Monday, June 1, 2009

Online Practice?

I was scrolling through the blogs on my list the other day, and stopped at one of them to see a new posting. As I read, I was surprised to find that the usually very thoughtful and articulate blogger had said some things about another blogger that I perceived as just plain personal attacks. Now, there's no lack of nastiness and petty behavior on the internet, but my surprise was that this was coming from someone who seems to have a pretty strong Buddhist practice going, and definitely pays attention to the subtleties of Buddhist teachings.

So, I did something I have only done a few other times online: I sent the blogger a comment questioning the use of disparaging language towards another.

The result was a very fruitful and respectful dialogue that brought up all sorts of questions for both of us.

Right now, I'm interested in how internet use, and specifically blogging and other sorts of online spiritual dialogues can be done in such a was as remain to true to our deepest values and intentions. In other words, in my case, how does one blog and dialogue online in a dharmic way? And even more to the point, how can we disagree, question, or even show compassion in this format?

In some ways, I think this is another example of the technology developing at a much more rapid pace than the human mind's ability to work with it. We can do all sorts of things with the internet, and have made connections that were unimaginable even twenty years ago, and yet at the same time, people routinely say things about others online that they would never say to someone in person. Check out any chat site dealing with politics: discussions often quickly turn into pathological shouting matches where the "other" is turned into the most awful devil imaginable, or said to be the most stupid person or people on the planet. Go to the sports discussion pages, and you'll find people threatening to kill each other because they disagree about the talent of Tom Brady or the greatness of the New York Yankees. Slip into the romance and sex chat rooms and you'll find all sorts of destructive fantasies being played out, and all sorts of degrading talk occurring. And even here in the land of spiritual people - the oh, that kind of stuff doesn't happen here land, right? - yeah, even here, you'll find people battling it our over who is more "pure," or who is "better" because they are "more traditional" or "more non-traditional." It's all pretty crazy if you ask me.

There are numerous examples of the content of people's online writing having very direct consequences in the "real world." People have been not hired or fired based on comments made on their Facebook or Myspace pages. It's clear that some politicians, including current U.S. President Obama, have gained office partly out of the efforts they and their supporters put into online writings. There have numerous cases of teenage girls being seduced online by adult sexual predators, and then those same writings have been used to prosecute the adults in question. There have been other teens who have committed suicide as a direct result of comments made to them or about them online. The list goes on and on.

But these kinds of things are pretty easy to see. They are the high impact cases, the ones where it's easy to see that someone's words have done something - have changed things in some way.

What about the "little stuff" though? What about the "fuck you" to some other blogger? Or the anonymous personal slam of someone commenting on a blog piece? Or those pissing matches you got into with someone online that you have justified as "just blowing off steam"?

If you wonder about any of these questions above, try this: take a look at the comments section of Zen Teacher Brad Warner's site - Spend 15-20 minutes just reading the comments section and then notice how you feel. Then think of the blogger himself, and how he might be experiencing all this. (I get the sense that he doesn't read the comments all that often anymore, but at some point, I can imagine he did.)

I guess my question is this: Are we dropping the dharma - our spiritual teachings about interacting with each other - off at the door when we come online? And if so, what does that say about our practice, and our experiences online as spiritual practitioners?

There a few things that I think are important to remember in all of this. First, there are some serious limitations to human interaction on the internet. We don't get to observe body language, or speech tone, for the most part - so major parts of communication are cut off right there. Second, we're all struggling to express ourselves in words - and when it comes to talking about the big, deep questions of life, words struggle to express it, and are at best, pointers towards that which we are trying to actually speak of. Finally, like anywhere else, the internet is a location of samsaric activity - in other words, suffering is unfolding on here just as it does in the rest of the world, no matter what.

These are my initial thoughts about this. Maybe some of you have more. I welcome comments, but mostly I hope to spark some questions for us here in cyberspace to contemplate.


Marcus said...


Regarding Brad Warner, don't you think he asks for it? I mean, he enjoys provoking people...

....and when he does read the comments, this is how 'Zen Master' Brad Warner responds:

"So, no, dear know-it-all reader and commenter, I am most assuredly not doing this for the money. Kindly please go fuck yourself now."

This is taken from a blog post made just a week or so ago. Here:

And even in his latest post he deliberately tries to upset people, in this case by insulting authentic Japanese practice:

"I... hate it when they beat drums and ring bells unnecessarily during practice in a misguided attempt to ape certain misguided traditions present in misguided temples in Japan."

Which Japanese temples are he calling misguided? And who gives him the right to say they and their traditions are misguided? Clearly, this is Brad being disrespectful of the Sangha and trying to provoke comments.

Your question is: "Are we dropping the dharma - our spiritual teachings about interacting with each other - off at the door when we come online?", well, to be frank, I fear that a Zen Master saying "Kindly please go fuck yourself now." is doing exactly that.


Nathan said...

Hi Marcus,

I think Brad's blog is a good example of both readership issues and blogger issues - in terms of what I'm talking about. That's one of the reasons why I put it there as an example. What you cited is exactly what I mean - this sloppy behavior that it seems we are willing to let pass because it is "online" and thus not as big of a deal.

It brings up the fact that if you're going to be critical online, it's pretty important to be specific in that criticism, since the people reading your writing can't see you, hear you, or touch you. Just saying that some nameless group is copying some other nameless group and both are doing it poorly in your opinion isn't going to cut it.

Thanks for bringing this up.


ZenDotStudio said...

great post. you cover so much ground my head hurts! I am reminded of a phrase of Soto Zen master Jiyu Kennet that my teacher has used: "Just because there's mud out there doesn't mean we have to roll in it."

I never read Brad Warner so I can't even comment other than to say I wonder what his intentions are. I would think that most people engaged in serious practice try to consider what they are doing before they speak. Am I spilling out my anger, am I full of pride here, am I feeling a titch defensive right now?

I know there are teachers that teach by pushing students buttons. Can't say it's a style I warm to. And all that being said I like a statement I read in Trike (can't remember whose comment it was "Until we're enlightened we're all deluded." I suppose the degree of delusion can vary.

But in my simple little pea brain, same rules apply online as up close and personal. Try to practice awareness and look at my intentions. And don't I know that sometimes we get it all wrong!

Marcus said...

Hi again,

Yes, Brad Warner aside, I agree with what you're saying in your post and have myself, over the years, made an effort to spend less and less time involved in petty disputes on the Internet.

I'm not entirely there yet, but do try not to say on-line something I wouldn't say to someone's face. Further, I try also never to use bad language on-line or sexual language, aware that these can be upsetting, are inherently violent, and present me in a bad light!

So I'm getting there, slowly, but still find myself too argumentative! LOL

Nice post and good discussion. Thank you.


NellaLou said...

Good post Nathan. Am glad this situation is bearing some deeper thought.

Part of the problem I think is the speed with which people have to deal with life. There isn't time (or people don't take the time) often to delve into ramifications.

Even when one tries to be relatively scrupulous the line can blur.

My view regarding the reading of blogs would be to examine if such behavior is habitual or rare. In this case it seems to have been an unusual situation so perhaps there was more going on than met the eye in the post that disturbed you.

Sometimes people can just feel overwhelmed for a time and then hopefully come to their senses once things calm down. There's always a lot more to reading than just reading the words. The between the lines areas also convey something.

molly said...


Great post. And great questions. Yes, there are serious limitations in communicating in cyberspace. I often find myself questioning the fact that I blog and keep up with my blog friends and enjoy it, and I do this regularly. I wonder if I should instead be having face time with a live friend. It is an interesting phenomenon that we are experiencing.

In the end, I keep meditating and sort-of move where my energy takes me. Where I am moved to go. And I feel like it in no way hinders my practice, this internet/blog phenomenon.

Peace to you, and great post,


Nathan said...

I think you're right Nella Lou that speed plays a definite roll in all of this. Slowing down is hard for many of us, and yet really essential for good communication.

And Molly - I agree, this whole internet thing is a very interesting, and I'd say constantly evolving experience. I do think it can be part of our spiritual practice, and not just something we do on the side, or as amusement. Everything can be a dharma gate, if we're open enough to see it.

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Jennifer said...

Hi Nathan,

I read Salon regularly, and I'm often horrified by the comments people leave in response to an essay or article someone has written. the fights between the commentors towards the writer or each other are often beyond the pale. I would love to get a piece of writing published on one of these sites, but I'm afraid of the kind of viciousness I'd be opening myself up to. To be honest, that's one of the reasons I waited so long to start a blog, and why I don't mind that not everyone knows about it. I just don't understand how people can talk to each other that way and not think twice about it.

Your post definitely echoes my own concerns--thanks for writing it.