What is Real? A Rationalist Zen Meditation on a Neo-Pagan Anecdote

What is Real? A Rationalist Zen Meditation on a Neo-Pagan Anecdote January 23, 2018

Father Christmas






I was visiting with a friend, a Neo-pagan, who wanted to tell me a story.

Now, to be honest. I don’t have many friends who are Neo-pagan. In my Unitarian Universalist ministry, the first people I would disappoint were almost always those who fit broadly into the New age camp. They thought Buddhism and the New Age overlapped significantly. I thought otherwise. Well, I still do. The same was true for the majority of Neo-pagans who broadly share a similar world-view with the New age.

And as a Zen priest, many who know me, or read my various writings, put me in a camp close to the great Buddhist atheist Stephen Batchelor. So, not a lot of affinity.

The experience of this world that most New age folk and Neo-pagans and I have is vastly different. How we see this world, how we engage it, all different. As different as our general premises about what is “real.”

And, I admit, within this conflicted sense of reality, when I meet with folk with a New age or Neo-pagan perspective,  and they talk about that which is most important to me, it makes the hair on my forearms stand up.

Not long ago I was talking with someone who found it endlessly fascinating that two people shared a couple of digits in their phone numbers. He found meaning in it. I found someone I thought had a tenuous grasp on the real.

Much of the world view of the New age and with it of the Neo-pagan community, quite frankly, creeps me out. That term “woo woo” just bubbles up, and I find it near difficult to not simply dismiss what they say as unconnected with anything worth attending to.

And, there are a handful of people I know, like my friend with whom I was sharing a cuppa, who say things that are near impossible to distinguish from those offering anecdotes like the small coincidence of phone number digits, with whom, nonetheless, I feel some mysterious alliance. I have trouble distinguishing the why or even the deeper truth of the matter. But when they tell me their stories, some of these among the New age cohort or Neo-pagans, I just feel what they report is true.

True, is of course, a complicated word. Messy. And not always bound up with facts.

Why I feel this about one and not another? I really don’t know. As a Zen person I have to fall back on the great I “don’t know.” Only don’t know. But, some just seem to be speaking the truth, if at the same time occupying a slightly parallel universe. Some seem to be authentically following the path of wisdom.

But it is all so messy. And the why one seems plausible, but not another, well, I just can’t say why.

For instance…

I was having coffee with a Neo-pagan friend. As I said, I don’t have a lot of Neo-pagan friends. I’m just too critical, too rationalist, too, well, from some perspectives, too materialistic, to be friends, authentically opening to each other friends with people whose world is so radically different than mine. Now, I believe he knows my hyper-rational side. Although we don’t speak of it. But, he also knows he is in tune with my “spiritual” side. And, whatever, he feels “safe” sharing some things with me. And, I guess, I feel safe hearing what he has to say.

Over our coffee he proceeded to tell me a story. It begins with the fact his oldest child never was willing to sit on Santa’s lap. Okay. Small beginning. It dates from when the boy was little more than two years old. Just wasn’t going to do it. No matter the blandishments, just wasn’t going to sit in the big guy’s lap.

Then there they were. The boy was about three and a half. They were going to a strip mall that they frequented. It was near a spot where various seasonal things were set up. And, indeed, as they showed up, there was something.

Although it was unusual. There, standing in the otherwise empty field was a Santa’s hut, although there were a number of unusual things about it. One, is that there were no signs announcing the opportunity for a photograph. No young women or others dressed as Santa’s elves. Just a very unusual hut. Actually, it was a lot more than a hut. The structure was solid, almost massive carved wood in a traditional European style. And solid. Obviously solid way beyond what was, or is normative in a take your picture with Santa set up.

And standing in front of that set up was Santa. And even there obviously not a typical mall Santa; rather someone with a natural beard, long and flowing white, the right girth, a very “realistic” costume, more it seemed at the time just what he would wear to work, looking over at them, and waving them toward him.

The child who had spent every Christmas for the past several ignoring or even resisting various Santas just starting walking up to him. The parents followed.

What happened later, well, it was just ordinary things. Santa greeted the boy and invited him to sit on his lap and to talk about what he wanted. “Wanted” being an open ended thing, it seemed. Santa only glanced at the parents, although to my more spiritual-oriented friend, there was a message in the glance, “I’m not here for you…”

And, then it was over. The parents walked back to the mall and a gift shop they were actually there for. And then my friend turned back, and he said, plainly, simply, without any sense to me of embellishment, that field was now empty. The building, Santa, they were all gone.

He offered little by way of commentary. Which is part of why I so like him. It simply was something that happened. Meaning? Well, if there’s any, that’s for later. He admitted he thought of Odin. Me, I thought of Hotai. Neither of us felt a need to ground the anecdote further.

Although it did remind me of a poem.

The Very Short Sutra on the Meeting of the Buddha and the Goddess

by Rick Fields

Thus I have made up:

Once the Buddha was walking along the forest path
In the Oak Grove at Ojai, walking without arriving anywhere
Or having any thought of arriving or not arriving
And lotuses shining with the morning dew
Miraculously appeared under every step
Soft as silk beneath the toes of the Buddha

When suddenly, out of the turquoise sky,
Dancing in front of his half shut inward looking eyes,
Shimmering like a rainbow or a spider’s web
Transparent as the dew on a lotus flower,
-The Goddess appeared quivering
Like a hummingbird in the air before him
She, for she surely was a she
As the Buddha could clearly see
With his eye of discriminating awareness
Was mostly red in color
Though when the light shifted
She flashed like a rainbow.
She was naked except
For the usual flower ornaments
Goddesses wear
Her long blue hair was deep blue,
Her two eyes fathomless pits of space
And her third eye a bloodshot
Ring of fire.

The Buddha folded his hands together
And greeted the Goddess thus:
‘O Goddess, why are you blocking my path.
Before I saw you I was happily going nowhere.
Now I’m not sure where to go.”

“You can go around me,” said the Goddess,
Twirling on her heels like a bird darting away,
But just a little way away,
“Or you can come after me.
This is my forest too,
You can’t pretend I’m not here.”
With that the Buddha sat
Supple as a snake
Solid as a rock
Beneath a Bo tree that sprang
Full leaved to shade him.
“Perhaps we should have a chat,” he said.
“After years of arduous practice
At the time of the morning star
I penetrated reality, and now .. ”
“Not so fast, Buddha.
I am reality.”

The earth stood still,
The oceans paused,
The wind listened
– a thousand arhats, bodhisattvas, & dakinis
Magically appeared to hear
What would happen in the conversation.
“I know I take my life in my hand,” said the Buddha
“But I am known as the Fearless One
– so here goes.”

And he & the Goddess
Without further words
Exchanged glances
Light rays like sunbeams
Shot forth
So bright that even
Sariputra, the All Seeing One,
Had to turn away.

And then they exchanged mind
And there was a great silence as vast as the universe
That contains everything
And then they exchanged bodies
And clothes
And the Buddha arose
As the Goddess
And the Goddess
Arose as the Buddha
And so on back & forth
For a hundred thousand kalpas.

If you meet the Buddha
You meet the Goddess,
If you meet the Goddess
You meet the Buddha.
Not only that. This:
The Buddha is the Goddess,
The Goddess is the Buddha.
And not only that. This:
The Buddha is emptiness
The Goddess is bliss.
And that is what
And what-not you are
It’s true.

So here comes the mantra of the Goddess & the Buddha,
the unsurpassed non-dual mantra.

Just to say this mantra, just to hear this mantra once, just to hear
one word of this mantra once makes everything the way it truly is: OK.

Who knows what is made up. Frankly, I don’t think my friend’s story is made up. And then that adds in one more thing. Who knows what is a dream? In this mysterious world, who knows? What with that “is” and “is not?” Who knows?

I find myself thinking of the world within the Buddha of history walked. The air he breathed. And with that, his as natural as the air one breathes assumptions about what is true and real. And, my friend’s? And, my own?

For me the invitation is to that place beyond self and other, beyond my knowing of this or that, to a place of mystery unfolding. My friend speaks true from his authentic life. And, I emphasize that “authentic.” He’s not making things up. Of that I have no doubt. He is speaking from a reality, which I do not share, but which I recognize. Not as some sort of ego-aggrandizement. But, as the real as he encounters it. As I try so hard to do myself.

The invitation for us all is to attend to what presents. And. We’re also cautioned by our guides on the great way not to judge too quickly. But, rather, let it be. Just this. Just this.

And. At some point we will need to sort what is more useful from that which is less so. But in the moment. Just attend. Just notice. Just be present to what is as it unfolds before us. Father Odin? Maybe. Hotai? Perhaps. The goddess? The Buddha?

The mystery presents…

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