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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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)
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.