Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Telling, Not Telling Line

One of the things I learned from writing an article about Buddhist blogging (which is on the Tricycle editor's desk right now), is that a lot of us really enjoy reading about the details of each others' practices. The ups and downs of everyday life. The sutras, koans, and other teachings being studied. The ways in which we make breakthroughs and also stumble and fall. All pretty compelling.

Mumon over at Notes in Samsara commented about his resistance to speaking too intimately about his own Buddhist practice online. It struck me, and I started thinking about the balance point between telling and not telling. Where is it in any given moment? And what does blogging about intimate experiences do for us, and to us?

Here is Mumon's take on why he stays out of the realm of public disclosure of the personal:

So, for myself, there are several reasons why I do not wish to share my practice:

* It leads those reading this with a practice to want to compare their practice with my practice, and that's just adding more things about which to be attached.
* It also leads to want to compare understanding or development. This would quite naturally lead to division in a meat space sangha, and I have concerns that this is true in cyberspace as well. Moreover, sometimes cyberspace meets meat-space.
* It's natural for one with a good student teacher relationship to leave such matters in the province of the student and teacher, out of mutual respect. (I think therefore I lean towards getting a teacher, but not one who's a guru, but more like an accountable tutor.)

I find the comparison issue compelling because I've seen it myself in comments made on my blog and on the blogs of others. It reminds me of this guy I know who reads too many self help books, and who knows I'm a Buddhist. Every time he sees me he says "Oh Venerable one," and "Oh, wise one." Dude struggles to connect with people, but that's not really the point. He's heard a little bit about my practice - not much really - but he seems to equate whatever I've said to him with being much better than anything he's doing.

However, at the same time, if Shakyamuni had decided to keep everything to himself out of concerns of comparison, we'd be somewhere else today, wouldn't we? Of course, if you read Mumon's post, he's not speaking about teachers. However, what we've seen of the Buddha in the sutras is that he taught collectively, delivering his teachings to groups, not individuals in private sessions - at least, that's not what is presented to us anyway. And this is true of many Buddhist teachers throughout history - that a lot of their teaching was, and continues to be done in groups. That's not to dismiss private teachings between a single student and a teacher, but I don't think that method, so emphasized in Zen for example, represents the majority.

Beyond this, though, I think if you spend a fair amount of time in a Buddhist community, it's pretty difficult to keep everything about your practice to yourself. In fact, part of your practice IS the community, and how you interact within it. People get to know your edges, the teachings that inspire you, and those you dislike. Sure, you can hide a lot, but definitely not everything. And even in highly silent Zen groups there's still some talking, some sharing, even if it's how to do something during work practice or during a ritual. And do you really think your body doesn't give you away, at least in a general sense? How you move, how you look at people, how you bow: it all says something, even if you say nothing.

It might be worth asking, "What is private anyway?" We North Americans, especially, seem to believe very, very strongly in a division between public and private. And yet, how much of that division is simply our own clinging to a place to hide away from the world when we don't want to deal with it?

Even though it may seem like I don't, I actually agree with Mumon that some things in one's spiritual practice are probably better left unsaid, or at least carefully doled out.

I'm actually less concerned than Mumon about comparison mind than I am about being a spectacle for voyeurs to be attracted to. Comparison mind might be a living hell, but it sometimes sparks people to make the changes they need in their lives. Voyeurs, on the other hand, simply waste time gawking, and those who do things that attract voyeurs end up dealing with that and losing their focus on what matters. Of course, you never know what's going to get people's attention, so maybe you end up dealing with a peanut gallery of gawkers anyway.

What do you think? How do you navigate the telling, not telling line?


Robyn said...

Well, I think what happens in daisan is between you and your teacher. I really think it is best left private. The times when I have violated this have left me feeling like I just drained meaning from a very important thing (which I have!) and all I have left is an empty shell. And I am not talking about the good kind of emptiness...

NellaLou said...

This is an interesting and timely take. I've read Mumon's post the other day also. There is a tendency to divide what may be called the personal from the social. It has to do with relevancy or relationship on the one hand-many if not most of my thoughts etc are irrelevant to most people. At the same time the personal (and personality) is formed via the social. There is no wall between them as much as we might like there to be.

At one extreme is a notion that one can actually be "detached" a misunderstanding of non-attachment and at the other extreme a notion that "total honesty", getting it all out, laying it on the line...every little brain burp is somehow vitally important to the social realm. From the catatonic to the hysterical. Middle way comes to mind here.

zendotstudio said...

For me one of the first things I noticed and truly admired about my Zen teacher was her sense of transparency, her willingness to share her daily practice with us. And truly that was the real beginning of my own practice. I learned so much by seeing "how she manouvered her way through small situations, what bothered her, how she worked with it. It was the best instruction for me.

And of course everyone needs to decide where the comfort level of transparency is for them. And to look at why, perhaps?

And there is a phrase I remember from Dharma talks and I don't know who this it attributed to, "if you know one mango, you know them all." Your stuff, my stuff, it's not all that different. I think we write our blogs for many different reasons but I think it is always an offering.

Algernon said...

A friend of mine spent some time in Japan. She told me a story once where she asked her host, "How do you keep your house so immaculate and clean?" It seemed that every room of the house was open, and neat as a pin.

The host smiled and evaded the question initially, but ultimately admitted that there is one room guests don't get to see.

It is wise to be selective about who gets to see our 'messy room.' When people live and practice together, that door gets left ajar sooner or later as people get to know you closely, from the way you bow, the way you keep your bowls, the way you do your house job.

Exposing our bones for all to see in our personal writing and posting it on the blogosphere could be very compelling and helpful material; on the other hand, it could also NOT be. Depending on what is revealed and how, it could burden the reader. Sometimes, it is enough to know that the writer HAS a messy room and is dealing with it, as I do with mine.

That said, I do enjoy reading about people's understand of their own practice. I am a Kwan Um guy who has spent a lot of time in Soto places, and I quite enjoy the variety.

It's also a pleasure to share and read of other's efforts to implement Buddha's teaching and zazen into their daily life. Even with the door to the messy room open, those posts are inspiring.

Trevor said...

As a priest in a very visible role at a small-ish temple, I have to be careful of what I say online (and offline). It's not so much a "practice" issue in the same way as sharing what goes on in daisan, but rather a professional issue. Certain things need to be kept confidential, while other things just shouldn't be talked about with anyone.

For instance, I was on the phone with a sangha member a while ago, and he was being kind of strange. I got off the phone and said to my teacher, "My goodness, Soandso was weird! He just wouldn't blahblahblah! I couldn't believe it! Is that how it is with him all the time?" My teacher said, "Oh, sometimes, I suppose." Then I realized that another non-staff sangha member was sitting across the room, working with our director on something, and that sangha member heard the whole thing! I pulled Kosho into the other room and apologized, told him I'd be careful about what I say in front of who.

You see, the stuff I said to Kosho would have been just fine in private, but in front of other sangha members, not so good. KnowwhatImean? There are things about my work here at the temple that are kind of neat and would be fun to write about, but it wouldn't be so good if a sangha member read about it.

Kyle said...

What about those with no teacher? What about those who might wish to learn about others practice?

This was posted in regards to the post I made about my own personal practice. I have every right to discuss in public my practice, and if people want to read, great, if they don't great. I have no teacher at the moment and I am not alone.

I certainly will continuie to express my opinions on practice for everyone to read. I'm not ranting here, I just feel if we cocoon ourselves with this mystical sheet of spirituality we are doing a big dis-service to those who are new to the practice.

Nathan said...

Well, thank you everyone for your comments. Lots to ponder.

Trevor, as the board chair of my sangha, I certainly understand where you are coming from. When I post about my community, I'm careful. In fact, there are a few issues I could easily write about and generate interest on my blog, but which I've chosen to let go of for now because the potential mess isn't worth a few extra clicks and readers.

Kyle, I took a look at the responses to your post a few days ago. Mumon seemed to be appreciative of your writing. And his post may have been sparked by yours, but I didn't feel he wanted the door closed on those of us who write more "personally." That's why I wrote my own post because his made me reflect, even though I didn't agree with him completely.

I don't think there is any fixed answer to this issue.

Kyle said...

Oh don't get me wrong, I wasn't ranting at Mumon either. We all have our own styles.

Jomon said...

Great post, Nathan, and thanks for throwing out the question. I've gone ahead and posted about this and your post from today as well (you're hard to keep up with!) Zendotstudio: Beautiful.

Nathan said...

Thanks Jomon. I'm sure I'll hit a dry spot as far as posts go at some point :)

Anonymous said...

I like transperancy in my practice. I try to keep it as open as possible. If people ask then I honestly answer. It keeps fresh eyes on a practice that is usaully privat in nature, especially for me since I work largely without a teacher or guide.

But even if I were to work with a teacher, I believe it would still be an open practice if people could gain some benefit from it.




spldbch said...

I think humans have a natural tendency to compare, no matter what it is they are comparing.

Also, who determines what qualifies a person as a "teacher?" Can I not learn something of value from another "student?" Doesn't the student then become my teacher?

The privacy thing goes along with our individualistic culture. I doubt you find as much concern about privacy in more collectivist cultures.

Nathan said...

"Also, who determines what qualifies a person as a "teacher?" Can I not learn something of value from another "student?" Doesn't the student then become my teacher?" I think these are important questions. Sometimes, I see an over emphasis on a single teacher/student spiritual relationship which doesn't reflect reality for anyone now, or in the past. Doesn't mean one should opt out of having a specific spiritual mentor, but it does mean being more open and aware to where teaching and learning occurs.

Trevor said...

SPLDCBH: From what I've heard, Zen students in Japan never discuss what goes on in private between themselves and their teacher, and one could say that Japan is a pretty collectivist culture. The idea is that the teacher says what YOU need to hear in order to wake up. This is not necessarily the same thing that another Zen student needs to hear in order to wake up - in fact, it could be misguided advice for another person. This isn't so much an issue of "privacy" as it is an issue of "intimacy." Sharing what goes on in dokusan could betray this privacy. I've found that in the states, the rule about not sharing your dokusan experience isn't so hard and faast in some sanghas, but in others it is. Regardless, it's ackowledged that dokusan is between you and your teacher, not matter what kind of regulations or spelled-out rules there are about it.

And in the setting of a Zen temple, what makes a person your "teacher" is the fact that you are willingly submitting your ego (that is, entering the training) to that person. This takes a lot of trust, for sure, which is why one would want to make sure to find someone with reputable credentials, and why one would try out other teachers before finally settling on someone in particular.

I learn a lot from other students, for sure, but my teacher is my teacher. He and I have a different relationship than the relationship I have with other students. There is intimacy between myself and other students, but it's a different intimacy, because we're not acting out the teacher/student archetype, they haven't ordained me; basically, we don't have the same agreement.

I should say that all my Zen training has been here in the states.

Wow! This is the longest comment I've ever left on a blog, I think! :)

Read my blawg!

Nathan said...

I agree with Trevor concerning dokusan (private meetings between student and teacher.) It is a different relationship.

At the same time, I still think it's important to not assume it's only learning place, or always the best one. My experience is that too much focus on the teacher/student relationship can lead to big trouble, especially if the teacher becomes destructive or abuses his/hers power in some way.

Part of the reason I'm interested in a broad range of "teachers," including folks on-line, is to develop a keener sense of awareness of when things might be out of wack.

I guess being from a sangha that was shattered awhile back has left it's mark. I don't trust in the same way I did before - which is my issue. But I feel like I was blessed to have my view of learning about my life broaden as a result of the departure of our former teacher.

There's more I could say, but I'll refrain for now out of a desire to "remain upright in speech."