I, along with my wife and four year old son, entered the Heartland Pagan Festival and traveled to another dimension.
I was there to teach meditation and other Buddhist practices in a hippie pagan camp—because I will give the Dharma to anyone that wants it, and a friend asked me nicely. And because I’d rather be teaching the Dharma to people that aren’t as boring as I am, sitting around endlessly chanting sutras like many Buddhist teachers.
I believe in going to places where other meditation teachers aren’t going. Places like campgrounds and the street are my temples.
In the beginning I was a tourist, a visitor to this bizarre place. By the end I had just about assimilated completely.
I was full of anticipation when I left work at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday and went home to get Wendi and James. We had done most, but not all of the work loading the car the night before. We loaded the car and drove.
Gaea Retreat Center is located in a rural area of Kansas and is designed to be a cultural and spiritual retreat center for a variety of spiritual and cultural groups. We were invited to this event called the Heartland Pagan Festival. I was given free tickets and meals for myself and my family. I just had to teach two workshops. One on meditation and one on the teachings of the Buddha. We arrived around 6:00 p.m., a little later than we expected.
As I set up our tent in the campground that was suggested to us, I heard someone in the distance shout, “All hail Ra!” This was the first indication that we had left the world of our ordinary experience and stepped into another.
Throughout the festival I would hear people “all hail” a lot of things and it would lose almost all meaning by the end. But, at that moment when I heard the, “All hail Ra!” it was the beginning of my spiritual journey at the pagan festival.
When children chant, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” they often get excited and shout. When adults do it they often sound bland and bored. I wonder why others don’t always get as excited about the Dharma as I do. It’s an important lesson that we, as Buddhists, can take from the pagan community, I think.
Also, pretty soon I noticed there were a lot of naked people.
About one in every 10 people was exposed. I’m not a puritan by any means—I knew what we were in for and naked people don’t bother me at all. I think our culture has a pretty crazy relationship to nudity and sexuality in general. People freak out about wardrobe malfunctions while at the same time one of the biggest industries in America is porn.
Anyway, I’m getting off track. Nudity doesn’t make me uncomfortable, that’s my point.
We got there just in time to set up our tent and then eat. There was a band performing and I thought they were pretty good. They were playing a song that was a little comedic, with pagan inside jokes, some of which I got and some I didn’t. There would be other bands performing throughout the festival, but I thought this one was the best.
Then we went to go see a bonfire.
There’s a fire circle in the campground, not too far from our campsite. We headed there and saw naked people dancing around a giant fire, whilst drums were being played. When one imagines pagan camp, maybe this is what they think of.
I would see this exact thing the next three nights in a row, but that first night it was really special. My wife and son went to bed in our tent and I stayed by the fire, watching the dancers. I just listened and stared in wonder as I watched fire dancers move through the night. It was special.
Friday morning I took the long walk to the showers. The showers were about a fifteen minute walk from our campsite. And down a long wooden staircase. I counted the stairs—there were 72. This was also the location of the only real bathrooms.
This was the first time I went to a co-ed shower. A big open shower room, like the ones in gym class. For men and women. I was up early, so it was just me and another man taking a shower together that day, although a couple arrived as I was leaving.
The whole camping trip I kind of hoped a hot girl would show up and shower with me. Nothing more than showering, of course. I’m married. But showering with a strange beautiful woman would be a neat experience.
There was also a private shower room, but it was small and looked uncomfortable. I wasn’t interested. I’m not modest, so I wasn’t worried about showering with people. My wife would end up going to that private shower room every time she took a shower and I don’t judge her for that.
I left my family at camp to go to a Chakra and Aura Cleansing Workshop.
I’m a little skeptical about such things but I wanted to have more of the pagan festival experience.
It was in a spot called the Bardic Circle, a circle a little smaller than the one where I had seen a fire the night before. This is where I would be giving my teachings in just a few hours.
Surrounding the Bardic Circles, there were vendor tents. Vendors come from far away to sell their hippie and pagan gear at the festival. I saw books and sarongs and incense and some really cool meditation cushions with zippers (the covers could be taken off and washed, like pillow cases, which seemed like a genius invention, but the creator of these didn’t have a business card to give me and I didn’t have $40 to spend, so I can’t tell you where to get these).
Anyway, the workshop wasn’t what I expected.
I thought a person would cleanse our Chakras and Auras (whatever that means).
Instead, they taught us how to cleanse them for one another. The guy in charge said, “Everyone choose a partner, someone you do not know.” There were about 10 of us. I turned to an attractive topless woman and said, “Hey, do you—” but before I could finish the sentence she was gone, partnered with another woman.
I like to pretend she didn’t hear me. It’s less embarrassing that way.
I ended up paired up with a nice older lady. They showed her how to feel my aura and clean it. She said, “Wow, there really isn’t a lot to clean here. Your aura is pretty good.” I thanked her awkwardly for what I thought must be a compliment.
She asked me if I was into meditation or something. I told her I was but didn’t get into the fact that meditation was why I was here at the festival. I found it a little amusing that she asked me that, though.
Then it was my turn. I was a little nervous about this because I didn’t think I’d be able to feel an aura. I closed my eyes and tried to feel for her aura and she spoke up.
She said, “Don’t bother. You won’t be able to feel mine. I’m on painkillers for my back. My aura can’t be felt.” I had dodged a bullet. I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not I could feel auras or clean them. I was happy when this workshop was over because the sun was bright and it was getting hot.
I returned to camp and spent quality time with my wife and son.
By the way, my son made a lot of friends at this festival. There were a lot of little boys for him to play with. I think he had a better time than either of us, and we had a great time. There were some boys in our campground that he played with and some other boys up in the vendor area that he played with too while we looked around at the shops.
A few hours passed and it was time for my first workshop. I was nervous.
I wasn’t ready. I was still a stranger in a strange place and I was not comfortable.
I think I did fine, but I could have done better.
I wanted to teach without notes, so I went in without any notes. I was worried that if I had something to read, I would just be sitting there reading to my audience and I thought that would be very impersonal.
I was given a little headset and microphone so that I could be heard. We were, as I said, right by the vendor area and there were things going on around us. And in the distance, we could hear drums being played.
There were about 25 people around me.
Four of them were actually people I already knew.
This was my workshop on meditation practice and I talked about meditation for a while.
I’ll try to summarize what I said here. As I said, I was working without notes, but I have a pretty good memory of the experience, so I can remember what I said pretty well.
I opened with a joke. It was, “People say when you’re nervous, you should picture your audience naked. I’m having a really easy time doing that here.”
That got a lot of laughs, especially from the people in the audience.
This was a hot day and people were just trying to be comfortable. This is a place where that’s allowed, so who could really blame them.
Anyway, here’s what I said. I didn’t work from notes, but I wrote down all the key points when I got back to my tent.
“Meditation is not a magical practice. Anyone can do it. I’m selling water by the river, because you could have figured this out on your own very easily.
It’s a way of tuning in to ultimate reality. It’s been shown to improve focus, mental and emotional stability, lower blood pressure and increase compassion.
I’m a true believer in meditation. Some people aren’t and that’s okay. There’s a quote from the Dalai Lama that has turned into a meme on the internet. It’s, “If every eight year old was taught meditation, violence would disappear from the world in one generation.” I believe that is true. Meditation can be incredibly transformative.
I recommend daily meditation, but that’s a big struggle because of how many distractions are available in the modern world. I could meditate or I could watch Netflix. We seem to think we have a right to be entertained all the time.
So, I’m going to have meditation groups around the city. If you have trouble meditating at home or you just want a group, come meditate with me.”
I handed out some business cards saying, “This isn’t so you can call me and ask me to come your house and meditate with you, although if you ask I probably will, this is so you can add me on Facebook and start reading my blog.”
“So, what are we trying to do?
We’re trying to control our discursive thoughts. Our minds are crazy, always jumping around, rarely truly focusing on what we’re doing. An example I like to talk about is driving. When we’re driving our cars, we often aren’t focusing on what we’re doing. We are not only messing with our phones or radios, but also we’re thinking about where we’re going or where we’ve been. People get in car accidents all the time because they aren’t paying attention to the damn road.
If we train ourselves to focus, a wonderful transformation begins.
If we can train ourselves to be more present then we can experience more joy from positive and neutral experiences and we can more truly understand that negative experiences are temporary and that makes them easier to deal with.”
Now, at this point, I did open it up for questions and there were none, or at least none that stick out in my memory.
For some reason I assumed that 30 or 40 minutes had passed, so I thought we would meditate for 20 minutes and then my hour long workshop would be over. I didn’t bother to look at the time.
Because I was nervous, i.e., not facing the situation with equanimity, I messed up.
So, I set the timer on my phone for 20 minutes, again I could have very easily checked the time and seen that it was 4:15, but for some reason I didn’t, and we started meditating. I could have done a 40 minute meditation just as easily.
Twenty minutes went by and I said, “Well that about completes our hour together…”
And someone in the audience spoke up and said, “Um…it’s 4:35”
I think I appeared calm, but my mind was in a panic. I wondered what I would do for the next 25 minutes.
I said, “Are there any questions?”
There were none.
So, I taught them the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra and we chanted it. Then we chanted it again, slowly.
Then I led a walking meditation for about 10 minutes.
Then we came back to a sitting meditation. There were only 10 minutes left to fill, so I set my timer for 10 minutes and we meditated.
Knowing it was the end of my workshop, my wife and son approached the vendor area. My son approached and yelled out, “Daddy!” and ran up and climbed on me.
I said, “Well when my son shows up, I know meditation time is over.”
In my head I was freaking out. I thought this was absolutely a terrible performance on my part. I thought I would have done better if I had had notes.
One of the guys in my audience, an old friend of mine, said to me, “You need to slow down and relax.”
He was right.
That night we spent some quality time with the people in our camp and later watched another bonfire.
I should note right now that every night we went to bed at my son’s bedtime. We didn’t really party at this camp. It would likely have been a very different experience if my son hadn’t gone with us.
As I went to sleep in my tent, I wondered how my second workshop would go.
That night it rained. When I woke up in the morning it was raining lightly and there was mud everywhere. I put on my water shoes. I had brought them for lake swimming. As it would turn out, we didn’t go swimming, but water shoes come in handy when walking in mud.
So, I walked down to the showers and took a shower. I was completely alone this time.
My mood darkened. The rain and the mud were getting me down. My second workshop was to come at 2:45 on this day, Saturday, and I wondered if it would get rained out. I was nervous because of the first one. Although, I should note, everyone told me the first one was good. So my own harsh self criticism may have been a factor in this.
The rain cleared up after lunch and my wife and son laid down for a nap. I went for a walk. I still had a couple of hours.
I went for a walk in the woods.
I was feeling down, weather gets me down sometimes.
I stood, alone in the woods, just thinking about my day and pondering. I accidentally brushed against a tree and suddenly the world opened up to me. I believe I had what they call a Kensho experience. In my view, enlightenment consists of many little enlightenment experiences, called Kensho, where the body and mind drops away for a short time and oneness is attained. After many of these Kensho experiences, ultimately true enlightenment is attained.
Others believe that Enlightenment comes all at once and I respect that opinion, but I disagree.
Some people aren’t going to like that I’m writing about this. There are those in the Buddhist community that think that talking about mystical experiences is unhelpful. I’ve written controversial articles before, it doesn’t bother me.
I think it’s helpful to talk about our experiences.
Phillip Kapleau’s book, The Three Pillars of Zen, has several stories about such experiences and it is a pretty well liked book on the subject of Zen, I think.
There I was, standing in the woods, and suddenly I was gone. There was just the woods and the trees and the mud and the bugs and drumming in the distance, which didn’t sound quite so far away in the context of this experience. This is hard to describe. Sometimes words fail. Bodhidharma said that the truth is, “Beyond words and letters.”
I’ve had a handful of such experiences in my life and each time I bring a little bit more back with me when I return.
I had the experience of being one with the mud and the trees, one with everything around me. One with the voices I could hear yelling out things like, “Trash pirates are coming!” One with the birds in the sky. One with the sun that was making me warm. I experienced oneness and emptiness at the same time. I touched my Buddha-nature, the empty mind ground. Time lost all meaning, but only a few minutes passed.
I returned to my self with a completely different view. I was suddenly inspired. I rushed back to my tent, careful not to wake up my wife and child, and grabbed a notebook. I wanted to have notes for my second talk. I knew that if I didn’t, I would leave something out. What I really wanted was to give my talk right then and there, but it was still two hours away, so I sat and wrote instead. This was the opposite of what I had done the first time, but that’s okay. I felt like the first workshop hadn’t gone well.
I was walking on air, dwelling in a state of bliss. I remember giving my talk, but things are a little hazy, like a remembered dream.
Here is a summary of what I said.
I divided my talk in terms of the three jewels.
The Buddha was originally a prince named Siddhartha Gautama who ran away from home. He was given every possible luxury, but he was an especially sensitive person, so he was really troubled by suffering, old age and death. He decided to leave his life and go on a spiritual journey. At this time period in India, this was a pretty common thing to do.
He started what I call a Spiritual Revolution. He studied with several spiritual teachers. He found the mainstream religion of the day to be anti-science and hostile to women, minorities and the poor (good thing we don’t have to deal with that today). So, he went into the wilderness to find teachers of alternative religions. He learned yoga and many meditation practices, as well as self-denial.
He sat under a tree. He decided he would sit until he had fundamental insights. He realized that, ultimately, the truth was within himself, and within all of us.
There’s a famous quote from him that says: “The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”
What he realized was Buddha Nature. This historical figure isn’t the Buddha we really want to talk about. The one we really want to talk about is the one within ourselves.
We just have to tune in to the truth. It’s expressed in two seemingly contradictory ways, but that’s only because we are using logic instead of intuitive thinking.
Buddha Nature is the idea that we are already enlightened. We just have delusions that prevent us from realizing our true self. The message is that separation isn’t real. We are all one with our environment and each other. The things that separate us, labels and social boundaries, are artificial and they prevent spiritual growth.
Emptiness is the idea that I am nothing. That is, it’s often better to think of myself as part of a whole rather than as an individual.
Is there a difference between being nothing and being everything? Other than the fact that one sounds positive and the other sounds negative?
The Buddha called his teachings a Middle Way. He believed that fulfillment wasn’t to be found by indulging in all of life’s pleasures. It also wasn’t to be found by denying ourselves all of life’s pleasures. It was somewhere in the middle.
His teaching consisted of training in three things: morality, concentration, and wisdom.
Morality: don’t be a jerk. We have an ego but let’s try to live as though we don’t. Everything we do to try to make life better for self and others. This is important because being a greedy jerk all the time strengthens the ego and we are trying to soften the ego. Being kind helps tear down the barriers between self and others.
Concentration: Our lives are better if we just pay attention. A transformation begins if we just notice the world. We are distracted all the time and it doesn’t serve us well. Often the only time we are in the moment is if we’re having sex or doing some kind of art. Often we are missing out on our lives. Learning how to be here now is important.
Wisdom: Cultivating an intuitive understanding that we are part of a whole, not a fundamentally separate individual. Deep meditation as well and mindfulness of the world around us takes us there. I won’t lie to you. When I stub my toe I don’ t say, “Oh pain is rippling through my body, I am part of a whole, not an individual, so I am not suffering.” I’d like to be that way, but I’m not.
He defined the nature of existence with the three characteristics:
Suffering, Impermanence and non-self.
Suffering: As the Rolling Stones say: “You can’t always get what you want.” We want things and there are things we want to get rid of. Life will never be perfect.
Impermanence: Everything changes. Things we like come and go, as do things we don’t like. In the grand scheme of things nothing lasts long. We often don’t think of things this way.
Non-self: You don’t have an independent existence. We can’t describe ourselves in any meaningful way. We are a collection of things just like a car or anything else.
4 Noble Truths:
2) caused by not understanding/delusion
3) we can get out of suffering
4) by transforming ourselves.
I recommend silent meditation. It’s a way to train our minds to do what we want. Do you have trouble sleeping at night because you’re thinking too much? Meditation helps.
Silent meditation is my practice. It’s what I do and what I teach. But there are other Buddhist methods such as: mantras, visualizations, riddles, and mandalas. All of these are good too.
I recommend meditating at home every day. But if you can’t or won’t do that, you can always come sit with me. I went to a Buddhist temple for a long time before I really could get myself to do it on my own.
Spiritual community. The Buddha said we should have others on the path with us. I like that because if we’re doing it on our own, then if we skip a meditation no one will know. It’s like a support group; It’s considered a sangha any time practitioners are doing practices together. So, we are a Heartland Pagan Festival Sangha right now. If I am asked to come back next year, we will be again.
When it was over there was a lot of applause. I opened the group for questions.
A man asked me if there were gods in Buddhism. I said, “The short answer is no. But, the different branches of Buddhism have very different characteristics. Some of them do look up to spiritual beings called Bodhisattvas. These are probably very similar to what pagans would think of as gods or spirits. Some people believe these Bodhisattvas are real and some look at them as metaphors.”
I told them about the most well known Bodhisattva. The one who is a male called Avalokitesvara in India, but is a female named Kuan Yin in China.
They knew about her already. Kuan Yin is well known in goddess worshiping communities, I think.
I was surprised when a woman asked me about meditation and autism. I told her that some of the kids I teach at the Rime Center Dharma School have autism. Parents always tell me that it works wonders for their kids.
Someone asked me if it’s okay to practice Buddhism alongside other religions. I said that it was. I know some Buddhist pagans and Buddhist Christians. Buddhism allows such things.
I handed out business cards again, as I had the first time. Some people from the audience gave me hugs.
My responsibility at the camp was over. I could simply enjoy it now. I was full of nothing but joy.
Sunday was dry. I went to a workshop called Love Within, while my son went to go pretend to be a pirate.
Love Within was a good workshop. It was run by a woman and her basic message was: if the divine light that is one with everything is within us, then we’re never alone. We are always with that divine light. Not exactly the same as Buddha Nature, but it matches what I believe very well.
I was there for another night and we packed up and left Monday morning. It took hours to pack up our things and leave, by the way. By the time we left I was sunburned on my back and shoulders because I spent a good part of Sunday walking around shirtless.
By the end I felt like I was home, like this was where I belonged.
It’s worth noting that great spiritual teachers like Buddha and Jesus happened to find the spiritual experiences they were looking for in the wilderness.
It rained again Sunday night, so it was muddy when we were packing, but the mud didn’t bother me so much anymore.
I had had a spiritual experience. I had found enlightenment at pagan camp, although the only enlightenment you find there is the enlightenment you brought with you.
I haven’t written much about the people because, again, I didn’t get their permission. I will say the weirdest person I met was a guy in a satyr costume.
And I’ll say this. Every person I met there was full of non-judgment and positivity. I’ve never been in a place so open and loving. These people were Bodhisattvas, every last one of them.
And I brought a little bit of that experience back with me. Pagan camp is part of who I am now. Part of my teaching.
I know lots of Buddhist organizations that have joined interfaith groups or Unitarian Groups. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I’d rather throw my lot in with the pagans. I’d rather network with them and join their spiritual groups.
Non-judgment, openness, respect for the earth, kindness, love.
Sounds pretty good to me.
To learn more about the Heartland Pagan Festival, you can go here.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editors: Emily Bartran/Travis May
Photos: Author’s Own