My plan for this year was to honour Japanese festivals as part of what I do with my altar. This is partly because I’ve been trying to learn Japanese. I’ve not made much headway in the last month, but there we go.
Today is Hana Matsuri. It’s a festival celebrating the birth of the Buddha, and it is celebrated much earlier in Japan than anywhere else. This is a consequence of Japan adopting the Gregorian calendar and having a date shift on festivals – something that may also have happened with traditional festivals in the UK when said calendar came in.
I spent some time wondering what, if anything I was going to do, and in the end I’ve not done much. I’m not a Buddhist. I’m really not a Buddhist in that many of my personal beliefs are at odds with Buddhism. I’m not held by a cultural context that celebrates this as part of its calendar – and I think that would be very different. Japan has festivals that are secular (as with the doll festival last month), there are a lot of Shinto festivals – about 300,000 of them, focused on local shrines. There are Buddhist festivals, the western New Year, Christianity has been present in Japan for some time… It’s very different showing up for a festival that isn’t part of your religion but is part of your culture.
I have longstanding unease about the way in which western Paganism appropriates from eastern cultures. We’ve lifted so many things, taken them out of context and bundled them together. Such that a person can talk about mindfulness and chakras in the same breath without flagging up that these come from totally different backgrounds. I am deeply uneasy about the way many modern Pagans take Zen out of context, and talk about it with no reference to the history, and culture it comes from. The only Pagan writer I’ve ever seen talking about Zen from the basis of having spent time in a Zen Buddhist Monastery had a radically different perception from every other white Pagan I’ve seen trying to talk about these concepts.
Today I am not celebrating Hana Matsuri, because I don’t know enough about it, and because I don’t have a context. I’m honouring the festival by talking about it, because that’s something I can do.
Projection and fantasy are always potential hazards for anyone following a spiritual path. We should be extremely vigilant when we’re attracted to practices from living traditions to make sure we aren’t appropriating, misrepresenting or exploiting. Taking those traditions and turning them into what we want them to be isn’t respectful, or useful. No one really learns from perpetuating their own fantasies, or gains much from studying the fantasies of other white westerners.