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A Pagan's Blog

Pantheacon 2011: Contrasting Tolerance and Pluralism

This isn’t quite
the write-up I anticipated doing because I left my notes somewhere or
other.  A drag, but maybe a
blessing in disguise.  Now I have
to search my memory about what impressed me most.  And a great deal impressed me.  I’ll pick one issue here, and I hope my memory of two presentations is accurate.

The theme of the
2011 Pantheacon was “Walking The Talk.” Pagan spirituality has one huge
difference from its monotheistic oppressors.  It also distinguished us from Buddhism, which so far as I
know has no record of oppressing other traditions, but has a long record of
seeking converts from within them. 

We do not make
monopolistic spiritual claims, ever. 
At Pantheacon Pagans of every sort, Wiccans of all sorts and Druids and
Heathens and African Diasporics and Reconstructionists of every sort meet in
harmony. To my knowledge no one has ever argued their path is the best for
anyone but themselves. 

This distinction
between Pagans and other traditions was striking when I visited two panels, one
where NeoPagans and Hindus discussed the advantages of uniting against
monotheist aggression and the other by a woman Buddhist called, I believe, “The
Future of Buddhism in the West.” 
By many criteria Hindus are Pagans, but with differences from those traditions
not rooted in the Indian subcontinent.

In the
NeoPagan/Hindu panel Hindus Mihir Meghani and Easan Katir and NeoPagans Thorn
Coyle and Selena Fox explored the many important points of spiritual
commonality, and what each community might gain by a closer association.   While members of both groups
likely had criticisms about aspects of the others’ religion, not a word was
uttered.  Instead points of
agreement and mutual respect were emphasized. 

The Hindu
panelists advocated replacing the term religious “toleration” with religious
“pluralism.”  I had come to the
same conclusion myself, no longer speak as an advocate of toleration as a good
in itself, and was very happy to hear the same insight affirmed from a Hindu

The toleration ideal (if
that word even fits)  has Christian roots, but they are not
Biblical.  Unfortunately.  After different kinds of Christians
tired of their mutual slaughter during the Thirty Years War, they began
exploring toleration as a political rather than a spiritual principle.  Since no one was strong enough to kill
everyone on the other side, Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans decided it was
better to live together peacefully. 
Other kinds of Christians, such as Quakers, and Anabaptists were not
tolerated.  They were weak.  For all too many
Christians, toleration is grudging, and when they think they have the power,
they seek to deny it, as we see today.  Such toleration is grudging, mean-spirited, and spiritually
arrogant: I am better, but I will tolerate you.

Pluralism is
quite different.  The divine speaks
to us in many ways and no single path can do it justice.  We have our way, but others have
theirs.  We should honor the
diversity of ways which, taken as a whole, do more justice to the human
relationship to the Sacred than any single way.  The sacredness of Diwali is different from the sacredness of Yule. 
Both are good ways of honoring the Sacred at around the same time of
year. Neither can be reduced to the other. And the world is richer when both
are celebrated by those to whom their traditions speak most powerfully.

The Hindu
panelists emphasized that endorsing religious pluralism should be a criterion
for genuine spirituality.  I
agree.  We should adamantly reject
toleration as anything more than the best we can get from potentially violent
people. Any religious path making monopolistic claims, or merely “tolerating”
others is to that degree not a spiritual path, but an exercise in spiritual
bigotry, arrogance and ignorance. 
It shrinks the Sacred into the crabbed confines of its followers’ minds
and hearts.  And we know that when
religious people become obsessed with the errors they see in others’ religions,
their hearts grow very cold, their minds very closed, and their arrogance and
pride stinks to the heavens.

This is not to
say that religions such as Christianity and Islam are spiritually lacking in value.
To my mind that is clearly not true, and very wise spiritual teachings exist
and spiritual lives lived within their frameworks.   But their spiritual value rests in their developing
spiritual wisdom within their own communities, and not in attacking others.  If they must seek converts, setting a
good example is the best way to do so.

With this
observation I turn to the Buddhism workshop.

Isa Gucciardi gave a very clear and delightfully good humored presentation on why Buddhism was a good
religion for anyone.  It was not
really on “The Future of Buddhism in the West,” as it had been billed.  A more accurate title would have
been “Why Buddhism is good for you.”

Gucciardi did
not criticize Pagans of any stripe, but made it clear she believed anyone would be
better off if they were Buddhists. 
When I asked her a question about Buddhism and women, and referred to writings by Rita Gross,   a Buddhist feminist, who favorably described some words by
Starhawk, she admitted she knew nothing about these issues.  She then went on to tell about some important
cases where Buddhism honored women and the feminine.

What she said
was true, but incomplete. 
Missing was any discussion of the far longer and more dominant
denigration of women by institutionalized Buddhism.  She did not mention that senior nuns are usually (always?) required to bow to
beginning monks, or that many Buddhist teachers argue one can attain liberation
only in a male body.  If a woman is
a good Buddhist she will be reborn as a man.

Rita Gross has argued that the West has had an enormous impact on Buddhism
because it changed the practical role of women in the Sangha (Buddhist
community).  Over 50% of dharma teachers in the US are women in sharp contrast to Asia, Buddhist writer David Chadwick has told me.  So my question was
hardly antagonistic, but sought to address her talk’s title.

In other words,
we did not get a presentation on the future of Buddhism in the West, we
received a cherry picked and one-sided picture of that religion, to make it
more attractive to Pagans to adopt.

I thought this
presentation was inappropriate at a Pagan conference where many Pagans had made
proposals that were rejected.  I
think Pagans should get preferred billing at Pagan conferences, and if other
religions want to be represented there, they should be on panels with Pagans. 
This is particularly true if the presentation is a sales pitch.  (Gucciardi gave a second presentation
on “Bringing the Wisdom of the Earth to the Future” which I was told was very
good, and not a sales pitch. I wish I had heard it as she had made an interesting insight in her talk, describing the Earth as a Bodhisattva) 

The contrast
between the Buddhist presentation and the Pagan-Hindu panel, as well as a later
Hindu presentation “Are Hindus Pagans and are Pagans Hindus?” was striking. The
one ignored Paganism and advocated Buddhism, the other was a joint discussion,
and the  Hindu-only panel that followed also discussed similarities and other
issues between our two communities. 
They engaged Paganism whereas Gucciardi did not.  She ignored it.

I think this
contrast makes my point.  Pluralism
celebrates different approaches to the sacred whereas many Buddhists cannot
acknowledge the spiritual value of other practices except, perhaps, on the road
to Buddhism.  Good Pagans might
have the good fortune of being reborn as Buddhists, just as good Buddhist women
will have the good fortune of being reborn as Buddhist men.

My criticisms should not be taken as
criticisms of Buddhism as a spiritual path.  It seems to me a very good path for many people, and the US
would be a far better place today were there more Buddhists.  But again, the value in Buddhism seems
to me more in setting a good example than in any belief it is superior to other
traditions.  Many of the wisest of Buddhists
seem to have realized this, or are coming very close to it. 

Comments read comments(13)
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Apuleius Platonicus

posted February 26, 2011 at 8:17 am

It’s actually not at all clear that Isa Gucciardi has any meaningful credentials as a representative of Buddhism in the first place. As far as I can tell she has no actual training as a teacher and/or clergy in any tradition of Buddhism. I would strongly caution against making any sort of generalization based on what she said and how she said it.
In practice, though (and this has been true throughout the history of Buddhism), following the Buddha Dharma does not require rejection of other paths. Therefore promotion of Buddhism as potentially beneficial for all does not in any way constitute a “monopolistic spiritual claim.” By definition, monopolies are exclusive, and Buddhism is not and has never been exclusivist. Gucciardi herself claims to base her teachings on a mish-mash of Buddhism, shamanism, Sufism, Christianity, Judaism, hypnotherapy, and other influences.
Also, there were ancient Pagan cults that engaged in proselytizing, the cult of Dionysos being one of the most well known cases. But never did the devotees of Dionysos demand that other Goddesses and Gods not be worshipped, and such an idea would never occur to a Dionysian.

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posted February 26, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Dear Gus:
FYI to you and your readers, Buddhist Nuns are always required to defer to male monks. That is to say, a Nun of 30 thirty years is required to bow to a Monk of, say, two years. One can find this regulation in the Nun’s Vinaya and also in the Book of Eights in the ‘Numerical Sayings of the Buddha’. It’s in the Book of Eights where one finds the history of how exactly the Nun’s Sangha was formed. It ended up in the Book of Eights because there are eight extra regulations which Nuns must follow and all of these are meant to keep Nuns subservient to Monks.
Apropos this topic, there is a reform Vinaya movement headed by Thich Nhat Hanh. I have read his reform regulations and they are very interesting adaptation of the traditional monastic regulations to a 21st century world. I don’t know if they will take root, but it does show an awareness on the part of some Buddhist teachers of a need for reform.
On the topic of the history of Buddhist acceptance of other traditions, this goes all the way back to the Buddha himself. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (The Discourse on the Great Decease) from the Pali/Theravada Canon there is a description of the Buddha’s last months. One of the things he does is to take a walking tour of the area with his trusted disciple Ananda. On this tour he visits various temples and refers to them as ‘beautiful’ and ‘lovely’. These were pre-Buddhist temples, obviously, and he didn’t seem to have any anxiety or hesitation about visiting them and enjoying them.
Best wishes,

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Gus diZerega

posted February 26, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Thank you Jim. I hope Thich Nhat Hanh is successful.
A note of clarification – I wrote “MANY Buddhists cannot acknowledge the spiritual value of other practices…” except as paths ultimately leading to Buddhism. This thinking flows very reasonably: enlightenment/liberation is the finest goal, we approach it slowly through lifetimes, and (only?) Buddhism teaches the path to ultimate enlightenment.
Perhaps this is not the only interpretation available to Buddhists, but it is a common one, and it can be applied more or less crudely. Integrating a pluralistic understanding with missionary work, which for example comes as one clear implication of the Bodhisattva vow, is tricky. Not all succeed.
I do not equate this attitude with the Christian concept of toleration. It is 1000 times better and tolerant in principle, not out of necessity, even if it is in at least some cases not quite pluralistic.
I think denigrating other paths is a occupational hazard of ANY religion which seeks converts who are following other paths, rather than simply setting an example and making their teachings and practices easy to find for anyone interested. Buddhism is less prone to this because many other religions can be practiced along with Buddhism, but the Pantheacon presentation I described certainly tilted in that direction. And I have met lay Buddhists with similar views. I have also met Buddhists who are wonderfully pluralistic, and have deepened my own understanding by my encounter with them.
As a species we delight in thinking in dichotomies (good/bad; better/worse) rather than with a deep understanding of the interrelationships that make things, all things, possible. I think on balance Buddhist teachers probably have a better appreciation of this insight than do many people in other traditions because mutual co-arising, in Joanna Macy’s words, does not easily accord with making dichotomies. But this is hard to do well when you are a missionary.

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posted February 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Gus, I think of different religions as different languages of god. God speaks many different languages so that s/he may speak with all beings. It would be wonderful if all missionaries took this view and set out looking for people who speak the same god-language as they do instead of attempting to coerce others into speaking a god-language that doesn’t speak to them.

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Marlon Hartshorn

posted February 26, 2011 at 4:08 pm

This reminds me of something that has long bothered me. What if Wicca for example became really huge in the next 100 years and became like other more unpleasant aspects of religious dogma we see today? That would really suck. I think it’s simply part of social life. Why do conservative folks on Oklahoma or South Carolina fall in social cliques? If u don’t go to the “right” church, you’re not part of the fold, etc. I think all that is garbage and has no place in the spiritual vitality of a community. Likewise, I think proselytizing is immoral behavior and it’s pointless, unless you want to recruit more folks into your religion. Missionaries have probably done more damage to others than any good done. The road 2 hell is paved with good intentions, in all their sparkling loveliness, and that is one truth that won’t die anytime soon. Talk of plurality sounds wonderful. Buddhism certainly has its very good points. But there are issues, e.g., what Gus mentioned about the less than equal treatment of women (what is that about?) and like Seth said, having a bloated belly & trying to get to Nirvana and living in filth, is hardly god-like. In my view, America has the most potential 2b the best place to live on Earth, if we can just ban hate groups federally & have very strong labor laws protecting workers, and hopefully have enough interfaith work done over the next 30 years to allow those of all religious faiths to work towards our common goals of survival, peace and harmony.

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posted February 26, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Gus, there is the Goddess/Bodhisattva Tara who definitively answers this “reincarnation as a male” question quite nicely. Tara (green, white, or of any other color in the rainbow) specifically stated that she will be reincarnated as a female in every lifetime to prove that gender has no limiting effect on reaching Nirvana. Tara is a very great female power in Mahayana Buddhism, prayed to for protection and the liberation of every samsaric being. I myself have a cherished statuette of Green Tara, so maybe that’s why I just had to fill you in ;)

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posted February 27, 2011 at 1:57 am

Your mileage may vary, but it seems to me that Christianity has generally engaged in more or less intense persecution of other relgions, whereas Buddhism tends to just absorb other religions. Having said that, Catholicism has sometimes been rather more Budddhistic in this respect.
It’s Japan that I know most about, and Buddhists there developed a complex system of syncretism, in which Shinto gods were boddhisattvas for people not intelligent and/or spiritual enough to be full Buddhists. It was a softer intolerance than with the Abrahamic religions, but aggressive nevertheless. Something pretty similar happended with Bon in Tibet.
There have also been occasional bouts of more Abrahamic-like persecution by Buddhism, by Nichirenists, for example.
Back from Buddhism to the main topic of the post; I actually find tolerance, as you distinguish it from pluralism, to be quite admirable.
For example; I disapprove of Christianity, in that it involves believing the factual truth of demonstrably false propositions, in that I consider some of its fundamental moral teachings to be reprehensible, and in that its historic record is much worse than its fundamental teachings. However, I support the freedom of Christians to practise, and I would defend that freedom vigorously were it to be seriously challenged. Equally, I respect the kind of Christian who says that, for example, homosexuality is morally depraved, yet the freedoms and rights of gays should be defended. One may very well be pluralist on many things, but there are some issues about which one may not be, and tolerance, in the John Stuart Mill sense, is then the only alternative to civil war.

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Apuleius Platonicus

posted February 27, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Jim wrote: “FYI to you and your readers, Buddhist Nuns are always required to defer to male monks.”
FYI to Jim and anyone else interested in reality: I have known a great many Buddhist nuns, and none of them have been deferential to anyone.
Jim wrote: “there is a reform Vinaya movement headed by Thich Nhat Hanh. I have read his reform regulations and they are very interesting adaptation of the traditional monastic regulations to a 21st century world.”
Monastic regulations already reflect “a 21st century world.” The world today (including in the West) is still characterized by the oppression of women.

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posted February 27, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Dear Apuleius:
Thanks for responding to my post. I was a Buddhist Monk for six years, and I was acquainted with Buddhist Nuns. I think we are talking past each other.
In a formal ordination based on traditional Vinaya, Buddhist Nuns are required to agree to the eight extra regulations I referred to. In addition, for a Buddhist Nun to be ordained, there must be present a fully ordained Buddhist Monk. However, a Buddhist Monk does not require the presence of a fully ordained Nun. This is orthodox procedure and is followed in China, Korea, Vietnam, and among those Tibetan Orders which have a traditional monastic presence, such as the Gelug. This ordination procedure is not followed in Japan because Japan does not use the traditional Vinaya. This is sometimes a source of confusion, but outside of Japan what I referred to applies. (Technically speaking there are no traditional monks or nuns in Japan.)
In Theravada Buddhist countries the Nun’s ordination has disappeared. This is a complicated history and I won’t go into the details here, but technically speaking the Nun’s lineage came to end a few centuries ago in Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Women who wish to take on full Monastic ordination sometimes go to Korea or Taiwan, where the Nun’s lineage has been fully maintained. There are efforts at this time to revive the Theravada Nun’s Sangha which seems to be making progress. I have met a number of Nun’s in the Theravada tradition, but it should be noted that almost all of these are westerners and these ordinations are controversial in traditional Theravada countries such as Thailand. Theravada Monks who have participated in the ordination of Theravada Nuns have gotten into institutional trouble for their efforts. Still, overall, it does seem that the revival of the Theravada Nun’s Sangha is becoming a reality; slowly, but still becoming a presence.
This does not have any bearing on the attitude of individual Nuns, whether an individual Nun is timid or forthright, scholarly, or devotional, etc. I am referring to the standard procedures whereby Monks and Nuns are accepted into the monastic order.
Best wishes,

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Gus diZerega

posted February 28, 2011 at 12:18 pm

I don’t think we disagree. Religious tolerance’s origins were as I described- better to get along than kill because we are not strong enough to kill all the others. The Bible does not have any passages that can be used to demand religious tolerance (other perhaps than seeing “through a glass darkly”), and many passages that seem to imply otherwise.
But the principle of tolerance can also arise out of a respect for individuals. This form of tolerance has liberal roots that are not Christian in any meaningful sense. (Locke’s very liberal Christianity that helped root his initial argument would never have waged religious war, and would have been rejected by all who developed the first kind of tolerance.) This second kind of tolerance is deeply admirable from my perspective.
This second form of tolerance is actually a secular principle, one that is in harmony with religious pluralism, but not the same.

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posted March 3, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Great Points,and I wish I could have been there.

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Mihir Meghani

posted March 4, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Dear Mr. diZerega, thanks for your wonderful analysis of the Pagan-Hindu sessions at Pantheacon. I believe that Pagans and Hindus share the same inherent pluralism, so there is no innate desire to try to convince anyone that our way is necessarily better. But pluralism is quite an important value we need to promote, and I have written about it at
Thanks for your coverage!

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posted March 5, 2011 at 7:31 am

Seeking superiority is a natural human instinct, resource constraints bring out agression and prioritization, desert cultures and religions and forest religions and farm religions differ in the way they treat diversity
Buddhism’s low status to women stems from its elevation of monk over householder, even as a monk, a woman’s status falls when family life is not emphasized by religion, in ancient societies, being a mother provided great status

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