contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Kami

BOOK REVIEW: WESTERN ANIMISM

Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism. Highly recommended.

Melusine Draco is an established Pagan author, here writing mostly about Japanese culture. She draws on her Shinto upbringing by her father, a martial arts instructor and countryman. She contrasts the Abrahamic stigmatisation of Paganism and Animism in the West with the peaceful co-existence of Buddhism and Shinto in Japan, to the point where the line between them can be “decidedly hazy”. She suggests that the Japanese approach makes positive spirituality and living easier. All it really takes is “time to appreciate white clouds against the bright blue of a winter sky; the whisper of falling rain; the aroma of freshly baked bread … if we make a practice out of seeking out the positive, we tend to find it everywhere – even on ‘bad, black dog days’ when we can still hear water dreaming, or listen to the stones growing”.

In five relatively brief chapters, Melusine Draco covers a great deal of ground. She discusses Ki, “the unseen life force in our body and everywhere”, and the sense that there is no dividing line between the divine and human. She describes Kami, “the most ambiguous of spirits” and talks of “sermons in nature”. She describes a Zen teacher who, at the beginning of a lecture, paused to listen to a songbird outside the window, and then dismissed the class. She explains Kensho moments, sudden insights and awakenings that help us on our way. Exercises to facilitate such moments are scattered through the book.

Draco evokes a culture that celebrates life and its transience; stylises and thus sacralises everyday skills and activities; and pays respectful attention to nature, including Kami. Religion itself is based on respect rather than faith. Drawing on these riches, Draco suggests an alternative wheel of the year inspired by Japanese festivals and adapted for the West. A chapter on the Zen garden includes a wider discussion of sacred space and the use of plants. Her final chapter looks at Zen arts and aesthetics – including wabi-sabi, “defined as the beauty of things ‘imperfect, impermanent and incomplete’”. It also covers a Japanese view of concentration, meditation, contemplation, and the differences between them. For Draco, “contemplation is that state of consciousness which brings clairvoyant power. It must, because the basis of contemplation is a clairvoyant perception, a kind of spiritual intuition”.

Anyone interested in Japanese spirituality, and willing to be inspired by it, would benefit from reading this book.

Melusine Draco Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2019 (Pagan Portals series)

BOOK REVIEW: WHEN A PAGAN PRAYS

jhp5322da8f27f31Highly recommended When a Pagan Prays by Nimue Brown is an ambitious book, and a courageous one. On my reading it blends two voices. The first offers a cool appraisal of prayer by a Pagan Druid strongly influenced by existentialist philosophy. It tells us that value and meaning are not written in the stars: we have to provide them for ourselves, and it’s our responsibility as self-aware humans to do so. The second voice describes a personal journey, essentially a recovery story centred on re-connection with the “numinous”. This leads to a re-frame of scepticism about prayer and a hard-won willingness to say: “I like prayer. I’m not angry with it any more. I’ll keep doing it, keep asking and searching, doubting and wondering”.

I will start with the second voice, for me the predominant voice of the book, though it takes a while to be heard. This is at least in part because of the author’s decision not to make retrospective changes to early chapters in which this “somewhat agnostic Druid took an academic interest in prayer” and had not yet found that this “wasn’t going to work”. The shift came when she began an experimental practice and stayed with it long enough for it to bear fruit. She was helped by Thich Nhat Hanh’s view of how prayer affects us: “when love and compassion are present in us, and we send those outwards, then that is truly prayer”. This allowed a move away from an originally limited framing of prayer as petitionary prayer to named Deity/Deities) into something more spacious and allowing. As a Druid, she was also partly influenced by the idea of kami – the spirits or phenomena revered in Japanese Shinto. As spirits of the elements in nature, or ancestors, or animals, creationary forces in the universe, part of nature and not separate from it, such beings seemed on a scale approachable through attunement, potentially available for conversation.

At night and on the edge of sleep, the author decided to see what happened when she opened her heart and sought peace with herself. She wasn’t seeking “grace or purity”, but “wholeness, wellness, connection”. Prayer became “an act of opening awareness”, of being open to the numinous, open to the divine. She stood before the unknown, holding her mind in a state of readiness, not expecting coherence, in a place that is perhaps beyond both doubt and belief. And she was thus willing, both to say “my prayer has had real and discernable effects for me” and that “this proves nothing”. In the end she says: “there are aspects of being that cannot be usefully discussed in terms of ‘realness’. That may be where the gods live”. A voice that at first has been buried, and then emerged in a hesitant way, can now celebrate re-connecting with the felt numinosity of early life, able to let go of the “defensive rationalism” that for a time played a necessary role.

The rational voice, the first voice, still has its place. This book isn’t all personal story. It considers the nature of prayer, the ethics of prayer, the social functions of prayer, and practicalities of prayer. It looks at the relationships between prayer and ritual, prayer and magic, and the idea of life itself as prayer if lived prayerfully. The author thinks through prayer as a concept (or set of related concepts), and its context, and how most effectively and ethically to pray. This voice too is an honest voice. It does not make assumptions, or hypnotise the reader into agreement. We are asked to think and reflect. In the end, the first voice becomes the servant of the second. It’s questioning both demands and enables the integrity of the author’s personal experiment in prayer. The resulting fruits of practice, and the conclusions of the book, are owed to the presence of both voices, and the author’s willingness to be loyal to them both through a time when they were as yet unreconciled.

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