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1944—The Jungle

I am twelve years old.

Our back lot line on Garfield Avenue is bordered by trees and shrubs, tall and thick enough that you can’t see through them or over them. We call this strip The Jungle. One beauty of the Jungle is the dense foliage, with enough sturdy low tree branches for climbing. They make excellent watchtowers. In the winters, the Jungle lies fallow when plants and trees lose their leaves, depriving us of privacy and camouflage.

The Jungle is our playground during polio epidemics and quarantines in the Midwest.  Over the back of our lot line lies the property of our quarantine playmates Bobbie and Tootie Stevenson, ages 10 and 5. Bobbie, Tootie, Mary (my sister age 5), and I can’t leave our yards all summer lest we fall victim to the poliovirus, which, we are told, kills or cripples thousands of kids during epidemics.

The Jungle hosts dark rituals, ancient battles, holy rites, and burials. No costumes are required. One end of the Jungle is devoted to an animal cemetery: dead birds, deceased squirrels, and fish that have floated to the tops of our aquariums. Anything below the vertebrate level is not eligible for burial.

During burials, everyone plays a role. Bobbie is the priest because he’s the only male. Being the eldest, I qualify as the grieving wife or mother. Props are always welcome if available—a white table runner for the priest, black slip as headgear for the mother or widow, key chain for an incense pot, and so on.

Mary and Tootie are either pallbearers or acolytes, depending on their willingness to collaborate. Their cooperation is more likely if they’re given props.

Elements of Catholic ritual, learned from my grandfather, are often used. He is a lapsed Catholic, attending Mass only at Christmas and Easter visitor. We sneak his rosary from his private effects as needed and return them when we’re done. Suffering from early dementia, Grandpa never notices the thefts.

We have no traditional music available, so we chant homemade liturgies suitable for each ceremony.

Are You a Pantheist?

TAO

Pantheism is the belief there’s no such thing as a personal God. All of reality is considered an expression of the divine. Pantheists feel no need of an anthropomorphic God—that is, a God resembling humans in any way. Modern pantheists believe that their God is not above them nor outside them, but within them.  You may call yourself an agnostic, when the term “pantheist” might be closer to the mark.

Origin of Pantheism

Although the idea of pantheism was first introduced to the Western world during the Renaissance by the philosopher Spinoza, the basic idea of pantheism as a religion has existed in various parts of the world for thousands of years.

After Baruch Spinoza introduced Westerners to the idea of pantheism during the 1600s, it took hundreds of years for the philosophy to catch on. By the middle of the 1800s, many leading writers and philosophers subscribed to the idea: William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Thoreau. Even Abraham Lincoln was considered a pantheist. Those close to Lincoln said that he doubted the immortality of the soul as the Christian world understands it.

Carl Sagan, the famous 20th century scientist was once described as believing “in the god of Spinoza and Einstein, not behind nature but as nature, or equivalent to it.” Einstein himself wrote in 1954, “I do not believe in a personal God and have never denied this but have expressed it clearly.”

While many modern Westerners are unfamiliar with the term “pantheism,” many of them unknowingly subscribe to the underlying philosophy. (Pantheism has been described as Hollywood’s religion of choice since the 1990s.)

Hybrid Religions

Most folk religions, including those of Native American origin, can be seen as pantheistic or a mixture of pantheism and other doctrines. Asian religions that include elements of pantheism include Sikhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Taoism. In the case of Hinduism, pantheistic views exist side by side with reverence to more than one deity.

Pantheism is a popular element in modern spirituality and new religious movements. Some consider pantheism a form of religious naturalism. It has been described as an example of “dark green religion” with a focus on environmental principles. Sometimes pantheism is confused with animism.

Animism

anubisAs one of the world’s oldest religions, animism involves worshipping the spirits of animals and even objects. Natural objects of veneration include animals, mountains, bodies of water, and celestial bodies. For example, in certain Native American traditions “Grandmother Moon” is believed to watch over the children of Earth, helping them realize their dreams and visions. Spirit beings are thought to have human-like emotions such as desire, jealousy and even anger.  The animist world view usually promotes unity and goodwill between the living and spirit worlds. The pantheist view is less concrete; it excludes the concept of individual deities and envisions no afterlife.

Animists seek to appease the spiritual world in the hopes of good fortune during life and a clear path to the afterlife. They usually believe that it’s possible to contact the spirits of the dead.

What’s Your Path?

Are you a pantheist, animist, a little of both, or neither? If you don’t have a personal God, but believe in all beings as a universal spiritual force, you may be a pantheist. The term “pantheist” applies to many people who, when questioned, identify themselves as “agnostic.”

If, on the other hand, you believe that unique entities, such as trees and animals, have their own souls or spirits, your spiritual path has elements of animism. People who subscribe to parts of both spiritual paths or aren’t sure what they believe, fall into the category of “agnostic.”

If you’re not a Christian, Jew, or member of any other orthodox religion, you may be a pantheist without realizing it.

What Is Buddhism?

When people think of religion, they usually think of a spiritual path involving a diety, as in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. This isn’t true of Buddhism, which was founded by an Indian prince, Gautama Siddhartha, over 2500 years ago. He made no claim to being a deity or worshipping one. His father, the king, had shielded him from scenes of poverty, illness and death when he was a boy, but he discovered the painful realities of human suffering when he traveled through his father’s kingdom on his own. The discovery led him to abandon his riches as a young man to travel the world in search of a way to relieve the suffering of others.

 Basis of Buddhism

Siddhartha’s quest for compassion, happiness and the meaning of life took long years of his own privation and suffering. When he finally believed he had attained enlightenment, he began to teach others about his spiritual path. By then people were calling him “Buddha” (“Enlightened One”). The Buddha claimed no supernatural powers. He claimed only to have found a way of life based on loving kindness that brought peace and contentment. Every follower, he taught, may follow this path but each must live by his or her own inner lights.

Buddhists believe that most of our problems and suffering arise from confused, negative states of mind. Happiness and good fortune arise from love, compassion and wisdom. Following this path is why many Buddhists are vegetarians; they don’t believe in taking life unnecessarily. When conflicts arise, Buddhists believe in peaceful, nonviolent resolutions. They don’t argue, fight about their beliefs, or try to convert others. They accept people as they are, striving only to understand them and treat them with loving kindness.

Respect for All Life

Buddhists treasure life, no matter what form it comes in. Elephants, whales, dogs and other forms of life have spirits that must be honored just as the human spirit is. Some Buddhist monks, when they walk in the forest, sweep the path before them so as not to crush any insects. Most Buddhists don’t go that far, but they respect the motives of the monks. Even plants are driven to survive. Who’s to tell where the line is drawn?

Meditation

Meditation is at the heart of Buddhist life. It involves turning the mind away from rational thinking and resting in the process of breathing and the knowledge that one’s heart keeps beating faithfully . The meditator can quiet his or her ambitious, judging, or anxious thoughts and rest at the simplest energy level.

The Buddhist path of peace and loving kindness has as much meaning today as it did in ancient India. As Geshe Kelsang, Tibetan Buddhist monk, wrote in his book Eight Steps to Happiness, “Every living being has the potential to become a Buddha…Our mind is like a cloudy sky, in essence clear and pure but overcast by the clouds of delusions.”