What's the point of a Pagan Dharma, Part One12 Dec 2012
Why paganism and why the Dharma? After all, this is the "Pagan Dharma" site, right? I'm going to do a few posts here, probably between two and four. You'll have to bear with me (or just skip ahead) as I work out what I want to say right now.
As I've mentioned before, I spent 16 or so years as a pagan (aka "Neopagan" or "those people doing rituals and worshipping strange gods"). I got involved with it around age 18, when I become a young Wiccan. I proceeded from there (with various turns taking from one to five years) to being a Germanic pagan (or heathen) as well as being various shades of a Hermetic magician with a heavy salting of Neoplatonism. I even joined the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) somewhere along the way, meeting my wife while involved in it, though, truth be told, I was never a fervent enough fan of Aleister Crowley to make the cut in the longer term.
When I think back in these not-so-elder years of what it was like being a pagan or what it is exactly that I was or am drawn to there or miss, there are a few things that come to mind. These are, in no particular order:
Community rituals and celebrations
Celebration of the seasons and cycles of the Sun and Moon
Inspirational creation of rites or rituals
Exploration and creation of one's own personal spirituality
Clearly these listed items are fuzzy and interpenetrate with one another. Let's look at each of these in turn.
Community rituals and celebrations
Paganism, by and large if one is lucky, is very much a community, or at least a group, thing. If you're fortunate enough to live in an active urban area, you are likely to find some sort of community. My mom, who is a pagan, lives in Salt Lake City and I have many memories of my teenage years (before I was explicitly a pagan) and being around her community. When I was in college and then, later, in circles, lodges, etc., there was always both public groups as well as private groups. You were surrounded by folks. To be fair, as some say about dating within the OTO, "the odds are good but the goods are odd." You may not always actuallylikemuch of the community, probably due to flakiness, nonsensical (to you, of course) beliefs, and the normal primate politics but it is there. These communities generally engage in ritual work together. Paganism is very much a religion of practice more-so than one of belief. Who knows what people believe (or, really, who cares)? What you do know is that people get together and practice together, often following common forms or recognizable variants of them. When I recently went to the Feast of the Mighty Dead, my first pagan ritual in at least three or four years, I was not lost. They created a sacred space with invocations, solemn procession of a circle, sacred weapons and tools and I knew, in my bones, what was going on. This is a community action as much as it is anything else.
This leads into my second item, celebration of the seasons and cycles of the Sun and Moon (that's three things if you're paying attention). By and large, pagans celebrate at least some conceptual connection to the World-as-it-is, by that, I mean the phenomenal world around it through the lens of seeing it as a place of immanent divinity. The cycles of the year, in the form of the four seasons (there are still four in most of the world, right?) or some semblance of them, often specifically through the two solstices which formally, even for secular society, begin summer and winter as the days of most and least light, and the two equinoxes that are the balancing point of equal light and darkness. This is a joining of solar worship with Earth worship as we cannot have the Earth and the seasons without the Sun. In addition, the four mid-points between these four dates are celebrated in the Wiccan faith and this has percolated to the rest of pagandom because of the overwhelming popularity of Wicca. Even if you aren't a Wiccan, you'll probably know what these holidays are and what their thematic meaning is, if you're a pagan. On top of this solar and Earth cycle, we have, again through Wiccan influence (and maybe other folks just don't care to celebrate them but communities often do), Lunar rituals as the Moon goes through its 28 day cycle of waxing and waning to Full Moon and back to New Moon. This makes monthly cycle for very literal reasons, which also makes it convenient in this age of calendars and day jobs.
These first two items of community ritual and cyclical celebration go hand in hand, year after year, for many pagans. Even if people are engaged in their own personal practices or endeavors, people will participate in these things if they are involved with a group or community as a pagan. If they don't follow these specific rites, they're familiar with them and probably follow some other calendar in a great desire to tell the world, "Our group is NOT Wiccan."
Then there are the second two items of "things that I miss or recall about paganism (which does not judge or deny whatever else people like)."
The first of these is the inspirational creation of rites or rituals. As a general rule, pagans are unable to simply do the same rituals, at least privately, year after year. People either want to explore the facets of the rituals they have received or simply try different ideas out. Many traditions of practice have longstanding rituals (made up at least the year you joined up) but people constantly tweak or fiddle with them, either trying to find a more effective version for themselves or one that is simply more interesting, more fun, or less pedantic (fill in your own idea here). Simply put, this is generally encouraged. No one is really going to look on with horror if someone re-writes a common or core ritual, especially if they don't suggest jettisoning the cherished previous version. In one of the Wiccan traditions with which I was associated, as long as you passed down the Book of Shadows (BOS) as written, you could experiment or change things as you wanted, perhaps eventually adding to the BOS over time (but never removing content). Your requirement was to pass on what you had received but not only that. There was a strong ideal that none of these things were set in stone and a sense of playfulness and experimentation in one's spirituality. We were not dour folks who had received the Mass as written over 1,000 years ago and needing a worldwide convention to discuss if, pretty please, we might do it in a language that we now spoke. Screw that, I'm changing the quarter invocations tonight!
This dovetails neatly into the last item on my list, exploration and creation of one's own personal spirituality. The paganism that I lived and breathed was a known (or often unknown) construct of many many hands. Your hands were expected to add to the building of the edifice (or even the tearing of it down for a new one). Any received wisdom was received by you, as a priest or priestess (once you knew what you were doing) from the universe / the Earth / the Goddess / the God / the many godS / the powers of the universe / your own hindquarters. You were expected to explore and change things. If you weren't, you hadn't been paying attention to things. The last thing almost anyone wanted was to simply join up and receive the wisdom of the ages, never to be changed, has handed down by a High Priestess or Priest (or other authority figure) never to be changed. The sense of play and improvisation as part of the discovery of one's spirituality was (and is) essential to the practice of living as a pagan.
Now, obviously, there are so many exceptions to this that I'm painting an impressionistic painting drawing from the preferred versions and memories of my own past but I think the sense of what I'm saying is accurate. (Pay not attention to all of the Asatru yelling about not being Wiccan in the back row.) This is my reflection on my lived experience of being a pagan, what I still see when I go to PantheaCon on occasion, or in talking to my various pagan friends. Within this overall community, there are much stricter groups who are very determined to do things one particular way or following one particular prophet (cough Crowley cough) but people also often vote with their feet and move around quite a bit. I did and I was not especially a dilettante (nor was I especially stalwart in staying in any one place).
I'll end this here as "Part One" and go on to contrast this with my experience of Buddhism tomorrow or another day soon. I will say, in many if not most ways, the experience of Buddhism in America is very much the antithesis of what I mention above.