During a class at my zen center last night, a few comments were made that might be put into the "real life" sanghas and connections with teachers are best camp. Similar comments were made in the following post by Brad Warner, who has regularly made negative statements about internet-based study and practice. On the opposite end, John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt made several points in favor of online practice and study.
I think it's worth quoting both posts at length. First, here are a few paragraphs from Brad Warner:
You can get very lost in the twisty twirly world of Internet communication and easily lose sight of what's real and what's not. These days I often hear people say,"I was talking with my friend..." And I'll ask, "Were you actually talking with that person or were you chatting online?" Often it's the latter. There is an enormous difference between these two activities. Yet many people these days seem to regard them as being essentially the same thing.
I'm keenly aware of this because so much of what I do is in the form of written communication either here on this blog, in my books or thru a million emails I have to write each day. Often when I meet people who only know me through these forms of communication are really surprised when they encounter me in person. I am not at all what they expected.
You don't get the tone of voice I would say these words in. You don't get my facial expression. You don't get the smell of my breath. You don't get the subtle electrical energy that human beings exchange when they're near each other. There are far more missing elements than I can possibly list. All of these things matter a lot.
I have to say that Brad has some very valid points here. It is easy to get lost in the twirling of the internet, if you aren't paying close attention to your mind and it's many monkey games. And there are definitely missing elements that can make it difficult to connect and communicate effectively with others online.
However, at the same time, I think these same "barriers" can also be gateways of practice. Given the limitations of the internet, you have a great opportunity to learn about all the games your mind plays, and all the stories it makes up, because everything is stripped down to words and some images. No smells to conjure up old memories of past lovers, or dead family members, or the bully from fourth grade. No crowds of people in real time to distract you in various ways. No confused body language to discern. It's funny, but all the things that greatly enhance communication and connection in "real life," also can be the very things that hold us back in real life. Think about how a slight shift in facial expression can create doubts or questions in your mind about what is being said, even if there is no sinister intention behind the facial change.
John's post in favor of online practice also brings another interesting issue: that of where practitioners are in their lives. He writes the following:
I was lucky enough to find a sangha to practice with but I still find a huge amount of support and encouragement, as well as interaction and engagement from my iSangha.
For me the iSangha is like the night school of Zen. When I was in college I would giggle at online degree schools or night school. With the thought that they were inferior or their students dumb. Now with two jobs and a family, I realize what their purpose was and how helpful they are to people with many constraints. The same concept applies to Zen and Buddhist practice.
This is a very real conundrum for so many practitioners living in North America. Many of us are busy, overworked, and struggling for the time to give to unfold our lives in a much deeper way. And we're also, collectively, trying to reinvent lay practice in ways that maybe haven't been tried before, and might not fully be possible.
I seem to pivot around the idea that if you take Buddha's teachings fully into your life, then your life should be transformed completely. Not just a little bit, but completely. This includes questioning every last bit of "common sense" agreed upon by our families, communities, cultures, and societies, and becoming liberated from fixed positions about any of it.
Ah, but doesn't that sound heady. So, let me be more specific.
Doesn't it seem that at some point, the idea of maintaining a practice and an overly busy life filled with tons of activities and attempts to uphold a certain level of material wealth should come under deep scrutiny? It feels pretty crazy to me actually, even though I'm guilty of it myself to some degree.
And doesn't it seem that at some point, if there is too much leaning towards meeting people "where they are at" that we'll lose the necessary fires of contradiction and surrendering of self-cherished approaches, and will only be helping people prop up their current, suffering-filled lives?
I actually think that both of these questions can apply to either "real life" sanghas and online-based practice. The main difference is that it's easier to pick and choose, to maintain your preferred ways of thinking, acting, and being if you're only doing practice and study online. How much easier? I don't know. But I think facing your peers, facing your teacher, in a "real life" setting makes it a little harder to hide all your shit - and I'd emphasize a little because clearly people can and do become masters at hiding and shape-shifting in person.
I sometimes wonder, though, overall, if too much of our practice on a collective scale is simply working to soften the edges of our harried, pressured lives. There's definitely value to that, but is an approach of making life a little less crazy sustainable in the long run? Will there be a practice of liberating all beings 100 years from now if we focus too much on just getting through our days a little better? I guess what I'm asking is whether there will be any vitality to our varied Buddhist traditions here in North America? (I'm aware that speaking of place is a bit odd when the online community is worldwide. I guess what I mean to do is to look at the practitioners that live and practice in North America, regardless of what forms their practice takes.)
This is the characture I wonder about: The lay practitioner who gains some psychological benefit from practicing meditation and studying Buddha's teachings. They are a little kinder, little more self aware, and maybe cause less conflict in their lives. A good thing? Sure. And yet, the same person rarely questions the social and political structures of his/her's society and world, and then makes changes because of that questioning. Rarely questions the way he or she interacts and thinks about animals, or the natural environment, and then makes changes because of that questioning. Doesn't have time to wonder if the level of material wealth, and the work needed to maintain it, is really compatible with the teachings? Or doesn't have the time until they're retired and falling apart. An extreme vision? Sure. Maybe even a straw man argument, but really, if we're going to play the Buddha's congas, don't you think we should be aiming to play them wholeheartedly, with everything we've got? What form this takes will always depend on causes and conditions. Some will play right in the middle of the busy world. And others in a more quiet, monastic setting. That's not the point. I think what is is the Ninth Precept, "Taking up the way of not attaching to anything, even the truth." Real life sanghas: no problem. I sanghas: no problem. Can you let go of all assumptions, and practice whole-heartedly to point of being transformed? That, to me, is the question at hand.