Witchtober Day 28 – Zen Witch

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Zen is a word that gets used a lot, in a lot of different contexts and often vaguely intended to connote some form of “mindfulness” or “inner peace”, but it is worth bearing in mind its origins and cultural specificities.

Zen is a school of Buddhism from Japan. The word “zen” comes from a Japanese variant of a Chinese word for meditation, “Chan”, which itself is a transliteration from the Sanskrit “Dhyana”. Zen is known to draw from various schools of thought within Mahayana Buddhism, but it is still rooted within Buddhist tradition, and within Japanese culture.

I am suspicious of people from non-Japanese cultures and who are not Buddhist using the word “Zen” for their practice, as the term and practices of Zen are often appropriated without due acknowledgement or understading of the culture and philosophico-religious worldview in which they originated and within which they continue to be practiced and taught.

Joanna van der Hoeven has written extensively on “Zen Druidry”, and has clearly studied and practiced both Zen and Druidry in depth. For van der Hoeven (2012), “Zen teachings and Druidry can combine to create a peaceful life path that is completely and utterly dedicated to the here and now, to the earth and her rhythms, and to the flow that is life itself”.

Van der Hoeven’s Zen Druidry acknowledges the culture and wider philosophy of both Zen and Druidry, with discussion of the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path of the Buddha as the root of Zen practice, and the Awen as the central feature of the Druid path.

Perhaps a Zen witchcraft, rooted firmly in the knowledge and practices of Zen Buddhism and witchcraft, could be similarly possible, but without a foundation – and the cultural understanding – in both those practices, could easily fall into a shallow and appropriative combination of surface-level meditation and spellwork.

I have practiced various forms of meditation in my exploration of Pagan and Pagan-adjacent practices, and it has never stuck for me. This may be because the meditation we are used to seeing packaged in the West is generally Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism, wrenched from its cultural and religious context and sold to us as corporate “mindfulness” or a cheap alternative to therapy.

Yvonne Aburrow (2018) has written about the possible negative side-effects of mindfulness practice, especially in a workplace environment, pointing out a “growing body of evidence that mindfulness practices can make some people ill”, especially when practiced without the safeguards developed by Buddhist teachers over the centuries. Meditation and mindfulness courses are unregulated, meaning anyone can set themselves up as a teacher, which can lead to a whole host of issues, especially for people with pre-existing mental health difficulties:

“The most extreme side-effects are fairly rare, but can include an experience known as “depersonalization”, where people feel like they are watching themselves in a film. There is also an experience known as “the dark night” where meditators relive traumatic memories” (Aburrow, 2018).

This, and the concerns around cultural appropriation, is enough reason for me to not practice meditation or mindfulness as part of my witchcraft. I do, however, practice the simple sitting and listening to nature described by The Fen Robin in their post for this prompt:

“Listen for long enough and you start tuning into interesting bird songs, the sound of the wind through the trees and sometimes very far away things you hadn’t ever noticed before. As connecting with land and place is important to many pagans, taking some time to sit out in the world and just be is a really productive way of approaching this connection process” (Robin, 2021).

Does that make me a Zen Witch? Well, given that I have no training or cultural background in Zen Buddhism, no. But it does bring me inner peace.

References:

Aburrow, Yvonne (2018), “Managing stress in the workplace”, Medium: https://medium.com/@vogelbeere/managing-stress-in-the-workplace-ed74eeb6f668

Robin (2021), “Witchtober #28 – Zen Witch”, The Fen Robin: https://thefenrobin.wordpress.com/2021/10/28/witchtober-28-zen-witch/

Van der Hoeven, Joanna (2012), Zen Druidry: Waking to the Natural World. Moon Books.

2 comments

  1. Very well said and thank you for the quote. The practice you describe sounds a bit like “sitting out” (also known as útiseta) which was practiced by Norse witches, and mentioned in Nigel Pennick’s book “Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition” and my book “Dark Mirror: the Inner Work of Witchcraft”. Also described in Adrian Harris’s blog about embodiment.

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