Pagan Dharma Putting the Pagan back into the Dharma

A Dharma at the Cross Roads

View original on This was written by Catherine.

When Al raised the idea of starting this site, I was interested in part because I haven’t really had many conversations about how I became a Chan practitioner and my changing relationship with the pagan community. From the inside, often the changes don’t really seem that significant to me – I’m still practicing my martial arts, paying attention to the daily evidence of shifting weather and season, cooking, studying, and spending time in meditation. But then I’ll write to pagan friends of long standing and mention what is going on in my life, how I’m in the process of moving to be one of the caretakers of the new building for the Zendo I sit with, how delighted I am with my new martial arts students, or perhaps a little bit about attending sesshin, and it’s hard not to notice how the outward forms of many of the things I am doing look pretty Buddhist. I suspect it appears that I’ve left the fold.

One of the things that makes some of these discussions difficult, at least in the context of the US, is a cultural heritage that tends to equate spiritual practice with tribal identity. If to be this is to renounce that, and in fact renounce all other possible thats, it can become much harder to discuss the intersections of different cultures and traditions. I don’t think these requirements are innate to either the Pagan or Buddhist communities, and yet it’s hard not to absorb some of this from the larger culture.

Many of the same things that drew me into the Pagan community have also drawn me to Chan.* There is a thread of practice that runs through all of these things for me. At my first Chan intensive, sitting still on a mat, facing a blank wall, I felt an echo across time from the little girl I once was, who woke up early every morning to spend an hour or so watching the sky lighten and the sun rise over the lake and the mountains. Of the young woman who felt split open by the immediacy of the world, as if it had put its roots in me, even as I sunk my roots into it. I have understood these as Pagan things, and then found that they can also be understood in Buddhist terms. But even more, the fullness of these experiences, now, as they happen, are more real, and more essential than any name I can give them or framework I can cram them in to.

And yet, the flip side of the tangible reality of these experiences is that to live them, and work with them, and bring them into our lives and our world in meaningful ways generally it best accomplished with more structure and persistence and reliance not only on our own experiences but also on the trails blazed by those who have gone on similar ways before. These frameworks of scholarship, practice, and community give us support, they give us tools, and they suggest direction when we find ourselves disoriented. It’s easy to get caught up in identity politics, especially when we spent a lot of time at an intersection between cultures and community. And when we’re not entirely part of the established structures of support it is harder, sometimes, to stay focused on fundamentals. How do I live a good life? How can I be a good person?

I think a lot of people have entered this intersectional space between the Pagan community and the Dharma, and they’ve entered it in many different ways. Around half of the people in our local Zendo either have had or continue to have some connection to the pagan community. I have many friends who love the culture and celebrations of the pagan community, but have found a lot of practical guidance in terms of how to confront the tribulations of life in Buddhism. I was speaking to another friend, yesterday, who is deeply committed to her pagan spiritual practice, and also deeply committed to a martial art that has, especially at its higher levels, a Buddhist spiritual core. How is she to negotiate between the two? Many people, including some younger versions of myself, find Buddhist philosophy appealling, but are put off by the cultural trappings. Theist friends of mine have found themselves called to Kuan Yin, who they saw as a goddess, and in their study and veneration of her found Dharma teachings as well.

One can look at how Buddhist practice has adapted to and integrated into local practices in Tibet, China, Japan and Vietnam (to name a few cases of which I have at least some knowledge) and envision a Pagan Dharma, a Dharma described in terms of our roots, and out culture. That ability to remake the outer forms of Buddhist practice to fit local circumstances, and build the Dharma gates that people need and and can pass through is the core of Mahayana.

But I also think limiting the discussion to only that particularly kind of re-envisioning would be shortchanging ourselves and the strength of the tradition. Dharma, at its core, is an inheritance of all humanity. It contains tools people have found useful and a record of how many people have sought enlightenment. When I was reading the book that eventually led me to join our Chan order, there was a line that I read with a great deal of delight: “Names are a tool of the ego.” You don’t have to decide to call yourself a Buddhist to find value in these teachings, or take some of these techniques and use them in your life. You can indeed call yourself anything, or nothing at all. If you study Chan meditation to help with your hypertension, and consider it to have nothing to do with your spirituality, it’s still a good practice, and it’s still making your life better. If mindfulness while planting your garden increases your sense of connection to the earth and it’s seasons, go for it. It’s not stealing; they’re already yours.

  • And note on language. Chan is the Chinese word that is pronounced “Zen” in Japanese. The written character is the same. Because of the strong cultural relationship between Japan and the US, Zen is the dominant term in the United States. I tend to use Chan preferentially, as I speak Chinese, am a member of an order with recent roots in China, and because the term was used in China first. And because the way “Zen” as a term has integrated into popular culture makes me a little twitchy. However, I also practice with a local group with Japanese roots, and will tend to use Japanese terms when I am describing that context.
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