The Zen Pagan: An Introduction, and a Buddhist Earth Deity

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Fri, 06/06/2014 - 20:26

My new monthly column at Patheos Pagan's Agora blog started May 23rd. I'll be copying posts from there to here after a few weeks, for archival purposes.

Anyone can look serene in this posture.

Hello! Welcome to The Zen Pagan.

“The what Pagan?” some Pagan readers may be wondering; and perhaps “The Zen what?” may be heard from Patheos Buddhist, if this should leak over there.

But if prior discussions are any guide, some readers are saying “Oh! Yes, that’s it!” For several years I thought that my friend Mike Gurklis and I invented the term “Zen Pagan” in the late 1980s, but I’ve found that others have discovered it independently – including, interestingly enough, John Lennon. So if the term resonates with you in some way, you’re not alone.

There’s much to say about this Zen Paganism: from how the Buddha obtained enlightenment while sitting under a tree and calling on the Earth to bear him witness, to the Greco-Buddhist culture that arose in Gandhara in the wake of the conquerors Alexander and Ashoka and gave us the first Buddha statues (styled after images of the Greek pantheon), to how Aleister Crowley’s roommate was one the first Westerners to become a Buddhist monk, on up through Mr. Lennon’s identification as a Zen Pagan and what it all suggests to us going forward. We’ll be investigating such topics in future episodes, but today I’d like to offer an introduction by telling you how I found a Buddhist deity of the Earth…or he/she (it’s complicated) found me.

Friends, meet Jizō, the Bodhisattva of the Earth.

wabi sabi

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Thu, 05/01/2014 - 21:09

I blog about karate training and teaching at Sky Hand Road. I'm going to start cross-posting those pieces here when they're of a more spiritual bent, rather than "here's how to improve your kicks".

wabi sabi

There was a news story recently about how a small child almost ruined a sand mandala built by Tibetan monks for a ceremony in New Jersey. Sand mandalas are an ancient tradition, sort of sand castles taken to the nth degree: over several days, colored sand is placed a few grains at a time to make an intricate pattern or picture. I saw one being made once, and it's as slow and painstaking as anything you can imagine.

When it's finished, the whole thing is destroyed, they sweep up the sand and dump it in a river. It symbolizes the impermanence of all things. In a way, it was kind of funny that something meant to be destroyed anyway was messed up by a little kid who thought it was a toy! And I think the people involved appreciated that. But it's also nice that they were able to fix it up and finish the ritual.

I don't know much about Tibetan Buddhism, but this story reminds me of the concept of wabi-sabi (侘寂) in Japanese culture and aesthetics. (Not to say I know a lot about that, either!) Both the sand mandala and wabi-sabi grow out of the idea, found in Buddhism but also more generally in these cultures, that everything is impermanent. Wabi-sabi is also based on the understanding that all things are imperfect and incomplete to start with.

Read the rest at Sky Hand Road

the sacredness of the body and the sacrilege of the state

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Wed, 04/16/2014 - 17:46

This time of year, as I go through the great American ritual of paying for civilization (and/or letting the military industrial complex bleed me, choose your own interpretation) I often think of the advice that the great rabbi Jeshua ben Joseph gave when some critics tried to trip him up with a question about taxes. Perhaps it's also the nearness of the Easter season that puts me in mind of the fellow, who's better known by the Greek version of his name, "Jesus". But according to the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-22, King James Version, just because it was Hunter S. Thompson's favorite):

Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

(You may feel free to marvel at me quoting the gospel, and to joke about how the devil can cite Scripture to his purpose.)

The question of how to be a spiritual person in the social and political world is a tough one. Most folks skip the dilemma by, lets face it, not being spiritual in any significant degree. It's still true that the mass of people lead unexamined lives, lives of quiet desperation rather than loud inquiry. It's sure easier that the short term, at least.

pagan atheists?

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Thu, 04/03/2014 - 11:50

Over on the Facebook, an interlocutor inquires, "But I am not sure I understand how you can be zen pagan and an atheist. I would really like to read an essay of yours that talks about this." I don't directly address the question in Why Buddha Touched the Earth, but sharp-eyed readers will note that what I do say is compatible with an atheistic, skeptical (in the deep sense, not in the sense of the cargo-cult approach practiced by many so-called skeptics) approach.

I recalled having posted something on the subject to a Pagan mailing list years ago, and with a little rummaging in the archives dug this up.

This is 14 years old and I might express things differently now, and one factual correction: chi/qi does not literally mean "breath", it's more complicated. (This was written before I started studying Chinese Medicine.) Also I've taken the liberty of fixing a few spelling errors. But it should do as a quick illustration of my thoughts on being a Pagan and an atheist.

Subject: Pagan athiests
Date: Wed, 20 Sep 2000 16:53:26 -0400
From: Tom Swiss <address elided>

Cat <address elided> asks:

>Yes!  Any pagan atheists on this list who would like to enlighten the
>rest of us? 

     Okay, I'll go for it. Given the usual mainstream definition of a god
as some supernatural being outside the physical universe, I'll take the
atheist label. Given other definitions, I'll take other labels: pantheist
("Everything is god"), autotheist ("I am god"), apatheist ("I don't care
about gods"), whatever.

some new poems/lyrics

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Wed, 03/26/2014 - 18:01

It's been a while since I posted anything poetic here. I've been focusing more on essays and the novel lately, and on promoting Why Buddha Touched the Earth (have you bought a copy yet?), but Baltimore's longest running informal poetry workshop (AFAIK), Zelda's Inferno, is still meeting most Sunday nights. (Interested? Contact me!). Last Sunday and this Sunday were productive, with starts on lyrics for two songs and one fun poem.

The image of a family photo on a cubicle drone's desk being the only thing keeping him from rebelling, has been stuck in my head from an old poem that Mike Fekula wrote back in the days when we read at Planet X. All these years later I can't remember much more than that image, so this is more "vaguely inspired by" than anything else, but credit where it's due. Still needs work but I think there's something here to work with:

Well he never thought that it would come to this
Driving each day on the highway sixty miles
Getting to work to support a family
Paying the bills for a suburban lifestyle

And in his little cubicle
A family photo in a frame
It's the only thing that keeps him
From burning the whole place up in flames

Wanted: FSG Apprentice of Ceremonies

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Sun, 02/16/2014 - 02:05

In 2013, I proposed and volunteered for a new staff position at FSG: Master of Ceremonies. The Master (or Mistress, somewhere down the road) of Ceremonies acts as liaison between the bands, the Entertainment department head, the stage manager and crew, the ritual team, the fire crew, and the Coordinator on Duty. Their overall task is to keep the rituals, concerts, and especially the fire circle running smoothly, with a particular eye to ceremonial, ritual, and energetic aspects.

Adding this position worked well last year but was more work than I can sustainably take on. So I've managed to convince our coordinators to let me have an assistant this year. A minion. An "Apprentice of Ceremonies", if you will. This is an "at-cost" position, meaning that it gets you a substantial discount on FSG admission. (Basically, you'll pay just what Ramblewood charges us per person.)

Beyond that, though, you get the warm glow of helping make FSG happen! And you'll learn a lot about how it works, from the inside.

Interested? Contact me.

Imbolc: happy spring!

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Sun, 02/02/2014 - 21:39

Happy Spring!

Wait, what? Yeah, it was in the 50s today, but there's a "Winter Weather Advisory" and several inches of snow in the forecast. And doesn't spring start on the equinox, March 20th? And didn't Punxsutawney Phil say six more weeks of winter?

Well, as with many of the truths we cling too, it depends greatly on our own point of view.

For those watching the skies -- astrologers, in the old days -- the most obvious events are the solstices in June and December, when the sun rises and sets in its most northerly or southerly position and reaches its highest or lowest noontime elevation; and the equinoxes in March and September, when the Sun crosses the celestial equator. (I.e., it goes from rising and setting a little north of due east and due west to rising and setting a little south of due east/west, or vice-versa)

saluting Pete Seeger

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Fri, 01/31/2014 - 17:44

I grew up listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary and the Kingston Trio. They were among my parent's favorites, and I have memories of drifting off to sleep while my parents played their albums downstairs. (Often on my dad's Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder -- and what a technobeast that was!) And so it was though those performers I first learned some of the songs of folks like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Leadbelly...and Pete Seeger.

Quite simply, songs like "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" helped shape the person I grew up to be.

Years later, at the Starwood Festival, I met a wonderful musician named Randolphe Harris. He had actually recorded an album, The Secret of Sharing, with Pete Seeger. Which is pretty damn cool.

One of the songs on the album is Seeger's "Letter to Eve", whose chorus is "Peace on Earth" in five different languages. I cannot describe this version as anything less than angelic. Recorded live at the Concert for Attica in Buffalo NY, Randolphe's and Pete's voices trade off in a wonderful harmony, and there are extra verses not in the listing on the lyrics page -- and which don't turn up in any of my internet searches. Since the rest of the lyrics are already out there I don't think Pete would mind if I post them here. (Under fair use provisions of copyright law for purposes of commentary and historical preservation, and in keeping with the fact that it's on an album who's liner notes say, "The Secret of Sharing? that it divides problems and multiplies solutions.")

sympathy and empathy

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Mon, 01/27/2014 - 12:23

From a Facebook thread that raised the question of the difference (if any) between sympathy and empathy. I do enjoy digging down into words...

Interesting question...

"Sympathy" is literally "pathos with", "suffering together": "I feel your pain". We use it for positive emotions too, though maybe less often. "1) A feeling of pity or sorrow for the suffering or distress of another; compassion 2) The ability to share the feelings of another." Also, in a more general sense, "3) A mutual relationship between people or things such that they are correspondingly affected by any condition." [ ]

"Empathy" is a 20th century term (I did not know that) "coined by Edward Bradford Titchener to translate German Einfühlung", from the Greek for "passion", "in pathos". Wiktionary suggests it is more intellectual: "1) the intellectual identification of the thoughts, feelings, or state of another person 2) capacity to understand another person's point of view or the result of such understanding." But also, in parapsychology and science fiction, "a paranormal ability to psychically read another person's emotions". [ ]

I would say that the idea of "theory of mind" [ ] is related to "empathy" in this sense. Via a theory of mind one can identify and understand the feelings of others without necessarily experiencing them.

Einfühlung, though, comes from the 18th century German Romantics: "It is believed that the notion has its source in the philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder, who thought that while perceiving different natural phenomena one can look for similarities to the human and thus ascri­be human feelings to them. Herder endowed Nature with a consciousness which could be penetrated by man thanks to empathy. Empathy leads to a mystical union of the subject and the object, Man and Nature." [ ]

So the roots of "empathy" are actually more mystical, and I'd say that in some contexts it still carries that connotation... the SF/"New Age" use to mean a sort of telepathy or intuition that senses emotion but not verbal intellectual content, for example.

And I'd say that mystical definition has leaked over into that third definition of sympathy, where people or things are mutually affected.

So. It's complicated.

I'd say that for "I feel your pain" -- or "I feel your joy" -- sort of experiences, "sympathy" is the more accurate term. (Thus, we send a "sympathy card" when to someone who has lost a loved one.) Maybe "empathy" is better used to denote either 1) the general intellectual/psychological capacity to "put yourself in another persons shoes" (the meaning it seems to have in the psychological literature) or 2) the personality trait of being easily moved into identifying with another's feelings and experiences, perhaps even beyond the emotional level to a mystical one.

in defense of psychopathy

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Sat, 01/25/2014 - 03:06

I don't mean here to defend psychopathic behavior, of course, but rather the concept of psychopathy as a useful way to categorize behavior.

Over on Facebook, my friend Karla Mancero recently shared an article by Lydia Brown titled "Why the Term ‘Psychopath’ is Racist and Ableist". I started to comment on Facebook but found that I was writing a short essay with links to several sources that I wanted to preserve, so decided to flesh it out a little more and post here.

Let me first say that I agree wholeheartedly with Karla's statement that "Big difference between having or not having empathy and having difficulty expressing empathy. That would be most humans. Many of us probably were not taught how to express empathy or encouraged to be empathetic growing up." But I find several problems with applying that statement to the ideas that Brown discusses.

Since to some degree Brown seems to be confusing or conflating the notions of autism and psychopathy, let me also say that as a martial arts instructor in a system which strives to be open to people with special needs, I've worked with a few mildly autistic students over the years. And as a software developer, well, you can't swing a USB cable in most offices full of hackers without hitting someone who displays at least some symptoms of Asperger's syndrome. (As a result of which, you'll also find many techies who question the milder end of the "autistic spectrum" being labeled as "disorders". I do suspect that we'll see a walk-back on part of that in years to come, that some of the apparent increase in autism in recent years is just a pathologization of certain personality traits. But that's a rant for another time.)

But as someone who teaches people how to deal with violence, I'm also keenly interested in understanding mental and behavioral disorders that are linked to violence. That certainly includes psychopathy. Whether it includes autism is questionable. On the one hand, there is some evidence that people with autism are actually less likely to be convicted of violent crime then the general population. On the other, if a person with autism does behave violently towards a caregiver, the incident may be less likely to be handled as a criminal matter up until a stranger is involved -- even when the violence is serious -- so there may be a selection bias at work.

And violence committed by people with autism tends to be "affective" rather than "predatory", a response to an immediate situation rather than the sort of premeditated violence that marks psychopathy. As Amy S.F. Lutz writes, "There was a time when my own son Jonah, now 13, was prone to such violent rages that I feared I might end up like Trudy Steuernagel, who was bludgeoned in 2009 by her 19-year-old autistic son Sky Walker, or Linda Foley, who was also beaten to death by her 18-year-old stepson, Henry Cozad. But I was never afraid Jonah would massacre 20 kids with a semi-automatic rifle." While up to 30 percent of people with autism show aggressive behavior -- often towards themselves rather than others -- the high frequency of co-morbid conditions complicates the question of whether this is due to autism.

But it should be clear that the behaviors involved with psychopathy and autism are quite different. So why Brown's conflation or confusion of the two conditions? History may be to blame. The term "autistic psychopathy" was once used for what we now call "Asperger’s syndrome". Discussion is complicated by the fact that several terms have been used in several different ways to describe these disorders since the 1800s. There's a good overview of the history of the terms and concepts related to psychopathy in Joel T. Andrade's Handbook of Violence Risk Assessment and Treatment.