Pagan Dharma Putting the Pagan back into the Dharma

Buddhists are Pagan

Our practitioner begins by wrapping himself in his large robe, its long flowing sleeves impractical for the work he is about to undertake, what with the candles and burning coals for incense - but he appreciates its aesthetic, and ancient design. He approaches his altar, and after making certain that everything he needs is ready, he begins.

Over the course of the next hour or so, our practitioner will make offerings to local deities and spirits, to keep them from interfering in his rite. He'll sing praises to his ancestors, to insure their continued blessing. He will cast his circle with ritual gesture and visualization, he will evoke powerful beings and make even more offerings...

At this point, depending upon your history and preference, you could be envisioning either a pagan or buddhist practitioner and ceremony, and either would fit.

Many Buddhists would balk at being called "pagan" - but why? Currently, Buddhism enjoys a certain degree of esteem - it's seen as both exotic and modern, evoking visions of calmly serene monastics, as well as slickly designed magazines and books. Celebrities are Buddhists, and the Dalai Lama has helped place a wizened, but playful Jiminy Cricket face upon the religion. Also, many of the "cultural" aspects of Buddhism are often glossed over or ignored completely. Western Buddhism likes to play itself off as a modern scientific religion. A psychology with some decent aesthetic trappings. Protector deities? Mountain gods that need appeasing? Ghosts, goblins, and elves? Yeah - we don't hear about that Buddhism, unless it's to provide an example of how simplistic and superstitious the "native" cultural believers are, compared to the "sophisticated Western convert."

And what do the pagans have?

In every culture where Buddhism has made in-roads, it has done so by melding with some aspect of its host-culture's religion. In China, it was Daoism with a dash of Confucianism, producing what we now know as Ch'an or Zen Buddhism. In Tibet, it was the shamanistic Bon, giving Tibetan Buddhism its particular flavor. Here in the West, many assume that aspects of Christianity will be consumed and transformed. I've seen Dakini's referred to as "angels" and Jesus often labeled a "Bodhisattva."

I think, though, we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to consider our Pagan possibilities. The practice of Buddhism and many forms of paganism already share striking similarities, and while Buddhism technically denies the existence of an omnipotent creator deity (how's THAT for a monkey wrench in the Abrahamic side of things?) - it's chocked full of local deities, many of whom started out in their host cultures polytheistic pantheon.

Why NOT a Woden Bodhisattva? Want a lesson in impermanence - how about Ragnarok? And tell me any decent Buddhist teacher worth her salt couldn't turn the story of Woden hanging from the Eormensyll, sacrificing himself to himself to gain the secret knowledge of the runes, into a classic Buddhist tale of Compassion and Wisdom.

And in case you think that sounds a little too far-fetched, take a moment to remind yourself of how we "received" the most famous Buddhist "Wisdom" teachings, the Prajna Paramita, from which we get the ubiquitous Heart Sutra (if you're not familiar with the story, the Great Being Nagarjuna received the teachings in whole from a kingdom of wise Nagas/Dragons).

Obviously there isn't a one-to-one, perfect comparison here, but neither was there in any other spirituality that made its peace with Buddhism. Some things needed to change a bit, on both sides, and the result was something new, and nearly always something wonderful.

And if we're being honest - celebrity and sexy magazines aside - Buddhism already is pagan, whether we like to admit it or not.

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