Pagan Dharma Putting the Pagan back into the Dharma


View original on This was written by Catherine.

I kind of want to do two things in this post. One is to write a real introduction, since my last post was more than a little sketchy. The other is to talk at least a little about the evolution, or perhaps devolution of my own concept of identity. Tricky stuff!

If narratives, at least as I usually see them, are made by assembling a more or less arbitrary collection of events, which may or may not themselves be true, into chains satisfy both logical and aesthetic constraints, beginnings are perhaps the most arbitrary points of all. Things all arise from other things, which arose from yet other things in their turns. The starts of our stories are not fixed markers in the universe, but arise from what story we want to tell. A little abstract for a beginning, isn’t it? But central, I think, to the story I am trying to tell. Once I might have started this by talking about how even as a young child, I was innately Pagan, drawn to the natural world and the cycles of the seasons. I was that kid who wanted to be able to call every plant and bird by name. I was the one who was horrified to find out that solstices and equinoxes were not official holidays, and appalled to be told that women couldn’t be priests. It makes a tidy package, doesn’t it, selecting those facts and presenting them together that way? I’m not sure if any story I tell is going to be more true than that story.  Hopefully the drawbacks of the approach, at least, will be clear.

Let me try a different framing. I grew up on Capitol Hill, in Seattle, in the 1970s and 80s. The hill I knew was mostly the hippy academic side of things. Seattle was in recession, houses were cheap, and it was a childhood full of hand me down clothes, street fairs, Tolkien, attempted gardens, and acoustic guitars. My family was lapsed enough in its Catholicism that I was never baptised.

There are a lot of problems with arguing that one is innately this or that. I wonder, a little, though, at my own being drawn towards spiritual practice. Could there be some neurochemical predisposition? Looking back, I seemed to be fairly gamely willing to try just about anything, but equally inclined to evaluate those things and reject them based on opinions very firmly held by my as young as six year old self. I remember experiencing a lot of awe and a sense of visceral connection with the world from when I was quite young, and perhaps I what I was looking for was something like that but a little more structured. Churches seemed like an obvious place to go looking, but were unsatisfactory on closer examination. I valued my own meditative practice, but did not always think much of those I heard described. (Certainly, I remember being sadly convinced that my mother was Doing It Wrong when she dabbled in, I think, transcendental meditation. I hope I was too polite to mention this, but I do not recall tact being one of my stronger traits.) I liked folklore – Japanese and Chinese folktales were my favorites, but not so much so that I didn’t become a spontaneous devotee of Artemis when I was eleven. I enjoyed ritual – more or less generically, and without particularly strong preferences. I wasn’t particularly drawn towards faith or belief on a personal level, though I rather enjoyed hearing about other people’s as long as they didn’t get too creepy about it all. Meanwhile, I wrote fiction and poetry, and studied math and science, read more or less whatever crossed my path, and generally meandered my way through things.

Which isn’t, come to think of it, that different than how I ended up in the magical community. I started practicing Golden Dawn derived ceremonial magic mostly because it was a practice – something I could do. And it was a practice that suited me fairly well, at least as a teenager. It didn’t become a public identity for me. The group I was with did not encourage public disclosure, but even more didn’t seem to try to fill that particular niche in tribal politics. Meanwhile, time tended to weigh on me heavily during that part of my life and the fussy obsessiveness of the system gave me something to do with myself.

I had a pretty typically mixed relationship with the pagan community from the start. On the one hand, in so many ways I felt I’d found my people. The music, the ritual, the costumes and parties and hottubs… what a great context in which to come of age. On the other, part of me really wanted something more orderly, minimalist, with a stronger emphasis on meditation and direct experience. I loved the mythology, but found many expressions of theism difficult, and many people’s descriptions of how the world and magic worked to be almost presumptuous. It seemed to me that these were things that none of in fact knew, and that pretending otherwise couldn’t be the firmest foundation for a spiritual practice. I wasn’t really looking for answers, at least not that kind of answer. The world was still here, behind and before every breath. I wanted something more like engineering heuristics. And yet I loved the community.

I don’t think I started thinking of myself as pagan until I started running community events a few years later. By then, I figured the term pagan could stretch to include me.

In some ways, the time I spent in a Hermetic lodge, with Al, was a turning point. By that time I was done with school and off into the software industry, and while there were people I worked with and pieces of the work that spoke to me strongly, the highly ornamented esotericism of the system felt more and more stale and arbitrary, and little to do with the path I thought I could feel beneath my own feet. I mentioned that the first chives had appeared in my garden, at a business meeting, because it seemed more interesting and relevant than anything else I had to add. When that group fractured, I resolved to myself that I would not join another magical group unless I were specifically called to it, and suspected this meant I was done with group practice. A little sad, but if I had a sense that these practices were not right for me, I had also a bit of a sense if not what might be, at least of direction.

So I worked in my garden, and cooked, and spent more time hiking, mostly in the Cascade mountains. I became more involved in my practice of Chen Taijiquan (Chen T’ai Chi Chuan, if you prefer the Wade-Giles system of transliteration) and eventually other martial arts, though Chen has remained my primary art. I studied wild mushrooms and plants, and spent a lot of time in silent meditation.

One of the things I’d enjoyed about my involvement in the pagan community was the opportunity for community service.  I was starting to notice, also, that I seemed to spend a lot of time with the pagans with whom I’d tried to practice trying convince other people to spend a lot more time in meditation, and spend more time actually in the woods. So I started a hiking club, with the purpose of helping ease people who liked the idea of hiking but were intimidated by the practice into more comfort with the outdoors. I wrote articles about seasonal food, gardening and foraging for the local pagan rag.

I wanted to keep it simple. I wanted to keep it real. By which I meant only that it felt real to me – which could be a very low standard, but was generally, I think, a pretty high one. I wanted to better live a good life, and better be a good person. I figured that of the things that could be understood – understood at whatever level – I could work them out over time. By myself, if need be. It might be slow, I might not get very far, but it was good work.

Some years ago, I decided that while I honored my ties to the pagan community, and that many of my values and inclinations were arguably pagan, I did not want to have an identity as pagan become a barrier between me and other people. I wanted, first and foremost, to be a human being. It’s a fine distinction, and I would say that it meant more to me than to anyone else, though as it happened, it seems that a few other people were invested in my identity as pagan. It’s not, I suppose, that I stopped being pagan. Perhaps it’s more that it stopped being the limit of my family, and I left home.

Let me tell another story. My aunt, whom I adored, and whose family had a strong impact on my upbringing, is Japanese. I also have half-Chinese cousins, though I’ve known them less well. In many ways, in my younger years, I was more called to a Japanese cultural context than a western one. And then, as I was entering my teens, I found that the same culture that so appealled to me could, like any culture, be oppressive, and also that I could not choose not to be an oversized white girl. This is another part of what brought me to western mystery traditions and to the pagan community. It also left me with a lingering language inferiority complex, and is part of why I took a degree in Chinese Language and Literature later on. (As an aside, when I was about ten I read a couple of books on Zen. As was apparently not uncommon for the time, they managed to omit any mention of Buddhism, and I was left with a vague impression that that all was very nice, but with no particular sense of what it was all about.)

What does it mean to have a cultural background? Is it the color of your skin? The ground your ancestors walked? Is it the languages you speak, and the stories you learned growing up? There are few things more pathetic, I supposed, than a white girl who thinks she’s Japanese. But having decided that my tribal identity was that of a human being (and I am not against broadening it from there) I found myself wondering at how strongly I’d clung to my European origins. Much of my understandings of appropriate behavior and social courtesy came at least as much from elsewhere. As did much of the language of my dreams and structure of my thoughts. I’ve been speaking Chinese for twenty years now, and the writings of Chinese philosophers has had at least as much impact on me as any Western ones. (Particularly some of the earlier Daoist writings. Particularly Zhuangzi. Who, I later found out, had a great influence on the development of Chan.)

When I happened upon a book that eventually led me to the Chan order that I am a member of, I was not in the market for a spiritual community. I had scheduled martial arts obligations every day of the week, was trying to get my first first-name paper out, was working in two labs on unrelated projects (don’t ever do this!), taking classes, and applying to grad school. I picked up the book in a book store with the thought of critiquing it on historical and possibly feminist grounds, and to speed that process along flipped first to the index so as to better locate the sections I thought most likely to be objectionable. Only to find myself rather lacking in objections.

I didn’t actually get around to buying the book for another couple of months, and didn’t have a chance to read it more thoroughly until I was on the plane to visit Cleveland for the first time. And then, with an odd feeling in my stomach, I found that according to them, I was a Buddhist. I had pretty mixed feelings about this – I was pretty seriously not interested in acquiring another tribal identity. And yet, there it was, the pieces I’d so carefully put together on my own, and plenty more that were new to me, but seemed to make a lot of sense. Not to mention the siren song of institutional knowledge, and access to the records of people who had been doing this for thousands of years. What happened next is a story for  another day, but the long and short of it is that the order had a local branch, and I ended up joining.

And then, a few years after moving to Cleveland, I started sitting with a local Zen group and found out that the order I trained with wasn’t some random fluke, and that I might do well to look more into the larger community. In a few weeks I’ll be moving into the new building recently purchased by our local Zendo.

So what am I? I resisted identifying myself as Buddhist for a long time, but eventually, considering the importance practice has in my life, that started to seem a little silly. So, I am Buddhist, if asked, as a convenient description to others. It still seems funny that there is a cultural expectation that such things are discussed in terms of what I am rather than what I do.

Am I pagan? The western traditions I studied are part of what shaped me and continue to be some of the lenses through which I view the world. I still spend a lot of time outside, I still try to let in the cycles of the land and the sky. If the direct experience of zuochan is a guiding force in my life, so to is there still a call towards the ecstatic creative expression which seems a little closer to my pagan roots. Staid I might be becoming, as there is more and more grey in the stubble on my head, but it wouldn’t take much for me to be dancing naked in the moonlight once again.

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