Tuesday, December 28, 2010

All This Blather

We pretty much had to drag the Zen Master into the dharma room for this. When he was finished, he said, "That's enough blah blah from me."

At a certain point back in the 1990's some of us who were managing Providence Zen Center thought it would be a good idea to offer workshops about sutras. There were numerous reasons for this which I won't go into. We set up a workshop on the Diamond Sutra and got Zen Master Dae Kwang to lecture, essentially, on the sutra for a room full of participants who had read the same translation in advance.

He did not really want to do it but he did it, offered some personal insights (which most of us found very illuminating and helpful), and then walked away from the whole business having made his offering.

May we all take a similar approach when we blog about our practice and all our blather about buddhadharma or tao. If the blather is helpful to another human being, fine. We have blogs and internet connections, and sharing some inspiration and comaraderie with other people aspiring to understand this matter is a good use of these technologies.

But for goodness sake, don't let it become a problem, my brothers and sisters.

Someone had an idea that must have seemed harmless at the time: make up some "awards" for writing about Buddhist practice on a blog and use the conceit to let folks know about the writing that's out there. It probably seemed like a good way, with tongue in cheek, to encourage some fellowship among people spread out across the world seeking to wake up and apply the Buddha's teaching to their lives. I assume that was the intention since there was really no "award" per se -- no trophies, no cash, nothing material, unless you count the colorful badge people were invited to put on their blog pages. These were called the Blogisattva Awards.

In the interest of disclosure, we should mention that this very blog received an "honorable mention" in one of the categories. Hapjang to them for that.

In the days running up to Christmas there was some controversy over this project. Lots of blog posts were written about whether this was a good thing, a bad thing, whether it promoted competition, whether competition is a good thing, and so on. One "winner" announced she was passing her "award" on to another unknown blogger she thought worthy of attention. Then something else happened, and she demanded that any mention of her or her blog be removed from the website, and there was some other argument between a blogger and someone associated with the "awards" and that led to some very ugly accusations, emails being posted, and "tweeting" back and forth on that Twitter thing.


In my school, students are invited to speak publicly about their personal experience of practice much earlier than some other Zen schools. This takes away some of the "specialness" about speaking, even imperfectly, of our limited understanding of the dharma. We share something, in hopes that it is helpful, bow, and move on with our lives.

This is sort of my default attitude about my own blog and others'. It's blather. We are more or less narrating samsara as it appears to us, already in progress. If someone wants to call attention to your blather because they think it might be helpful, that's nice.

Yet is any of this of any lasting importance? The point of this, the point of any dharma talk, the point of a "sutra workshop," the point of tossing pillows into a room and calling it a "dharma room" is so we can practice waking up completely, and not getting stuck on little kerfluffles.

Ironically, some of the sternest critics of the Blogisattvas are making the error of taking them more seriously than the Blogisattva staff itself. At least, it appears that way to me.


Anonymous said...

It is inspiring--yes, inspiring--to see that we are all human. In my humanness I appreciate your humor and perspective here.

Petteri Sulonen said...

You know, Algernon, "lighten up, it's just a game" is a pretty stupid argument when you think about it. It rarely gets anyone to lighten up, nor tells them anything they didn't know before; also people take games very very seriously. Worse, it makes you look like you're pretending you're above all that kind of petty human drama, when by the very act of doing so you're making yourself a participant.

The same goes for "lasting importance." Of course it's not "of lasting importance." In the long run, we're all dead, and in a couple of billion years the earth will be a wisp of vapor in a red giant, eventually to collapse into a big ol' rock slowly cooling in space. Screw lasting importance.

Some things are important now, though. Relationships have been permanently altered by this flap. My connections to a few people have been greatly strengthened; a few others have been broken off altogether, yet others have weakened. I see some people in a different light. Other people see me in a different light. I'm sure that applies to the other participants in this little drama as well, yourself included. How is that "not important?"

Actions create cultures with things that are accepted, or not. Actions by "pillars of the community" are especially important in setting these norms. The Blogisattvas have set themselves up as pillars of the English-language Buddhist blogger community. Their actions have a lot of weight in setting the tone of that community.

Now, during the course of this flap, said pillars of the community have changed the rules of the game on the fly, altered the historical record on the Blogisattva "official" site, and censored critical discussion about the above. When called out on this, the Blogisattva admin responded by removing the dissenting blog from the supposedly comprehensive big list of Buddhist bloggers, then proceeding to libel the dissenter, then throwing a gigantic hissy fit announcing his retirement from blogging followed by a very speedy return to it.

And, going by the thundering silence in the BBS as well as the pats on the back he's receiving, all of this seems to constitute perfectly acceptable behavior among blogging Buddhists. Is *this* the kind of culture you want to be creating? Just "blather" and "without lasting importance?" Really?

You're not much of one to go along to get along when it comes to politics in meatspace. This ironic aloofness you affect here seems oddly out of character. I'm disappointed, Algernon. I would have expected you to be able to see more deeply than that.

Algernon said...

Hi Petteri,

I am sorry, my friend. Calling this one how I see it. In this post I did not go into the arguments and the actions by the Blogisattva folks in depth. Therefore I am glossing over the substance of what you are responding to in these events. No disrespect is intended.

The aloofness you detect in me is quite real: I always felt sort of lukewarm about it, looked at the positive potential, was somewhat surprised there was a kerfluffle, and felt sad that relationships have suffered because of the conflicts.

This may disappoint you, but here is my attitude: I think this is a molehill that was turned into a mountain very soon after the project was revived. I don't know that they viewed themselves as "pillars of the English-language Buddhist blogger community," but that isn't something many other people believed, is it? I sure didn't.

Algernon said...

One more thing on this, Petteri and anyone else reading. We all know that one of the judges of the "awards" has a blog that presents itself as authoritative on Buddhist information and discussion, who routinely censors comments that question her views or disagrees with her own cherished opinions, and who sometimes responds rather unkindly to people. We also knew that one of the administrators of the Blogisattvas is a bit, shall we say, "feudy."

This does not necessarily mean the project was without any merit. But there was plenty of reason for us all to take the whole thing with a grain of salt. Okay, done.

Petteri Sulonen said...

As are we all, Algernon. Calling it as we see it.

Actually, I didn't know that, about one of the judges censoring comments for disagreement. I'm not all that hip to this scene, you know. I do think that sort of thing is highly unhealthy, and should be discouraged. If it really is a part of the culture of the BBS, then that's a real shame.

Unkindness isn't a huge sin in my book; I think sometimes going too far to avoid being unkind does worse harm—and as I wrote in that hatchet piece of mine, IMO the BBS is infected with a surplus of such unhealthy avoidance. That only leads to the tensions going underground and then popping up in all kinds of covert and usually much nastier ways. I'll take an open bust-up in an uncensored forum any day of the week, TYVM. Keyboards at dawn and all that commotion.

I agree about molehills and mountains, though. Originally I felt much as you did; ambivalent about the concept of blogging awards, but that there was a certain amount of potential in it, if handled in a light-hearted and relaxed kind of way. However, a lot of tension emerged very early on in the process; there was a bit of open conflict already, what, six months ago, largely between the protagonists of this current drama. There's also been a shockingly low tolerance for dissent about it. Nathan's covered some of that on his blog lately. That's been simmering since, and has now come to the surface. A part of the reason is that tendency to avoid "unkindness" again and keep that squeaky-clean lovingkind fa├žade up.

I do think that administering a high-profile community website does make you a "pillar" of whatever community it belongs to, even if you yourself just do it for the lulz. You're no longer just some jackass with a keyboard; you represent something. Same thing as for any other public role, say starting a meditation group, even if all you do is handle the administrative aspect. Like it or not, what you say and do, and how you say and do it, will do much more to form the culture of that group than most "ordinary" members.

Nathan said...

One of the disappointments I have had with this whole scene around the awards is that it is such an obvious failure around genuine community. All that discussion last year about online sangha, and what it might mean to develop this more - I see much less of that these days. As do I see less thoughtful consideration of what it means to "be in" community together as diverse individuals. This is a major issue in many "in the flesh" sanghas, and it's also true online, even if in a different way.

The efforts to quash dissent to the awards, which was unnecessary, shut out the dissenters. And the repeated loudness of, and clinging to dissenting views, by a few of the dissenters stirred the pot more. It reminded me so much of Nanchuan's temple, and the fight over the cat. What the hell is this about! It just looks like territory marking, with fractional groups developing and ranks being closed in around certain views and ways of being.

I completely agree with Algernon that this whole this is a molehill turned into a mountain. At the same time, because humans are prone to making mountains, it's helpful to pay attention to the energy of the mountain.

This is about community, and lack there of. Maybe it can be spun around to become a spur for community building, but right now it's Nanchuan holding a knife over the cat, while the feuding monks sit and spin in their shit.

Kyle Lovett said...

I take the blame for the thing getting ugly at the end, i should have just ignored the email I got, among other things. That doesnt make me a good or bad Buddhist, it just means I'm human. I can't go back in time and make things right, but for what it's worth, a lot of people enjoyed the whole thing. So I dont feel bad about it...but yea, molehill into Mt.Everest.

If anything, it reminded how much my family and friends mean to me, and how quickly things can sipiral into the absurd.

Petteri Sulonen said...

@Nathan: Nanchuan didn't handle that situation very well either, as I recall, and I can't see him here at all. Lots of arguing monks, though.

Perhaps arguing monks is just one of those things that'll be with us forever. Could we, like, think of better ways to conduct those arguments, maybe?

One thing that struck me about the Buddhoblogosphere very early on was the sheer amount of avoidance and repression. There are a whole bunch of topics where dissent is not tolerated; people just ignore them to death, or else pile on and shun the dissenters. Dissenting about the Blogisattvas is just one such topic among many.

Off the top of my head, such views would include:

* Any deviation from "Dalai Lama good, China bad."
* Most "conservative" political views in social and foreign policy.
* SGI, and just about anything to do with Nichiren (Shu/Shoshu etc.). This whole topic is taboo, AFAICT.
* The Integral Institute, and the financial, organizational, and social plumbing behind it.

I've seen these things come up here and there, and when they do, they're usually quashed immediately, one way or the other. Or else people with these views band up into their own little cliques. After a while, that adds up to a feeling that they're just taboo. Certain Things We Don't Talk About, or talk about only in circumlocutions. I can't stand that. Also, it creates just the kind of climate where someone like Eido Roshi can abuse his students for forty years straight. That's fucked up.

Maybe the Blogisattvas became a proxy for some of this stuff; things that ought to have been said about other things surfacing in weird ways.

PS. To keep the record straight: I have sent Kyle no email at all since September 16. The only email I have sent him about the Blogisattvas—specifically, about a since retracted blog post he made about them—is dated July 5.

Nathan said...


I think Nanchuan is hanging around here too. Only there isn't one of him - he's in each of us, as are the feuding monks. And yes, he didn't handle things terribly well either - at least, that's one way to look at it.

And it's true that dissent on certain issues is repressed or greatly challenged in a way that seems to seek silence. I also think some topics just rarely come up - life is so vast, but reading modern Buddhist writings is often so repetitive - whether it's online or in a book. Or hearing talks in a sangha.

Repetition is necessary on one level, but I think offering perspectives on how to apply teachings to unique and different areas of life is also important.

But I also think that the avoidance and repression you see is part of collective samsara. It reflects part of the English speaking/writing Buddhist community's baggage - that which we fail to look at closely.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Thank you, Nathan. Lately, you've been seeing things more clearly than most of us. If that's a result of the place you're in, it's clearly not all bad.