Pagan Dharma

Pagan Dharma

Putting the Pagan back into the Dharma

Zen Druids

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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).

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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


Categorised as: Pagan Dharma


  • http://www.facebook.com/pearible James Foster

    To a degree, I see something similar (but still different) happening with James Ford, and his “path” as a Zen Teacher and also a Unitarian Universalist minister (UU’s also being a popular “mix” for many pagans).

    In his case, it seems clear that his “zen” influences his work as a UU cleric – and you can’t read much of his blog without realizing how much of the UU liberal-humanism influences his zen… but he works to keep them “officially” separate… I can only speculate as to why (without asking him directly, which now that I think of it, I may do). I suspect it has to do somewhat with the “propriety of the administration” – meaning, his Zen Friends might give him the stink-eye if they thought he was mixing it up too much (see Al’s comments regarding conservative Buddhism in the West)… and honestly, his UU congregation as a whole probably prefers “James” to “Zen Master Myoun.” But if there were no “administrative impediments” involved, I wonder…

    In any case, I really like this idea – especially as it seems like it’s another step towards direct manifestation, as opposed to “fine theoretical theorizin’.”

    • Anne

      I really like the idea of the retreat. A few years ago I became really interested in Clark Strand’s “green meditation”, which invites buddhists to recover the dark and live closer to life cycle. I quickly became a serious meditator and soon discovered druidry.The two are linked in my personal life yet I struggle to fully integrate them into a single practice. I don’t like being made to feel like I’m non-committal when I am/we are trying to define a new, more integrative spiritual path. Pagan Dharma is a great help!

      http://www.tricycle.com/feature/turn-out-lights
      http://www.tricycle.com/feature/green-meditation-retreat

  • Wade Jones

    While I tend more towards the protestant end of things organizationally and in terms of structure of practice, it’s not always a great fit. In particular, the calendar and the lack of celebratory rites are stand outs where I really want to do some work. That makes me interested in ways to work with the Buddhist calendar that makes sense within our larger culture and incorporate some element of the natural world and the artistic impulse. Zen in particular always felt like it presents as more natural-oriented and art inspired, but in practice it’s so easy to loose track of those things.

    I think you should try the blended retreat out. I know I’d be really interested in seeing how that goes. See if you can get some Buddhists out of the Zendo for a bit.

    • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

      I think Zen *is* more natural influenced but I think that is the exception in most of the Dharma and I think that in many ways it is not present here in the West. It seems present in the Tang Dynasty koan collections, for example, where they are always walking to and fro outdoors, by the river, etc. as well as the monastery.

      • http://www.facebook.com/pearible James Foster

        The Japanese have done a lot to incorporate nature – Mountains and Rivers, anyone? It’s not such a big deal in Korean Son, though. No well-sculpted “zen gardens” there, pal… you get a nice “benevolent neglect”… though they still have their mountains and land-spirits – we don’t even get *that* here in the West.

        Oh, and to be fair – the Tang dynasty folks walked everywhere because – what other options did they have? :-)

        I’m with Wade on this though – I think the blended retreat would be wonderful. Here’s what I’m thinking:

        Take a delivery system like Prajna Institute (only more asynchronous) – with a deliberate time-line of individual study and practice. ADD to that, some of Teo’s brilliance from the SDF, like everyone celebrating the 8 “wheel of the year” holy days (and I love the community omen interpretation idea). Leverage more social media aspects for group interaction and cohesion, and include at least one “big” blended retreat a year… and you’ve got yourself something solid, right there.

        Like we’d talked about before, we could do away with the whole “zen master/dharma transmission” baggage/mythology/debacle, and instead have some sort of “lineage entrustment” for the person running the show, while “teachers” receive not “authorization” – but *recognition*.

        I think there’s something here, Al – people need to get out of their houses, and cars, and electric lights… we’ve lost something vital to what it means to be human and alive when we lost our connection to the world and each other.

        • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

          He says to the guy who spends 12 hours a day on a computer in his house. :-)

          I do think it would be worthwhile though.

  • http://meaningness.wordpress.com/ David Chapman

    I like this a lot!

    Your points about what Paganism has to offer Buddhism seem right on, to me.

    I’d love to hear you say more about how you see the differences in approach to sangha/community.

    I was an Ár nDraíocht Féin member for several years—I think actually right from its founding. It’s good to know that it has survived Isaac’s death.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jaime.mcleod Jaime McLeod

    I originally posted this comment on Al’s other blog. Reposting here …

    It’s interesting to me that you see Zen as cut off from the natural world. I
    used to be a UU, and they always blabbed on about the “interdependent
    web of life of which we are a part.” One thing that attracted me to Zen
    was having a way to access or experience that web, rather than just
    believing in it. Perhaps I’ve just been fortunate in the teachers and
    practice centers I’ve been associated with.

    I realize this isn’t exactly what you’re talking about, because there
    isn’t quite that element of constructing sacred space that is common to
    most Neopagan paths I’m familiar with, but my teacher started a side
    organization dedicated to combining the insights of Zen and the deep
    ecology movement. We go on wilderness retreats and engage in a number of
    modified Zen practices, including contemplative walking, wandering
    through groves to find a spot that “feels right” and asking permission
    of the spot before sitting zazen there, and oryoki, which my
    teacher sees as a very ecological way of eating (just enough, no waste,
    not even the wash water). We also engage in various ecopsycholoy
    exercises, such as taking blindfolded hikes along a rope trail my
    teacher ties prior to the exercise (I’ve experienced this numerous
    times, and it is a much more profound experience than it sounds), and
    barefoot hikes on smooth mountain tops while imagining that the rock is
    the skin of a living being, among other “rituals.” He also gives
    ecological themed Dharma talks.

    If you’re interested, it’s Moosis Zen Jouneys: http://moosiszenjourneys.org/

    • http://www.facebook.com/pearible James Foster

      Jaime, it sounds like your teacher is doing a fantastic job, going above and beyond even the standard Japanese integration of nature… and doing so within a comprehensive Western context!

      It’s a shame he’s “exemplary” as opposed to “the norm”!

      • http://www.facebook.com/jaime.mcleod Jaime McLeod

        I’ll have to tell him he’s exemplary. He’ll be surprised :D Good thing he’s not a teacher who hits … if he were, telling him that would get me hit for sure.

  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    In practice I’m doubtful I could make such a retreat but in theory at least: YES.

    • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

      It is a little far to where I am from New Orleans but you never know!

  • http://www.facebook.com/pearible James Foster

    The primary issue as I see it, is that Buddhism in general, and specifically Zen… is technique. It’s not a cultural system, it’s not a belief system, it’s not a spiritual system. It’s a series of physical, mental, and spiritual/esoteric techniques, or practices. This is what facilitated its spread through Asia… those cultures would learn of, and adopt the tech – which would end up being thereby transformed (both the new host culture, as well as the techniques, at times).

    Now, here in the West… we’re looking for the “whole package,” and what that means is either we:

    a) adopt wholesale the cultural practices from the asian country that form the container/framework for the techniques based on where our particular brand/franchise of Buddhist tech originated. This option is most common – and often even part of the charm/draw of practicing the Buddhist tech. It’s exotic and foreign. It requires significant “cultural translation” though, and a great deal of awareness in order to avoid significant pitfalls.

    or b) we take only the tech, and attempt to divorce it from its host container… which works for some, but for many leaves them feeling empty, like something vital is missing (see Al’s post, above for the sentiment I’m talking about).

    OR c) we take the tech, and do what they did with it in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan… we integrate it into an appropriate Western spiritual framework/scaffolding.

    • http://www.facebook.com/pearible James Foster

      We’ve seen option C in a number of groups – Judaism, Christianity, and even Political Activism (hello Buddhist Peace Fellowship!) – and this is the path that seems to me to be the most viable and sustainable (and traditional, even though folks choosing option A like to think they get to claim that particular acre of land).

      And so the question is – *which* spiritual scaffold? That one’s easy… whichever floats your boat! I think some are more compatible with the tech and its results than others – but I think there’s wide variance and variety among those groups that do fit well. For my money, it’s the native Western earth-based spiritual frameworks that seem not only most compatible and accommodating, but also have something of value of their own to contribute.

      And that’s where I think we are with this Zen Druidry (Druidic Zen?) idea!

      • http://www.facebook.com/pearible James Foster

        No, seriously…

  • Bill Murphy

    Thanks you Mr. Billings:
    Finding this article, this website, when I did is almost too fortuitous.
    The syncretic blend of Buddhadharma and the ADF/CR may be the exactly path I’ve been looking for. I nominally belong to a Nyingma sanga. The deity practice from Vajrayana leaves me cold- I have no sense of identification with the Tibetan pantheon. The Celtic pantheon/imagery calls me back, even when I try to walk away from it.
    Making this blend work, and if possible, finding a sharing/supportive community, are the next challenges.
    Please keep up the good work.
    Thanks again,
    Bill