>0. Caveat meditator.
A seemingly infinite variety of misconceptions abound concerning both Buddhism and Paganism. Very often these misconceptions are perpetuated by Buddhists and Pagans. And it often seems as if the Internet was designed for no other reason than to serve as the perfect vehicle for the world-wide (and nearly instantaneous) dissemination of the worst of these misconceptions. But, hey, whaddya gonna do? There is no substitute for exercising one’s own judgement. Even if we are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study with great teachers whose hearts are pure and whose understanding is unimpeachable, it is still the responsibility of each of us to stand on our own two feet and strive to understand matters for ourselves. “Be a lamp unto yourself,” as the Buddha said just before dying. Much more could be said about all of the following, but for now I will just list them and write something very briefly for each one.
This is still very much a rough draft, but I feel motivated to put it out there as is.
1. The Buddha was a Pagan.
The Buddha showed genuine respect for the ancient spiritual traditions of his native land. He spent many years studying under the two most famous meditation masters alive at the time. He was deeply appreciative of what he learned from these teachers, and made extensive use of what he had been taught, even though he eventually decided that he needed to continue his search on his own. Years later, when he was nearing the culmination of his spiritual quest, Mara, the God of Deception, made one last attempt to prevent the Buddha from attaining final and complete Enlightenment. In response, the Buddha turned to the traditional Vedic Earth Goddess, Prthivi, who answered the Buddha’s prayer by rising up from the depths of the ocean and wringing the water out her hair. With this simple gesture, Prthivi caused a great flood that swept away Mara and all of his demonic hordes. This is why the Buddha is often depicted reaching down and touching the earth, showing how he called upon the Earth Goddess at this most crucial moment.
2. Buddhism was Goddess-centric before being Goddess-centric was cool.
As the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment indicates, Goddesses have always played a prominent role in the Buddhist religion. Many of the earliest known structural artifacts of Buddhism, temples and stupas dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C., are adorned with images of the Goddess Lakshmi, one of the best known and loved deities of Hinduism. According to Miranda Shaw, Lakshmi’s prominence in early Buddhism “demonstrates the difficulty of drawing a line between Buddhist observances and popular devotional idioms, revealing the extent to which Buddhists subscribed to beliefs and practices indistinguishable from those of the surrounding populace.” [p. 102 in Buddhist Goddesses of India] Later on, Shaw also states that “we may discern a message of rapprochement between Buddhism and the preexisting pantheon of divine beings. There need be no forcible displacement [or, apparently, any displacement at all!], and followers of Buddhism may [and obviously did and still do] continue to pay homage to spirits and deities that had long received their worship.” [p. 105] The contrast with Christianity and Islam could not be more glaring. In modern Buddhism Goddesses continue to play a central role. The Goddess of Compassion, Kuan Yin, is one of the most ubiquitous features of Buddhism throughout east Asia, including China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The Goddess Tara is, if anything, even more prominent in the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, Mongolia, and other parts of central Asia. Tara is revered as the mother of all Buddhas (and also of all other beings, who are all potential Buddhas), the embodiment of pure awareness, and even as Ultimate Reality itself.
3. Rebirth and karma are very similar in Buddhism and Paganism.
Modern Pagan conceptions of karma and rebirth are so similar to those found in Buddhism and Hinduism, that this has led some scholars to mistakenly believe that modern Pagans have, in fact, merely imported these ideas from Asia. However, despite these similarities and the resulting confusion, Pagans have our own longstanding traditions regarding rebirth and karma.
In Buddhism, Paganism, and also Hinduism, rebirth and karma serve to provide seekers with a way of understanding Life the Universe and Everything in terms of our own individual spiritual progress. In my opinion no one has expressed this basic principle better than the modern day Hindu master Sri Aurobindo (although Buddhists and Hindus sometimes quibble about this, the conceptions of rebirth and karma in those two religions are nearly the same, and this is especially true in the specific case of how it all applies to the issue of spiritual progress):
The one question which through all its complexities is the sum of philosophy and to which all human enquiry comes round in the end, is the problem of ourselves, — why we are here and what we are, and what is behind and before and around us, and what are we to do with ourselves, our inner significances and our outer environment. In the idea of evolutionary rebirth, if we can once find it to be a truth and recognize its antecedents and consequences, we have a very significant clue for an answer to all these connected sides of the one perpetual question. A spiritual evolution of which our universe is the scene and earth its ground and stage, though its plan is still kept back above from our yet limited knowledge, — this way of seeing existence is a luminous key which we can fit into many doors of obscurity. But we have to look at it in the right focus, to get its true proportions and, especially, to see it in its spiritual significance more than in its mechanical process. The failure to do that rightly will involve us in much philosophical finessing, drive on this side or the other to exaggerated negations and leave our statement of it, however perfect may be its logic, yet unsatisfying and unconvincing to the total intelligence and the complex soul of humanity.
[Rebirth and Karma, pp. 35-6]
4. Buddhism reveres Nature.
Unlike Christianity, but like many forms of ancient and modern Paganism, Buddhism views the physical universe as eternal, uncreated, alive and conscious. As it spread peacefully throughout all of Asia, Buddhism never displaced the more ancient forms of religion it encountered, and these inevitably included the worship of spirits and Gods associated with Nature. In Korea, Buddhist temples always include statues, shrines, or other specific places dedicated to the reverence for the ancient Mountain God, Sahn Shin. In Japan, Buddhism and the ancient nature religion of Shinto exist in a truly symbiotic relationship. Religion scholars who specialize in China have given up trying to clearly demarcate Buddhism from ancient forms of “animism” and ancestor worship. Throughout Central Asia (Tibet, Mongolia, etc), the lines separating Buddhism from Shamanism are all but nonexistent. Throughout Southeast Asia, most Theravadin Buddhists also believe in and practice various forms of “spirit religion” alongside the Buddhadharma. Sometimes one finds purists who would like to purge Buddhism of the influence of Gods, spirits, “demons”, “magic” and so forth, but such efforts never succeed, and in both the attempt and the failure they only serve to accentuate the luxuriant diversity and tolerance of Buddhism.
5. Buddhism is a magical religion.
Although Socrates would not approve, instead of attempting to actually define magic, I will simply list eight things that are widely accepted as being magical, and briefly give an example of each of these magical practices in Buddhism.
- Spiritual healing. Reiki, a popular modern form of spiritual healing, has its origins in Japanese Buddhism.
- Divination. Astrology plays a prominent role in Tibetan Buddhism.
- Bringing about sought after results (in general). Mantras are widely used in Buddhism. Often mantras are used for “purely spiritual” purposes, but they are also often employed in order to achieve mundane ends including better health, financial success, and even such things as attracting a boyfriend or girlfriend! We know that the practice of Buddhists using mantras even for such mundane things is very old, because some ancient monastic regulations forbid it.
- Ability to communicate with non-human beings (either animals or discorporate “spirits”). A famous story in Chinese Zen Buddhism tells about an old Zen master who has a conversation with a mysterious man who turns out not to be human at all. The master’s interlocutor is a fox who has the ability to take on human form. This “fox spirit”, in turn, is really another Zen master who lived many generations ago, and because of some transgression he committed against Buddhist teachings he has been condemned to reborn over and over again as a fox.
- Psychism (“mind reading”). Forms of psychism are widely considered to be a side effect of meditation practice by Buddhists. For the most part, this ability is not sought after, though, and is often considered a potentially dangerous distraction.
- The ability to fly or otherwise travel long distances quickly or even instantaneously. Padmasambhava, one of the great saints of Tibetan Buddhism, once traveled from India to Tibet by turning Lady Tsogyal (another pivotal figure in Tibetan Buddhism) into a flying tiger and flying on her back.
- Ability to travel to realms below the earth or in the heavens (or outer space). According to tradition, Nagarjuna traveled under the earth and visited the realm of the Nagas (the snake people who live below the earth). It was from the Nagas that he obtained the Prajna Paramita texts that today form a central part of the Sutras of Mahayana Buddhism.
- Mediumship (communication with the dead). Dogen is the great founding teacher of the Japanese Soto Zen school. Dogen once traveled to China and while there met the Zen master Genshi, who told Dogen (whom he had never met before): “I will transmit the Dharma to you.” Master Genshi said this because of a dream he had had five nights previously when the great Zen master Daibai Hojo appeared to him. But Dogen’s meeting with Genshi took place in the year 1224 AD, and Daibai Hojo had died almost four centuries before that in 839!
This list is neither exhaustive nor systematic, yet since each of these magical activities are found in Buddhism, then certainly Buddhism is a very magical religion.
6. Buddhism values the spiritual potential of sexuality.
Jeffrey Hopkins is a Buddhist scholar of some note. Among other things he served as His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s chief English interpreter for a decade (from 1979 to 1989). Among his numerous publications is a book with the self-explanatory title Sex, Orgasm and the Mind of Clear Light: The Sixty-Four Acts of Gay Male Love. One of the latter chapters in that book is titled, “Why Tibetan Buddhism Is Sex-Friendly,” on which subject, Hopkins has this to say:
“Why this religion is so sex-friendly stems first of all from a recognition that everyone wants happiness and does not want suffering ….
“The intention of using a blissful, orgasmic mind in the spiritual path is to manifest the most subtle level of consciousness, the mind of clear light … to realize the true nature of mind, stripped of its distractions and peripheral manifestations. The bliss of orgasm is so intense that the mind becomes totally fascinated and entranced with pleasure: both the usual conceptual mind and the appearances that accompany it melt away, leaving the innermost mind in its pristine state, if one is capable of recognizing it. In orgasm, the phenomena of ordinary life which are so concrete and solid they they seem to have their own independent existence melt into the expanse of the reality behind appearances ….
“When the sense of pleasure is powerful, consciousness is totally involved with that pleasure and thus is completely withdrawn; the subtler levels of consciousness can manifest themselves, at which point the nature of the mind can be apprehended and held by someone accustomed to watching the mind ….
“Through desirous activities such as gazing at a loved one, or smiling, holding hands, embracing, or engaging in sexual union, a pleasurable consciousness is produced; it is used to realize the truth that afflictive emotions are peripheral and that the nature of the mind is clear light, whereby afflictive desire itself is undermined. The pleasurable consciousness is generated simultaneously with a wise consciousness knowing the mind, and thus the two are indivisibly fused.”
7. Buddhism is a religion of connection and immanence.
One of the least understood of all the teachings of Buddhism is that of “no self”, or, in Sanskrit “anatman”. But this teaching can be understood as just another way of affirming the fact that there is “no separation” between one being and another, or between anything in the Universe and anything else. In the Avatamsaka Sutra this idea is taken even one step further in the teaching of interpenetration. This teaching is often explained by way of the image of Indra’s Net: the whole universe is an interconnected net or web, and at each node of the net there is a perfectly smooth, spherical jewel. If one peers into any one of these jewels, one can see the entire net reflected on its surface, including each of the other jewels, which, in turn, also reflects the entire net.
8. Modern Paganism and Western Buddhism have developed as kindred paths.
Until very recently (in historical terms) it was not possible for people living in the West to freely explore non-Christian religious traditions. As this freedom was slowly recovered, there were two natural inclinations among those who were adventurous enough to take advantage of it: (1) to explore “our own” pre-Christian religious traditions (Paganism), and (2) to explore religions found in other parts of the world that have not been Christianized (especially Buddhism and Hinduism). As a result, the recent histories of western Buddhism and modern Paganism are inextricably entwined with one another. In particular, the pioneers of Buddhism in the West often turn out to be important figures in the foundations of modern Paganism as well. It is in the nature of pioneers to cross boundaries, and so figures like Alan Bennett (who taught Qabalah to Aleister Crowley and became one of the first Europeans to ever ordain as a Buddhist monk), and Henry Steel Olcott (a military officer, journalist, lawyer, occultist and Theosophist from New Jersey, who is honored with his own holiday in the Buddhist nation of of Sri Lanka) defy any simplistic categorization. Rick Fields devotes a chapter to some of these genre-bending Occultist/Buddhist pioneers, whom he calls “White Buddhists”, in his now classic study of the history of Buddhism in America, How the Swans Came to the Lake.
9. You can be both a Pagan and a Buddhist.
Many people find that they are attracted to both Buddhism and Paganism. Some people feel the need to choose one or the other. That should be a personal choice, and it should not be based on the (baseless) notion that Paganism and Buddhism are somehow intrinsically incompatible. Some people feel that it is important to focus on a single path, while other people seem to be congenitally eclectic. Its important for modern Pagans to realize that Buddhists in Asia have a long history of simultaneously being good Buddhists and good Pagans. And there is a long tradition of Asian Buddhists actively promoting the harmonization of different schools of Buddhism along with spiritual traditions outside of Buddhism, incuding Bön (Tibet), Shinto (Japan), Shamanism (Korea), Taoism and Confucianism (China), etc.
10. Buddhism and Hinduism have been far more successful than other religions in resisting the spiritual aggression of Christianity and Islam.
Modern Pagans are constantly frustrated by the fragmentary (at best) nature of what survives of our own ancient spiritual traditions. Buddhism and Hinduism, on the other hand, remain intact even after centuries of attempts by Christians and Muslims to do to them what was done to our ancestral traditions. Pagans can learn a great deal from the ancient spiritual traditions of Asia, and we can do this without engaging in “cultural appropriation” if we follow the example of the Buddha: who sought out teachers of the living traditions of his time and learned everything he could from them, with great respect and appreciation, but without ever forgetting that ultimately he was responsible for finding his own way.