Pagan Dharma Putting the Pagan back into the Dharma


I am trying to imagine a pagan dharma. Not everyone's pagan dharma, just, perhaps, a piece of it. It's been a little bit hard to get my footing, because after all my years in the pagan community, I've landed first in a Chan order and then as a resident in the CZG zendo, and I really like my life, and my life it very full. (Beyond what is mentioned, throw in doctoral work on a degree in Neurobiology, and studying and teaching martial arts, and really, that's pretty much it. The kind of life people talk about with regards to having a life, I pretty much do not have.)

Some of what has been said here resonates strongly with me. The emphasis on practice and cultivation of being. The fostering of community and celebration. The importance placed on connection with the natural world. I'm not personally that big on gods, though I can get into mythology when I feel like it says something important about the human experience. (And I do enjoy other people's practices as a tourist. Sitting in on someone else's rite? Great fun!)

My feelings about ritual are complicated. For me, personally, less is generally more. Not necessarily fewer rituals, but simpler, pared down ones, where the emphasis is more content than form. It is a rare thing, for me, that a ritual can come even close to rivalling the wonder of the natural world - so mostly, I'd rather avoid the attempt. Let the ritual not be the center of focus, but the frame for what is important. Pomp and ceremony are for me most effective for being rare, where the well-worn quiet forms can be useful in their soothing repetition. Ah, yes, I am back in the zendo and it is time to sit. Ah, yes, I will stop in my daily activities and make a point of turning my attention to the world around me.

Celebration is another thing for me, and celebration inside of a minimal ritual framework - i.e. "Hey, let's call attention to some natural event! Great! Now a party!" tends to be something of a favorite. Sure, this isn't heavy duty spiritual work, but then I think heavy duty spiritual work in an ornately ritualized context pretty much got burnt out of me during my Hermetic days. These days mostly it seems like a lot of fuss and bother that is for the most part a distraction at best. But my community is much broader than the people who also want to dedicate much of their lives to practice, and not all of the practices are much like mine. Celebration brings many more of us together.

I don't pretend this is anything more than personal preference. But I like the idea of building many dharma gates, so that, eventually, all sentient beings can pass through them.

One of the things that drew me to the pagan community was the focus on the natural world. Of course, it sometimes seems interactions with actual nature are honored more often in the breech in the pagan community, but there's plenty of variation there as elsewhere. Once upon a time, I ran a hiking club explicitly to try to make it easier for folks to get out into the woods and mountains. I imagine a line of people walking along a forrest path, at night, in silence, to an overlook with a good view of the moon. Honoring the sun's set and rise on longest night and longest day. Cutting each week the branches, blossoms or fruit of the season for the altar. (Okay, I don't have to imagine this, they keep letting me arrange the altar decorations at the zendo.)

Can we sit outside? Or by the river? Or turn off for an evening all the electric lights and heat, to feel the cold and darkness of the season. (Or, um, maybe we can just wait for another hurricane to manage this for us. But I must say, it's a great lesson in impermanence, and the tendency of the 'outside' world not to be content staying in that outside position we have crafted for it in our minds.) Who doesn't celebrate spring, whether formally or no? Does not the sunlight on the floor or the sound of the wind outside awaken you to the world? I used to keep feast days with the full moon and fast days with the new moon. I try to eat food as it is in season, though I'm not slavish about this - January in Ohio is hard enough, thanks. But I like to reinforce these natural cycles in my body and my life, to remind myself to feel them and taste them.

On the flip side, the practice of the dharma seems to me to have a huge potential to fill in, fill out and give roots to pagan practice. I am not, to be clear, characterizing pagan practice generically as hollow - there are many practices, and many people, and some who have carved out for themselves practice that I am quite in awe of. And yet, I am also aware that some of the problems I ran into are not exclusive to me. I have been in more than one working group that in effect ran up against the question of why, exactly, are we doing this?

Celebration tends to be self explanatory. As does, perhaps, devotion, to those who are drawn to it. Magical practice, though, without personal cultivation, tends to be shallow and egotistic. For me, while the forms of meditation presented in the hermetic group I spent time with in my teens suited me at that time, they seemed more arbitrarily complex as I grew older. I was thirsty for personal experience of awakening, but had tasted enough that the rituals I had put so focus into seemed hollow, more about form than substance. And while I found trail markers here and there, for the most part the pagan community did not offer me much practical support in this sort of practice. For myself, I found, over time, that I tended to do better following my own nose, for all that I missed having a community of practice.

Not everyone needs to spend time every day sitting on a pillow and staring at the wall. But this, as with other dharmic practice, is a practice that eventually calls to many who were drawn to the pagan community, and drawn to spiritual practice. These are practices that can nourish us and help us find in the world, a home.

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