An eastern birthday

For those of you who know me or at least have been reading this blog for some time now, it’s no secret that I lean very much towards Buddhist philosophy, especially the Madhyamaka school. If that surprises you or you’re not sure what to make of it, see here. In fact, my April piece on Polytheist.com owes a lot to the notions of impermanence and emptiness, so far from being a mere object of intellectual curiosity, Buddhist philosophy is something I’ve come to integrate into my religious life. It just makes tremendous sense on both a personal and devotional level.

Buda - Gandara

The road towards it
It took me time to get there, though, and it wasn’t a linear process. At sixteen, when I left Christianity and felt atheism didn’t quite cut it, Buddhism was my first option. I still have about a dozen books from that time, including written material from a retreat I took in a Tibetan centre in the late 1990s. I was a different person back then, way younger and definitely not keen on gods or similar entities, so either because I failed to grasp the philosophical concepts or wasn’t entirely sure about the religious part, I ended up moving away from Buddhism and stepped into archetypal paganism. Several years later, while already a heathen and when considering the issue of fate, the notion of interconnectedness became evident. I’m sure I was told about it a gazillion times before, but there’s more to learning than just reading and listening. There’s also an intuitive side to it, epiphanies where your brain clicks and you suddenly make sense of something you were probably aware of, theoretically or intellectually, but was yet to grow roots in your mind. Transferring knowledge successfully can be a bit like transferring plants in that it’s not enough to just move ideas into fresh soil.

There was thus a moment when I became intuitively aware that nothing exists in isolation, that everything is connected and whatever free will one has is limited by causes that are beyond an individual’s control. That’s fate, the total sum of factors that preceded, surround and shape you. You’re not an island, but a knot in a web that links everyone and everything, where every single action has extended consequences and no thread is entirely free because it is tied to other threads. I retained this awareness ever since, revisiting and refining it over the years, even making it a part of my daily life. My education in History and subsequent work in the same field played a large role in that, because when your professional activity (and hobby) is to study the intricate pattern of past events, how they impacted on each other and shaped things, you get a persistent sense that nothing exists in isolation. In as much as there’s virtually not a single day I don’t reflect at least once on how human actions – past or present, individual or collective, mine or someone else’s – ripple through the pond of existence and in turn create or shape new actions.

Then a few years ago, I became a devotee of Mercury, after whom came the Lares Viales, and my interest in Buddhism was rekindled at some point. Can’t remember exactly how or why, but there was Stephen Prothero’s God is not one, talks on philosophical schools, a few discussions around the Greco-Buddhist culture of Gandhara, a bit of reading on the topic and I guess eventually I just grabbed some of the books I bought back in the 1990s. Which then led me to go through lists of Buddhist masters and schools, including Nagarjuna and Madhyamaka, whose view on sunyata or emptiness came across as brutality meaningful. Partly because the basic notion behind it – that of dependent origination – is easy to grasp once you realize that nothing exists in isolation, so in a way Buddhist thought gave a philosophical depth and solidity to ideas that were already rooted in my mind. And from that point on, it didn’t take long for everything to come together, for two things that initially seem unrelated – Madhyamaka and Mercury – to intersect via the notions of impermanence and emptiness, movement and connectedness. In a way, it feels like coming full circle.

To be clear, I’m not saying that I’m religiously a Buddhist. Modern westerners may commonly see philosophy and religion as being indistinguishable, in that if you follow one you must also follow the other, but that’s not how it went in the ancient world. Back then, you could be a Stoic, an Epicurean, a Platonist or even a Sceptic and still be a Roman polytheist regardless of your choice of philosophy, if any. Part of that was because religious identity was an extension of social and political status, but it’s also because religion was defined in orthopraxic terms, through traditional ritual practice, with beliefs being generally left up to the individual to speculate on. And that’s pretty much what I’m doing here: keeping a basic orthopraxy that makes me a Roman polytheist, while filling in the philosophical content with something that’s up the individual to choose. That I lean towards Madhyamaka, which wasn’t available as a school of thought in ancient Europe, means only that I’m a not fossilized cultor: I don’t limit myself to what was in existence in Rome up until the 5th century CE, but am interested in reviving Roman polytheism in the modern day and age, not re-enact it as it was 1500 years ago. Simply put, I take the basic dynamics – orthopraxy, no initiation, unregulated belief, etc. – detach them from the social specifics of a given time and age – e.g. morals, which run the risk of being grossly anachronic – and then apply them to the present, not a perpetual renaissance fair. And today, you have a lot more philosophical schools to chose from. Again, see here and also here.

The (somewhat) mercurial figure
Another thing Romans did – and weren’t alone in that – was worshiping or at least acknowledging non-Roman gods and even syncretizing deities from different pantheons. Again, you don’t have to limit yourself to what was available in the Roman empire up until the 5th century and can honour gods that were unheard of in ancient Europe. That’s what happens when you practice a living religion in today’s world instead of pretending to live in a bygone age. And you’ll still be a modern Roman polytheist if you worship Them according to Roman ritual or at least if it makes up the majority of your practices (see here).

For my part, I generally don’t syncretise and never assume that a Roman god is identical to a non-Roman one simply because they’re similar. I need to research, take some time to think about it and maybe resort to divination before reaching a conclusion that may not be definite. However, there is one thing I do a lot and that’s Latinization, i.e., worshipping non-Roman gods in a Roman or at least Romanized fashion (like this). It’s something for which there is ample historical precedent and allows for deities from other pantheons to be integrated into the realm of the cultus deorum. I worship four Iberian gods and five Norse ones in that manner, some of which already had (partly) Romanized cults in ancient Europe, and also historical figures from the 13th century on as a type of Lares. The only exceptions in my practices are two Egyptian deities – Khnum and Anubis – whom I honour according to Kemetic tradition (and I have a lot to learn on that regard). And now there’s something else, someone who’s been on the horizon due to my interest in Madhyamaka and who now comes as neither entirely religious nor entirely philosophical: Manjushri.

Manjushri 02

He’s the bodhisattva of wisdom, particularly the type known as prajna, which entails the awareness of emptiness. His historical origins are unclear, as are those of His cult, but He is commonly associated with Buddhist masters and teachers and is thus a central figure in the world of Buddhist thought. So it’s probably no surprise that I should end up “bumping” into Him, since I’ve been freely drinking from His philosophical well and major proponents of Madhyamaka, namely Nagarjuna and Je Tsongkhapa, are described as having been taught or inspired by Manjushri. In that sense, to honour Him would be akin to honouring ancient European philosophers (like Epicurus) or gods associated with philosophical schools (like Apollo). Again, this is taking pre-Christian dynamics and applying them to the options of the modern world instead of merely re-enacting the past. But Manjushri comes across as more than the divine keeper of a philosophical well that’s rich in mercurial potential: He Himself is a somewhat mercurial figure.

He’s not just associated with a particular form of wisdom, but also with speech, music and memory, in as much as He’s sometimes paired with the Hindu goddess Saraswati. His weapon is the blade and He’s linked to mantic dice, thus fusing fortune and divination, which are two aspects of the hermetic realm. And He also shares a connection with number four, since His birthday is traditionally celebrated on the fourth day of the fourth Chinese lunar month. Yeah. So I guess that makes Him a sort of distant cousin of Mercury, thus adding a religious dimension to the use of Buddhist stone to construct the philosophical building of my mercurial devotion.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Manjushri has such a liminal status for me, somewhere between philosophy and religion. He stands at a source of ideas, of a river that runs through several parts of my life, providing intellectual sustenance, though He’s not the sacred fields, groves and temples. He’s not Mercury and I have no intention of syncretizing Them, because that’s not something I generally do. I don’t even know if I’ll ever award Him a Latin or Latinized cult, which honestly seems like a step too far at this point. But maybe it’s time I acknowledge Him in some way and mark His birthday, even if just by meditating, reading and offering a candle. Of course, one could ask why not honour the Buddha instead, which would also be in line with the practice of paying tribute to the founders of one’s philosophical school. But there are two answers to that: one thing does not exclude the other and I can indeed mark the Buddha’s birthday as well; though the thing about Manjushri is that He has the aforementioned mercurial traits, which gives Him a religious dimension and hence a greater significance for a Mercury devotee. And that in turn could lead to a festive blend where I honour the Buddha, as well as masters like Nagarjuna and Je Tsongkhapa, on Manjushri’s birthday, which this year falls on May 10th. It’s not what Buddhists do, I know, but like I said, religiously speaking I’m not a Buddhist.

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