Friday, 10 January 2014

Imbolc (Candlemas) and the Pagan Path to Buddhism



February 2nd is Imbolc, Christianized as Candlemas

Here's an updated version of a post from a couple of years ago on the upcoming Pagan festival of Imbolc (Candlemas), dedicated to the feminine spirituality of Brigid, with a discussion of its transcultural convergence with Buddhism:


The Growth of Paganism

In the past, most new Buddhists in the West have come to the Dharma from a Judeo-Christian, or secularized Judeo-Christian background.   But there now seems to be an increasing number of younger people coming into Buddhism via Paganism, often melding pagan festivals, rituals and art-forms with Buddhist philosophy.   The Buddhist celebration of the enlightened feminine (especially Tara) is particularly popular.


The rapid modern growth of paganism is part of the 'Spiritual but not Religious' movement, where young people are trying to escape the bleak mechanistic materialist worldview of scientism, but can find no spirituality in the samsaric religions, which are increasingly dominated by hatred, bigotry, extremism and idiocy.   

This process of disintegration is a vicious downward spiral. As the formerly mainstream religions decline, so they become vulnerable to being taken over by cliques of extremists, which makes them even less appealing to liberal-minded youth. Paganism, with its ancient numinous festivals and evocative symbolism, offers an escape from the soulless, stressed-out, dehumanised, over-regulated and proceduralised existence which is modern urban life.

Paganism particularly venerates the feminine aspects of spirituality. In contrast, there is little or no place for the divine feminine in standard Abrahamic monotheism.  


However, paganism lacks the philosophical background needed to challenge materialism, and this may be why many pagans are eventually drawn to Buddhist teachings.



 
Candlemas Pagan Origins

Christianization

When Christianity came to the Celtic lands, it took over many of the Pagan festivals and Christianized them. This was far more acceptable to the people than banning them, as the Puritans were to do to all pagan-origin festivals many centuries later.

Its always easier for new religions to work with the existing culture than against it, a policy also pursued by Buddhism in its spread throughout Asia.




Festival of Lights


Buddhist interpretations
Now that Buddhism is establishing itself in Western Europe, there is a movement to reinterpret some of these numinous Pagan festivals from a Buddhist perspective.

The FWBO has a program of honoring the Five female Buddhas, on the day and time of the year associated with each of them. The cycle begins with the Summer Solstice and female Buddha Mamaki.




The Turning of the Year

The Autumn Equinox, is a ceremony dedicated to Pandaravasini, the female Buddha of the Western direction associated with dusk and the wisdom of uniqueness.


Light of Wisdom in the Dusk

Later in the year it is the turn of Samayatara, the female Buddha of the Northern direction associated with midnight and the wisdom of action (Halloween/Samhain); and Akasadhatesvari, the female Buddha at the centre of the Mandala beyond time and space. She is associated with the ineffable wisdom of the Transcendental. Her ceremony takes place at the time of the Winter Solstice.






 


Candlemas - Festival of Offering Lights to the Goddess
The next festival is Candlemas, also known as Imbolc, which in pagan times was an offering of Lights to the Goddess in the aspect of Brigit or Bride. This ancient festival takes place on February 2nd and marks the mid point of winter, half way between the winter solstice (shortest day) and the spring equinox.







Brigid as Christian Saint and Pagan Goddess

 


Of course the idea of a Goddess was anathema to the patriarchal, misogynistic ancient church, and Brigid, who was too popular to get rid of, was demoted from Goddess to Saint. The idea of honoring the feminine was turned on its head, and the festival became the Purification of the Virgin, to remind women of their ritual uncleanness.



Brigit as Celtic Trinity

 

However, if we return to the original pagan intention, we can see that Candlemas, although now almost abandoned by the Christian churches, has potential for adaptation by Buddhists.

Buddhists honor many female Buddhas, for example Tara and Guan Yin, and the lighting of a candle or an oil lamp represents the light of wisdom illuminating the darkness of ignorance.





Light offerings to Tara


With lights brightly shining
Abolishing this gloom
I adore the Enlightened One,
The Light of the three worlds.

- Wiki





 

Offerings of lights are said to have many beneficial effects.

And so Candlemas, already resonant with ancient evocative associations with divine light, is easily adaptable to Buddhist practice.







 

Western holidays from a Buddhist perspective.
On this blog I have also suggested how Halloween, Christmas, Summer Solstice and New Year can be given Buddhist interpretations.



No danger of 'mixing'
Such adoptions of pagan festivals do not involve 'mixing' of the dharma with other doctrines, because there is no impact on the philosophical foundations of Buddhism such as the Four Seals. Nor is there any impact on the form of practice. The celebration of these occasions is simply performing Buddhist rituals in the context of Celtic cultural traditions.

Buddhism is not itself a culture. It is transcultural - valid for all sentient beings, in all places, at all times. 





Spiritual But Not Religious
If Buddhism wishes to attract young people, it needs to engage more with the 'Spiritual but not Religious' zeitgeist, of which paganism, the New Age movement and the various feminine spiritualities are manifestations.





Light of the World



RELATED ARTICLES:


Mysticism

Why Beauty Matters

Honoring the Feminine in Buddhism

Cauldron, Chalice and Grail Symbolism in Buddhism and Celtic Wicca

Numinous Symbolism - Pagan, Buddhist and Christian

Celtic Buddhism - Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain

Celtic and Buddhist symbolism - triskelions, triskeles

Buddhist Halloween

Can Buddhists Celebrate Christmas?




Candlemas

3 comments:

Vide Kadampa said...

Thank you for this article. I particularly appreciated your take on pagans moving towards Buddhism.

jasbaku.com said...

Thanks Sean, this is a brilliant article.
I've been Buddhist for many years, but I was a Pagan before that, and feel myself drawn back because so much of it still makes sense. Paganism and the New Age Movement do feel spiritually refreshing.
I agree that there is no danger of 'mixing', and if a pure heart and a clear mind are kept and developed, then only good can result.

Leolion said...

I am a Drudic Buddhist and I enjoyed this article. Thank You.