Monday, December 13, 2010

"Free Buddhist Press": A Few Thoughts on Elephant Journal and KPC



Writing about controversial topics is challenging. Doing so in a way that both stands tall in the truth, and also expresses your commitment to Buddhist ethics is even more difficult.

In the wake of the Wikileaks uproar, as well as attempted legal constrictions of free speech coming from places like the U.S. Congress, it's becoming important for bloggers to consider not only what they value, but also how they write about what they value.

There has been some back and forth in recent weeks between Buddhist blogger Bill Schwartz, Elephant Journal, and the Buddhist community Kunzang Palyul Choling (KPC). Essentially, the situation began with a post Mr. Schwartz was writing for Elephant Journal that contained criticisms of KPC, which led KPC to send Elephant Journal a legal letter threatening a lawsuit. All this before the article in question was actually published.

Waylon Lewis, publisher of Elephant Journal, said the following in a recent post:

1. I received a letter from KPC’s board with a legal letter attached. I’ve had a ton of communication with them and it’s all been pleasant and respectful.

2. I’m not sure–I’m no lawyer–but I knew that, not being able to afford a lawyer, that was the end of Bill Schwartz’s fun at the expense of KPC on elephant. I’ve encouraged him to write on other subjects. I can’t risk eight years of work and the potential of elephant to be of benefit if I’m without legal representation or the means to afford it.

3. I’d love for something positive to come out of this–I’ll use your wonderful forum as an opportunity to invite both parties to discuss this with the benefit of all sentient beings in mind. If either will take me up on this offer, I’ll serve as a mediator. They can DM me at twitter.com/elephantjournal or write@elephantjournal.com


First off, I find it quite troubling that a Buddhist community would respond to an unpublished article about them with lawyers. Even if they have been friendly and respectful, there's something really off about bringing out the legal hounds on a small time religious blogger like Mr. Schwartz, and a niche online publication like Elephant, which is doing quality work for sure, but doesn't even have close the stature as, say Tricycle magazine of Shambala Sun.

This morning, however, Mr. Schwartz published a guest post over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt giving his views on the matter.

The post begins with a short narrative about his interest in writing the post, the potential legal action brought on Elephant Journal, and the subsequent blocking of the writing in question. However, then Mr. Schwartz turns on the Buddhist community in general, making statements like the following:

When Travis May published a blog on Buddhadharma about the KPC SLAPP Scandal the editor removed it. Was KPC threatened? No, it wasn’t threatened. Worse, it simply doesn’t care. Why? It doesn’t care because Buddhists don’t care. None of the glossy Buddhist magazines is willing to cover this story. Buddhists don’t believe in a free press.

But surely Buddhist bloggers care? Nope. One Buddhist blogger informed me he wasn’t interested. It would be too much work. It’s much easier to write about wisdom and compassion instead. His audience will just eat that up and ask for more. There is no upside to a Buddhist blogger in harshing the mellow of his audience over something of such little or no interest to Buddhists as a free press seems to be.

The response of individual Buddhists has been even worse—unsolicited dharma advice on Tonglen, sending and receiving. We are to exchange our attachment to our right to free speech for the peace of mind that comes with caring only about ourselves. I kid you not. That’s what Shantideva taught. This is the path of the bodhisattva. The Buddhist response has been that it’s perfectly acceptable what KPC has done.


In my opinion, there are at least a few fundamental errors being made here. Assuming that this issue with Elephant Journal and KPC is widely known amongst Buddhists is completely flawed. Assuming that whatever responses he received represent the views of either "Buddhist bloggers" or Buddhists in general, is also completely flawed. Third, assuming that the "glossy" Buddhist media - i.e. Tricycle, Buddhadharma, Shambala Sun, and perhaps a few other publications - don't care - or that these publications are an accurate representation of the "Buddhist community" (whatever that is) is also a huge stretch at best.

One of the difficulties in writing powerfully and engagingly about controversial issues is that often, our emotional responses take over, and shut out those who could be potential allies. It's critical in any effort to bring about social change, or to safe guard current rights and liberties, to not alienate the very people who you'll need to do the work on the ground.

It's very possible that both Mr. Schwartz and Elephant Journal have been screwed in this situation, and that we Buddhist bloggers and writers might have some serious issues on our hands, but the sweeping generalizations, unsubstantiated accusations, and lone wolf energy of Mr. Schwartz's post make it difficult for those of us who might be sympathetic to respond and perhaps act.

Another problem here is that there are a lack of specifics that would help readers understand what happened, and why this particular blog post was considered threatening by the leaders of a Buddhist community. We don't have the post in question to read, nor much in the way of specifics about the contents of said post.

As someone who readily applies Buddhist ethics to social action when I deem it appropriate, I have a deep interest in seeing such work represent, as best as we can, the values and teachings of our tradition. Part of doing so is being careful about what issues we raise and engage in, and to ask questions, and be rigorous in our reflections about issues that arrive at our doorstep - such as this current situation.

I'd love to hear from others on either this issue, or how you engage social/political issues through a Buddhist lens.

24 comments:

Petteri Sulonen said...

This thing is a train wreck. I know I oughta walk away, but I can't help but gawk.

Whether it has anything much to do with freedom of speech, I don't know. As Duff said on ZDZD, the matter is badly lacking in vajra clarity.

I have no idea what that means, but I dig the phrase.

Nathan said...

Yeah, I think it's a train wreck as well. Hopefully my post brought up enough questions and concerns to show that.

Jack Daw said...

In case there was any question, I like hosting train wrecks on my blog. At least then you get everyone on one page (ideally) rather than blowing smoke all over twitter.

Nice commentary here, Nathan. Thank you.

Nathan said...

John,

I'm glad you get people on the same page :).

I can't keep up with Twitter-land - it just gets too fragmented.

Nathan

Adam said...

This is excellent commentary, right on the mark. Can't say it any better than you did in the last 5 paragraphs there Nathan.

Mumon said...

Nathan,
Thanks for the update. In short, I hadn't heard about this until a day or two ago, and, except for the fact that the group in question seems to do weird stuff with crystals, I still really don't have any idea of what the hubub is, other than these people use lawyers to an unhealthy extent (and I say that as a guy whose extended family is riddled with lawyers).

But that crystal stuff...very weird.

Richard Harrold said...

People who blog need to learn some basic libel law, because just because you're a niche blogger doesn't mean you are immune from First Amendment law, both its protections and its restrictions.

But one thing I've learned about threatened lawsuits: They are an inexpensive tactic to squash undesirable content. And the letters are usually written by attorneys who don't know a whit of First Amendment law. As an editor, I've received threats of lawsuits over articles published where I worked. My response has always been, "If you think you've got a case, then serve us and we'll get our attorney to respond."

Then again, I don't know the content of the "anticipated" article. I don't know how accurate it might have been. But even wrong opinion is protected to a degree.

The other thing I've learned in my years in the media is that the party asserting libel must prove the published content was false and that the writer and publisher knew it was false or was so careless in checking the facts that the writer and publisher were negligent and should have known it was false. The burden of proof is on the aggrieved party.

And if the aggrieved party fails, it often gets to pay all legal expenses for both parties.

But perhaps more importantly, we bloggers carry an enormous responsibility. We cannot be ruled by caprice while writing our words. And if we're going to say something is wrong, then we better pretty damn well be precise about why we believe something is wrong. Because if we're not, we shall be punished for our carelessness. As the Buddha taught regarding Right Speech, just because something is true doesn't mean it out to be said aloud. We must know the proper time.

I apologize for the length of my comment. Metta.

Algernon said...

"Train wreck" sums it up beautifully, and I have nothing more to add -- which is why I've stayed out. As I often do in the blogisattva buddha field.

As for "how I engage social/political issues through a Buddhist lens," oy, I've probably bored you and the six other people who read my blog enough with that lately.

Wiseass Zen said...

Well, look at it this way: If a local newspaper columnist were to oppose abortion his personal religious beliefs, would you be offended? If a TV pundit states his views through his or her (insert religious lens here, which is not yours) how would it be taken? Granted, a personal blog is not the same as mass media, but there are some "political" sites where the line is a bit hazy. I think it is a slippery slope. It's tough not to let your (religious/ spiritual/ ethical) beliefs show in your posts, nigh impossible, BUT, it should be accepted that there will always be those from a totally different spectrum that will do the same. It's a mine field dude. Watch all need to watch our step.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your cool-minded post. Seems like whenever I start investigating a controversy I find sides, lots of them, and then flaws on all the sides. The deeper I go into it, the more sides I find and the more flaws I find. And I lose track of the fact that it is all the same diamond in the sand, if you know what I mean.

Maybe those who recommend handling it all with Tonglen (and the judgment arises...) are just trying their best to take baby steps, teeter-tottering on new-found Buddhist legs, into the tide pools of circumstances arising as they find them, as they create them. Maybe everyone is righteously doing what they think is best to protect whatever it is that they hold so dear to their hearts (their blog, Buddhism, Journalism, the First Amendment, their center, their teacher, themselves, whatever).

Meanwhile it seems like the harder we try to do the best thing, the faster the best thing slips between our fingers.

In any case, speaking for myself, I can only see that sand in the palm of my hand and barely that. The distant future, the wide world around me, and the suffering and happiness of others in the vast ocean of reality are for now all outside of my ability to really perceive or really understand. So I'm left with trying to find my spot on the beach of my mind and hopefully one where the music I play won't disturb the minds of others. And trying to feel comforted that those others appear there too, keeping me company under the blazing sun.

Then I could suddenly snap to and think "Oh, oops - I've been on vacation! This is important." But then I'm back to finding sides of sides of sides and flaws and flaws, and flaws, the diamond in the sand forgotten once again.

Hope this makes sense. It was the best thing I could conceptualize to respond to these appearances arising and so I played this music for you all.

Nathan said...

Richard,

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I figured you'd have some helpful words about this, given your writing background.

Wiseass Zen,

It's very true that each of us can apply the same set of religious/spiritual teachings and come out with totally different conclusions on social issues. Since you bring up abortion, reflections on Buddhist teachings have led me in different directions on that particular issue. So, I think it's most important to work with attachment around whatever conclusions you reach, or solutions you think are "best."

I'd rather be deliberate about how Buddhist teachings influence my views on social/political issues, and then be ok with the fact that anything I come up with is partial. No one person or political party or other group has the whole vision.

Anonymous,

"Maybe those who recommend handling it all with Tonglen (and the judgment arises...) are just trying their best to take baby steps, teeter-tottering on new-found Buddhist legs, into the tide pools of circumstances arising as they find them, as they create them." I think this is fair. I get the sense that Mr. Schwartz was greatly disappointed that he couldn't find a lot of others to take up the cause. I can understand that, but it doesn't justify the level of contempt displayed. We all come to things as we are, where we are. It's hard to remember that sometimes for those of us who have been "around the practice block a bit."

Nathan

jizochronicles said...

Nathan, thank you for the clarity of your post in a very un-clarified situation. You have brought a degree of sanity to this "train wreck" (an apt description), and also a practice perspective as well.

And Richard -- I really appreciate your briefing on libel law as it might apply to the blogging world.

hazel colditz said...

:)
great post! a very wise and skillful presentation to so much information....
"train wreck" makes me giggle...so does "twitter" social media, in that context it's nothing but fragmented...

been awhile since i logged onto ya'll blogs and caught up! disharmony is running amok!
cheers to peace!

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and wonderful comments. I've been watching it unfold on Twitter for a year and found it disturbing a sanga, KPC would engage people on Twitter the way they have been doing, acting like they are in Junior High. It appears some of their monks and nuns spend HUGE amounts of time monteriing Twitter and what is said about KPC. Their website talks about "cyber bullying" and lists names of Twitter accounts to beware of. Hummm. What does it all mean? It is a train wreck.
Not that it matters but I think the correct behavior for KPC leader would have been to stop engaging people in their attacks and just focus on the teachings on Twitter( which is the reason she says she is on twitter) A buddhist sanga no matter if it's in the USA or some other country shouldn't have to care what people say about them in a blog. Just my opinion thanks for reading.

Nathan said...

I haven't joined Twitter because unless I start an online business, or have an organization I'd like to support with getting information out, I don't feel the need.

The fact that this situation unfolded on Twitter and has now spilled out makes me wonder if the soundbyte quality of Twitter is part of the issue. I've seen people put chunks of dialogue from Twitter on their blogs, and you can see how the speed-driven point/counterpoint gets ramped up pretty fast. Almost like a chat room.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Perhaps, but then again perhaps not. I find the 140-character limit on Twitter forces me to put more thought into what I write; BBS-style forums make it easier to froth and escalate.

My theory is that it's just people being people. Or monkeys, as NellaLou observed in her recent post around the topic.

Nathan said...

Petteri,

I think you're right about the condensed speech, and the cutting off of blathering and frothing. Perhaps it's more the speediness of the interactive element. And yeah, whatever the case, people are being people no doubt.

Nathan

Jack Daw said...

Hey Nathan,

The points about Twitter were appropriate. It is difficult to converse on a topic in that medium. Things move too fast and while i agree with Petteri that we are forced to think about what is said, generally 140 leads to more misunderstanding than not.

To get everyone on one page and talking was my goal. What I was not prepared for was the backlash...insane.

@Mumon ~ I agree with the crystal thing...weird as well as the channeling of "saints". Whoah, too much.

@Richard ~ The first thing I did was consult with a lawyer on libel way back when a certain "monk" threatened to sue me. Overall I am comfortable with what I produce both in accuaracy and intent.

Cheers,
john

Nathan said...

Hey John,

The little bit I've seen of Twitter fits your response - it just seems easy to get wrapped up in misunderstandings and mistaken points.

I can only imagine the backlash with the KPC thing. There seems to be a lot of heat around whatever is going on with them.

I can't keep up with all the details and intricacies of the Tibetan Buddhist communities.

Nathan

Katie said...

Thanks for speaking to some of the meta- and process issues, Nathan.

I decided to try to branch out and explore parts of the Buddhist blogosphere unknown to me. Of course, one of the first posts I come across is Bill Schwartz's article and comments on ZDZD. o_O?

But if I disagree (like you) with Bill's broad generalizations about Buddhist Bloggers, then I guess I won't let this encounter deplete my enthusiasm to keep exploring the Blogisattva roster. :)

As a last thought, I wonder what Bill's motivations are in writing about KPC? Not that a journalist always needs to be embedded in the communities they're covering, but I find that participatory action research -style writing can (sometimes) avoid some of the polemical fireworks because people are invested in the subjects and organizations about which they're writing. Maybe I'm spoiled by media-justice, anti-oppression, feminist circles of discourse and praxis, but I don't really relate to the kind of "I've been up their ass and now they're scared of me" approach. For WikiLeaks, maybe, but for a Tibetan Buddhist community with which one is not affiliated? I'd be curious to know more about why he decided to investigate them in the first place.

Nathan said...

Hi Katie,

Yeah, I never really understood what exactly Bill's motivations were behind the writing about KPC. There was something that felt "vigilante" to me about it all.

Would he have approached it differently had he spent some time inside the sangha in question? I don't know. But I do agree that it can help put a human face on whatever you're talking about.

Yogi Mat said...

The "Grandpa BS" online persona is one of hard-as-nails truth seeker but he just comes off as being rude and objectionable most of the time.

The ignorance on all sides in this particularly lamentable episode was palpable and unfathomable esp. as to the wider context of Dharma surrounding petty in-fighting and sectarian battles.

What could have been achieved in that very public spat was at best a Pyrric victory.

elej should THINK MORE THAN TWICE before employing people that appear to be SOOO unhinged psychologically, philosophically, cognitively, emotionally ... ... ... but because it needs page views it is a sick circus - it doesn't have the right checks and balances.

For baby elephant to grow up it needs to care for the people - and caring for them is sometimes about NOT giving them as much rope as you can - and so I think that the SLAPP is a blessing for both elej and BS.

Noel Cowards' story recounted some years ago when he was returning from the Far East on a very large ship, seems pertinent:-

I was pursued around the decks every day by a very large lady. She showed me some photographs of her daughter ­ a repellant-looking girl and seemed convinced that she was destined for a great stage career. Finally, in sheer self-preservation, I locked myself in my cabin and wrote this song ­ “Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs. Worthington”.)

No one is really managing the mixed imperatives of elej - it will want to court controversy simply to create a social artifice for advertisers to pin their banners on from the nihilistic extremes of transcendentalism from the keyboards of Riggs, Ralston et al - or the cloying, moderate liberalism of contributors like Mr Bob Weisenberg

After the initial polemic fireworks (thanks Kate) and honeymoon elej IS destined for the relative mediocrity, a "path of Saruman" that all the dharma doulas and wizards follow.

elej has become a hotch-potch, it is justa mish-mash rag of pseudo-dharma

Anonymous said...

You think that episode was a train wreck? Have you seen his latest efforts? http://tinfoilushnisha.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

A little something about KPC - http://diamondsutrazen.blogspot.com/2011/07/deadly-viper-assassination-buddhists.html

I think there's more than enough motivation. I knew Bill, although via forums, easily five years ago or more - remember MySpace groups? He is, for all of his 'human-ness', one of the most genuine seekers and practicers you will ever cross paths with. Some can grasp this, others are steeped in concept, expectation, the 'materialism' of Trungpa's warnings, and care more about obedience than they do the value of each individual's rational thinking abilities.

You can disagree with his particular flavor, like you might a pizza topping, but KPC is literally inedible. Its styrofoam, no nutritional value.