""I Love Being Religious!"
(Chapter 1 of Why Buddha Touched the Earth)
It is a warm July evening in western New York state. About one hundred people have gathered here in the middle of an open field between the tents at a campground called the Brushwood Folklore Center, for the opening ritual of the twenty-seventh annual Starwood Festival, an event which describes itself as one of the largest “Pagan” and “Magical” gatherings in the country.
There are elders and children, men and women. Many are dressed in interesting regalia, some of the men in kilts or sarongs, a few people “skyclad” – or, as it would be called in the outside world, stark naked. The field on which we gather is also dressed and decorated, marked around its edges by symbols of the four classical elements: a tall garlanded pole to the east for air, the embers of a bonfire to the south for fire, a small man-made pond to the west for water, and a stone monolith to the north for earth.
Before the festival ends, there will be rituals in Wiccan, Druid, and Voodoo traditions (plus a late-night rock and roll ritual honoring Dionysus in the avatar of Jim Morrison), American Indian-style sweat lodges, and workshops and lectures on topics ranging from music history and renewable energy to sex magic and the proper arrangement of ceremonial altars. The heart of the festival is the fire circle, a nightly bonfire where drummers and dancers celebrate and trance until dawn, repeating what is probably one of humanity’s oldest magical practices. The whole thing takes on some aspects of a “Be-in” from the 1960s, some of an old Celtic fire festival, and some of a Japanese matsuri.
But now, to start it all off, we invoke the spirits of the four directions, honor the ancestors and the gods and the spirits of the land, and visualize an umbrella of protective light over the whole site. Then the drummers start, and, laughing, we join hands in the spiral dance. Running and leaping and swinging each other, we make a sort of giant game of “crack the whip,” which will end with us all in a cluster in the center for a final chant.
In front of me is an old festival friend, a feisty redhead who introduced herself to me at my first festival as “Lady Sue.” (It was a while before I realized that she was not claiming aristocratic status, but that “Lady” is a title that some Wiccans adopt – some seriously, some in jest.) She looks back over her shoulder at me as we dance and, smiling, says “I love being religious!”
Obviously, this is a very different sense of the word “religious” than I learned as a Catholic boy in Baltimore.
So what is religion? Is it a collection of superstitions and metaphysical beliefs, doomed to be rendered irrelevant by a scientific understanding of the world? Or is it something more like applied psychology, or even poetry or art? Is it possible to build a sort of religion that’s appropriate for an age of science and technology?
And why has there been such an interest over the past few decades in both Eastern spirituality and in pre-Christian Western religions, as well as in ancient practices like shamanism?
What do the answers to these questions say about how we should live our lives?
I’ve been pondering questions like these for most of my life, as I abandoned my childhood Catholicism, progressed to a sort of indistinct theism, and from there to agnosticism, then atheism, to end up with what I refer to as “Zen Paganism.” I've had the opportunity to talk about some of these issues with Buddhist teachers, Witches, Druids, self-described “scientific pantheists,” followers of Voodoo, students of Native American spirituality, leading figures of the modern Pagan revival, and even a Shintō priest. I’d like to share some of the philosophy and history I’ve found along the way.
So let’s start with one of the big questions: what does it mean to be religious?
Our society typically measures religiosity by questions of dogma and by frequency of attendance at worship rituals. “Do you believe in God?” “How often do you go to church (or synagogue or mosque)?” The answers to these determine if you’re a religious person or not.
But this sort of religion doesn’t seem to be helping us much. Religious dogmas keep colliding with our expanding scientific knowledge of the world, and – perhaps in reaction to this collision – the focus of church-going often becomes dividing the world into “us” and “those corrupt and wicked servants of evil who go to that different church (or synagogue or mosque).”
As we usually experience religion, there are several different things that get mixed up and make it a mess. There is the desire for a certain experience: an experience of existence, of connection to the Universe, of the Godhead. There are ethical teachings, both the prohibitions and the prescriptions. There are myths and legends that give us role models. There are the superstitions born of fear, and the super-naturalism that arises from ignorance. There’s the preservation of the knowledge needed for the community to thrive, encoded into ritual. There’s the deliberate hiding of knowledge that would threaten the power of a priesthood.
With all this going on, it’s no wonder that more and more people identify with labels such as “spiritual but not religious.”
Are other sorts of religion possible?
I think I’ve been part of a different sort for almost two decades now. And for much of that time I’ve been trying to formulate exactly what it’s about.
In 2007, in an attempt to get a broader perspective, I spent three months investigating the question in Japan – home of Zen and several other forms of Buddhism, and of the Nature-focused (and thus “Pagan,” depending on our definitions) religion Shintō.
* * *
Nanzen-ji, a large Zen Buddhist temple complex in Kyoto. There’s a great big old central temple, with a painting of a dragon on its ceiling. Tourists like me can only see that from the outside, peering in between wooden bars.
Apparently there’s something about sticking your hands through the bars and clapping to make an echo. An old Japanese man shows me how.
(Weeks later, on a return trip, I find, in this temple, a bunch of lay people involved in a rehearsal for some sort of ceremony – I’d almost guess a wedding, if I didn’t know that Japanese weddings are usually Shintō or Christian. While a family rehearses hitting their marks, two young Zen monks goof off, one apparently teasing the other about his freshly-shaved scalp.)
There are lovely gardens outside the old abbot’s quarters, a great painting of Bodhidharma (the semi-legendary founder of Zen) on one wall. I sat in the temple’s tea room looking out at a waterfall and garden and sipped real o-cha, very nice.
But to go beyond the tourist view of Japanese religion, go up the hill behind the main temple. First there’s a small old sub-temple, Saisho-in; not merely a tourist attraction but an actively used Zen temple. As I stand there for a moment of meditation, a woman parks her car just outside the grounds, walks up quickly, bows to the Buddha, and hurries back out. Just stopped by to say “Hi” or “Thanks,” I guess.
Behind Saisho-in, a beautiful small cemetery. I stand and watch the rain fall, see an offering of sake left on a grave. I think of a young man in the inner city pouring out a “40” for a fallen homie, consider that the Buddha was a prohibitionist, contemplate the adaptability of the dharma.
I continue on up the hill, into the woods. Small Shintō shines now on the grounds of this Buddhist temple – a tree, two rocks, girded with the braided rope that denotes objects thought to house kami spirits. This sort of openness and syncretism is fundamental to Japanese culture and to Eastern thought on religion in general, though it may seem odd to Westerners used to exclusivist monotheisms. (Imagine finding a small synagogue inside of a Christian chapel!)
The path keeps going up to a small waterfall, where – if I read my guidebook rightly – people will sometimes sit in the falls and meditate. A little above and to the side of that, a small cave, an altar within…a place where, perhaps, hundreds of years ago some seeker might have lived in the mountain for a while.
I touch the rock; convince myself I feel the power, the connection to the Earth.
I have the place to myself for ten on fifteen minutes. I take some photos, stand contemplating the waterfall. I hear the clapping hands of someone praying in the Shintō style, he comes up to the waterfall shine. We nod at each other; I step away a bit to free him from uncouth barbarian eyes as he prays, lights a candle and a stick of incense. As he continues up the hill, a younger man comes up and also has his little ritual at the waterfall.
A cave, a waterfall, here for thousands of years perhaps; used as a shrine for hundreds at least; still active today.
And yet…Japanese people will often tell you that they’re not religious. Many don’t seem to be aware of the difference between a Shintō shine and a Buddhist temple. But there are small shrines all over the place, by the sides of roads, in the middle of shopping malls. A sumo tournament can’t be held without the ritual that consecrates the dohyō, the raised platform on which the bouts take place, and Japanese companies hire Shintō priests to bless their new buildings. The Buddhist temples don’t seem short of visitors at all. Images of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, abound.
There’s a spirituality that crops up in the oddest places. A sign on a museum display of old farming tools asks, “Please do not touch these folk arts, they are valuable gifts from our ancestors.” A first-aid kit for sale in an upscale department store in Osaka bears the English message, “Nobody was made to suffer. Nobody was made to destroy,” while a bag I bought in a dollar store (a “hundred yen” store, here) says “There is nothing in your life that does not have meaning.” Enough Nihonjin (Japanese people) read English fluently enough to make these mottoes culturally meaningful.
There’s no question that they’re doing something. Is it religion? It seems to be a question of semantics.
* * *
So besides making professions of faith and visiting a church on a weekly basis, what else might qualify as religious?
When in doubt, we can turn to the essayist’s cheap trick of consulting the dictionary for a word’s etymology. “Religion” comes from the Latin “religere,” meaning “bind again.” It seems to me that a more meaningful rendering into modern English might be “to reconnect.”
But to reconnect what to what? Clearly, religion is concerned with reconnecting human beings to something, but as to what that something is, opinions have varied – sometimes violently.
If we look at broad trends in the history of religion, we see two main answers to this question. When religion is used as a path of individual liberation, the goal is to reconnect us to the world in which we live – often (but not always) personified as gods, spirits, or the like.
But religion can also be used as a tool promoting social cohesion, reconnecting the individual to the community. And though there is much talk of a “relationship with God,” organized religion has tended more toward enforcement of social norms than toward creating genuine experiences of the divine.
The tension between these two answers drives a lot of the history of religion. In the earliest human cultures, it seems that the target of shamanistic1 practices was the connection between the individual and the world; but as society grew more complex and we became civilized, religion became a tool to resolve the tensions created by the advent of specialization of labor and hierarchical power structures.
Within civilized societies, some individuals would occasionally have a direct religious experience, but these mystics tended to be rapidly ostracized or co-opted – and if their practice avoided these fates, it almost inevitably ossified within a few generations, losing its usefulness as a means of liberation and becoming a new tradition to be enforced by priestly authority.
And so it’s no coincidence that religion and politics get mixed up so often. If one sort of religion is meant to connect the individual to the community, to resolve human beings to the specific economic, political, and social roles they must fill in a complex society, then it becomes easy to reuse those exact same forms in a secular context to create a political mood, to let pledges and anthems replace prayers and hymns. Is there a significant difference between a group of Sunday school kids reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and the same kids in elementary school on Monday morning reciting the Pledge of Allegiance?
(They fit together eerily well: “I pledge allegiance to our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy flag of the United States of America. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God with our daily bread and liberty and justice for all and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, amen.”)
Human societies can be far divorced from the larger cosmos. So we are often left to choose between a quiet and harmonious relationship with our neighbors, where we don’t rock the boat, observe the culturally appropriate religious rites, and keep our mouths shut; or an intimate relationship with the Universe, where we question the social norms and try to honestly investigate our own natures. This can lead to violent conflict – crucifixions, witch-trials, and the like. Even the Buddha had assassination attempts made against him.
But still, I will recommend that our relationship with the Universe take priority – it is much larger and longer-lived that your local town or nation, and less likely to screw you over for its own benefit.
Whether the goal is connection to the Universe or to the community, the tools used are those that can change human consciousness: ritual, meditation, trance through the deliberate repetition of words, actions, sounds, or ideas (prayers, gathas, creeds, dance, drumming, invocations), and biochemical change (either consuming psychoactive herbs or drugs, or promoting the release of endorphins and similar chemicals by physical ordeal). Most of these tools can be used to build either sort of connection.
In our usual notion of religion, questions of belief take a primary role. Shared beliefs are certainly one way to connect a community of people together. But this almost inevitably shades off into parroting of dogma; and so such connection is a limiting one, forcing minds into a mold – the connection shared by pieces of mass-production.
An alternative to believing together is doing together. Shared ritual, if well-designed, allows a common experience with differing interpretations. Obviously if the ritual or service involves chanting a declaration of dogma, a creed of some sort, it tends in the limit to indoctrination. But a well-designed ritual can accommodate widely varying beliefs.
In large Pagan gatherings, I have shared rituals with people who identified as several sorts of Wiccan, Druid, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic, Taoist, Discordian, even Jewish and Christian. (Some of us identify with more than one of these labels.) These are widely differing ideas, but we all found meaning and use in the same practice, even as we interpreted it differently. We might then break off into smaller groups, sharing ritual that was closer and more limited in scope, but at least we had all drunk once from the same well.
Another way to alter our consciousness is through the stories that we tell ourselves. The mind functions largely as a story-telling machine, assembling events into a narrative. But through any finite set of event-points, an infinite number of story-curves can be drawn. What events do we give priority, and which do we explain away as rare exceptions? Does our mythology tell stories of connection or isolation? Do we tell stories of paranoia, where everything that happens is meant to thwart us, or stories of pronoia, where everything that happens is for our benefit?
Through the practice of meditation and mindfulness, we can learn to observe and eventually control the mental process of storytelling that is consciousness.
I’ve come to call the blend of meditation practice and ritual that I have ended up with “Zen Paganism”: a set of practices and attitudes drawn from sources both Eastern and Western, modern and ancient, all meant to transform the practitioner’s relationship to themselves and to the rest of the universe. A heterodox, individualistic path of liberation.