Sunday, June 20, 2010

Locating "Good Buddhists"

Wisdom or dharma candy? This post has nothing, really, to do with the above book, but it definitely does have to do with this question.

Marguerite over at Mind Deep had a recent post about determining who is a "good Buddhist" practitioner worth following on Twitter. Now, full disclosure - I have no Twitter account, and don't really feel compelled to open one. However, her post could easily apply to other online writers, or even to people in one's "regular" life I suppose. I started writing a response to her on her blog, and then realized it kept going on and on like a blog post, so I just moved it over here for others to consider.

Here is her criteria for locating people to follow on Twitter:

The picture:
Don't weird me out. Don't look too sexy. Smile. Even better, dress as a Buddhist monk (or nun) :)

The bio:
No new age-ish linguo, please. Instead sprinkle one of the magic words like 'meditation', 'Vipassana', 'zen', 'Buddhist', 'Dharma', etc

The website:
I prefer you don't sell stuff. I love it when you blog about the Dharma.

The ratio of 'followers' to 'following':
Greater than one usually tells me you've got something to say. But there are exceptions!

How recent is the activity?:
At least within the past month, and fairly frequent. Otherwise, how can I have a conversation with you?

List titles:
'Dharma', 'Buddhist', 'zen' lists tell me you are interested in the stuff.

The first page:
Do your tweets ooze mindfulness, loving kindness, authenticity, and Dharma intelligence?

And here is my response:

All of this might help I suppose, or maybe not. Honestly, some of those who "appear" to fit what I think constitutes a "good Buddhist" actually turn out to not offer much. And at the same time, I've found writers/bloggers/people who have none of the obvious trappings and might even use languaging that irritates me, but who are real teachers for me all the same.

In fact, on my own blog, I've only barely mentioned my dharma name, and there's no picture of me in my rakusu. If I had a twitter account, it would be the same. Maybe someday, that will change, but I've felt it better to just do my writing, and not worry too much about appearing to look a certain way.

It's funny, but the longer I'm online, the more I'm interested in people who may not always uphold their vows or precepts per se, but who are putting something of their life out there that causes me to stop, reflect, maybe even react strongly. The abundance of great dharma quotes and comments out there actually is weakening the effect for me. It often feels like eating sugar now, reading yet another Thich Nhat Hanh or Dogen or Suzuki Roshi gem. There's so much of it all, and so many people gushing about how wonderful teacher X is, or teaching y is, but I find myself saying "so what" more often than not.

What's fascinating is that the same quotation from great teacher X might, in a different context, jar me awake - I've had that experience of repeatedly running across a line from someone, only to have it hit the twentieth time because it was within some unique context (and I had changed somehow). So, it's not about rejecting often repeated dharma teachings; it's more about the excesses of "good" perhaps.

It's kind of like having shelves and shelves of dharma books. After awhile, it just feels like collecting slightly different perspectives on the same thing. I've always had a bit of academic in me, and love to research subjects at depth, but lately I've felt the need to check that some because I wondered how much it was benefiting my life and practice. I mean, does it matter if I can cite seven different takes on the Heart Sutra? Maybe, under the right conditions, but often not I think.

In some ways, it just seems to come down to what really teaches us to live our lives more fully. If everyone I follow online confirms what I already believe, or appears as I think a Buddhist might appear, then what I will receive is almost the same as what I already am experiencing.

It reminds me when I was in undergrad psychology classes, learning about confirmation bias. I remember that different teachers who were from different schools of psychological thought approached this issue differently. The social psychologist emphasized the role of community, nation, and other groups and how they impacted what we saw. The cognitive psychologist emphasized the way human thinking generally works. The developmental psychologist talked about life stages and common biases within them. In other words, the larger frame impacted the smaller frames contained within it. So, if your frame it too limiting, or too slanted in a certain direction, it might not be all that beneficial.

The thing is, like Marguerite, we all have lists like this playing out in our lives. They aren't a terrible problem, but if you believe in them too much, watch out! But beyond that, though, it's really worth investigating who you think your teachers are, or who you think a good teacher for you would be. Because it might turn out to be someone or something entirely different from what you think.

What do you think about all this?


Mumon K said...

I'll be honest: I only use Twitter for the following purposes:

1. To promote to those who follow me or happen to follow the Buddhist tags on Twitter new posts on my blog.

2. To reply to others' tweets.

I for the life of me can't figure out why anyone would use aphorisms in Twitter-style as a significant part of their communication.

Brikoleur said...

Hear hear. I've developed a real dislike for "Dharma tweets"—those short, pithy, superficially profound nuggets of wisdom proffered like personalized accessories, with nothing to give them context.

I much prefer reading stuff from, say, NellaLou, The Zennist, Mumon, or you, perhaps precisely because all of you repeatedly (but not constantly!) say something that irritates the hell out of me. I've learned something more than once, by exploring that irritation. It's even happened on occasion that I've found that my initial reaction was mistaken, and I was the one with my head up my ass.

I've also been reading Brad Warner's blog (who hasn't?) and I can totally relate to his problems with the Internet Buddhist community, such as it is. It must be much more difficult when you're actually an Authority of some kind, and I can see that the Dharma transmission weighs heavily on someone with his temperament.

(Hm. Captcha "tuote," which is Finnish for "product." Is that a sign...?)

Anonymous said...

Nathan, thank you for this really thoughtful response and for choosing to share it with the wider community.

Absolutely, my experience has been that I often need to hear the same teaching many, many times before the opportunity is ripe for real understanding to emerge. My own teacher says the same things over and over for that very reason. You never know when that opening is going to come.

And certainly, we learn most from those relationships that rub, where we aren't entirely comfortable, and where we have to do some skillful reflection. Teachers are everywhere, in every relationship we have whether physical or virtual, if only we are open to looking in the mirror.

You've also brought some great questions up around the abundance of Dhamma infiltrating our screens these days, definitely some things for me to think about...Thanks.


Nathan said...


Yeah, I kind of don't get Twitter. It makes sense as a means of promotion, or sharing info about public events. I can imagine it also could help people learn to be more concise, given the character limit. But mostly, I just don't know what to make of it.

Petteri - glad to be a source of irritation :) Seriously though, I completely agree that it's helpful to have the opportunity to check into those reactions - I know I've watched my views flip over totally after a short discussion with a post writer plenty of times.

Katherine - that uncomfortable place is one most of us try to worm our way out of, or avoid completely. I'm learning how to hang with it, slowly. Definitely not the easiest thing to do.

NellaLou said...

Not fond of "Dharma tweets" much either. Context is often important and a lot of the "-Buddha" tweets come from self-help books and not Buddhism at all. Feel good kind of stuff. One teacher has taken up the task of pointing out these fake Buddha quotes but it doesn't seem to stop them or provoke people to look them up before they spread them around.

In general I like things that have a little "meat" to them. That's metaphorical meat. (tho the other kind is OK with me too sometimes)But I've taken Twitter to be a challenge to that preference which is why I continue to do it.

I was skeptical about Twitter for a long time. And when I started with it didn't know what could be done. But I took the notion of micro-blogging up and sometimes use it to capture some thoughts or perspectives when either they aren't pithy enough for a blog post or time prohibits further exploration. Am not so good at the conversation part of it because of my time zone (about a 12 hour lag) the conversation can seem to take forever. And I forget to check @ all the time. But it's connected to my facebook so the statuses go there and are open to comments which is useful also-different crowds actually.

The majority of who I follow are not Buddhists but interesting information providers or people with different, diverse and interesting perspectives. A lot of times the links they give to articles, blogs etc open doors I'd not have previously considered so from that point of view it's been a worthwhile experience.

Algernon said...

I dunno. No interest in Twitter. I've never really gone looking for Buddhist bloggers, either -- but have found some bloggers who are good writers and/or interesting persons who practice the dharma.

My own blog would likely be a disappointment to some looking for a good Buddhist blog, as my reflections on practice are mixed up with other topics although I think certain questions consistent with practice show up in the other topics.

Jeanne Desy said...

It's voices I like - personalities, stories, real people. How I would love to hear more about ethical decisions, moments of love, living the bodhissatva way.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me like channel flipping between Dogen's Channel and Descartes Channel.

Leaving Dogen behind is leaving the hands-on unified world of expressing what the monk saw that causes skillful means like artful expression like cooking for the sangha in in the world and bowing

in order to
to take up Descartes World - that split world of Cartesian dualism where you are the informed knower & skeptical spectator critically observing - even parsing - the play of the game and have all the requisite existential angst that goes with taking up observer status.
In Dogen's world you are playing in the game; in Descartes world you have permanent observer status, you are free to cheer and boo and eat hot dogs too; but you are not in the game. Trying to play and spectate at the same time is a killer.


To put too fine a point on it are you a baseball player or a spectator watching from the computer screen.

Consider the case of Chuck Knobloch quotes by Herbert Dreyfus in his Heidegger seminar at Berkeley.

As second baseman for the New York Yankees, Knoblauch was so successful he was voted best

infielder of the year, but one day, rather than simply fielding a hit and throwing the ball

to first base, it seems he stepped back and took up a “free, distanced orientation” towards

the ball and how he was throwing it – to the mechanics of it, as he put it. After that, he

couldn’t recover his former absorption and often – though not always --threw the ball to

first base erratically—once into the face of a spectator. Interestingly, even after he seemed unable to resist stepping back and being

mindful, Knoblauch could still play brilliant baseball in difficult situations, -- catching a

hard-hit ground ball and throwing it to first faster than thought. What he couldn’t do was

field an easy routine grounder directly to second base, because that gave him time to

think before throwing to first. I’m told that in some replays of such easy throws one

could actually see Knoblauch looking with puzzlement at his hand trying to figure out the

mechanic of throwing the ball.7 There was nothing wrong with Knoblauch’s body; he

could still exercise his skill as long as the situation required that he act before he had time

to think. In this case we can see precisely that the enemy of expertise is thought.

They tried moving Knoblauch to the outfield, but that didn’t help. He couldn’t

resist exercising his capacity to reflect. Indeed, he became such a full-time rational

animal that he had to be dropped from the team, and he never returned to baseball.


The issue is not team loyalty, right or wrong, wise or foolish, or smarts but the integrity of who you are being i.e. the last line of the GenjoKoan.


it is the same issue of those NWA pilots who overflew the Twin Cities while checking their flight schedules on their laptop.

There is nothing wrong with doing one or the other; it is being split that is the spirit killer, and its why the opinions turn into turds in the punchbowl.

Nathan said...

Dogen seemed to be a keen observer of life, even as he was being a player in the game so speak.

Wow! I never thought I'd see Chuck Knoblauch land on a post on this blog, but there he is. Definitely a good example of overthinking and stepping outside of what's going on too much.

I guess mostly, the post was about paying attention to who you think a teacher or fellow dharma traveler might be - hell, Chuck's example isn't a half bad teacher now that I look at it again.