Flexibility is one of the things I love most about the Neo-Pagan movement. Many people (myself included) feel empowered to meld different spiritual practices to create something that speaks to our individual needs, and that’s a powerful thing. The amalgamated term “Zen Pagan” is one example of the beautiful fluidity and flexibility of modern Pagan practice. When I had the opportunity to read Why Buddha Touched the Earth: Zen Paganism for the 21st Century, by Tom Swiss, I jumped at the chance.
Packed with history, travel memories, and poetry, this book is a dense resource that is best read in small bites, and the chapters are perfectly structured for a leisurely read. Each section begins with a bit of contemplative memoir before diving into the history of Zen, the history of modern Paganism and witchcraft, and even the connection between the Transcendentalists, the Beat poets, and magic. Swiss has clearly done his research, but he maintains a friendly tone reminiscent of Zen koans as he covers centuries of history. The connection between Zen and Paganism, according to Swiss, is simple: “both emerge from the need to build a spirituality capable of dealing with the radical changes in human civilization we are undergoing” (p. 22).
From this place of cultural change, Swiss traces the influences of Zen and Paganism on each other, not to mention various other religious and cultural movements. His research stretches back to the Industrial Revolution and beyond, weaving together environmental issues, historical events, and cultural shifts to paint a fascinating spiritual picture of the last two centuries. His book, much like the philosophy he presents, is organic: “everything depends on the conditions created by everything else for its existence, and these conditions are constantly changing” (pg. 45).
While I don’t necessarily feel like a newly minted Zen Pagan expert after reading this book, I certainly enjoyed it, and it made me consider a lot of aspects of culture (and counter culture) in a different light. It’s a thought-provoking, fascinating read, and one that I am likely to revisit in the future.
Like Zen and like Paganism, readers will take away from this book whatever matters most to them, and that’s a powerful thing. As Swiss reminds us, “it is the key to meditation, shamanism, and magic in all their forms: change your mind, change the world” (pg. 113).