Open Buddha

Open Source Buddhism, Technology, and Geekery
Bay Area, California

A Pagan Buddhist?

While I was in Seattle this weekend, I saw my friends, Erynn and Aron, on Friday. (Yes, those names sound the same 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.