Thursday, November 12, 2009

I-Sanghas, Twangas, and Playing the Congas

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.


spldbch said...

I think whether in person or online a person is going to commit to a spiritual practice at whatever level he or she chooses. You might have someone who practices online who wants to devote himself fully and so seeks out knowledge everywhere he can find it. You might find someone who has an "in person" teacher who is fully devoted when attending sessions with teachers and peers but does little to integrate the teachings into her life.

ZenDotStudio said...

Love your photo (I'll be the toad) and great post. Interesting thoughts. I think the question that comes to me as important in all of this, is, are we being honest with ourselves in whatever practice we are doing. A good teacher can call us on our stuff, when we're not quite willing or able to see (ah so many blind spots!). And teachers are of course human and that can get tangled too.

So as you point out there are benefits to both i and not i practice. And as an aside Brad Warner is in Victoria next week and I am so curious after all the on-line fu-fa-ra over him I just have to go for a peek!

Anonymous said...

@ Zendotstudio - I agree with everyone is saying. It is the quality of the practice and not the venue or medium that it is coming from.

Can you give Brad a hug for me?

@Nathan - Great post! One point I liketo bring up is that many, many lay-persons and monastics communicated through letters and correspondance in days when travel was a great difficulty and online was completely offline. Some great collections of these letters exist. I suppose we could throw them all away since the smell of the teacher's breath goes unnoticed.

My main point in my post though was that by denigrading a medium that is the only Dharmic venue for many individuals, you do the opposite of teaching. Brad, in my humble opinion, is a good writer but a bad teacher. In fact, I don't think of him as a teacher at all...he is a personality.



NellaLou said...

Have been following this discussion for a while and really enjoying it. On Loden Jinpa's blog he had a post about Socially Engaged Buddhism in which he pointed out this dichotomy you also point to.

It is a lack of understanding of interdependence. We can make nice with ourselves all we want and that may affect some aspects of our lives but to disregard the often deliberately manufactured delusions (read lies) that surround us daily is to have a gaping hole in our practice.

(gosh that sounds a little paranoid, have been reading too much on marketing practices of late perhaps)

In any case practice has to be taken as it comes. Ideal practice is just that.

People can go to a Zen center and not engage with it or have a terrible experience or learn nothing or all sorts of things. A Zen (or any Buddhist) center is not the Wizard's Magic Kingdom full of lollipop trees and dancing elves where you're guaranteed the ride of your life.

Things like Right View and Right Effort are at the heart of practice. Without these there is no where to go and no one who can teach one much of anything. So in person or on-line is really a red herring of a question. (as spldbch and ZenDotStudio indicated in comments above)

Brad Warner is a "personality" That just cracked me up!

Here's the link I mentioned earlier.

NellaLou said...

As an addendum on I-Sangha.

I get called on my crap way more often on the Internet than in person. Sometimes it's valid and sometimes not but it does give one a shake. That's one of the reasons I put it out there.

Reality testing in this and other ways are the most useful methods for breaking down delusion. That is what a good teacher will be able to assist with. But there are many other methods.

One of the main purposes of Buddhist practice is discovery of truth. (truth of suffering and its alleviation) Sifting out that which does not contribute to the discovery cannot be done "in the head" alone because "I" is not a product of simple chemical or mental processes. There is a huge social element to that.

(Nathan I'd better do a blog post on this or I'll clog up your comments endlessly)

Nathan said...

I've enjoyed the comments you all have made. I totally agree, Nella Lou, that the whole question about isangha vs. "real life" sangha is a red herring.

Glad you liked the photo Carole. I saw that sign and had to take a pic of it.

I do think some of this discussion occurs because of a lack of, or willing suspension of memory of, the history of Buddhism in Asia. Specifically, that many students had little access to their teachers, either because of distance, or because of the teacher's instructions, among other things. There seems to be a fantasy that, in order to really learn Buddhist practice, one must be in the presence of a teacher for years on end.

The record doesn't wash with that though. Some students had this "privilege," but many didn't. Think of all the stories about monks who were sent off to study on their own for years on end after receiving some teachings. Or the monks who spent some intense months studying with a particular teacher, and then received transmission, and moved on. Even Dogen, who's often held up as the champion of student/teacher relationships, bounced around for years looking for a teacher that appealed to his commitment to the practice. He never spent years on end with a single teacher, and yet somehow the story for some now seems to be "You have to spend years on end with a teacher" in order to truly learn the Way. It's a little screwy if you ask me.