Pagan Dharma Putting the Pagan back into the Dharma


View original on This was written by Catherine.

I kind of want to do two things in this post. One is to write a real introduction, since my last post was more than a little sketchy. The other is to talk at least a little about the evolution, or perhaps devolution of my own concept of identity. Tricky stuff!

If narratives, at least as I usually see them, are made by assembling a more or less arbitrary collection of events, which may or may not themselves be true, into chains satisfy both logical and aesthetic constraints, beginnings are perhaps the most arbitrary points of all. Things all arise from other things, which arose from yet other things in their turns. The starts of our stories are not fixed markers in the universe, but arise from what story we want to tell. A little abstract for a beginning, isn’t it? But central, I think, to the story I am trying to tell. Once I might have started this by talking about how even as a young child, I was innately Pagan, drawn to the natural world and the cycles of the seasons. I was that kid who wanted to be able to call every plant and bird by name. I was the one who was horrified to find out that solstices and equinoxes were not official holidays, and appalled to be told that women couldn’t be priests. It makes a tidy package, doesn’t it, selecting those facts and presenting them together that way? I’m not sure if any story I tell is going to be more true than that story.  Hopefully the drawbacks of the approach, at least, will be clear.

Let me try a different framing. I grew up on Capitol Hill, in Seattle, in the 1970s and 80s. The hill I knew was mostly the hippy academic side of things. Seattle was in recession, houses were cheap, and it was a childhood full of hand me down clothes, street fairs, Tolkien, attempted gardens, and acoustic guitars. My family was lapsed enough in its Catholicism that I was never baptised.

There are a lot of problems with arguing that one is innately this or that. I wonder, a little, though, at my own being drawn towards spiritual practice. Could there be some neurochemical predisposition? Looking back, I seemed to be fairly gamely willing to try just about anything, but equally inclined to evaluate those things and reject them based on opinions very firmly held by my as young as six year old self. I remember experiencing a lot of awe and a sense of visceral connection with the world from when I was quite young, and perhaps I what I was looking for was something like that but a little more structured. Churches seemed like an obvious place to go looking, but were unsatisfactory on closer examination. I valued my own meditative practice, but did not always think much of those I heard described. (Certainly, I remember being sadly convinced that my mother was Doing It Wrong when she dabbled in, I think, transcendental meditation. I hope I was too polite to mention this, but I do not recall tact being one of my stronger traits.) I liked folklore – Japanese and Chinese folktales were my favorites, but not so much so that I didn’t become a spontaneous devotee of Artemis when I was eleven. I enjoyed ritual – more or less generically, and without particularly strong preferences. I wasn’t particularly drawn towards faith or belief on a personal level, though I rather enjoyed hearing about other people’s as long as they didn’t get too creepy about it all. Meanwhile, I wrote fiction and poetry, and studied math and science, read more or less whatever crossed my path, and generally meandered my way through things.

Which isn’t, come to think of it, that different than how I ended up in the magical community. I started practicing Golden Dawn derived ceremonial magic mostly because it was a practice – something I could do. And it was a practice that suited me fairly well, at least as a teenager. It didn’t become a public identity for me. The group I was with did not encourage public disclosure, but even more didn’t seem to try to fill that particular niche in tribal politics. Meanwhile, time tended to weigh on me heavily during that part of my life and the fussy obsessiveness of the system gave me something to do with myself.

I had a pretty typically mixed relationship with the pagan community from the start. On the one hand, in so many ways I felt I’d found my people. The music, the ritual, the costumes and parties and hottubs… what a great context in which to come of age. On the other, part of me really wanted something more orderly, minimalist, with a stronger emphasis on meditation and direct experience. I loved the mythology, but found many expressions of theism difficult, and many people’s descriptions of how the world and magic worked to be almost presumptuous. It seemed to me that these were things that none of in fact knew, and that pretending otherwise couldn’t be the firmest foundation for a spiritual practice. I wasn’t really looking for answers, at least not that kind of answer. The world was still here, behind and before every breath. I wanted something more like engineering heuristics. And yet I loved the community.

I don’t think I started thinking of myself as pagan until I started running community events a few years later. By then, I figured the term pagan could stretch to include me.

In some ways, the time I spent in a Hermetic lodge, with Al, was a turning point. By that time I was done with school and off into the software industry, and while there were people I worked with and pieces of the work that spoke to me strongly, the highly ornamented esotericism of the system felt more and more stale and arbitrary, and little to do with the path I thought I could feel beneath my own feet. I mentioned that the first chives had appeared in my garden, at a business meeting, because it seemed more interesting and relevant than anything else I had to add. When that group fractured, I resolved to myself that I would not join another magical group unless I were specifically called to it, and suspected this meant I was done with group practice. A little sad, but if I had a sense that these practices were not right for me, I had also a bit of a sense if not what might be, at least of direction.

So I worked in my garden, and cooked, and spent more time hiking, mostly in the Cascade mountains. I became more involved in my practice of Chen Taijiquan (Chen T’ai Chi Chuan, if you prefer the Wade-Giles system of transliteration) and eventually other martial arts, though Chen has remained my primary art. I studied wild mushrooms and plants, and spent a lot of time in silent meditation.

One of the things I’d enjoyed about my involvement in the pagan community was the opportunity for community service.  I was starting to notice, also, that I seemed to spend a lot of time with the pagans with whom I’d tried to practice trying convince other people to spend a lot more time in meditation, and spend more time actually in the woods. So I started a hiking club, with the purpose of helping ease people who liked the idea of hiking but were intimidated by the practice into more comfort with the outdoors. I wrote articles about seasonal food, gardening and foraging for the local pagan rag.

I wanted to keep it simple. I wanted to keep it real. By which I meant only that it felt real to me – which could be a very low standard, but was generally, I think, a pretty high one. I wanted to better live a good life, and better be a good person. I figured that of the things that could be understood – understood at whatever level – I could work them out over time. By myself, if need be. It might be slow, I might not get very far, but it was good work.

Some years ago, I decided that while I honored my ties to the pagan community, and that many of my values and inclinations were arguably pagan, I did not want to have an identity as pagan become a barrier between me and other people. I wanted, first and foremost, to be a human being. It’s a fine distinction, and I would say that it meant more to me than to anyone else, though as it happened, it seems that a few other people were invested in my identity as pagan. It’s not, I suppose, that I stopped being pagan. Perhaps it’s more that it stopped being the limit of my family, and I left home.

Let me tell another story. My aunt, whom I adored, and whose family had a strong impact on my upbringing, is Japanese. I also have half-Chinese cousins, though I’ve known them less well. In many ways, in my younger years, I was more called to a Japanese cultural context than a western one. And then, as I was entering my teens, I found that the same culture that so appealled to me could, like any culture, be oppressive, and also that I could not choose not to be an oversized white girl. This is another part of what brought me to western mystery traditions and to the pagan community. It also left me with a lingering language inferiority complex, and is part of why I took a degree in Chinese Language and Literature later on. (As an aside, when I was about ten I read a couple of books on Zen. As was apparently not uncommon for the time, they managed to omit any mention of Buddhism, and I was left with a vague impression that that all was very nice, but with no particular sense of what it was all about.)

What does it mean to have a cultural background? Is it the color of your skin? The ground your ancestors walked? Is it the languages you speak, and the stories you learned growing up? There are few things more pathetic, I supposed, than a white girl who thinks she’s Japanese. But having decided that my tribal identity was that of a human being (and I am not against broadening it from there) I found myself wondering at how strongly I’d clung to my European origins. Much of my understandings of appropriate behavior and social courtesy came at least as much from elsewhere. As did much of the language of my dreams and structure of my thoughts. I’ve been speaking Chinese for twenty years now, and the writings of Chinese philosophers has had at least as much impact on me as any Western ones. (Particularly some of the earlier Daoist writings. Particularly Zhuangzi. Who, I later found out, had a great influence on the development of Chan.)

When I happened upon a book that eventually led me to the Chan order that I am a member of, I was not in the market for a spiritual community. I had scheduled martial arts obligations every day of the week, was trying to get my first first-name paper out, was working in two labs on unrelated projects (don’t ever do this!), taking classes, and applying to grad school. I picked up the book in a book store with the thought of critiquing it on historical and possibly feminist grounds, and to speed that process along flipped first to the index so as to better locate the sections I thought most likely to be objectionable. Only to find myself rather lacking in objections.

I didn’t actually get around to buying the book for another couple of months, and didn’t have a chance to read it more thoroughly until I was on the plane to visit Cleveland for the first time. And then, with an odd feeling in my stomach, I found that according to them, I was a Buddhist. I had pretty mixed feelings about this – I was pretty seriously not interested in acquiring another tribal identity. And yet, there it was, the pieces I’d so carefully put together on my own, and plenty more that were new to me, but seemed to make a lot of sense. Not to mention the siren song of institutional knowledge, and access to the records of people who had been doing this for thousands of years. What happened next is a story for  another day, but the long and short of it is that the order had a local branch, and I ended up joining.

And then, a few years after moving to Cleveland, I started sitting with a local Zen group and found out that the order I trained with wasn’t some random fluke, and that I might do well to look more into the larger community. In a few weeks I’ll be moving into the new building recently purchased by our local Zendo.

So what am I? I resisted identifying myself as Buddhist for a long time, but eventually, considering the importance practice has in my life, that started to seem a little silly. So, I am Buddhist, if asked, as a convenient description to others. It still seems funny that there is a cultural expectation that such things are discussed in terms of what I am rather than what I do.

Am I pagan? The western traditions I studied are part of what shaped me and continue to be some of the lenses through which I view the world. I still spend a lot of time outside, I still try to let in the cycles of the land and the sky. If the direct experience of zuochan is a guiding force in my life, so to is there still a call towards the ecstatic creative expression which seems a little closer to my pagan roots. Staid I might be becoming, as there is more and more grey in the stubble on my head, but it wouldn’t take much for me to be dancing naked in the moonlight once again.

A Dharma at the Cross Roads

View original on This was written by Catherine.

When Al raised the idea of starting this site, I was interested in part because I haven’t really had many conversations about how I became a Chan practitioner and my changing relationship with the pagan community. From the inside, often the changes don’t really seem that significant to me – I’m still practicing my martial arts, paying attention to the daily evidence of shifting weather and season, cooking, studying, and spending time in meditation. But then I’ll write to pagan friends of long standing and mention what is going on in my life, how I’m in the process of moving to be one of the caretakers of the new building for the Zendo I sit with, how delighted I am with my new martial arts students, or perhaps a little bit about attending sesshin, and it’s hard not to notice how the outward forms of many of the things I am doing look pretty Buddhist. I suspect it appears that I’ve left the fold.

One of the things that makes some of these discussions difficult, at least in the context of the US, is a cultural heritage that tends to equate spiritual practice with tribal identity. If to be this is to renounce that, and in fact renounce all other possible thats, it can become much harder to discuss the intersections of different cultures and traditions. I don’t think these requirements are innate to either the Pagan or Buddhist communities, and yet it’s hard not to absorb some of this from the larger culture.

Many of the same things that drew me into the Pagan community have also drawn me to Chan.* There is a thread of practice that runs through all of these things for me. At my first Chan intensive, sitting still on a mat, facing a blank wall, I felt an echo across time from the little girl I once was, who woke up early every morning to spend an hour or so watching the sky lighten and the sun rise over the lake and the mountains. Of the young woman who felt split open by the immediacy of the world, as if it had put its roots in me, even as I sunk my roots into it. I have understood these as Pagan things, and then found that they can also be understood in Buddhist terms. But even more, the fullness of these experiences, now, as they happen, are more real, and more essential than any name I can give them or framework I can cram them in to.

And yet, the flip side of the tangible reality of these experiences is that to live them, and work with them, and bring them into our lives and our world in meaningful ways generally it best accomplished with more structure and persistence and reliance not only on our own experiences but also on the trails blazed by those who have gone on similar ways before. These frameworks of scholarship, practice, and community give us support, they give us tools, and they suggest direction when we find ourselves disoriented. It’s easy to get caught up in identity politics, especially when we spent a lot of time at an intersection between cultures and community. And when we’re not entirely part of the established structures of support it is harder, sometimes, to stay focused on fundamentals. How do I live a good life? How can I be a good person?

I think a lot of people have entered this intersectional space between the Pagan community and the Dharma, and they’ve entered it in many different ways. Around half of the people in our local Zendo either have had or continue to have some connection to the pagan community. I have many friends who love the culture and celebrations of the pagan community, but have found a lot of practical guidance in terms of how to confront the tribulations of life in Buddhism. I was speaking to another friend, yesterday, who is deeply committed to her pagan spiritual practice, and also deeply committed to a martial art that has, especially at its higher levels, a Buddhist spiritual core. How is she to negotiate between the two? Many people, including some younger versions of myself, find Buddhist philosophy appealling, but are put off by the cultural trappings. Theist friends of mine have found themselves called to Kuan Yin, who they saw as a goddess, and in their study and veneration of her found Dharma teachings as well.

One can look at how Buddhist practice has adapted to and integrated into local practices in Tibet, China, Japan and Vietnam (to name a few cases of which I have at least some knowledge) and envision a Pagan Dharma, a Dharma described in terms of our roots, and out culture. That ability to remake the outer forms of Buddhist practice to fit local circumstances, and build the Dharma gates that people need and and can pass through is the core of Mahayana.

But I also think limiting the discussion to only that particularly kind of re-envisioning would be shortchanging ourselves and the strength of the tradition. Dharma, at its core, is an inheritance of all humanity. It contains tools people have found useful and a record of how many people have sought enlightenment. When I was reading the book that eventually led me to join our Chan order, there was a line that I read with a great deal of delight: “Names are a tool of the ego.” You don’t have to decide to call yourself a Buddhist to find value in these teachings, or take some of these techniques and use them in your life. You can indeed call yourself anything, or nothing at all. If you study Chan meditation to help with your hypertension, and consider it to have nothing to do with your spirituality, it’s still a good practice, and it’s still making your life better. If mindfulness while planting your garden increases your sense of connection to the earth and it’s seasons, go for it. It’s not stealing; they’re already yours.

  • And note on language. Chan is the Chinese word that is pronounced “Zen” in Japanese. The written character is the same. Because of the strong cultural relationship between Japan and the US, Zen is the dominant term in the United States. I tend to use Chan preferentially, as I speak Chinese, am a member of an order with recent roots in China, and because the term was used in China first. And because the way “Zen” as a term has integrated into popular culture makes me a little twitchy. However, I also practice with a local group with Japanese roots, and will tend to use Japanese terms when I am describing that context.

Blog Repost: A Pagan Buddhist?

I wrote this on June 3, 2008, after returning from a visit to Seattle, where I grew up and lived until 2006. I am reposting it here to give some historical context to my thinking. You can read the original over on Open Buddha as well.

While I was in Seattle this weekend, I saw my friends, Erynn and Aron, on Friday. (Yes, those names sound the name but one is female and one is male…)


I’ve known Erynn since I was a callow youth (or longer if you think that was last week). She and I met somewhere in 1989 when I lived in Wallingford in Seattle, was going to community college after dropping out of high school, and she worked at a law office in the area. I was a fairly newly proclaimed Neopagan and she had been around the block a few times as a pagan. I assume that we met online on a BBS (Bulletin Board System for you kids) but I don’t actually remember after more than 18 years. Eventually, along with many pagan things that I did, I attended the inaugural session of Erynn’s “Hedge School” where she and her husband attempted to communicate their understanding of an actual Celtic paganism using the traditional vehicles of folklore and poetry (which is also magic, in a general sense). This particular school and its curriculum became, I believe, pretty well known later on in the Celtic Reconstructionist circles and provided inspiration for many things.

Aron and I met via Lesa, the woman I was involved with (on many levels) in the late 90s and whom I lived with after my first marriage ended. He was a friend of hers that she introduced to me. Lesa and I created a Qabalah study group after our lodge of the Companions of the Stone, a Golden Dawn-based Hermetic order, was closed by its senior leaders. This eventually became a working group, then a Golden Dawn-based magical lodge, and eventually an Aurum Solis body over the course of the next five or six years. Aron was one of the founding members and the one that continued on in the Aurum Solis, and running the body, after I quit.

Two very different people with similar names.

Meeting with them got me thinking, or rather reflecting, on my background and my approach to Buddhism. I believe (but don’t really know for sure) that most European Americans become Buddhists for the same reasons that I became a Neopagan originally. They have a dissatisfaction with the spirituality or the religious institutions that they are raised within, finding them sterile, uninspiring, or even, perhaps, wrongheaded. Seeking something else, they find Buddhism. This is probably through the vehicle of books or well known teachers, such as the Dalai Lama or, back in the day, people like Alan Watts.

One of the issues with converts to spiritual traditions is that they bring the baggage of their childhood religion, if any, with them when they arrive. On top of that, even those that have no religion have grown up here in America (speaking from personal experience) and bring a lot of religious assumptions with them into their new faith. This means, in my opinion, that a lot of the underlying or unconscious assumptions within the American Buddhist community may be either shaped or informed by the experiences of either growing up Christian or in a Christian culture. This might also explain some of my dissatisfaction with American Buddhists when I encounter them in groups, as mentioned in a previous post.

For myself, I grew up Roman Catholic as the child of a convert. The “smells and bells” end of spirituality has always been very appealing to me, probably at least a little because of this. I was an (unmolested) altar boy and generally happy as a Catholic until my teen years when I had the realization that I didn’t really believe in God as presented. That eventually led to my Neopaganism. I spent the next twelve to fourteen years, depending on how you want to count, as a fairly active Neopagan and, later, Hermetic practitioner. Like many of my fellows, I worked my way through a variety of groups and even faiths as I explored the landscape, learning as I went, and seeing a lot of typical primate behavior in small religious groups along the way. I was a Witch at one point, a godman in the Ring of Troth as an Asatru practitioner, and later largely a Neoplatonic magician. I value those experiences but I grew, over time, to question where most of it was “going” spiritually. The “now what?” question occurs a lot in Neopagan or occult groups. People spend a lot of time learning spiritual skills or techniques (also techniques to sleep with their compatriots…) but it isn’t really clear what they are to do with them once they learn them other than run a group and repeat the cycle. Hermetic magicians, for example, have some ideas very similar to those of the Bodhisattva Path, but I’m not sure how often they are put into practice with the emphasis on learning more rituals, mastering a technique, achieving an initiation. In the end, a lot of it seems to get lost in the noise, and that makes it on par with most spiritual traditions in the world (even Buddhism, probably).

Eventually, I acted on an intellectual fascination that I’d had with Buddhism, took refuge, and it took over more and more of my thoughts and practices over time until I really did not think of myself as a Neopagan or magician anymore. One day, I formalized it for myself. All that being true, if you rub off the Buddhist exterior for the chocolate filling within, you will find a pagan. I grew up Catholic but, at my core, I believe I’m far more of a Neopagan than I was ever a Christian. Seeing my friends reminded me of this, especially in talking to Erynn about her practices and thoughts, approaches to the spiritual path as a householder, and other aspects of her life. I think this gives me a very different approach, at least mentally, to Buddhism as a whole but to esoteric Buddhism (tantric Buddhism) in particular. I’m less interested in the psychological approaches to ritual or Buddhist divinities than most American Buddhists. I’m perfectly happy performing and participating in rituals and trying to understand (or not understand consciously) the experiences as they are. Traveling in Tibetan Buddhist circles, Americans have largely seemed fairly uncomfortable with the reality of these rituals, the empowerments, the visualizations and transmissions, etc. This often leads me to wonder why many of these people are there in Tibetan Vajrayana and not, say, Zen or some other form of practice.

A Shrine in a Tree on Mt. Koya, Japan

One of things that I really appreciated in Tibetan Buddhism and which I appreciate in Japanese Buddhism moreso is the incorporation of the world around us, especially the landscape and life in it, into their beliefs. I am a child of the Pacific Northwest and my vision of nature is tall evergreen trees, ferns, moss, and fog and rain. To me, that is a peaceful and calm place and one outside the hustle and bustle that we create for ourselves as humans. I saw a lot of these sorts of places, usually with a shrine in them, while visiting Japan last year.

At the end of the day, I’m as much a pagan as I am a Buddhist. I doubt that will ever go away and I would not want it to do so. When we are gone to our graves, the world will still be here, even if scarred by our presence. It is alive and full of life. Even with the realization of other truths, this does not change.

Caught Between Worlds or a Pagan Dharma

View version of this from original site.

This post is partially an explanation of why this site, Pagan Dharma has been created. The other day, I was speaking with my old friend, Catherine. Catherine and I went to college together 20 years ago this year. We met through the pagan student group at the University of Washington as undergraduate students there, circled together on and off, were in a magical order together later, dated some of the same people, and are still friends through all of this.

These days, Catherine and I are both basically Buddhists. She practices a form of Chinese Chan, which is really the kissing cousin of my own American form of Korean Zen. Before all of this, we were both card carrying members of American Neopagandom. In many ways, we still are though, and that was where my conversation was coming from. While we both very much identify with a spiritual tradition, that of the Buddha, which is not “pagan” in the sense of the 20th (and now 21st) century neopagan movement, it is very much a pagan one in any classical sense. Additionally, speaking for me, my cultural outlook and how I relate to the world spiritually is still very much influenced and informed by the nearly 20 years I spent as a pagan. My orientation to the sacred, this world as a lived thing, and how I go about my life and ritual is as much that of a neopagan and a magician as it is that of a Buddhist. I’ll allow Catherine to speak for herself on this site but I think it is very much the same for her.

I had the idea of putting up a site that looks at the Dharma, the teachings and way of being derived from the Buddha, from the point of view of being a pagan, in whatever loose sense we want to define that. It is easy enough to put a site up and so much of Buddhism as taught in the West derives from a much more Protestant (or even occasionally Jewish) way of interacting with the world and basic mindset.

What does a pagan dharma look like? I’m interested in finding out. In talking to Catherine, she is interested in talking about this as well. The hope is that perhaps others will find this of interest and contribute to the potential community here as well.

This site will act as a vehicle for some essays by the pair of us and possibly by a few other pagan Buddhists that I know. I’ve also added the capability to have groups and forums so we can communicate with each other in an ad-hoc fashion. Maybe nothing much will come of it but it never hurts to try and I can use an excuse to inflict my thoughts upon the world.

More of this sort of thing can occasionally be read on my blog, Open Buddha, along with some hackerish and geeky things as well.