Caught Between the Worlds

R and I went to a Fourth of July BBQ in Concord yesterday. The hosts were the friends that own Fields Books in San Francisco. They have a nice house with a pool out back and we got to mix with a bunch of people that we hadn’t necessarily seen in a while, such as Sam Webster, who performed our wedding ceremony back in 2004.

The mix was almost entirely Neopagans, which made it interesting for me. I mean, I’m sure there were the token non-pagans besides us, at least a Jew or two, but it was mostly, from what I gathered, Faery Trad and Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn people with at least one or two Asatru. While Golden Dawn types are not necessarily pagans, I think everyone in this crowd probably identifies as such.

This gave me the odd experience of being the token non-Pagan in the room (along with R). This is something that I’m still getting used to after having been a pagan from age 18 through 34 or 35, by self-identification. I had the same experience when R and I went down to the Pantheacon convention earlier this year to see friends. In many ways, I miss aspects of the pagan community. Locally, I don’t really have any Buddhist friends and am not part of a large or terribly active sangha (we’re building a small one now but there are three of us). Almost all of my friends fall into a few camps: hackers/tech types, Burning Man freaks, and Neopagans or magicians (and many are all three). It is odd having conversations with people as an interested and informed outsider as much as anything else. I spent so many years involved with doing ritual practice and study that it is strange to not have been doing so with them for a few years now. Much of the same sort of effort has gone into my Buddhist practice but it is very different in many ways. On its face, Buddhism doesn’t have the anarchic, experimental streak of experimentation and free thought that I experienced when I was a magician and a pagan. Of course, in some sense, it could have such things but it is very rare. How many Buddhist communities have a Do It Yourself ethic of experimentation and creativity in what they do? I think that the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order may, from what I’ve gathered, but that is probably the only one that comes to mind. So much of Buddhist ritual and thought, while very fulfilling and interesting, is either very much set in its way of doing things or starkly minimalistic (hello my Zen brothers and sisters!) in comparison.

I remember how surprised I was (and shouldn’t have been on reflection) when my friend, Jason Miller, showed me how he deconstructed the Namkhai Norbu core sadhana (the “Tun”), used in the Dzogchen Community, to act as a general ritual framework for tantric Buddhist practices with other deities, such as Vajrakilaya. The short retreat that I did with him and the others of the loosely gathered NgakpaZhonnuKhang group was one of the few times that I’ve seen a Neopagan or occultist level of experimentation with practices but, of course, every member of that group was a former (or current) magician or pagan as well as a Buddhist. That explained more of the willingness to try things differently.

NgakpaZhonnuKhang Retreat

In any case, this is less a post about experimentation in practices (which can become a dilettante’s game as well) than one about community and self-identification. The Buddhist community just seems so, well, dull, when compared to the freaks and weirdos that I spent my adulthood around. The visit at the BBQ and similar events just continues to remind me of that. I’m not sure what that means in the end. I doubt anyone has ever accused me of being a wild and crazy Dionysian sort of guy. If anything, quite the opposite in the Apolloan sense. When it comes down to it, I continue to feel at home with the pagans and occultists. I think a core part of who I am is really a part of that culture, pagan to the core, far more than I was ever the Roman Catholic of my childhood.

What does it mean to be a Buddhist priest who feels a strong affinity and identity with the pagans, the magicians, and even the Burners and other freaks? I don’t know. I do know that the community that I would feel most comfortable practicing with and teaching within is more that one than the seemingly staid and cerebral community that I so often have encountered with Buddhists (sex adverse and lacking in humor often as well). I bet my friend, Bill, will chime in a comment or two here, or perhaps Jason as well. There are quite a few of us caught between these two worlds (and possibly others) given the convoluted religious and spiritual landscape of the modern world. I mean, I have a former mentor of sorts who is, at the same time, a devout Vajrayana practitioner, a Taoist, a modern magician of a number of orders, and a Neoplatonist who studies the old texts.