For Imbolc

Nothing captures my sense of this season better than this wonderful song from Anuna.

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Hail the goer

Recently I was looking at the website of a prominent Pagan teacher.  The biographical information included, of course, how many years this teacher had studied in their tradition, along with what other spiritual systems they had studied.   Said teacher is about the same age as I am, and I found myself thinking, not for the first time, “Oh, I wish I had studied something for the past twenty or thirty years, I wish I had that much experience on one path, I wish I had those credentials.”

Then something clicked over in my brain, and I thought about what I have spent the last twenty-plus years doing.  I’ve been exploring and practicing Zen and Tibetan Buddhism for the last five years.  I’ve gained First Degree in the Ancient Order of Druids in America.  I trained in the New Hermetics with Jason Augustus Newcomb and reached Advanced Adept.  I’ve read extensively about Feri, Reclaiming, and British Traditional Wicca.  I’ve been a practicing Anglican who was not just an active member of a parish but an Associate of a religious order.  I’ve engaged in prayer, ritual, magic, music, and writing as spiritual practices. If all that’s not experience, what is?

I’ve learned something from every tradition and practice I’ve explored.  And the most important thing I have learned, something that’s only now crystallizing for me, is that while my practices may change, my Path does not. (Yes, Path-with-a-capital-P.)  My Path, the Path, is to seek complete freedom and happiness for myself so that I can help all other beings to do the same thing.  Western magic calls this the way of the Adept; Buddhism calls it the path of the Bodhisattva.  Enlightenment is not perfect until all are enlightened.  Freedom is not perfect until all are free.  Freedom and happiness are tainted if they are gained at the expense of others’ suffering.  The apparent paradox is that to help others most effectively, you have to work on yourself first; you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help your panicking neighbor with their mask.  And then, together, you might be able to stop the plane from going down.

I think perhaps this is what Victor Anderson meant when he said, “Work for Self, and you will see that Self is everywhere.”  You cannot genuinely help yourself without helping others; you cannot serve others without benefiting yourself. Speaking of Zen teaching, John Daido Loori wrote, “What is left when you get rid of the self? Everything. The ten thousand things. It’s just that you are no longer separate from them.”

That is my path.  Perhaps it has always been my path, even before I had the Buddhist concepts to help me articulate it. As for my practice, that is going to be the New Hermetics, for the foreseeable future. Jason is offering a considerably revised and upgraded version of the supervised course, at a generous discount to those like myself who completed the original version under his tutelage. This opportunity has come along just when I’ve been at a low ebb, wondering how to make Buddhism work for me when my access to teachers and a sangha is so limited, wondering why I can’t make Druidry work any more (for more on this from a different angle, see the most recent post in my druid blog).  My chief goal for this revised course of study is to bring to bear everything else I’ve learned and find a container for it within Neo-Hermetic magical practice.

Today is Imbolc, celebrated by many as the feast of Brigid, goddess and saint, lady of fire and water.  My acupuncturist tells me that in Chinese tradition as in Celtic, today and not 25 March is the first day of spring. Last night we had freezing rain that has left the streets dangerously slick; my husband fell twice returning from a rise-and-shine yoga class that turned out to have been cancelled. I decided a couple of years ago that it was not Brigid I felt close to, but Dana or Danu, the ancestral Celtic goddess who is both the rivers of the earth and the river of stars in the night sky, the mother goddess whose milk names our galaxy.  Her light descending wakes an energy in the land that runs through melting waters and rises into receptive souls.  I’ve come to syncretize Dana with Nut and Nuit, with Sophia, and with Prajnaparamita, the primal transcendent wisdom who is the mother of all buddhas, and whose mantra concludes the Heart Sutra:

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

Gone, gone, gone beyond, utterly gone beyond, hail wisdom the goer.

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All Buddha, all the time

Medicine BuddhaIt was in late January that I finally started meditating seriously.  I took refuge as a Buddhist almost two years ago, and it’s taken me this long to get down to a consistent daily practice.  By “meditation” I mean what Zen traditions call “zazen” and Tibetan Buddhists usually call by its Sanskrit name, “shamatha”–seated meditation, quieting and focusing the mind by following the breath.

After a few weeks of meditating, after shifting my practice to the early morning before breakfast after thinking about what I wanted to do for an evening practice and trying a number of things from the Western magical tradition, I tried a daring experiment: I dropped everything that wasn’t strictly Buddhist. No more New Hermetics exercises. No sitting around trying to draw up a schedule of practices based on Golden Dawn or New Hermetics models and do a Middle Pillar or an Invoking Pentagram Ritual every day. I started doing deity yoga in the evenings, in the simplest way, visualizing Medicine Buddha before me and saying his mantra. Deity yoga can be a very advanced practice, visualizing *oneself* as a buddha or bodhisattva and meditating or doing energy work as the deity, but I’m not there yet.

The more I did strictly Buddhist stuff, the better I felt. I took all the non-Buddhist, Western-magical stuff off my shrine. I started making the daily offering again, seven bowls of water laid out in a straight line, poured in the morning, cleaned up and turned upside down before bed. I bought more of my favorite Tibetan incenses (the Medicine Buddha blend was on sale!) and sat in a happy cloud of smoke.

As my mind started to calm down during meditation, as stress started to recede from daily life, as I started to read Buddhist writings again and rediscover how much sense the Dharma makes, I found myself thinking, Why fight it? Why not just say, “I’m Buddhist”? Why not just *be* Buddhist? Have I gotten so many rewards from trying to be Pagan, Druid, Anglican, Anglican Druid, Buddhist Pagan, Ceremonial Mage, etc., that it’s worth clinging to any of those things? The answer to that last question, of course, is No. The rewards haven’t been great. While I have to admit that if it weren’t for the dysfunctions of the particular parish where my husband works, I *might* possibly still be an Anglican, if a rather heterodox one, I also have to admit that I’ve tried various kinds of paganism, particularly variations of Druidry, without getting much return on my investment. You’ve heard that definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting to get different results? By that definition, I have been insane when it comes to paganism.

I don’t intend to dismiss the New Hermetics here, nor Druidry. NH taught me how to discipline my mind and quit sabotaging myself; it made big and positive changes in my life and made them *fast*; and it pointed me toward Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, getting me to look at a religion I hadn’t been interested in since I was a child and interested in *everyone’s* religion. But it has never quite worked for me as an ongoing daily practice; it suits me better as a problem-solving kit.  And despite decades of interest in Druidry, it seemed that the harder I tried to make it work for me, the less possible it became.

After a few weeks of all Buddhism, all the time, I ran into an interesting, well, actually, a scary problem: I wasn’t writing. I didn’t want to write, at least not in the relative sense of feeling like writing, being motivated to do so when I opened a new file or wrote the date in my notebook. Blogging, fiction, and fanfiction all shriveled away. I was silent. It occurred to me that I must have run into this problem before; I must have hit the crux where Buddhist practice was doing me good in every respect *except* that I wasn’t writing, and then backed down, stopped meditating, started messing with something else, because I was afraid. I would say I needed Western methods because I’m a Westerner, I would say the Buddhadharma wasn’t enough for me, I would say I felt called to rejuvenate Western magic and religion with the perspectives of Buddhism, but I think now that what I really meant was, “I’m not writing, and it scares me.”

I made up my mind that I was not going to back down this time. I was going to ride it out. I wrote my first story in red and purple crayon in the first grade, at the age of seven; I told myself I was not about to stop writing completely after almost forty years’ engagement with it. I kept meditating and doing deity yoga for Medicine Buddha and Green Tara and reading Buddhist books and sitting in clouds of incense.

I have come to a point where I believe and am convinced that Buddhism, and specifically Tibetan Buddhism, is the only right, useful, practical, and complete spiritual path for me. It has everything I need, in a form that is appealing to me, and I don’t need anything else. In fact, I am pretty convinced that Buddhism would be beneficial for *everyone*, though not necessarily the Buddhism of my tradition. I have a friend who is Pure Land Buddhist, which is a more devotional path; I can think of a number of people I know who I think would make good Theravadin Buddhists, in a very rational way, or very austere Zen practitioners. It would be so very easy for me to be obnoxious about this, to preach like a True Believer, and I’ve seen enough examples of that obnoxiousness online to want to avoid it utterly. It’s only natural, perhaps, to look down on a religious path you’ve left behind (see also under “reformed alcoholics”), but I don’t want to behave that way, I don’t want to alienate people by being a True Believer. And yet I do believe, I have confidence and trust in the Three Jewels, in the Dharma, in the Tibetan tradition.

I am a Tibetan Buddhist in the Drikung Kagyu tradition. I sought a home there, and they accepted me. It’s not really complicated. To use a traditional Buddhist sign off, Sarva mangalam, good luck to all.

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Signs of spring

Last week I saw a mourning dove building a nest in the crotch of a low tree. As I was walking to work yesterday, I saw she had finished it and begun to brood.

Crocuses? Check. Daffodils? Check!

The buds on the tulip magnolia are splitting open. A lot of trees that produce small, unassuming flowers have already bloomed.

The morning is noisy with bird calls: House finches, mourning doves, sparrows, starlings, even crows. The avian world is singing its “hey baby” song.

Temperatures reached 70F yesterday. Tomorrow is the equinox.

Happy spring!

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Outstanding books of 2009

Every year, starting about five years ago, I compile a list of books I read.  I include both new books and re-reading, novels, collections of short stories, graphic novels, collections of poetry, and what you might call meditation books, things you’re supposed to read a bit at a time (I keep one or two of those in the bathroom).  I don’t include anything that I started but didn’t finish, or anything that I only skimmed or read parts of.

Rather than giving you the complete list, I decided I’d run down what I felt were the outstanding books of the year–outstanding not only in the sense of being well written, but in the sense of being personally significant to me.

Invoking Reality: Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen by John Daido Loori is unquestionably the best book on ethics I have ever read, period.  No one else approaches the same balance of integrity and compassion in evaluation behavior, illuminating the connection between proper self-worth and kind consideration for other beings.  I was very happy to discover Loori’s work last year and then saddened by his death last October.

Dead until Dark by Charlaine Harris was my introduction to this series, variously known as the  Sookie Stackhouse books or the Southern Vampire series.  Its adaptation into the HBO drama True Blood brought multiple new copies of Harris’s books into the library where I work, piquing my interest.  I do not, as a rule, like vampires as a subject of fiction; most films and novels about them bore me stupid.  But Harris starts from a clever premise–what if vampires “came out” and made their reality known to ordinary people, and tried to live with everyday citizens–and writes with an insider’s knowledge of smalltown Southern life.  The books are laugh-out-loud funny but grow progressively more serious, with higher stakes for the characters, as Sookie, the narrator-protagonist, is drawn deeper and deeper into the world of the “supes”, the supernatural people.

Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin is, in my opinion, the finest work of this very fine novelist.  Like much of her work, it defies genre labels in its retelling of Aeneas’s conquest of Latium through the eyes of Lavinia, the young woman he  marries.  Lavinia tells us of her life before Aeneas, her visionary experiences of the poet Virgil and his struggle to write the Aeneid, her embrace of her destiny to wed the conquering stranger, and–what Virgil did not tell us–her happiness with Aeneas as his wife, queen of her father’s domain.  In her most subtle and delicate prose, LeGuin portrays a very early pagan way of life that is more like Shinto than like the Greek polytheism of the polis, where gods and spirits emerge from and merge into stone, tree, and woodpecker, and where Aeneas’s Trojan traditions merge gently with the piety of the land he conquers.  This is a novel not to be missed.

In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent was a marvelous sojourn into a topic that has fascinated me since my childhood, at least since I read the appendices to The Return of the King. Okrent chronicles the history and culture of human attempts to create ideal languages, universal languages, and fictional languages that embody fictional cultures, interweaving the story of her own attempt to gain certification in Klingon.  This was definitely the most sheerly entertaining nonfiction I read last year.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died by Philip Jenkins is a book that told me things I did not already know, and I’m fairly conversant with early Church history.  Jenkins opens up for the popular reader the geographical and historical scope of the Churches known in the West as Nestorian, and condemned as heretics at the first Council of Ephesus in 431 C.E. for having a somewhat different Christology than was adopted by the Catholics and the Orthodox.  The Nestorians, known to themselves simply as The Church of the East, spread as far as China, India, and Tibet, and flourished for over a thousand years in multicultural, multireligious societies where they were never the dominant religion.  While they suffered occasional periods of persecution in Muslim-ruled societies, their greatest losses in numbers and power were due to Communist and nationalist movements of the twentieth century.  Jenkins holds out the Church of the East as a possible paradigm for Western Churches no longer sure of their place in a world where the old Christendom of Europe is dead and buried.

So far this year I’ve read two graphic novel compilations in the Lucifer series and a book on the Western magical tradition that I think is going to be one of my most significant reads of this year, possibly of the next decade, but I don’t want to say any more about it until I’ve read it a second time.  With notes.

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Random yet perhaps inspired

The great weakness of That Hideous Strength is that Lewis didn’t know, or didn’t admit, who the real enemies were.  He portrayed cosmic evil working through cold-hearted scientists and sexual perverts (as he saw lesbians); if he were writing today, he might choose businessmen and clergy as the cold hearts and ruthless sexual predators.

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Bishop Alan’s thoughts on this feast day

Blind Rage Slays Children.  The bishop points out that killing off large numbers of children has been tyranny’s modus operandi for most of human history, and that contemporary Christians are not necessarily doing any better.

Thanks to Tree_and_Leaf for introducing me to Bishop Alan’s blog.

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