Sunday, January 31, 2010

Drama Wars: Are Online Humor and Irreverence Just Paths to Samsara?

Humor. Iconoclasm. Stirring the pot to get some attention. When it comes to making fun of religious and spiritual traditions, symbols, and stories, the lines between these three blur quickly.

Yesterday, John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt stepped into the center of all this with a post taking shots at the 32 Marks of a Buddha list from the Pail Canon. The story itself was fond in the Hindu Vedas, is from before the time of the Buddha, and so it's place in the teachings might represent more a cultural appropriation on the part of early Buddhists than anything else. John's original post, as I remember it, was playing around with the image created when you add up all the marks into a single "human" body.

I have to say I basically glanced at the post and moved on. But others didn't and 40 comments later, there has been much said about humor's place or non-place within spirituality.

Here are a few of the more "choice" comments. Rejecting what John presented as humor,

Bitterroot, the Buddhist Badger (Yes, we seem to have a lot of animals in the Buddhoblogosphere), wrote,

Yes, there are said to be 32 major and 80 minor marks on the body of one who is in his final rebirth to awaken as a buddha, or a ‘Chakravartin’ king, a universal emperor. These originally were recorded in the Vedas. As the longer Buddhist sutras in which they are described explain, each mark is a symbolic indication of countless lifetimes accumulating acts of compassionate sacrifice for the benefit of others. Let’s take a look at the content of our own lives by comparison to see if we’re in any position to mock this.

And then NellaLou commented:

Let me get this straight then.

If Brit Hume and Bill O’Reilly belittle Buddhism that’s a huge travesty but if someone claiming to be Buddhist does it that's ok? ...

It is one thing for Ikkyu to piss on a statue that he had been asked to consecrate and quite another for everyone involved in Zen to think they have both his iconoclastic attitude and level of understanding.

Supporting his position, John responded:

It seems strange that when I make fun of my own religion people assume that I am making myself more than I am. I purposefully didn’t include references to burning sutras and knocking down statues for that reason.

And then Buddhasbrewing, (Yes, beer and Buddhism sometimes mix), said this in regards to the 32 marks story:

I think Sakyamuni Buddha was great, don’t get me wrong. The signs are nothing more than purest attachment and badger’s reaction proves it. As soon as you start thinking of the Great Physician as holy, you are walking down the road to delusion.

The debate goes on from there, delving shortly into the lack of scientific evidence for such signs among other things. It's an interesting conversation, but in the end, it leaves me feeling kind of empty. And I don't mean an awareness of emptiness, although that could be applied here as well I imagine.

On any given day, I can look around the Buddhoblogosphere, and see dozens of heartfelt posts, some very personal in focus and some very much public in focus (see yesterday's post for more on the public/private divide). While the content of these posts can range from a struggle with fear during meditation to an expression of gratitude for a group of Buddhist peace activists in Sri Lanka, the sharing of an expression of Buddhist practice is often clear, even if it's muddy and fumbling at times. However, with rare exceptions, these posts do not garner a lot of attention, at least in the form of comments. Granted, some of these posts probably don't lend themselves to comments, and are probably well read, but not commented on. But others, ones that seem to be worthy of discussion, even debate, are simply left to the blog archives. Even Brad Warner, who could post the word "Nothing" and probably get a dozen comments, seems to get less attention when his posts aren't contraversial. Which leads me to this: I think it's kind of telling that the posts which routinely recieve a pile of comments are dramatic, irreverent, or deliberately contraversial.

Like flies to shit we seem to flock to what ends up being, a lot of the time, just another pit of samsara. I see it in myself when I'm in a sour mood. I'm looking for it in my everyday life and when I come online - somewhere to drop a few snarky lines or to watch a good pissing match. And yet, what good is any of it? Does any of this do anything to help build a more ethical, compassionate life?

I'm all for humor, and I'm all for critical commentary that's done in the spirit of making the world a more healthier place. But I also think it's very important to take a look at your motives for doing either. It's pretty easy, if you lift that hood of yours, to find a motor running on self-righteousness and attention seeking.

Awhile back, I noticed a tendency in myself to want to be right. In fact, it was so strong at times that I sometimes got into shouting matches about politics and social issues with people who disagreed with me. So, I've taken up the practice of watching myself, noting the arrival of self righteousness in particular, and then working to shift it. In addition, I've admitted to people at times that I just wanted to be right, or at least that I have wanted to be in past conversations. This is part of the reason I have tried to steer clear of long, extended debates online.

Attention seeking can be tied to self righteousness, but it also comes out in other forms. Now, I've posted a few humor pieces over the time I have been blogging, and sometimes have had a few funny lines in other posts. I like being funny, but find that for the most part, being funny online either falls flat or simply becomes a spectacle.

Ah, such a killjoy you might say. And I'd say "Maybe." However, there's quite a difference in my view between joy and a cheap laugh, and also a quite a difference between genuine, intelligent and heartfelt debate and a pissing match like I saw in 2008 between now U.S. Senator Al Franken and then U.S. Senator Norm Coleman. Cheap jokes and cheap shots were the name of that game, and everything of substance was tossed out, drowned out, or pressed firmly to the margins. It was for me, as a well informed and active member of the American electorate, not only angering, but also an experience of sadness. Reflecting on trends I see online feels no better in some ways, but it does confirm for me how difficult it is to uproot the three poisons, and transform suffering in the process.

If you view this post as a condemnation of all religously-themed humor, or of all irrevent statements, you've sorely missed what I've been writing about. In fact, if you see my post as a condemnation of John's post, you've sorely reduced your lenses.
I could have made either of those arguments in a few paragraphs, and then moved on.

"I beg to urge you
life and death are a great matter.
Awaken, Awaken, take heed,
make use of this precious life."


Anonymous said...

As always, Nathan, I enjoyed your summary and your commentary. If anything it shows us that it isn't a black and white matter.

I do like an open forum because it brings out some conversation that would not otherwise be had but should be. I don't want it to center on what I said or say but would like to see a larger talk.

It does bring attention on me, unfortunately. But I do like that it gets everyone on a topic.

It is a fine line between irreverence and vulgarity. And I admit that I have crossed that line from time to time. I am, however, surprised that the 32 Signs post did it!

Its all a learning experience.



Kyle said...

I agree with your assesment for the most part Nathan. And I totally agree that it is odd when someone like Brad Warner makes any post and it gets way more attention than much better written pieces by other folks.

Attention for attentions sake is not right action, though I have been called an attention whore. Humor for humor sake is great, if it is done in the spirit of humility or in constructive satire. And I think the same goes for ranting. I admit, my humorous and ranting posts get a lot more attention than my dharma posts, but if the humor and ranting gets people to read the serious posts then great.

When doing off color humor there is a very fine line between being funny and mocking someone elses beliefs. The good thing is it gets the conversation moving, the bad thing is it goes in the opposite direction sometimes.

Thanks Nathan!

Algernon said...

"I think it's kind of telling that the posts which routinely receive a pile of comments are dramatic, irreverent, or deliberately controversial."

Yes, and here's another tell: the need to respond with umbrage at somebody's joke about Buddhism. Some Buddhists might not appreciate the humor, fair enough, but the criticism snowballs and takes on a life of its own, quickly growing out of proportion to the actual 'offense.'

Adam said...

no comment (:

Brikoleur said...

I think one of the sanest things we can do when confronted with things that are Really Important!!! is... to laugh at them.

There's something primal or even (dare I use the word?) holy about laughter, especially laughter at or about Really Big Things. Death. Sex. Pain. God. The Buddha.

Personally, I'm very, very serious about my practice, such as it is.

Yet if I ever forgot the absurd about a bunch of grown-ups dressing up in Jedi robes and then staring intently at burlap for hours on end, while occasionally ringing a bell or banging a couple of sticks together... well, I'm pretty sure that my practice wouldn't *benefit* from it.

Anyone here read Fritz Leiber's "Swords" books? In the first one, a lewd, lascivious, blasphemous, and intolerably offensive theater troupe arrives in the Frozen North. The barbarian tribe promptly decides to stage their show in Godshall, on the grounds that God is un-offendable.

Put another way: the minute my sangha bans making fun of the Dharma, Buddha, or Sangha, I'll go find another one. Sometimes fun is the most serious kind of serious.

(Oh, and -- I found the "Sex Symbol For The Ages" post delightful.)

Nathan said...


Hi! Yes, laughter is very important. Being too serious causes constipation in my opinion. My writing tends to be on the serious side, but I try to balance my daily life because it's so easy to become a grouch and a nitpick if you get too heavy.


Yeah, after reading some of the comments on John's post, I found myself wondering why people were so wound up. It seemed completely out of proportion.

John said...

LOL! YOu think its out of proportion, Nathan! Check this out. My blog leaked out to my local community and to my co-workers this week. They are looking at me like I am some insane rabble rouser b/c of all the crazy comments.

Sometimes I just gotta wonder about this karma thing....then I just laugh.



Trevor said...

My blog is kind of personal and diaristic, and I hardly get any comments and/or attention.

Nathan said...

Hey John,

I can only image what your co-workers think :)


I enjoy trolling your blog. Others probably do as well. I've learned that I rarely have any idea what will spark comments, so I just write and watch what happens.


Anonymous said...

I get a message showing you are using an image that isn't fair use.

Nathan said...

I got rid of the image. Sometimes, I find figuring out fair use a confusing affair. Which is why I mostly post my own photos.