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A Pagan Perspective On Beauty and Suffering

posted by Gus diZerega

I had an wonderful
talk with a friend who was for some time a Buddhist abbot before he decided
Buddhism was not his final path, and began exploring other spiritual traditions
and practices. Whenever our conversations shifts to these kinds of topics, one
of their most enjoyable aspects is his speaking mostly fondly of the different
traditions he has explored.  And as
a impressively learned man, he has explored a number of them deeply.


         My friend’s
ultimate departure from Buddhism had much to do with its view of the
relationship between beauty and suffering.  In Buddhism, he told me, beauty ultimately has to be
understood as a deceptive cover for suffering (dukkha).  It is
ultimately illusory.  A beautiful
landscape is such only because of countless and ongoing deaths and other
suffering that maintains it. 
Insects eating insects, birds eating insects, small animals being eaten
by larger ones, parasites eating everyone, and so on.

For example, we
have discovered that Yellowstone’s ecological abundance can only be maintained
by the presence of wolves.  In
their absence, elk destroy streamside vegetation and over graze their
range.  Forest fires are also a
necessary part of forest rejuvenation in Yellowstone, but when they occur such
fires cause enormous death and suffering. 
Natural beauty, much of it anyway, depends on the presence of violent
death, and such death involves sufferin.

But is this
Buddhist argument entirely satisfying? Is beauty a deceptive covering for the
suffering that accompanies it? Of course we can probably all remember times
when beauty’s charms ensnared us in relationships that led more to suffering
than happiness or to committing foolish acts that hurt others.  But true as such events are for most of
us, are they simply easy-to-grasp examples of something manifesting in infinite
subtleties? Is beauty simply a snare or a lure or is it something else
again?

Plato provided
my friend another option, which he ultimately found more satisfactory.  It is one I will scarcely explore here
because I have a third interpretation in mind.  Plato argued that Earthly beauty is the lure that ultimately
takes us to the ultimate beauty of the One.  Far from being a deceptive illusion trapping us in a grimmer
reality, it is the path out of that reality.  I admit to a greater fondness for this Platonic perspective
than the Buddhist one.  But I think
there is a third perspective of equal merit.

Suffering,
including death, is the unavoidable price paid for duality, and duality
provides two goods that NonDuality does not, even though within the NonDual
experience there is no lack.  This
claim sounds paradoxical, but I think the paradox is more a feature of human
awareness rather than ultimate reality. 
Further, I think understanding this insight enables us ultimately to
validate the embodied reality we Pagans love, along with Plato’s monist One, and the NonDual, but not in any
hierarchical sense of one being more “spiritually advanced” or superior to the
others.  The fullest expression of
each might imply the existence of the others.

I want to start
with a personal experience, although hardly one unique to me: climbing a
mountain. Years ago I climbed a mountain in Colorado that took me to the limits
of my endurance.  On that
particular trip I had not yet become acclimated to the elevation change from
Kansas, where I lived, to its base, at about 8,500 feet. My climb took me
thousands of feet higher.  As I
climbed it became increasingly difficult for me to move because I was so
completely out of breath.  My
initial ascent was very steep, but as I neared the top the slope became more
gentle, so that I could have walked rather than climbed.  But I did not walk all the way; many
times I crawled.

I was certainly
suffering, and at times I experienced nothing but suffering, as I made my way
the last 100 feet or so to the summit. 
But when I reached the top, and could see the Continental Divide to the
east, Grand Lake to the West, and miles of wilderness spread out beneath me, it
was worth it, even as I was too tired to really enjoy the view.

My suffering was
the price I paid, willingly paid, for an experience I otherwise would not have
had.  The beauty was indeed a lure,
but it was not an illusory lure.  Nor
did it necessarily point beyond itself. 
The beauty of that place at that time was sufficient unto itself.

If I had been in
better shape or more acclimated my climb would have been just as beautiful. I
would not have suffered sio much and would probably have enjoyed the summit and
its views much more.  So I am not
praising suffering as a good in itself. 
Suffering is a price, but one that can be worth it if we choose wisely.  Even with a lack of wisdom it can be
worth paying, and teach us greater wisdom along the way.

Duality makes
beauty possible.  Beauty depends on
someone experiencing something, whereas in NonDuality there is only
experience.  In The Inhumanist 
Robinson Jeffers wrote,

the human sense

Of beauty is our metaphor of
their excellence, their divine

nature: – like dust in a
whirlwind, making

The wild wind visible.

Absence a being
that experiences there is the wonder of NonDual Experience.  I have had such an experience, and
while there is truly nothing better when within it, beauty (and love) do not
matter when one’s self (and all other selves) disappear, and there is only
wonderful experience.  It is
complete, but as soon as self-awareness begins to return, beauty and love begin
to manifest.  They are
fundamental to Duality.
They are contained
in NonDuality but they do not manifest there.

Beauty (and love
as well, but this post is focusing on beauty) treasure and celebrate diversity.
There are many forms of beauty, and the existence of some does not detract from
the existence of others.  The
beauty of a coral reef does not detract from the beauty of a mountain
lake.  And the beauty of the whole
increases through having both.

This beauty
becomes perfect when experienced as sacred and is a lure to the sacred when
experienced from a mundane perspective. 
And this brings us to Plato’s insight.

There is the
beauty of the One from which everything comes.  As I understand him, this is the absolute beauty that Plato
described as at the end of our philosophical journey.  As with the NonDual, when enraptured by an experience of the
One  as the source of everything,
we do not experience any sense of lack, no need for connection.  We are enraptured by perfect love and
beauty beyond words to describe or limits to notice.  So does this not simply affirm Plato’s argument?

Yes it does, but
not as the final necessary goal of the soul, as he would have it.

What the One
emanates is not simply paler reflections
of itself, though there is a sense in which that is true.  The world is an expression of the
One.  It is its palette upon which
it creates works of beauty that cannot be experienced when enraptured by the
One.  Perhaps the One itself is
enraptured by its creations, which is why it is experienced as love.  Indeed, I am not sure the word
“creations” does the issue justice. 
The Platonic One enriches itself, becoming more than itself, by
manifesting all possible ways to express beauty, and its love for it.

And in my
experience this is validated by my strongest encounters with deities.  The Goddess is not the One.  She has gender, and other individuated
qualities.  But my experience of
Her was also one of encountering perfect love and perfect beauty.  Beauty can be the lure to take us to
this fuller and more complete realization of the nature of Duality as
manifesting in diversity.  And when
in such a relationship with Duality as Abundance, it is as fulfilling, as
perfect in itself, as is contemplation of the One or experience as NonDual.

Every time we
manifest beauty or love in our actions – and few of us do this most of the time
– we bring that daily world into greater harmony with its deeper reality.  Because that reality is always there,
it is we who bit by bit change ourselves, and are changed by our spiritual
experiences.

This, I believe,
is the contribution many Pagans and practitioners of the Nature Religions can
provide to both Buddhists and Platonists. 
The contribution is that they are right in their insights as  far as they take them, but they can be
taken farther.  The Sacred does not
culminate in NonDuality or the Monism of the One,, it is a constant reality of
all three dimensions, dimensions that cannot be reduced to any one.

Back to Suffering
Something as
complex as a mind able to experience beauty as we do is the result of a long
evolutionary process.  Perhaps
bacteria experience beauty, I cannot know.  I hope so.  But
if they do, the beauty they experience is not the same as the beauty we
experience.  For a maximum of what
we call beauty to exist in the world, there must be an enormous number of minds
able to experience it in many different ways.  And for those minds to exist, a long process of evolution
must have taken place.  Suffering
necessarily accompanies that development and sustains it.

Dualism
necessitates existence as parts, and existence as parts necessitates existence
with incomplete knowledge.  Incomplete
knowledge guarantees that mistakes will be made, and mistakes guarantee
suffering.    But incomplete knowledge also creates
opportunities for creativity, for the unexpected and new to emerge.  And when seen and experienced as
Sacred, the new and creative enable new opportunities for beauty and love to
manifest.

Suffering is not
so much a reality we paper over with beauty as the price we pay for it. Beauty
is one of the qualities that redeems suffering, (love is the other). Many of us
willingly pay that price. 

 



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Thomas

posted March 23, 2010 at 4:09 pm


The Aztec right of baptism included the words, “You were born to suffer, to suffer and endure.”
There are a number of psychologists that would disagree with your assessment of your climb. While you would have enjoyed the actual climb more if you had been better acclimated to the environment, the meaning of the experience, the beauty that persists long after the actual events, would have been diminished.
Arduous activities cause us to appreciate what we earn more than easy ones. There is a disconnect between the self that experiences and the self that remembers and while the experiencing Gus was on that mountain top, gasping, exhausted and probably suffering altitude sickness and probably having a bad time of it despite the triumph, the remembering Gus experiences and values the triumph more than he otherwise would precisely because of the suffering.
This is the psychology behind initiation ordeals, extreme sports and even a number of video games. The more you work for it and the greater the risk involved, however unpleasant at the time, the more the victory comes to mean in retrospect.



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Cheryl Hill

posted March 23, 2010 at 4:13 pm


That duality you mention; all those countless and ongoing deaths and the suffering that goes with them, are beautiful too. They are all part of the waxing and waning that encompasses the cycle of life. The waning moon is as beautiful as the waxing; Samhain is as beautiful as Beltane.
Certainly it seems more aesthetically pleasing to our physical eyes to see a newborn lamb playing than to see a dead sheep being eaten by worms, maggots and carrion beetles. But it IS equally beautiful. Equally sacred. Without it, there would be no “ashes” from which life could arise again.



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Gus diZerega

posted March 23, 2010 at 4:17 pm


The nature of Aztec religion says plenty as to its degree of spiritual insight.
That mountain would never have been easy and I did not mean to imply that being in better condition would have made it so. Better acclimation would have reduced the suffering, but not the beauty on top. (I have climed many mountains – I know whereof I speak.) Driving to the top – there you would have a point.
There is no simple trade off between ease and beauty. That said, there is truth in your comments that what comes too easily is unappreciated.



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Chris

posted March 23, 2010 at 4:53 pm


While i appreciate your insight as to at least some kinds of suffering humans on this planet experience,
i am bound to find it unsatisfactory in general. There are types and kinds of suffering which are so gruesome, random and
undeserved that no theory, not even karma and karma-related beliefs will explain, let alone justify. Hidden genetic diseases, unexpected earthquakes,
or things like completely accidental deaths happening to good people with no evident reason other that pure (and materialistically explainable) coincidences happen.
I have never found any thoeory of theodicy capable of addressing the pure absurdity of at least some forms of suffering. You may stress that our current world is out of balance, or that in some way karma-theory can be bent to justify this (making itself at the same time completely speculative and “ad hoc”) , but this does not change the basic point.



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Hecate Demetersdatter

posted March 23, 2010 at 5:01 pm


Is beauty simply a snare or a lure or is it something else again?
Or is suffering simply a snare or a lure or is it something else again? I never understand why Buddhists fail to ask this question.



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Dharmashaiva

posted March 23, 2010 at 5:25 pm


Beauty as a “deceptive covering for suffering” doesn’t seem like a Buddhist idea of beauty. Beauty exists, but it also changes into the non-beautiful. The deception occurs only if one ignores that fact and buys into the assumption of the permanence of beauty.



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Jim

posted March 23, 2010 at 5:38 pm


Dear Gus:
This is a rich post that deserves much contemplation. I especially appreciate your relativizing non-duality. My feeling is that non-dualism, and non-dual teachers in the west, have for far too long gotten a free pass on their point of view. The idea that non-dualism is the ultimate is simply accepted as self-evidently obvious. It is anything but obvious and profound spiritual teachers, and whole traditions, have articulate critiques of non-duality.
I think you pointed to one of the serious flaws on non-dualism when you mentioned in passing that from a non-dual perspective there is no room for love, or compassion, or even simple empathy (and, as you mentioned, no room for beauty). If this sounds overly harsh, a number of non-dual teachers are, in fact, scornful of the idea that love and compassion are significant spiritual accomplishments; they can be amazingly sarcastic about this; at times they even sound bitter. There are a number of non-dual teachers who, when reading their books or listening to their lectures, or upon examining the indexes of their books, never mention or refer to love, compassion, sympathy, or empathy. There really is something inhumane, I would even go so far as to say unnatural, about the non-dual perspective when it is taken as the ultimate ideal.
As you can tell, I am harsher in my critique of non-dualism than you. Your view is probably more balanced. I appreciate you bringing up the subject and look forward to reading the comments on this topic.
Best wishes,
Jim



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Cheryl Hill

posted March 23, 2010 at 6:14 pm


Chris I’ll throw in my two cents as to why “bad things happen to good people”. I’ll keep it short and I’m leaving a lot out but – we are not the focus of the world. Contrary to what Shakespeare believed, it’s not a stage where we are the actors upon which everything is focused.
The earth *itself* is the focus. An earthquake, tornado, etc. is not good or bad. WE label them as such based upon how they affect us, but they are all forces of the earth and of the weather on the planet and we are not being targeted nor avoided. We are here and sometimes, we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Suffering is not a punishment for being “bad”. Genetic diseases, accidents and death are not “deserved” or “undeserved”. When it occurs, it just IS. It is part of the cycle of existence itself and all creatures move within it. We don’t earn our suffering or death any more than we earn our life. With practice and work one can learn to manipulate energies and control many aspects of our existence, but ultimately we are all still moving within that cycle. For example, we all still get older and our bodies won’t work as well as they once did (if you can’t relate to that yet, keep living – you will!).
The little mouse that was ousted from my shed a few weeks ago when I was cleaning it out for Spring (reminded me of Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse”) had his home destroyed, stash of birdseed removed and nesting swept out – but he was not a bad mouse who deserved to be punished. My goal was to clean out the shed and get the snow blower back in there, and sadly for him I had to destroy his home to get that done.
Our world is not out of balance, although our *lives* can be knocked out of balance as the earth goes through Her own cycles and changes. We’re pretty much along for the ride.



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Turmarion

posted March 23, 2010 at 6:30 pm


Though I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve studied it and practiced Buddhist meditation on and off for nearly thirty years, and I’d tend to agree with Dharmashaiva’s take. Beauty is nice and all, and it’s not necessarily a trap, but everything is interrelated. Beauty becomes ugliness, ugliness becomes beauty. Nothing in the world of samsara is absolute, everything is impermanent (anitya) and “empty” (shunyata), so becoming attached to beauty entangles one further in the phenomenal world and hinders one’s liberation (nirvana, of course!) from it.
I also tend to agree with Chris in that to me the sheer magnitude of suffering, ugliness, sorrow, catastrophe, etc. makes it difficult to be sanguine about the beauty in the world being sufficient unto itself.
I’ve had an on-and-off discussion along these lines with a neo-Pagan friend of mine. He makes the same basic argument that Gus tends to make, that the world should be taken on its own terms and that the present life should be one’s main focus. This view, I notice, is very common in Pagan writings.
To me, this doesn’t make sense, given the vast amount of suffering and evil in the cosmos. I can’t think of any pre-modern religion that didn’t emphasize escaping the sorrow of the world, be it to Heaven, nirvana, moksha, and such, or which didn’t consider the Absolute (conceived either dualistically or non-dualistically, depending on the religion) as the goal that ultimately supersedes the present life. This is common across Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, to a lesser extent Daoism, most indigenous religions, etc. etc.
Don’t get me wrong–these faiths don’t necessarily denigrate beauty–they just put it in its proper place as something ephemeral and fleeting in this world. The idea is that it has its place, but the ultimate goal of humanity is beyond this world, to Plato’s beauty, or to nirvana, etc. For me, at any rate, the idea that this-worldly beauty is enough to make up for all the nastiness, and that this world somehow is preferable to the Ultimate, is I admit very difficult to understand.
Cheryl, yours is one perspective, but it seems the logical implications would be rather bleak and imply that the ride we’re along for is a meaningless one .
I suspect that some of it may be a matter of temperament–some of us are natural Platonists, if you will. Anyway, I’d be curious as to what the opinion around here is.



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Cheryl Hill

posted March 23, 2010 at 8:02 pm


Turmarion mentioned: “Cheryl, yours is one perspective, but it seems the logical implications would be rather bleak and imply that the ride we’re along for is a meaningless one.”
Oh I wouldn’t say that at all. The ride we’re along for is ephemeral but certainly not meaningless; this incarnation is just one of many we will embody.



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Turmarion

posted March 23, 2010 at 9:25 pm


Cheryl: Oh I wouldn’t say that at all. The ride we’re along for is ephemeral but certainly not meaningless; this incarnation is just one of many we will embody.
Thank you for clarifying–you hadn’t mentioned reincarnation previously.
Of course, I’d point out that Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, at any rate, see reincarnation as a bad thing, since it brings one back into the world of suffering and illusion. The idea is to get off the ride. Can the ride be fun at times? Of course–but just as one wouldn’t want to live on a roller coaster, one doesn’t want to stay in samsara.



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Jim

posted March 23, 2010 at 9:30 pm


Dear Turmarion:
I share your sense of the transcendental nature of religion. My view is, though, that when it comes to beauty and Buddhism that western practitioners have, naturally enough, brought with them western based understandings which one does not actually find in Buddhism itself. I think one way of approaching this is to look at the central texts of the Buddhist tradition. One can go for thousands of pages of Buddhist scripture and never come across a reference to nature. It’s just not there. In contrast, think of a work like Liu I-Ming’s “Awakening to the Tao” in which every section begins with a description of nature which is then taken as the basis for spiritual direction.
A few years ago I went to an exhibit of Taoist Art at the Asian Arts Museum. The landscape paintings were alive with chi energy. I remember in particular a lunar landscape which quivered with a sense of meaningful presence. In contrast, Buddhist art tends to be metaphysical and symbolic; think of Tibetan Thangkas as a good example. East Asian Buddhist art from China and Japan has been heavily influenced by indigenous traditions such as Taoism and Shinto. Both of these are Pagan in their orientation. But if one looks at Buddhist art in India or Tibet, radiant landscapes are hardly ever a part of their art world.
Buddhism is a profoundly introspective religion. It’s not that Buddhism is hostile to nature; it just doesn’t comprehend nature as a source of wisdom.
In the Platonic tradition, beauty is comprehended as double-edged. Beauty can keep is attached to this world of sorrow by generating grasping and greed. Or, and this is the potential of beauty, it can lead us back to the source from which all that is good and beautiful derives. If one traces back the radiance to the source, then beauty is comprehended as a mark of the presence of the divine, the transcendent presence of the eternal.
In my opinion, Buddhism does not make that kind of connection because ultimately all things are void and empty. I’m not denigrating the Buddhist tradition, just drawing a contrast.
Best wishes,
Jim



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clasqm

posted March 24, 2010 at 2:56 am


It is not quite true that Buddhism denies the existence of beauty. But the central insight of the Buddha was Impermanence (or Emptiness, if you prefer the Mahayana expression) and this radically relativizes beauty and ugliness alike:
A curtain of pearls hangs before the hall of jade,
And within is a lovely lady,
Fairer in form than the gods and immortals,
Her face like a blossom of peach or plum.
Spring mists will cover the eastern mansion,
Autumn winds blow from the western lodge,
And after thirty years have passed,
She will look like a piece of pressed sugar cane.
– Han Shan



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Rombald

posted March 24, 2010 at 6:54 am


A fascinating and complicated post.
I agree with Jim that Buddhism is fundamentally not interested in Nature, and that this contrasts sharply with Taoism and Taoist-influenced Buddhism (e.g. Zen).
An intriguing passage I remember in one of the Sukhavati Sutras states that Paradise contains birds for human pleasure, but they are not real birds (they are either automata or illusions), because real birds would be suffering.
However, I also don’t think most pre-modern Western traditions, Christian, Pagan or secular, have been all that interested in Nature. There is very little European landscape art until you reach the 16th-century Dutch painters, and I think it reached its highest form with the Romantics. Aristotle and Theophrastus had scientific interests in zoology and botany, but concern for Nature is not common in Greco-Roman writers. There are passages in the Old Testament that celebrate Nature, but they didn’t have much influence on pre-modern Christianity, and wading through the patristic writings one wonders why they were not more interested in birdsong and the night sky, and less interested in what people do in bed.
There are various approaches that are analogous to Nature-free Sukhavati:
1. Christians believe that the physical world will be completely renewed, so as not to eliminate death and suffering. Personally, I don’t see how this is compatible with physical reality; CS Lewis was troubled by this, saying that the lion eating grass, as in Isaiah, doesn’t sound like paradise for the lion.
2. Some transhumanists, such as David Pearce, argue that humanity will remodel ourselves and the biosphere to eliminate suffering (i.e. no wild animals, no meat-eating, either immortality or painless death, massive drug use). I suspect that Dawkins is close to this camp, judging from some of his comments about Nature’s cruelty.
There are even some Christian transhumanists who combine 1 and 2. Andrew Webb, of the Christian vegetarian society, seems to belong here, as he is in favour of all wild animals being confined to zoos, and he celebrates the loss of wilderness.
Personally, I find both the Buddhist and transhumanist paradises dystopian. Also, one thing that Pearce et al. don’t seem to notice is that a suffering-free earth could equally be well achieved by elminating the biosphere. In some ways, his Sukhavati-like suggestion – cosseted, drugged-up humans, and no animals – sounds like a sort of global suicide.
On the other hand, I would like a less callous world; I personally don’t eat meat, and I don’t celebrate carnivory, but I don’t want carnivores to become extinct. A possible solution that intrigues me is that of Patanjali – that the saint generates a compassion-field around himself such that cruelty and predation do not take place, and the only hope for Nature and society is to produce more saints.
However, in the last analysis, I think these issues are probably insoluble, and we just have to live with the paradox; sorry to not be more helpful! I tend to believe in reincarnation, but as continued earthly (or elsewhere) experience, not as escape; there could be something Swedenborgian here – the idea of the blessed going to hell for an eternity of service to others.
“The Sacred does not culminate in NonDuality or the Monism of the One,, it is a constant reality of all three dimensions, dimensions that cannot be reduced to any one. ”
That could be seen aa a Zen interpretation of Buddhism – the idea that being on this side of enlightenment we are already enlightened, transcending the distinction between transcendence and non-transcendence.



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Chall8987

posted March 24, 2010 at 10:30 am


I’d like to speak up for the Buddhist mind set here even though I am not a Buddhist myself. Their claim that beauty is a mask for suffering strikes me as very true. From your example with the hike, you cite your own suffering as being worth the view, but you don’t really acknowledge the fact that while your suffering for that view is voluntary, there is a great deal of suffering associated with it that is not.
The example of the cycle of life and violent death is a good one to illustrate this point. How many people after all would choose to die a terrible death simply so they’re bodies could nourish a field or a forest. I believe the answer is few. Thus, the Buddhist perspective that beauty is an illusion comes about, because the beautiful highlights of this life keep us clinging to it for those brief joys rather than escape into peace.



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Cheryl Hill

posted March 24, 2010 at 11:20 am


Turmario mentioned to me: “Thank you for clarifying–you hadn’t mentioned reincarnation previously. Of course, I’d point out that Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, at any rate, see reincarnation as a bad thing, since it brings one back into the world of suffering and illusion. The idea is to get off the ride. Can the ride be fun at times? Of course–but just as one wouldn’t want to live on a roller coaster, one doesn’t want to stay in samsara.”
Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m a Hedge Witch and not Buddhist :) I don’t see the world as only full of “suffering and illusion”,
Forgive me for waxing poetic, but have you ever stood on an ocean shore? The waves reach the shore and are drawn back into the ocean, only to crash back on the sands again. The waves come, go, come again. Our worries come, go, come again. Our lives come, go, come again. Our existence can be likened to a wave crashing on the shore. It did not begin here and it will not end here. It returns to it’s Source, and is then sent out again.
I’ve watched waves thunder onto the wet sand and see how they fan out into glittering foam for just a few moments before rushing back to the ocean, and I am at peace with this knowledge. For this moment we’re just another wave on the beach, but while we live we will glitter and sparkle in the sun, and return again and again.



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Franklin Evans

posted March 24, 2010 at 12:39 pm


A most excellent post and thread. My thanks to all who’ve contributed so far.
Without going into (a very long essay of) details, I view my universe as a place of balance, and my ego as a barrier to understanding it. Balance is a dynamic process, not a destination or static entity, that continues over time and across distance. I note in human history that, in personal terms, one era’s monster(s) (Hitler, Stalin, a long list) is from my POV balanced by another era’s hero(es) or saint(s) (M. Ghandi, MLK Jr., another long list); that they are not connected in obvious ways means, to me, that I must explore that balance further to better understand it.



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Gus diZerega

posted March 24, 2010 at 12:40 pm


Chall8987 misreads me, for the discussion preceding above the mountain episode explicitly discusses what he says I forgot.
I will do another post soon on this dealing with the harder examples – such as the small child who is suffering and possibly dying from cancer, and into whose collection jar I contributed while at the grocery store yesterday, after posting my original piece.
In my view there are satisfying answers to examples such as that – though whether I can do it justice even in my own eyes in the space of a blog post remains to be seen.
But please note- I do not deny the reality of the NonDual nor do I deny the possibility of one deciding for oneself to pursue a path that takes him or her off the wheel of life and into complete identification with the NonDual. It is not my choice and I am only criticizing the frequently encountered view that there is a hierarchy of religious wisdom culminating in those that focus their sights on the NonDual.



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Robert Puckett

posted March 24, 2010 at 3:26 pm


Well spoken, Gus!



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Michael

posted March 24, 2010 at 10:26 pm


Can I have a witness? Seriously though, I’ve been looking for Pagan “testimonials” of a sort–very specific stories of how Pagan faith has helped Pagan individuals / families / faith communities deal with tragedies. Not simply Pagan thinking on suffering, but actual experience in dealing with it. Is anyone here aware of any sites (preferable) or books (less so) that have material like this? Thanks.



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Sarenth

posted March 25, 2010 at 2:26 am


Michael
-Perhaps my faith has not yet helped me weather a disaster or death in the family, but the last death in the family that affected me personally happened quite a number of years ago. I’ve yet to be through what can actually be called a disaster. However, in working through internal issues, in becoming a better person, Paganism has contributed deeply. My religious practice and experiences consistently push me to reevaluate myself and work toward achieving the Me I am supposed to be, not what people have put on me, the conditioning I have received, or the crap from people that I’ve taken as rote for so long.
My faith is transformative, as surely as the world around me transforms each and every day. I look at the world, and see it in varying stages of the cycles of life and death. Suffering, to me, is actually not as prevalent in Nature as I think many would like to think. Whether it is wolves bringing down a deer, a lioness a gazelle,or ants a beetle, the suffering that is inflicted upon them tends to be momentary comparative to the cruelty humans inflict on their victims, human or animal.
I’ve yet to see a single documentary depicting a wolf as trying to maximize the suffering of the deer it wants to eat, or the lion ‘taking its time’ and dragging out the pain its prey feels. Even beetles will be swiftly killed and transported back into the hive to be consumed. There isn’t a kind of cruelty in what they do, it’s efficient, and it allows you to eat as quick as possible, to consume the most amount of food possible.
Humans, it seems, have the choice to engage in suffering about them, and can increase it by leaps and bounds if called to. It is one thing to be poor, it is far worse to have aid food ripped from your hands. Animals tend (note the gross generalization), by contrast, to fight over resources until one or both parties is not a threat to their food supply, or until they have eaten. Several animals have methods of dealing with interspecies conflicts over food that does not end in bloodshed, and merely ends in one having more food than another. Humans, on the other hand, will actively deny each other food when they not only have enough, but when they have such large surpluses that the only reason they won’t share is miserly greed.



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Cheryl Hill

posted March 25, 2010 at 8:37 am


Michael I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for because it’s poetry, but I wrote this shortly after the sudden death of my husband from a heart attack in 1996 (I remarried in 2001).
To the Goddess in my Sorrow
I stood at the threshold of agony,
unwilling to cross into the terrain
of torturous wretchedness facing me.
How can I navigate the fields of pain?
I pondered, hesitant, trying again
I entered and felt my bravery wane.
I drew a deep breath to steady my nerves
while surveying the cruel desolation.
Cold terror was draining all my reserves
as I shivered at my isolation.
Struggling with my soul’s trepidation
I endured my fate with resignation.
I wandered through the landscape of despair,
searching for remnants of what I had known.
Each salvaged piece brought its torture to bear,
a reminder of loss more clearly shown.
The fragments gathered made my spirit groan;
I kneeled to Goddess, my lot to bemoan.
“Cailleach, please help me, Your counsel I seek
For I am despondent and forsaken.
I cannot bear an existence so bleak
as this, where my whole life has been taken,
yet I live. Or has Death been mistaken
in leaving me a new day to waken?”
As I knelt granting my tears their release
Her loving Spirit wrapped tightly around,
cradling my soul and bestowing Her peace.
She showed me Her endless mercies abound,
raised up and set me upon higher ground,
bequeathing Her strength ’til my own I found.
Thus filled with power imparted to me
from the merciful Goddess descended,
I rose from the depths of my misery
by the love that the Goddess extended.
A heart once shattered, gracefully mended;
my disconsolate grieving has ended.



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Franklin Evans

posted March 25, 2010 at 10:30 am


Michael, I suggest (being a personal POV) that such testimonials will fall under a general description that is at odds with other belief systems, notably the Abrahamic monotheisms (with Judaism being quite arguably an exception): We Pagans do not seek to surrender our grief to the gods, to be rid of it or to surrender ourselves to their omniscient wills. We ask of them only to stand with us in partnership until we are once again able to walk forward on our own.
Cheryl, that was simply beautiful. Thank you for sharing it here.



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Pitch313

posted March 25, 2010 at 12:10 pm


Buddhism as we typically understand it holds that “existence is suffering.” But it might be more fruitful to think of this proposition as something on the order of “existence is process.”
Buddhism, as I have come to understand it (and I’m not Buddhist, only a Pagan influenced by Buddhism) offers ways to appreciate taking part in the process and/or of stepping out of the process. But my sense is that at this refined level of metaphysics Buddhism doesn’t really make the process, the suffering, a moral question. That’s somewhat less refined, so to speak.
I used to be fascinated with speculations about the qualities of the ultimate, if it had them, or/and/maybe the ultimate absent qualities.
But I let go of this fascination because I found that I actually did not care about stepping out of the process and didn’t aspire to spiritual or metaphysical refinement at that level.
You know–Dual. Non-Dual. Singular. Who cares? What we behold from the top of the mountain is the everyday life we live. Or not!
By the way, a challenging blog post, Gus! Tip of the hat!



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Michael

posted March 25, 2010 at 7:39 pm


Cheryl, thank you for sharing something so moving and meaningful.
Franklin, thank you for your comments.



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Franklin Evans

posted March 26, 2010 at 10:16 am


You’re welcome, Michael. It was an excellent question.



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