Pagan Dharma Putting the Pagan back into the Dharma

Not "Should" but "How": What do we do?

First, some self-disclosure.

I'm a priest and teacher in a Korean Son Buddhist lineage. In fact, I received authorization as a Son-sa (Zen Master) in this lineage almost exactly one year ago (December, 2011). I've been a "practicing Buddhist" for about 25 years, with some of those years even spent as a monk in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage. I founded the first non-denominational Mahayana distributed learning-based seminary (the Prajna Institute for Buddhist Studies), and along with being its president, I am also a core faculty member. In my "other" academic life, I'm a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology, and expect to have that completed (all praise to the pre-doc internship gods) next year-ish.

I mention all this not as some sort of boast, but to give context. So that as we progress in this conversation (which is my hope for what this becomes), you know that I'm not some guy who's read 20 or so books from Barnes & Noble and talks a good game online.

I'm also a pagan. Well, "heathen" to be precise. I'm a member of the Troth and Ár nDraíocht Féin / ADF, and my personal "hearth culture" is Anglo-Saxon.

This brings me to my main point of this (brief) post - I don't know how much value there is in making the "should there be a pagan dharma" or "should there be Pagan Buddhists" argument. I think those could be interesting posts, certainly, but the reality is, there already are "Pagan Buddhists" and "Buddhist Pagans" and a "Pagan Dharma" is already taking shape in their lives.

In one of the early conversations I had with Al regarding this site and his passion for this material, he wrote:

"The question is what differentiates a "pagan dharma" from any ol' dharma. Is it a matter of sensibility? Style? trappings? Drawing from more than one tradition?"

And this, I think, is the question really worth exploring as this conversation continues. Not the "should we" but the "how do we?" The "what does/would/could it look like?" Of course, I have a few ideas on the subject.

My first thought is that praxis, rather than doctrine is the more profitable focus of our attention. Historically speaking, this has worked well for the Dharma. When Buddhism spread to China, Korea, and Vietnam its monasteries were a hodgepodge of schools/lineages/practices/beliefs. You could find "pure land" monks, "esoteric" monks, "Ch'an" monks, "scholar" monks, and on and on all living and practicing together. What made them a community wasn't their doctrine/belief - it was their shared liturgy and vinaya (monks rules of conduct). This practice is even somewhat in effect here in the West, even though Westerners have tended to want a bit more orthodoxy, as opposed to orthopraxy. In any given sangha or "Dharma Center" you'll find hard-line "re-birthers," you'll find atheists and agnostics, and you'll even find a heathen or two - and you may not ever notice, because of the shared practice.

In the pagan world, this is similar to the ADF, where they explicitly welcome and actively endorse a number of "hearth cultures." There's the obligatory Celtic (they are "Druid's" after all), but there's also Norse, Baltic, Gaulic, Roman, etc. They even have folks practicing a "Vedic" hearth. Now, while all of these groups have some similarities (thank you Professor Campbell) - there are still some pretty major differences. So how do they pull it off? A "Core Order of Ritual." That's right - praxis. They have a standard order of liturgy, that's built around the idea that while the culture and deity specifics will change from grove (group) to grove, or person to person, the general structure will remain the same. That means that if my Woden and Thunor loving heart visits the Gaulic Three Cranes Grove - while I'll have no idea who their deities are, I'm still going to understand their ritual, and know what's going on, and will even be able to participate. What's more - through my understanding of the Core Ritual, I'll quickly come to understand a bit about their deities (OH! so you use "so and so" to open the Gates Between Worlds... ).

Another modern and relevant example is the Unitarian Universalist Church - in fact, this body is already home to many (MANY) Pagans, Buddhists, Buddhist Pagans, and Pagan Buddhists. They follow, and in my opinion owe their success to, a similar model to the two previously described. For them, it's not about what you believe - it's about community, and what you do together as a community. Given their history, they do tend towards the mono, as opposed to poly-theistic stance, and from what I gather you can still find UU Congregations that are essentially "Protestant Christian," but you get my drift.

So... what do we do? I suppose the answer could be that Pagan Buddhists just join a group like the ADF or the UU's - and as I've said, many do. However, is that truly satisfying? I can't speak for anyone other than me, but in my experience I still find myself silo-ing off the two areas, externally at least. When I have my "Zen Master" hat on (note - I do not have an actual ZM Hat, however I am not opposed to the idea), I tend to either leave out, or "sneak in" any bit of heathen wisdom I might have, and when discussing among ADF'ers almost always feel as though I need to justify or apologize for any bit of "Zen" I might bring up. Maybe that's just me.

In any case, like I said - we're here. You're out there. Maybe we're not all ADF'ers, or UU's, or OBODS, or whatever... but we are all Pagan Buddhists. What do we do?

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.

What's the point of a Pagan Dharma, Part One

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:

  1. Community rituals and celebrations

  2. Celebration of the seasons and cycles of the Sun and Moon

  3. Inspirational creation of rites or rituals

  4. 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.


As you can see, seems to be alive again.

While the domain never lapsed, the website was taken down during 2011. This was because I was finding myself (Al) uninspired to write much and Catherine, the other main contributor, got busy doing some kind of doctoral work and teaching martial arts (obviously, she's a slacker).

Once again, I find myself thinking about the interrelationship, at least for me, between my cultural paganism (along with associated pagan ideas, praxis, etc.) and the Dharma, that is, Buddhism. Is there a relationship, even if only in theme and direction for me, personally? It is a good question.

I've never been a great fit for the Buddhist community. I don't speak in platitudes and still seem to be a difficult and potentially troubled soul. That said, I didn't always fit well within paganism but I find, over time, that I fit more there than it turns out I did elsewhere.

Recently, I attended the "Feast of the Mighty" here in Oakland. You can follow the link to the blog post on it if you'd like. One thing I said in the post was the following:

We attended and it was… interesting. Rebecca added to the altar when we arrived. I found the ritual activities moving but also very familiar. I spent a lot of time at various points over the years in the kind of social and ritual environment in which this ritual took place. The delineating of sacred space, the calling of the ancestors, the reciting of old tales, and the seeking of light from the dead, ritually, as well as the act of eating and drinking with and in remembrance of the dead were all familiar and moving as well. This is the kind of ritual that I don't see within the Buddhist communities I function within. While most of my Buddhist activities are done as a solitary, without a local community but a more distributed one, even those that do have a local community really don't seem to do things of this sort. This aspect of community and celebratory religion really is missing from most forms of Western Buddhism, whether Zen or otherwise. It does bring home elements of what I lost when I explicitly turned my back on sixteen or so years of being a Neopagan. Once upon a time, I helped lead a kindred that did exactl this sort of ritual, though in a more Germanic vein. It does tend to seem very familiar (moreso than the Catholicism of my youth, even). That said, I'm as theistically challenged as ever so I'm probably not going to become a Morrigan worshipper.

It was a good way to remember our dead and the fact that they are never really gone from us, even though they are no longer with us in other ways.

Again and again, this sort of feeling is driven home, even though I really don't even know what the pagan community is like anymore, especially since I moved states from Washington to California since the last time I was involved, seven or more years ago.

Anyway, no simple answers here but the site is back up. Perhaps there will be more posts to come.

Karma, Reincarnation, and Blaming

View original on This was written by Catherine.

This isn’t so much a post as what I hope is a jumping off point for conversation. And it’s less about Buddhism or Paganism per se as it is about some attitudes that seem to be fairly prevalent around the intersection of the communities.

I think I’m going to put this in the form of statements that I’ve heard, that seem to me to be thematically linked – and some of which seem to have some, ah, lineal descent from early popular awareness of Buddhism in the US some decades ago. I find all of these statements problematical, at least for some applications. Some of them also seem to be pretty common. And while I think many of them can be slapped down (and some of them supported) on doctrinal grounds, I’m more interested in personal reactions and understandings.

You create your own reality. You chose this life. You earned the life you were born into. You chose your parents. Things always happen for a reason. We shouldn’t interfere with someone else’s karma. Things always turn out as they should.

What do you think of them? Do you hold any of them? Why? How do they affect your dealings with others?