Posts Tagged ‘tibetan buddhism’

Lent began on Wednesday the 22d. I said the Daily Office but did not attend any services. (I was amused and appalled that a local Episcopal church, my own denomination, described their service as “Ashing & Holy Communion”. I thought the heirs of Cranmer and Hooker could do better than that.) Will I engage in acts of fasting and self-denial? Probably not, although I may say the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross privately. Years ago I read in a Roman Catholic publication that the Lenten fast grew out of the conditions of pre-industrial living: Before factory farming and refrigeration, the winter stores of food that made the Yuletide so jolly were nearly exhausted by February, and new foods were not yet available. Beginning in early February (Imbolc/Candlemas), milk, butter, and cheese became available thanks to the birth of lambs; as the days got longer, chickens began to lay again. (Perhaps that’s why eggs are associated with the Spring Equinox–chickens would be laying reliably by then, if not sooner.)

Am I a Christian? I don’t know. I believe that Jesus was an incarnation of divinity and a great teacher, perhaps the most important teacher of the Western traditions. I don’t think he was the sole embodiment of divinity, but rather a model for what all human persons are capable of. I could say I believe in him, but I don’t really have much of a relationship with him. I have much more of a relationship with Julian of Norwich, whose writings I have studied in more depth and with more devotion than I have given any book of the Christian Scriptures.

Am I a Pagan, then? Again, I don’t know. I think many gods exist; I think many spirits or wights, beings neither human nor divine, angel nor devil, exist. I think some of them are benevolently interested in humankind, a few are actively hostile to us, and many are basically indifferent. But I don’t have much of a relationship with any non-Christian deity, either. I have gained strength and benefit from the practice of Tara and Medicine Buddha in Tibetan Buddhist contexts. I definitely have a relationship with birds, all birds, not just my own companions; anywhere I go, birds seem to recognize me, to know that I am a safe human, to come near to me. On the other hand, I have actually tried to cultivate relationships with some Celtic deities who seemed interested in me, and that situation seems to have resulted in FAIL all round.

Am I a Buddhist? No, as much as I admire Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, as much as I have learned from studying and practicing it. Perhaps Dion Fortune and her successors were right in saying Eastern methods are not for Western methods. Perhaps I just had too many years of Western religion and magic behind me, too many patterns formed, before I discovered Buddhism; I might be a thorough-going Buddhist if I’d made contact with it in my early twenties.

Am I a Druid, even? Probably not. I’m feeling like I’ve made repeated efforts, alone and as part of a group, to connect with Druidry, with the traditions of Arthur and Merlin and Taliesin, with faery lore, with bardic lore, with the Druid Revival and with more Reconstructionist systems, all to no avail. I’ve been banging my head against a wall, or possibly knocking at a door that just won’t open, and I’m exhausted by it. I want a holiday from all things Druidic and Celtic and Arthurian, except possibly Celtic music and episodes of the BBC’s Merlin.

What am I? I’m a married woman; a writer; a library paraprofessional; a singer, or former singer, specifically a chorister; and… a magician? a mage? an Adept of the New Hermetics? I trained with Jason Augustus Newcomb in the original New Hermetics course, in 2005-2006, and have completed all levels through Advanced Adept (equivalent to the Golden Dawn’s Adeptus Major). I have the certificates and the Rose Cross lamen to prove it. And for the last year, I’ve been trying to get my act together and undertake Jason’s revised version of the course.

I think about saying, “I’m a Hermeticist… I’m a Hermetic magician…” and the words just don’t want to come out of my mouth. I think about saying, “I’m a magician–” and my brain adds, “–not a priestess!” and follows it up with Bones McCoy growling, “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!” (I believe that episode, “Devil in the Dark“, was the first appearance of the Great McCoy Disclaimer, which has since been echoed by every other Starfleet doctor.)

Here are a few things I’m certain of:

  • I’m interested in religious and magical traditions and what I can learn from them, even if I never identify with or practice them. This has been true of me since I was a child and read the grown-up books on comparative religion.
  • The New Hermetics has worked better for me as a spiritual practice than pretty much anything else I’ve ever tried.
  • I am convinced of the rightness of the Mahayana Buddhist approach: To seek the fullest possible personal freedom and self-development in order to help other beings achieve the same thing. I cannot be genuinely free and genuinely happy while others are trapped and miserable; helping others is an essential part of my own fulfillment. Helping others may not look like anything more than doing my library job, keeping this blog, and helping individuals as opportunity arises, but it is still part of the Great Work.

So I’m thinking of changing the name of this blog to reflect… whatever I’ve changed into.

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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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–on Halloween and Teh Spooky from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective: Gathering of Ghosts and Demons. It talks about female practitioner Machig Labdron and the practice of chod, offering one’s body as food for the demons and ghosts.

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mandalaI’ve come to a conclusion about something:  If there’s any religion that can substantiate a claim to be The One True Religion in the World, it’s Buddhism.

I know that’s a pretty strange thing for me to say, an Episcopalian turned Druid who never quite accepted Christianity’s claims to be the One True Way.  (I always found other people’s religions too interesting.)  I’ve come to this conclusion, and to the point of daring to voice it aloud, after more than a year of reading about Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, of experimenting with sitting meditation, of looking at Tibetan Buddhist sacred art and listening to Tibetan Buddhist ritual music.

My conclusion is that Buddhism is not so much a religion as a philosophy and a set of disciplines or a toolkit that can merge successfully with any existing religion and transform it.  Even a cursory glance at Buddhism and its history–and, to be truthful, that’s about all that a year’s study amounts to–shows that it melded with pre-existing religions in India, its birthplace, in China, Japan, Tibet, and the rest of southeast Asia.  Each of the great traditions of Buddhism has its own flavor, imparted by the teachers who carried it but also by the cultures that received it. The twist is that by “religion” I mean exactly the opposite of what most Western thinkers have meant by it for over 1500 years: I mean what is now called polytheism, animism, pantheism, ancestor worship, in other words, everything that “religion” meant before the monotheisms of Christianity and Islam began to dominate world culture.

The more I learn about Tibetan Buddhism, the more I find it essentially sane.  Underneath its exotic, colorful surface, underneath its intellectual complexity, it is essentially sane and simple.  It is about love, defined as wishing others to be happy; compassion, wishing others to be free from suffering; joy, sharing others’ pleasure in their own happiness; and equanimity, having love, compassion, and joy toward all beings impartially.  It’s about dedicating one’s own quest for freedom, wisdom, empowerment to being able to help others get free.  It emphasizes the basic goodness of all beings, the basic joy and freedom of existence, the nobility of bodhichittaBodhichitta is hard to translate into English, because the Sanskrit word “chitta” means both “heart” and “mind”.  Bodhichitta is the wise heart and mind that seeks to liberate all beings from delusion so that they can be their best selves; it is the motivation to succeed in order to help others.

In addition to its essential sanity, the other quality which Tibetan Buddhism impresses on me is its completeness.  Again, I’m going to have to talk about that by first using words from Buddhist tradition, then backing up and seeing how those definitions might apply outside Buddhism.

Buddhism has described itself for centuries in terms of three “vehicles” or yanas.  The Hinayana or “Little Vehicle” is the way of the seeker concerned with his or her own condition: achieving enlightened awareness and getting out of the trap of rebirth, desire, frustration, death, rebirth, which in Sanskrit is samsara. It’s about cleaning up your own act, pure and simple.  The Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” introduces the notion of bodhichitta, which is practiced by the bodhisattva.  The bodhisattva is someone who has vowed to achieve enlightenment, not merely for their own sake, but for the sake of all sentient beings, as the traditional phrase has it.  Some bodhisattvas have vowed not to leave the world of rebirth and enter nirvana until all other beings have done so–to be the last one out of the burning building, as it were.  The six paramitas or perfect virtues are the watchwords of the bodhisattva: generosity, ethical behavior, patience and forbearance, enthusiasm and effort, meditation, and wisdom.

The Hinayana tradition is sometimes identified with the Theravada tradition practiced in Sri Lanka and other countries south of India, but that is often seen as unfairly limiting.  Tibetan Buddhist teachers do not make that identification; rather, they seem to say that the Hinayana is where an individual needs to start; you need to get your act together (Hinayana) before you can take it on the road (Mahayana).  The Mahayana traditions include  Tibetan Buddhism, Ch’an Buddhism in China, and its better-known descendant Zen in Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam.

Tibetan Buddhism includes both Hinayana and Mahayana teachings, but its most distinctive characteristics belong to the third vehicle, the Vajrayana or “Diamond Vehicle”.  The Vajrayana consists of teachings intended to allow the practitioner to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime; they are a shortcut to Get You There Now.  Much of these teachings consist of visualization practices that include secret mantras, complex mandalas, and identifying oneself with the visualized deity.  Traditionally, they can only be practiced if one is “empowered” to do so, that is, initiated by a teacher who has also been empowered.

If the Hinayana emphasis on taking care of oneself (and its often devotional manifestation, for laypeople, in Theravadin Buddhist cultures centered on the ordained monastic community) can be compared to Protestant Christianity, and the compassionate, self-giving bodhichitta of Mahayana, with its many saint-like bodhisattvas, can be compared to Roman Catholic Christianity, the only thing the Vajrayana can be compared to is magic.  In Western culture, in Christianity, those high-speed, short-cut techniques of transformation have been cut off from religion proper and relegated to the realms of magic, the occult, the forbidden and transgressive.  The banishment of our Western Vajrayana has been so complete and effective that most people do not even think of magic as a form of union with the Divine, a way of becoming one’s best self; they know it only as a means of controlling reality or other people, of attracting love, money, or power that one cannot gain legitimately, by normal means.

Ceremonial magical traditions teach that magic may have two purposes: thaumaturgy and theurgy.  Thaumaturgy, literally “wonder-working”, is magic for purposes such as healing, attracting wealth, gaining knowledge, or any basically practical purpose.  Theurgy, “god-working”, is magic meant to elevate the human being to godhood; to attain union with the gods or God and manifest the greatest potentials of the self.  Mainstream Christian theology, centered on the fourth-century doctrine of original sin, developed to a point where either of those goals was (and is) considered unacceptable, an attempt to usurp Divine prerogatives.  (Of course quite a lot of Christian ceremonial magicians would disagree.)

What fascinates me in Tibetan Buddhism is that all these different aspects of religion–devotion and ritual, self-improvement, service to others, and magical transformation–have remained united, and have been practiced equally (if not always to the same extent) by monastics and laypeople.  You don’t have to be an ordained monastic to meditate, study with a teacher, or take Vajrayana empowerments; on the other hand, you don’t have to be Tibetan to get ordained, either–there are some notable American-born Tibetan Buddhist teachers, such as Lama Surya Das and Pema Chodron.

I think what I’m looking for as I study Tibetan Buddhism is a way to put those pieces back together, to reunite magic, devotion, theurgy, thaumaturgy, service, and philosophy in a Western cultural context, as a Druid.  I’m looking Eastward to see what light the Buddhist traditions shed on the West, and that light is considerable.  It’s not that I don’t think the West has worthwhile traditions of its own, but the fire has been damped down on our altars.  A little borrowed flame from the East could help re-kindle it.

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