Pagan Dharma Putting the Pagan back into the Dharma

Basic Buddhist Big Ideas: Part I – The Introduction

While in my last post I stressed the importance of what a Pagan Dharma might look like in action, I’d also like to spend some time exploring exactly what it might mean.

For some, especially those most familiar with the Japanese Soto Zen style of Buddhism, it might simply mean the inclusion of traditional Buddhist meditation into their generally pagan routine. For others, it might mean that, plus a general acceptance of some basic Buddhist ideas like the Four Noble Truths. Much as “what it means to be Pagan” and “what Pagans believe” will vary group-to-group, tradition-to-tradition, and often person-to-person – so too, I suspect with a Pagan Dharma.

In this, and a continuing series of posts, I’m going to take a look at some Basic Buddhist Big Ideas, and explore how they might be understood through a Pagan lens. In some cases, this will bring new ideas to the general Pagan weal. In other cases it might enhance current Pagan notions – and in several cases there are Pagan ideas, perspectives, and approaches that I think will enhance Buddhist concepts.

These posts will, of course, be far from definitive. For perspective, my personal experience with Buddhism lies mostly within the Indo-Tibetan, Japanese esoteric (mikkyo), and Korean Son (Zen) schools. I have an academic knowledge of many other schools, but of course that’s never the same as knowledge gained in vivo. My Pagan perspective is generally ADF influenced, and more specifically Anglo-Saxon Heathen. What this means is that someone with experience in, say, Chinese Pure Land and Celtic Druidry might ask different questions and draw different conclusions from them than do I. I hope that exercise happens.

Of God and Gods

I’d like to start by taking a few brief moments to discuss the nature of deity. This is where most Western Buddhists balk when considering Jewish, Christian, or Pagan “Buddhists.” I think the Jews and Christians have a higher hurdle here than do we.

It’s true that the Buddha unequivocally denies the existence of a supreme, all-knowing, all-powerful, eternal creator god (sorry YHVH). Two things immediately come to mind:

1) In Paganism, that kind of “god” typically isn’t with whom we’re concerned. Rather, our pantheons tend to include beings of great power, long-lived mysterious beings hardly ever seen directly, but frequently not too unlike us. These beings watch over us, and occasionally even intervene in our lives – often after we have made some sort of offering. And no, I’m not talking about the Federal Government (though damned if that doesn’t seem to describe them, too - hmmmm). So what did the Buddha say about those types of deities? Frankly, they’re all over the place in Buddhist Sutras. From Ancient and Wise talking Sea Dragons, to Thundering Gods of the Sky, not only did the Buddha not deny their existence, he would offer teachings to them, and many of our “Traditional” Buddhist rituals have sections requiring making offerings to appease them. I think we Pagans are on safe ground here.

2) My second thought is – so what? The Buddha said a LOT of things, and frankly, only the most fundamentalist of Buddhists believes he was right about everything. Honestly, even the Buddha himself acknowledged he might get things wrong from time to time (echoed in the modern teachings of the current 14th Dalai Lama, who famously said that if science and Buddhism conflict, go with science). Don’t even get me started on the whole “women in the sangha” debacle.

Which leads me to one of my few operating principles for this series:

_Just ‘cause the Buddha said it, doesn’t make it so. _

I know this to be true because the Buddha said so. ;-)

Setting the Stage

The spiritual science known as Buddhism is a system for the cultivation of positive insights into the workings of ultimate truth. The point of the practice is to allow us to “wake up” to the higher order of actuality in operation behind the individual events of our daily lives, and discover who and what it is we truly are.

This method of spiritual exploration was taught by the sage Siddhartha Gautama (roughly 560 BCE – 470 BCE), who is said to have been born a prince on the full moon day of May in the Lumbini gardens of the city of Kapilavastu, in a region of modern day Himalayan Nepal. After years of spiritually disciplined exploration, he sat beneath a tree and vowed to remain there until he reached the realization of ultimate truth. There, under what came to be known as the Bodhi-tree in the place called Bodhgaya, he went through a series of deepening meditative states to the point of reaching ultimate realization. From that point on he was known as Shakyamuni, the Buddha (Sage of the Shakya Clan, the One who is Awake).

The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha’s first revelation of these wisdom teachings is a description of the principal cause of human distress. In this opening exposition, the Buddha offered what is now referred to as his first teaching.

The Buddha explained that life is bound to hurt as long as we go into it with a set of expectations and beliefs that do not match up with the workings of reality. The truth is that there are problems in life. Wanting something that cannot exist (like a pain-free existence) is a sure path to exasperation.

Much of what we call knowledge should really more accurately be described, as a “memory of our beliefs,” and this conceptual mistake is the reason that so many false or misleading ideas about the ultimate nature of life have persisted for such a long time. Hoping that we are correct in our narrow misconceptions of how life is “supposed to work” is the cause of all suffering in life, according to the original teachings of the Buddha. This identification of the source of human anxiety, and an eight-part prescription for beginning the cure for anguish, are popularly referred to as the Buddhist Four Noble Truths.

1) Life contains difficulty and existential dissatisfaction. Yes, I know that isn’t how the first of the Noble Truth’s is typically translated – but this is what it means. Without the ability to see things clearly, everything that touches us has the possibility of causing discontent and heartache. To the un-awakened mind, the experience of life is characterized by dukkha, the anxiety of discontent. Life inherently includes problems, aging, and eventually death. All things, even pleasant experiences, can end up disappointing us.

And so, this first truth is that we long for an eternity that simply does not exist. Nothing is permanent. There are no exceptions to this clause – even for the gods. In the Norse myths, we have the oncoming battle of Ragnarök, where many of the gods themselves meet their final end. This longing we hold for permanence – is Noble Truth number two.

2) Existential dissatisfaction comes from desiring things to be other than they are.  Dissatisfaction with life arises from flawed understanding of the workings of the universe. It is the aching hunger for that which is not possible to attain, to long to have what cannot be had, and to struggle to avoid what cannot be avoided.

3) There is a cause and effect process to existential dissatisfaction. The root of the Buddha’s wisdom here is Karma – cause and effect. What we term “Wyrd.” One ramification of wyrd in personal human terms is that our past (both our ancestry and our personal history) affects us continually. Everything we think, say, or do is dropped into the Well of Wyrd at the base of the Tree of the World, and is woven into our ongoing experience. Who we are, where we are, and what we are doing today is dependent on actions we have taken in the past and actions others have taken in the past which have affected us in some way. If you want to understand your current circumstances – look to your past actions. If you want to know your future – look to your current actions.

Both Karma and Wyrd suffer from the same modern misunderstandings. Neither is “an inescapable fate” nor is either some sort of moral reward and punishment system, and this is the true realization that the Buddha had. Karma was nothing new during his time, but his understanding of its amoral cause and effect nature was radical.

Let’s unpack this a little, because it’s important to understand for both Karma and Wyrd.

Not inescapable fate: what this means is that while you cannot change what has happened in the past, and neither can you change what is right now, you do have control over what happens next. Of course, your choices in the moment are going to be constrained by a number of patterns of wyrd already in place, including personality characteristics, social conditioning, past experiences, and so on. To the extent that your thoughts, words, and deeds are determined by these patterns, wyrd is shaping your life in the moment – and the thoughts, words, and deeds you undertake in the moment are woven into your wyrd and remanifest in future experiences. Wyrd/Karma are interactive.

Not moralistic judgment: If a baby dies, or a city is wiped out in a flood, that’s wyrd, or karma. If a man is mugged, or a woman raped – that’s wyrd/karma. Often, statements like these generate outcries of “what did the baby/city/man/woman do to deserve that?” The word “deserve” is the clue we need to see that there is a fundamental misunderstanding at play. “Deserve” implies a moral judgment, and some party responsible for meting out that judgment.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying there aren’t beings that hand out justice… I’m saying that’s not what wyrd or karma does.

Wyrd/Karma (weird karma?) are amoral in the sense that there is no judgment going on at all, nor beings doing the judging (even the Three Norns who tend the Well of Wyrd). If the baby died, it wasn’t because it did something “bad” that was “deserving” of death – that’s silly. A woman raped wasn’t somehow “deserving” of the attack from the standpoint of wyrd/karma. It was simply cause and effect. She was there, at that time – her attacker was there at that time – her attacker chose to attack. That’s all. Obviously this could be a much larger discussion, and probably should be, given how often these ideas are misunderstood, but at this point in this post, let’s move on.

Like I said, this was (one of) the Buddha’s “Big Idea(s).” Wyrd and Karma are cause and effect. Do this, and that happens. Did that happen? This caused it. Remove the cause, and the effect does not arise. And this is Noble Truth number Four.

4) Existential dissatisfaction is eliminated by taking charge of life. The way to overcome existential dissatisfaction is to begin to cultivate clarity and take action accordingly. Once we see that all things are impermanent, that our existential dissatisfaction stems from our struggle against this inevitable truth, and that our current experience is the result of our own wyrd, we are empowered to sit in the driver’s seat. We can begin to do those actions resulting in the experiences for ourselves and others that we want, and avoid those resulting in more suffering.

Once we see reality as it is – not how we wish it were, or afraid it might be, or think it ought to be, etc. – then, with clarity of eye we can choose those thoughts, words, and deeds necessary to bring into being something better.

The Buddha outlined a process for this called the Eight-fold Path, and that will be the subject of my next post. Until then, hapchang & wes þu hal!

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