Buddhist missionaries carried their tradition across the world since the time of the Buddha. Lineages took root far beyond the boundaries of India, often syncretizing with complimentary local elements to form new and distinct approaches to core Buddhist philosophy and practice. Buddhism arrived in North America in several waves as immigrants brought their lineages with them. Teachers in some lineages opened meditation halls to anyone and wrote books to introduce Buddhism to a wider audience. Zen teachers are particularly well-represented in this group, continuing the missionary legacy of that tradition. Some teachers in the 21st century begin to use the phrase “American Buddhism” to describe the syncretic lineages that have taken root in North America.

American Buddhism can be distinguished from Asian lineages by the absence of elements deemed superstitious by Modern sensibilities. Recognizing a distinction between “religion” as sacred and “philosophy” as secular, Americans tend to associate Buddhism with the latter due to the absence of a deity as a focal point. The Zen tradition’s iconoclasm assists this framing as Zen often introduces Americans to Buddhism generally. Devotional observances like chanting and offering incense tend to be framed as cultivations of mindfulness rather than generating merit to ensure a more fortunate future life. Days of observance like Vesak are often absent from American Buddhist calendars. Instead, the holidays celebrated by semi-secular Christian North America such as Thanksgiving and Christmas mark the passage of the time. Since North American secularism retains many implicitly Christian values and aesthetics, the Buddhist elements most complimentary to that tradition spread more widely as uncontroversial alternative interpretations of similar values.

Modern Paganism in North America shares a similarly awkward relationship with Christianity. The first generations of both American Paganism and American Buddhism largely converted from Christianity. When Pagans look to the past for help reconstructing pre-Christian beliefs and practices, they find a lack of information beyond traces left in syncretized holidays such as Christmas and Easter, traces usually impossible to separate from later Christian contributions. The Pagan Wheel of the Year aggregates different pre-Christian festivals and solar observances, but it maps well onto the progress of seasons in North America and Europe. Most associated customs have been lost or transformed by Christianity, so Modern Pagans rebuild with the material they have, including Christian aesthetics and values.

Given Paganism’s shared lineage with the New Age, Buddhist beliefs and practices often resonate with modern Pagans. If one goes beyond the appropriated versions of these concepts, a Pagan can find complimentary concepts in formal Buddhist philosophy. The Zen tradition places a high value on practice and direct experience, as does modern Paganism, but it also supplies techniques and conceptual frameworks to support those experiences. The mystical traditions of pre-Christian Europe have been erased or subsumed into Christian mysticism, so the modern Pagan is very much in need of guidance that does not presuppose Christian concepts of divinity and faith. Zen teachers push students toward direct insights, but the tradition also provides epistemic and logical boundaries to test and refine insight derived from mystical experience. Paganism lacks such material in the absence of unbroken tradition.

Furthermore, the Zen tradition provides those barriers without rejecting the pluralism that Pagans value. Zen philosophy assumes that a teacher’s awakening cannot be the same as the student because each event takes place in a unique time, place, and perspective. One must see for oneself. Attempts to intellectualize and align personal insights indicate mistaken thinking according to the Zen tradition. Reconciling mystical experiences by reinterpretation hinders rather than aids the student’s progress.

A Zen approach to Paganism would emphasize direct experience and insight into gods, nature, reality, and oneself. Cultivating mindfulness through regular meditation practice helps clarify the mind and trains the focus needed to investigate experience at a very fine grain. Regular ritual practice trains thoughts and behavior to direct effort toward moral goals, self-development, and rigorous inquiry. Compassion forms the foundation of morality because every individual exists in the web of interdependence, so the well-being of each one influences the well-being of everyone. Regular meditation practice and self-reflection identifies patterns of thought and behavior that interfere with well-being. One must then investigate experience of the self, the natural world, and the human world to find and establish patterns that promote personal and collective well-being. Knowledge must be based on direct experience or coherence with overall patterns anchored by direct experience. What is true is what is experienced.

Zen Paganism would share features with Daoism given Daoist influence on the foundation of Zen in China and Paganism’s positive view of the natural world. Daoist philosophy emphasizes careful study of nature and the complex causal relationships of ecosystems. Working with the active causes of nature offers a path of least resistance when accomplishing any aim. In such cases success hinges on a deep humility and trust that playing the right small role in a complex event will bring more beneficial results than ego-centric control and interference. Pagans who value cultivating awe in complexity and power of the natural world would logically embrace such ideas as well.

The practice of magick may also be framed by Zen Paganism. Finding the path of least resistance and the smallest but most effective intervention places a boundary on operational magic. A Zen Pagan witch should employ their investigative practice to identify the right nudges to achieve their desired result without trying to control every element of the causal chain. Overly specific requirements or attempts to control the process and the outcome should be avoided as wasteful and poorly informed.