we are, where we are, and what we are doing today is dependent on actions we have taken in the past and actions others have taken in the past which have affected us in some way. If you want to understand your current circumstances – look to your past actions. If you want to know your future – look to your current actions.

Both Karma and Wyrd suffer from the same modern misunderstandings. Neither is “an inescapable fate” nor is either some sort of moral reward and punishment system, and this is the true realization that the Buddha had. Karma was nothing new during his time, but his understanding of its amoral cause and effect nature was radical.

Let’s unpack this a little, because it’s important to understand for both Karma and Wyrd.

Not inescapable fate: what this means is that while you cannot change what has happened in the past, and neither can you change what is right now, you do have control over what happens next. Of course, your choices in the moment are going to be constrained by a number of patterns of wyrd already in place, including personality characteristics, social conditioning, past experiences, and so on. To the extent that your thoughts, words, and deeds are determined by these patterns, wyrd is shaping your life in the moment – and the thoughts, words, and deeds you undertake in the moment are woven into your wyrd and remanifest in future experiences. Wyrd/Karma are interactive.

Not moralistic judgment: If a baby dies, or a city is wiped out in a flood, that’s wyrd, or karma. If a man is mugged, or a woman raped – that’s wyrd/karma. Often, statements like these generate outcries of “what did the baby/city/man/woman do to deserve that?” The word “deserve” is the clue we need to see that there is a fundamental misunderstanding at play. “Deserve” implies a moral judgment, and some party responsible for meting out that judgment.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying there aren’t beings that hand out justice… I’m saying that’s not what wyrd or karma does.

Wyrd/Karma (weird karma?) are amoral in the sense that there is no judgment going on at all, nor beings doing the judging (even the Three Norns who tend the Well of Wyrd). If the baby died, it wasn’t because it did something “bad” that was “deserving” of death – that’s silly. A woman raped wasn’t somehow “deserving” of the attack from the standpoint of wyrd/karma. It was simply cause and effect. She was there, at that time – her attacker was there at that time – her attacker chose to attack. That’s all. Obviously this could be a much larger discussion, and probably should be, given how often these ideas are misunderstood, but at this point in this post, let’s move on.

Like I said, this was (one of) the Buddha’s “Big Idea(s).” Wyrd and Karma are cause and effect. Do this, and that happens. Did that happen? This caused it. Remove the cause, and the effect does not arise. And this is Noble Truth number Four.

4) Existential dissatisfaction is eliminated by taking charge of life. The way to overcome existential dissatisfaction is to begin to cultivate clarity and take action accordingly. Once we see that all things are impermanent, that our existential dissatisfaction stems from our struggle against this inevitable truth, and that our current experience is the result of our own wyrd, we are empowered to sit in the driver’s seat. We can begin to do those actions resulting in the experiences for ourselves and others that we want, and avoid those resulting in more suffering.

Once we see reality as it is – not how we wish it were, or afraid it might be, or think it ought to be, etc. – then, with clarity of eye we can choose those thoughts, words, and deeds necessary to bring into being something better.

The Buddha outlined a process for this called the Eight-fold Path, and that will be the subject of my next post. Until then, hapchang & wes þu hal!

Adventures in Zen Odinism

This is a guest post by Steve Davies of the Odin the Wanderer blog.

As a follower of Al’s “Open Buddha” blog I was very excited to see the resurrection of Pagan Dharma. As a fairly longstanding magical practitioner I have often struggled with the lack of technology within Neo-paganism with regards the skilful cultivation of being. In the busyness of the occult revival we have become adept at producing and doing, but have struggled to find ways of accessing stillness.

One of the ways I have sought to bring together my own desire for both a profound stillness and the transformative path of magic has been via my involvement in the hearth of Odin the Wanderer.

The small number of us who meet to celebrate the turning of the year are moved at a profound level by the weightiness of the Northern aesthetic – its emphasis on honour, its sparseness and sense of stoicism – the Gods, Goddesses and Wights that we honour and follow are clearly within the Northern Mythos since as we meet on the land this makes sense at a primal level. Now this is all sounding fairly normal for anyone who has been to a blot or a hearth before, but what one might be struck by is that we don’t say a lot! We spend most of our time sitting down and we also (gasp) spend some of our time laughing.

As to the ‘how’, we deem what we are doing as being Zen related. As most readers of this blog will know Zen is the Japanese translation of Chan which in turn is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit Dhyana i.e. meditation. Meditation can mean many things but I think the ideas of mindfulness, awareness, wakefulness and quiet receptivity are at the heart of the experience I am pointing to. In practice this means that after acknowledging the elements and directions and welcoming the Gods, Goddesses and Wights, we spend most of our time listening both to the inner stirrings of ourselves and to the spirit of place via zazen. For us this echoes the ancient practice of “uta seti” or sitting out when the wisdom of the ancestors and spirits of place were sought. As the practitioner seeks to rest their attention with the physical sensation of the breath, a spaciousness of consciousness is possible – a personal ginungagap where the stirrings of new realities can be sensed.

In Havamal 138 Odin speaks of “giving Self to Self” during his seeking of Runa on the World Tree. Similarly for the Northern mystic seeking to utilize mindfulness techniques there can be the creation of a space where outdated “certainties” can be shed so that remanifestation can occur. For those seeking the hero’s path this does not mean the abandonment of Self, rather it opens up new vistas of potential becoming.

“I know that I hung on a windy tree nine long nights, wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin, myself to myself, on that tree of which no man knows from where its roots run. No bread did they give me nor drink from a horn, Downwards I peered; I took up the runes, screaming I took them, Then I fell back from there.”

The approach to this work has been gradual and reliant on honest feedback from the group’s participants. In contrast to a homogenised syncretism, we are seeking a form of conscious hybridism where the best of both heathenry and the dharma can inform each other. In practice this has entailed a dedicated engagement with primary source material and a degree of transparency with regards that which feels aesthetically harmonious rather than jarring.

The dharma has always been highly adaptive in terms of the way it has utilised the shamanic traditions of those cultures that it encountered whether that be Taoism, Bon or Shinto. As has already been highlighted in other posts, in seeking to de-mythologize western Buddhism in order to make the dharma scientifically and psychologically relevant we are in real danger of disconnecting it from the richness that a pagan context can provide. Without the awareness of place, time and the body that pagan traditions often provide, we risk a hollowed out practice that fails to connect to the whole of our being.