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Free Spirit Alliance: education and celebration

At the last Free Spirit Alliance meeting, we talked about coming up with a "mission statement" for FSA. We decided that that officers and trustees will discuss this further and come up with a proposal to bring to the membership.

During the original discussion at the meeting, the phrase "education and celebration" popped into my head. I sat down and worked up the following. To some degree it's aspirational rather than representative of what we currently do, but I think that's inherent in the nature of a mission statement. Your comments are welcome.

The Free Spirit Alliance provides opportunities for education and celebration for the Pantheist community.

What does this mean?

FSA presents events that feature expert teachers and presenters on a variety of topics of interest to the community, including ritual and ceremony, deep mythology, spirituality, magic, healing, art and music, and ecology. We also help facilitate communication within the community, so that we can learn from each other. And we promote religious tolerance by serving as an educational resource about Pantheism and Paganism for people outside the community.

FSA's events are celebrations! In our gatherings and rituals and Circles, we celebrate the seasons, we celebrate the world, we celebrate Spirit in all its forms, we celebrate our lives, and we celebrate each other. In the words of noted Pagan bard Billy Bardo, “We're also here to celebrate the best of us in you!”

FSA's articles of incorporation open our membership up to "self-professed pantheist[s]". What is a Pantheist? Since it is a matter of self-identification, our official stance is carefully mute on the subject: if you say you're a Pantheist, then you are. But here are some non-binding ideas for consideration:

  • "Pantheism is the deep theology of modern paganism." – Paul Harrison, Practice of scientific pantheism
  • "Pantheism is the view that the Universe (Nature) and God are identical. Pantheists thus do not believe in a personal, anthropomorphic or creator god. The word derives from the Greek: πᾶν (pan) meaning 'all' and θεός (theos) meaning 'God'. As such, Pantheism denotes the idea that 'God' is best seen as a way of relating to the Universe. Although there are divergences within Pantheism, the central ideas found in almost all versions are the Cosmos as an all-encompassing unity and the sacredness of Nature." – Wikipedia
  • "Pantheists are persons who derive their fundamental religious experience through their personal relationship with the Universe. They feel that Nature is the ultimate context for human existence, and seek to improve their relationship with the natural world as their fundamental religious responsibility.

    "Religion is seen as a system of reverent behavior toward the Earth rather than subscription to a particular creed. Because Pantheists identify God with Nature rather than an anthropomorphic being, Pantheists oppose the arrogant world-view of anthropocentrism"– Universal Pantheist Society

  • "Pantheism is a metaphysical and religious position. Broadly defined it is the view that (1) 'God is everything and everything is God ... the world is either identical with God or in some way a self-expression of his nature'.... Similarly, it is the view that (2) everything that exists constitutes a 'unity' and this all-inclusive unity is in some sense divine.... A slightly more specific definition ... says ... '“Pantheism” ... signifies the belief that every existing entity is, only one Being; and that all other forms of reality are either modes (or appearances) of it or identical with it.' Even with these definitions there is dispute as to just how pantheism is to be understood and who is and is not a pantheist. Aside from Spinoza, other possible pantheists include some of the Presocratics; Plato; Lao Tzu; Plotinus; Schelling; Hegel; Bruno, Eriugena and Tillich. Possible pantheists among literary figures include Emerson, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, and Robinson Jeffers." – Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • "Pantheism is sexed-up atheism." – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Kagami Biraki

I've been meaning for a while to do more blogging about martial arts training and my life as a karateka. And it seems to me that a good point of departure is the traditional New Year's celebration that many martial artists who train in systems originating in Japan have engaged in over the past few weeks: Kagami Biraki.

(Before continuing -- for those who know me from other contexts, here's my karate background in brief. I started training in Seido Karate in 1985. Pretty much slacked off it in college, but got serious about karate again in grad school, and started acting as a teaching assistant when Jun Shihan Kate Stewart started the Seido program at the Howard County YMCA in the early 90s. (That program actually started at the Catonsville YMCA, and there's a whole story about that which I won't get into now...) I made black belt in 1995, and started teaching at my own tiny program in Catonsville in 2002. I hold a yondan, fourth degree black belt, ranking -- where I've just about reached the level of my incompetence!)

Kagami Biraki literally means "opening the mirror" or "breaking the mirror". Like many aspects of Japanese culture connected with Shinto, its origins seem to be lost in time -- not surprising when you realize that some of the roots of Japanese culture go back over 10,000 years, while writing didn't come in until the sixth century, brought along with Buddhism from China. But the celebration may have some connection to the winter solstice myth of Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess who hid in a cave after her brother offended her, plunging the world into darkness until the other kami lured her out with her own reflection in a mirror. According to one story, in ancient times there was actually a practice of covering up mirrors for a time around the New Year, and Kagami Biraki was the time to "open up" or "break out" the mirror.

As it's practiced in Japanese homes today Kagami Biraki tops off the New Year's holiday season. There are special kagami mochi, "mirror pastries", that are placed on the family's shrine leading up to Kagami Biraki, and then are eaten on that day. Or at least, that's the way it was until recently. Modern Japanese families may get their kagami mochi encased in a thick vinyl coating, which keeps them from going moldy but also renders them unsuitable for cooking -- when I was in Japan over New Years in 2003, not quite knowing the deal, we tried cutting them out of the wrapper and toasting them up. Not recommended! The plastic-coated mochi is sort of like the plastic Christmas tree, combining symbolism with convenience.

(Mochi, by the way, is often translated as "rice cake", but they are not at all like the puffed rice cakes you might find in the health food aisle of your grocery story. They are made of pounded rice flour; my favorite variety of mochi, yomogi daifuku, is filled with sweet red bean paste and seasoned with mugwort. Kagami mochi are just plain rice flour, though.)

In modern martial arts dojos, Kagami Biraki is celebrated as a time of renewing one's training, generally without any religious significance. Each school tends to have their own traditions. In Seido Karate, Kagami Biraki celebrations involve a good workout, lots of sweat and lots of kiai. My own instructor, Jun Shihan Kate, is fond of starting us off with 1,000 punches -- I could definitely feel that the next morning.

According to martial arts researcher (and outstanding teacher and all around fascinating fellow) Shuseki Shihan Chris Caile, a special Kagami Biraki training is a budo tradition that, like so many others, goes back to the master of masters, Jigoro Kano. Kano was the founder of judo and the man to whom we owe much of the philosophy of modern budo as well as the belt system and dan and kyu ranks.

When we consider martial arts as a path to self-improvement, the metaphor of the mirror is a powerful one. In Zen, mirror symbolism goes back to at least the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng, who earned his position in a sort of poetry contest on the topic of mirror as a metaphor for mind. (At least, according to the legend. Scholars debate whether Hui Neng ever even existed, much less whether he said and did the things attributed to him.)

According to the twentieth century Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, "When the mind becomes clear, it is like a mirror: red comes and the mirror is red; yellow comes and the mirror is yellow; a mountain comes and the mirror is a mountain. Your mind is the mountain; the mountain is your mind. They are not two." The mirror accepts and reflects whatever is put before it, without discrimination.

You can see that martial arts training provides a strong incentive to develop this sort of mind. When an attack comes, my mind must accept and accurately reflect the reality of the situation. No good to have a mind attached to "I just know he's going to throw that left front kick!" as my opponent's right roundhouse kick makes its way to my head. Getting hit is a pretty simple form of conditioning, suitable even for slow learners like myself. Hopefully, we can then take that reflective, non-grasping mind out into the world, and use it for higher purposes than just not getting kicked in the head. (That's not to say that not getting kicked in the head is not a good thing. I'm all in favor of not getting kicked in the head.)

The mind-mirror reflects not only the outside world, but our own self. It's part of the human condition that we each carry around in our mind a self-image, and (excepting a handful of perfectly enlightened individuals, if you believe in that sort of thing) that image is distorted to some degree. Kagami Biraki, then, is an opportunity to "break" that old mirror, let go of that distorted image.

But if this all seems too esoteric, there's another meaning to Kagami Biraki that I think is very important. Kagami mochi are not the only flat, round, vaguely mirror-shaped objects that are involved in New Year's celebrations. There's also the lid of a sake cask!

According to the website of the Gekkeikan sake company (perhaps a biased source), "Kagami refers to the lid of the sake barrel and biraki means 'to open' so kagami-biraki literally means 'opening the lid.' Because of the lid's round shape, the kagami is a symbol of harmony. The kagami-biraki, therefore, represents an opening to harmony and good fortune."

We might therefore, roughly, equate "Kagami Biraki" with "tapping the keg". And as it happened, this year our Kagami Biraki celebration at the dojo fell on the same day that I had my birthday party, so I got to experience that meaning as well!

Ryōkan in the Bronx

One of my favorite Zen stories is about Ryōkan, a Japanese hermit-monk-poet of the late 18th/early 19th century. Like every good story, there are many slightly different versions, and it grows in the telling -- you may have heard me tell this one around the fire at FSG, or allude to it in one of my poems. The tale goes something like this:

Ryōkan was a hermit monk who lived a simple life in a hut up in the hills. One day he went down to the village, probably to beg a little food and play with the kids. When he got back to his tiny little hut, he found a burglar going through his meager possessions.

Now, you or I would probably be pretty pissed at this point. I can see myself grabbing up a stick and giving the burglar what-for. But Ryōkan, he was a enlightened Zen guy. He knew that anyone who was trying to rob him -- a hermit in a hut, for crying out loud! -- had to be pretty desperate.

So Ryōkan said, "You've come all this way to see me, and I'm sorry that I don't have anything to offer you! I can't let you go away empty-handed. Please," he said, taking off his robe, "take this with you."

And as the befuddled thief walked away with the robe, Ryōkan stood naked in the night and looked up at the sky. "Poor fellow!" he said. "I wish I could give him that beautiful moon."

Now that's a pretty good story, but, we might ask, is being compassionate to thieves really practical, in this day and age?

Julio Diaz thought so. I don't know if Mr. Diaz had ever heard of Ryōkan; but one night in the Brox, when a teenage mugger with a knife demanded his wallet, Mr. Diaz not only handed it over, but gave him the coat off his back as well. And then invited him to dinner.

They went to a diner. They talked. The kid gave Mr. Diaz his wallet back, and also gave up the knife. Mr. Diaz gave the kid $20. From there -- well, who knows? Like Ryōkan's thief, the kid headed off into the night, probably scratching his head in wonder and confusion.

You can hear Mr. Diaz tell the story at

(Thank you, Nidaime Akira Nakamura, for posting Mr. Diaz's story -- I'd seen it a while back but lost the link.)

lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at you

I don't believe in astrology in the least. But, I do check Rob Brezsny's "Freewill Astrology" every week, as a random source of insight. And this week's Capricorn entry, was so perfect that I guffawed out loud and made everyone in Bean Hollow turn and stare:

I have tracked down a formula that I think should be one of your central ongoing meditations in 2011. It's from newsman David Brinkley: "A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her." In the coming months you will be extra smart about knowing which of these bricks to use and how exactly to position them in your foundation. And more than that, Capricorn: You will have special insight not only about bricks that have been flung fairly recently, but also about those that have been hurled at any time in your life.


An important term to add to your vocabulary: "Woohoo – The indefinable property that lets our brains represent some experiences as powerful, important, or pleasurable. Woohoo is the subtle difference between ordinary and exciting, the factor that makes just another stranger into your friend, your teacher, or your lover. Woohoo is what turns an activity into a passion; it’s what changes noise into song, foot movement into dance, travel into adventure, procreation into eros, and biological processes into a life worth living. Woohoo is the measure of intensity. It’s what continues to draw your attention, moment after moment." -- Phil Farber

D. H. Lawrence's proto-Pagan creed

More and more I find D. H. Lawrence to be an important "proto-Pagan" literary figure. Consider the following remarkable excerpt from his book Studies in Classic American Literature, where he contrasts his moral philosophy with that of Benjamin Franklin:

Here's my creed, against Benjamin's. This is what I believe:

'That I am I.'

'That my soul is a dark forest.'

'That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.'

'That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.'

' That I must have the courage to let them come and go.'

'That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women.'

There is my creed. He who runs may read. He who prefers to crawl, or to go by gasoline, can call it rot.

Then for a 'list'. It is rather fun to play at Benjamin.

1. Temperance

Eat and carouse with Bacchus, or munch dry bread with Jesus, but don't sit down without one of the gods.

2. Silence

Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot.

3. Order

Know that you are responsible to the gods inside you and to the men in whom the gods are manifest. Recognize your superiors and your inferiors, according to the gods. This is the root of all order.

4. Resolution

Resolve to abide by your own deepest promptings, and to sacrifice the smaller thing to the greater. Kill when you must, and be killed the same: the must coming from the gods inside you, or from the men in whom you recognize the Holy Ghost.

5. Frugality

Demand nothing; accept what you see fit. Don't waste your pride or squander your emotion.

6. Industry

Lose no time with ideals; serve the Holy Ghost; never serve mankind.

7. Sincerity

To be sincere is to remember that I am I, and that the other man is not me.

8. Justice

The only justice is to follow the sincere intuition of the soul, angry or gentle. Anger is just, and pity is just, but judgement is never just.

9. Moderation

Beware of absolutes. There are many gods.

10. Cleanliness

Don't be too clean. It impoverishes the blood.

11. Tranquility

The soul has many motions, many gods come and go. Try and find your deepest issue, in every confusion, and abide by that. Obey the man in whom you recognize the Holy Ghost; command when your honour comes to command.

12. Chastity

Never 'use' venery at all. Follow your passional impulse, if it be answered in the other being; but never have any motive in mind, neither offspring nor health nor even pleasure, nor even service. Only know that 'venery' is of the great gods. An offering-up of yourself to the very great gods, the dark ones, and nothing else.

13. Humility

See all men and women according to the Holy Ghost that is within them. Never yield before the barren.

There's my list. I have been trying dimly to realize it for a long time, and only America and old Benjamin have at last goaded me into trying to formulate it.

it takes an Erisian village...

I've been to Greenwich Village a couple of times before, but previously I've always been tagging along with someone who knew the area, so I didn't really bother with navigation. But last night, I decided that I should check a map before heading down for dinner and a few drinks (at, as it turned out, a nice little restaurant called Village Natural, and then the famous Stonewall Inn).

Now, Manhattan is famous for being laid out on a grid of east-west streets and north-south avenues. Indeed, it's lent its name to the mathematical concept of "Manhattan distance", the sum of the horizontal and vertical distance distance between two points, as if you were walking a square grid. It's pretty much a canonical example of Order. Chelsea, which is the neighborhood where the Seido Karate Honbu is located and thus where I spend most of my NYC visits, is just about a perfect implementation of this grid.

But when you go just a few blocks south into Greenwich Village the grid breaks down. Here, the system is so warped that 4th Street actually bends to run north-south and intersects with other numbered streets.

Now, this would be a sign of the hand of what goddess of Chaos?

And what, my friends, do we find where 5th Avenue and 5th Street would meet, but Washington Square Park, the heart of the Village?

Guess if NYC is the Big Apple, this is the place where it turns to the Golden Apple.

Hail Eris! Kallisti!

Newton the Alchemist

You may know that Issac Newton is a contender for the greatest physicist of all time. You may know that he invented calculus to amuse himself. But did you know he was a serious alchemist? Natalie Angier discusses Newton's fascination with alchemy in The Hindu.

How did one of the greatest scientists of all time get caught up in what is usually thought of today as superstition? She cites William Newman, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University in Bloomington, who has extensively studied Newton's alchemical work. "Alchemy was synonymous with chemistry," says Newman, "and chemistry was much bigger than transmutation."

Mt. Sumeru; Baltimore Zen Center; all true paths lead through mountains

A few months ago, I went to see Brad Warner speak at the Baltimore Zen Center. My good friend Mike Gurklis had been recommending Warner's work to me for a few years; I ended up quoting him twice in Why Buddha Touched the Earth, and had I finally got around to reading his book Hardcore Zen, so I thought it would be worthwhile to see him in person.

And it was. But more than that, I found that my old friend and former English teacher Alan Reese was a member of the BZC sangha. Also, when Brad was late (due to car trouble), the resident teacher, JB "MuSsang" Jaeger, gave a little talk -- and he started off talking about Ikkyu.

If you've been to my "Zen in the Art of Love" workshop, or read any of the drafts of my book, you know that Ikkyu Sojun is my favorite Zen lunatic. It's not just his "Red Thread" concept of Zen with it's explict acceptance and appreciation of sexuality, but the very human person who comes through in his poetry. Like "I like my anger / my grouchy furious love" -- right up my alley.

So between Alan's presence and JB's invocation of one of my favorite spiritual dudes, I thought, "Hmm. This group is worth revisiting."

the hook for the book

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I recently competed the second draft of Why Buddha Touched the Earth, and I've now started to send queries out to literary agents.

It seems that writing a query letter is an art unto itself. Some of the advice I found applied more to novels or to narrative non-fiction than to a historical and philosophical inquiry into religion, but the basic idea of describing your work in a few tight paragraphs, starting off with a one or two sentence "hook", seems pretty sound.

So here's what I came up with. I know in trying to explain this darn thing to some of you before, I've ended up going off on tangents or tripping over my tongue -- hopefully this is clearer! I will be continuing to polish both it and the manuscript itself.

Shortly before his death, John Lennon called himself a "Zen Pagan." With this he gave an excellent name to a religious trend that goes back at least as far as Henry David Thoreau, who wrote of his love and respect for both the ancient nature god Pan and the Buddha.

The connection between Buddhism and nature spirituality is ancient. According to legends of the Buddha's enlightenment, in his hour of need he asked the Earth to bear him witness, rather than appealing to a heavenly deity. Over the centuries Buddhism influenced and was influenced by nature religions like Taoism and Shintō, and its introduction to the West came partly by the work of spiritual nature writers like Thoreau and Gary Snyder. Occultists like Aleister Crowley and H.P. Blavatsky played key roles in both Buddhist and Pagan history.

Why Buddha Touched the Earth: Zen Paganism for the 21st Century investigates these connections. It combines rigorous historical research with lively and practical discussions of mysticism, magic, meditation, ethics, and the future of religion.


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