Monday, April 03, 2006

Mother Goddess, Cut in Twain

One of the most fascinating stories I've ever read is the life story of Sri Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna was a Hindu mystic, a man of little education but of vast spiritual powers. Through his life, he was a devotee of the Goddess Kali Ma. But he also explored the mystical mysteries of other religious traditions, including Christianity and Islam. In one experience described in his biography, he decided to attain a realization of non-dual awareness, which culminated in him slicing his beloved Mother Goddess in half with a sword. Even after this experience, however, Ramakrishna's devotion to Kali Ma never wavered.

I fell into worship of the Great Goddess several years ago, after stumbling on to Paganism and Wicca. For some reason I was drawn to the idea of a universal Creatrix, who breathed life-energy through the matrix of creation. Connecting with Her through various rituals - from elaborate ecstatic dances down to simple gestures, such as leaning against a tree or beholding the clear night sky in awe - felt like connecting with the energy of my own being. It was my first awareness that I was no longer a name and social security number on the header of a credit report. There was more to "I" than met the eye.

I never fell into a full-fledged Wiccan practice, though. Despite my Pagan beliefs, the contemplative traditions held much sway over my consciousness. The idea that my "self" was an illusion fostered by a deluded mind had an allure that never lost its sheen. When I followed the recommendations of meditation masters and examined my own mind, I could see an inkling of the truths they propounded. I knew I had to widen my practice beyond ecstatic ritual and energy work.

I didn't feel like the final piece of the puzzle fell into place, however, until I studied the concept of bodhicitta. Many good people swear by the "Wiccan Rede": "An' it harm none, do as thou wilt." These people are kind and open-hearted, and in many cases are pillars of their community. For me, however, this dictum seemed lacking. I didn't simply want to avoid inflicting harm - I wanted to help! I wanted to find ways to take others along on this journey. It felt, in my heart, like an obligation I had to others; it wasn't optional, and it didn't allow putting my interests above theirs.

[In all fairness, many interpret "thou" in this statement the same way that Aleister Crowley did: as a reference, not to one's egoic self, but to one's "Higher Self" - one's Atman or Holy Guardian Angel. This Higher Self's will is supposed to reflect, not just one's own good, but the good of all mankind. Interpretations, however, vary. Sadly, Crowley's actions didn't really sing of a life spent serving others.]

What's more, the Bodhisattva ideal - which is the implementation of bodhicitta, or loving-kindness, as one's life mission - struck me as an excellent conjunction of the truths of Goddess-worship and Enlightenment. A Bodhisattva refuses to quit the world until his or her mission of liberating all sentient beings from existence is achieved. Bodhisattvas don't retreat from the world; they engage it. While much of Buddhist tradition has a strong renunciate flavor, the Zen and Vajrayana traditions pointed the way to a Buddhism that combined natural pleasure with transcendent realization. And hadn't the Goddess said, by way of Doreen Valiente, that "All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals"? So long as an action is undertaken in a spirit of true giving and loving-kindness, it can be used as a step along the spiritual path.

The Bodhisattva ideal, in other words, pointed to way to teach oneself and others how to turn away from hedonism, not by escaping into asceticism, but by transmuting pleasurable experiences into transcendent ones. It's an idea that has a long and venerable history in the Jewish tradition, where believers are encouraged to "serve God by acknowledging that the fruits of this world are His gifts to us, and by willfully accepting and enjoying those gifts". It's an idea expounded in modern times throughout Ken Wilber's writings, and throughout the works of folks like David Deida.

So that's the short story of how I ended being a Pagan Buddhist operating in an Integral framework.

I used to think that this strange configuration made me "special" or unique. I guess it does, in a way - but if it does, it makes me special like everyone else. Scratch the surface of the "Buddhist" label that most folks adopt, and you'll find a complex net of belief that refuses to confine itself to Buddhadharma. This is hardly a new phenomenon: people have been stitching together immigrant theologies with their native belief structures since the advent of worldcentric religions. What's changed about it in modern times is that it's (1) more open and vocal, and (2) more aggressive. Changes to religious beliefs and structures which used to take generations now occur within a single person's lifetime.

I believe we're looking at a day and age where belief systems - and even "maps" like the wonderful ones created by Wilber and II - will not survive in the long run. As a species, man has grown humble. We realize that grand theories of "everything" are just that: temporary maps that are only as good as they are useful to us in a particular time and cultural context. We'll still have belief systems, but they will be dynamic, not static; they will survive as traditions, as thoughtstreams - not as rigid structures.

What will survive are individual ideas. As each of us experiments with the technologies and beliefs of different wisdom traditions, certain ideas will become prominent in an increasing number of individual belief-systems. I'm merely a single unit in this phenomenal multiprocessor, so my own conclusions are tenuous, but I suspect that many of us will end up on a path of enjoying the gifts of Divinity as we strive to awaken bodhicitta and ultimate awareness in ourselves and others.

We will all still have our own individual beliefs, our thoughts about who or what Divine presence fuels this cosmic charade. We will follow individual moral precepts - things we allow or forbid ourselves, duties we feel bound to perform by our faith. We will have our own unique rituals, prayers, and techniques for awakening the pure heart of compassion.

And we will each have a sword.

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