I recently watched a documentary called “When the Iron Bird Flies: Tibetan Buddhism Arrives in the West.” It was both informative and inspirational. Although Druidism, largely informed by Gaelic Polytheism, is my spiritual home, Buddhism has always interested me. I often find myself watching documentaries about it and reading about it when I can (although I remain a novice on the subject). One thing I found particularly fascinating about this documentary was that it wasn’t so much about the history of the religion/philosophy; the focus was on how Tibetan monks brought the practice to America, and how that practice looks here. Many of the tensions that exist in modern American Druidism can, in some ways, find a parallel in Buddhism in America. For example, how much value should be placed on cultural traditions versus the central tenants? How can we create spaces for our religious practices that don’t compromise our values? How can we take a very old tradition from another land or culture (even one that belonged to our ancestors), and make it relevant to modern people in a different land? How much time should be spent studying versus practicing? I think modern Pagans of many traditions can learn a lot from the movie. It’s also especially inspiring to see how this minority faith has been able to build beautiful centers for its adherents around America. In short, the Buddhist community in the US seems to exist because there are very devoted and serious members who spend a lot of time and, yes, resources on their spiritual passions.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but think about what drew me to Druidism through comparing my “conversion experience” to those shared on the camera. Like the Americans drawn to Buddhism, I embraced Druidism because the messages I was receiving from the dominant culture did not resonate with me or my values. So often, business and money are elevated above health, the environment, and true self-improvement. “American Culture” is so influenced by monotheism as well as a tendency to generalize “exotic” concepts from other cultures. So much of that is often watered down until it’s as useful as an advertising slogan. It’s no wonder so many people like myself look outward or even backwards to a time many have forgotten. I sought something different, fully willing to get my feet muddy and be transformed.
In Buddhism, part of the central focus has to do with suffering. Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths address the reality of suffering and how we must come to terms with that and find peace. Druidism, as we know it, doesn’t really emphasize that so much, but in some ways, it could be argued that the suffering of Nature brought me to it. In recognizing that my brother and sister Nature Spirits suffer, that we are all connected, and therefore their suffering is my suffering, I embraced Paganism and eventually modern Druidism. Did the ancient Druids have teachings on suffering? Perhaps. The closest I can get to it right now is through the reported belief in life after death and the heroic way mythic warriors ran into battle, even when fate was against them. Yes, you may have broken a geis – a taboo – that will lead to your downfall, but there is still honor in fighting because there’s integrity in it, courage in it, and people will sing of your perseverance despite the suffering you may endure. So, I suppose, suffering is indirectly addressed in Druidism, but it doesn’t seem to be a central focus (nor does my attempt at finding a parallel mean that there has to be one).
So what is the central focus of Modern Druidism?
After a lot of thought and meditation, I’ve realized that my own concept of Modern Druidism’s central focus is harmony. Again, I want to stress that this is just my opinion and only applicable to Modern (Neo) Druidism, though influenced by my fledgeling studies of Gaelic Polytheism. Perhaps others would disagree, and my thoughts will likely evolve as I grow. Right now – harmony.
So why harmony?
Many in the Druidic and Gaelic Polytheistic communities will agree that the concept of reciprocity is huge in Indo-European cultures. The lore shows us that there must be an exchange of something in order for the cosmos to stay in order. Rulers must protect their subjects and fairly distribute resources. In exchange, everyone in the realm continues to work hard so that resources are obtained and everyone receives the services they need. Culture can flourish. When the ruler mistreats his or her people, as Bres did the Tuatha Dé Danann, there is disharmony that must be rectified. In some stories, even the land herself rebels, hence accounts of sacrificial kings and symbolic marriage to the land. In ADF Druidism, our liturgical tradition is based around reciprocity. “A gift calls for a gift,” it is said. When you are in a productive, healthy, meaningful relationship with another, there is mutualism. The tall oak may appear to be the most important being in the forest, but such an ecosystem flourishes because of the give and take of the collective. There must be harmony.
How can harmony, as a core concept of Druidism, apply to our practice?
For the Buddhists in the documentary, suffering influenced people to go through great lengths to improve themselves and their ability to find peace. Obviously, there is a lot of meditation, but there is also a lot of study. Whereas the stereotypical monk spends much of his or her day in meditation, in reality, he or she is also involved in a deep study of philosophy and, as Druids would call it, lore. Several of the Western Buddhists were also engaged in studying the Tibetan language to better engage with the culture that inspires them – something many modern Gaelic Polytheists can understand. At one point in the film, some of the monks discuss the importance of memorizing whole texts in Tibetan. One man explained that there may come a day when someone will ask a question, and rather than make an excuse such as, “Oh, well, I don’t have my books with me right now,” you become the book. That reminded me of the ancient Druids and their emphasis on oral history; they were said to activity discourage the written text. Modern Druids have taken the pendulum and swung it the other way. I think the Buddhists are on to something with regards to studying texts but then working to memorize them – to internalize them. There’s a harmony there. Furthermore, they have to find a harmony between their book studies and their spiritual practice of meditation. A reoccurring discussion in Pagan circles often involves the need to find a balance between how much time one spends studying and actually working or experiencing.
Looking to a very successful minority religious practice for inspiration, one can see the benefits of finding harmony between both. In addition, Modern Druids must also find a harmony between doing that individual study and work, and then serving the community. In my opinion, based on the historical basis, Druidism is a religion in service to others – the tribe, the spirit world, and the land. Thus we nourish harmony within ourselves, then cultivate it around us in our relationships.
Harmony with Nature
As explained above, working with Nature was a driving force in my coming to Druidism. While I wouldn’t describe our ancient predecessors as environmentalists, there’s evidence that they had animistic-type beliefs such as a deep respect for the land and the reciprocity needed to maintain harmony. The rich lore about Nature from Celtic nations inspired me, and the landscape reminded me of my own in certain ways. The modern world is so out of harmony with Nature. It only seems natural for people who strive to cultivate positive relationships with the spiritual world -including the spirits of Nature all around us – to embrace a lifestyle that at least attempts to live in better harmony with the Earth Mother and Nature Spirits. Historical precedence will only take us so far. The necessity for modern Druids to embrace environmentalism (of some breed) is based on contemporary needs. Many in the modern Buddhist community are doing the same. Their meditations on the beauty of Nature have moved several to act. The documentary gave some examples of how modern Buddhists are out picking up litter, marching in protest of environmental degradation, and speaking out for more sustainable practices. Seeing that was really inspiring. Again – harmony between the desires of the self and the needs of the community. Druids should also embrace that.
How do you find harmony in Druidism or Gaelic polytheism? If you feel differently than I do about the central focus of Druidism, what is your opinion and why do you think that?