Mulitfaith Identity & Practice

Yvonne Aburrow, at Sermons From the Mound has an wonderful series on dual religious identities, including her own of reflections on how she has navigated the experience. Her articles outline lots of key terms like syncretism (and its subtypes), and discuss the challenges in multifaith practice. What follows is a reflection on how Buddhism and Paganism meet in my life.

I identify as both Buddhist and Pagan. In Buddhism, metaphysical questions are usually not considered. Mostly because the Buddha said they’re frivolous questions that don’t deal with our real problems. Instead Buddhist practice traditions, like Zen, focus on teaching how to live wakefully. Zen practice has helped me grow as a person and transform suffering into nourishment. However, Zen practice has always felt a little lacking to me – a little too heady and disconnected from the living-breathing Earth. I returned to Pagan practices as a way to honor the wildness in my soul and the marrow in my bones. Yes, soul talk is verboten in Buddhim, but it’s part of my experience. Pagan practices address these needs.

My religions, Buddhism and Paganism, meet in a form of “light” syncretism called coinherence, meaning my practice of each tradition informs the other, but I pursue them more-or-less separately. In practice this means that I do a lot of zazen, attend sesshin when I’m able, and do earth-based rituals regularly. I follow the wheel of the year and participate in a few eclectic ritual groups.

My spirituality, my visceral experience of the sacred, underlies religion and is most simply characterized by immanence and animism. This spirituality allows me to walk both Buddhist and Pagan paths without much conflict. Zen practice first showed me immanence, the experience that all things are alive and connected. Contact with suchness (tathatā) changed the way I lived my life and opened me up to the numinous in everyday experiences. Working as a chaplain brought me to see the world through an animistic lens. My first big animistic experience happened in the ICU of the local hospital, while attending an elder on a ventilator. I was praying with the man’s wife when I had the distinct feeling that someone had come into the room. No one had. A few moments later it felt like two people exited the room, then the man died. The man’s wife said she’d been praying for her husband to pass peacefully and comfortably – she didn’t want to have to decide whether or not to take him off life support. The woman said that an angel must have heard her prayer and come to take her husband home. I stayed with her and helped her begin to process the initial waves of grief that came with the death.

At the time I wasn’t sure what to make of the experience, I’d never encountered such a presence so viscerally before. I remember talking about it with former teachers and supervisors. They said they’d had similar experiences and encouraged me to find my own way of making meaning. I have had more experiences like this since then, and for me, an animistic view is the only thing that fits.

Buddhist teachings view mind as a sense organ. The more we meditate, the clearer the reception. My Pagan and Druidic trainings have taught me that the ancestors and the Otherworld are real, they always accessible if we learn how to attend properly. My training as an interfaith chaplain has taught me to believe and honor others’ faiths; this man’s wife prayed for an angel to come and take him. As far as I’m concerned that is what happened.

But what is the Truth? What really happened? The more I study the more convinced I become that Truth is multiple. In Buddhism the doctrine of the Two Truths tells us that both the relative and absolute views are required to arrive at Ultimate Truth (despite the fact that these truths seem irreconcilable). In Paganism we see this, not only in polytheistic belief, but also in the diversity of belief within the community as a whole. Jorge Ferrer (2008), writing about participatory spirituality and spiritual pluralism, said: “No pregiven ultimate reality exists, . . . different spiritual ultimates can be enacted through intentional or spontaneous cocreative participation in a dynamic and undetermined mystery, spiritual power, and/or generative force of life or reality” (p.142). Put more simply, our beliefs and practices contribute to and create the holy.

When my death arrives I pray that my ancestors will gather round and help me make the crossing to the Otherworld. Even if this doesn’t happen, I do not worry. As a good Buddhist I remember that what happens to me when I die does not matter, what matters is how I live.

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