Monday, July 19, 2010

Developing Patience with Communal Samsara

Maybe this post won't interest too many people, but I have a little extra time, so I'm going to write it.

The post I wrote this morning about the Treeleaf online community, and the tussle they recently had with one of their members, wasn't one of my better ones. I didn't want to take a firm stand for or against the leaders of Treeleaf, who decided to eject the member in the middle of the tussle, because I really don't know what to think of the situation. It raised a lot of questions for me about online Buddhist practice, and communities - many of which don't have clear answers. So, I wrote the post this morning without a lot of clarity, and failed to make it clear that I wasn't sure what I felt would be the best approach in dealing with challenging behavior in an online setting.

To be honest, what most interests me about the situation is how everyone, including the teachers involved, struggled to work online with the messiness of the various narratives playing out within their community. I saw similar strugglings in my own sangha several years ago, during a major upheaval. And I've seen them at my workplace, in my family, and most everywhere at different times.

Working with communal samsara is tough, sometimes brutal. And even people with great wisdom don't know how to proceed all the time, or maintain the peace. There isn't always clarity available when circumstances arise, and action is called for. You have to do the best with where you are at, and who you are with.

I'm interested in this lack of clarity because I've been experiencing a lot of it in my own life lately. What I have found in my own experience is that not being clear can manifest in many different ways. You can become mousy and subservient, afraid to say or do anything. You can become loud and defensive, feeling like everyone is against you. You can become pious, thinking that if you act the "right way," maybe you will find the way out of the mud. And you might even become nihilistic, saying fuck it to everything because hanging in the murkiness for a long time is just too challenging.

One of the things I've seen online over the time I have been active on here is that there isn't a lot of tolerance for this kind of muddiness. The various kinds of "acting out" that occur in peoples' writings tend to be responded to with another form of acting out. Not always, but pretty often. People struggle to be kind and generous when others are acting out, myself included, which is why I think it's too much to simply slam Treeleaf and call it a day.

This post feels a little clearer then the last one. Maybe some of you would rather I shut up until I knew what I was talking about.

But that is precisely my point. If there is no place in sangha - online or "brick and mortar" - for struggling, confusion, and messiness, then what's the point? If the teachers must always be beacons of wisdom and excellent action, and the students always good and righteous followers, then why bother having a community at all?


NellaLou said...

Yes if not here then where? (a multi-locale question)

Clarity comes when it comes. And to the degree that it comes given the variables in any given circumstances. If we demand it of ourselves and expect it of others continuously that is highly unrealistic.

I have found there to be quite a lot of tolerance for honest confusion. People can be quite empathetic about that.

But not so much for laziness, disingenuousness and bullshit. All of which are a different kind of un-clarity.

[I thought your post was straightforward and expressed exactly what you are attempting to clarify here]

Anonymous said...

I set up and later moderated a mailing lists in the early 00s and, standing back now, can say that it did not bring out the best in me. The problem is that you start a small group with an unspoken understanding between like-minded people but as the community grows the dynamic changes and becomes more chaotic and less clear. When founders, moderators and long-term members experience this they feel that something they lovingly built up and nurtured is being wrecked and they tend to react emotionally, often in passive-aggressive behaviours. I sure did.

Not long after I got sick of the whole mess and closed down the mailing list someone sent me this which I found very revealing:

A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy - Clay Shirky

Algernon said...

Very good closing point.

In my school, an oft-repeated analogy is drawn to the Korean style of washing potatoes, throwing a bunch of them into a tub and agitating the water so the potatoes rub against each other and get clean that way.

Ideally, this includes the teacher. It really takes the piss out of the whole "teacher" thing when you have opportunities to see him or her being a human being. My teacher recalls being struck when she caught Seung Sahn Sunim kicking onion skins under the stove while he was cooking!

On the other hand, there are also times when the best way out of an argument is for everyone to STFU and let silence prevail. Seung Sahn was even known to prescribe periods of silence to students when their mouths seemed to be stuck digging them into a deep hole.

Anonymous said...

So if I take your point in the last 2 posts
in Jundo's sangha
in your sangha
in your workplace,
in your family & life in general there are piles of brokenness.

real leadership eventually gets past the breakdown, muddy & confused reactions and creates some basic human level workability.

As NellaLou says clarity comes...when it comes.

Any thing less leaves people in general and you in particular in disarray, incomplete and in an unanswerable complaint.

I don't know you for sure; it really isn't my place to ask: maybe you are finding a place to stand and lead in your own life and to let go of some long standing anger, incompletes and complaints?

Growing some new ones, so to speak.

- or maybe not. Anyway...

If I understand Pima's words: loving kindness for yourself and compassion for others stand in the same place like a matched pair of shoes. It is an act of courage & freedom to stand in those shoes every day.

Nathan said...


I'll second that call for silence sometimes. Those holes can get mighty deep without it.


Nathan said...


If you're the same person from the last post, you're sure being tough on me. Not sure if I like that or not, but I accept it.

Look, it's true that there are piles of brokenness everywhere. And at the same time, it's all perfect as it is.

Maybe I'm a little too focused on the brokenness right now.

"As NellaLou says clarity comes...when it comes.

Any thing less leaves people in general and you in particular in disarray, incomplete and in an unanswerable complaint."

Actually, in writing about lack of clarity, I'm doing so out of a desire to explore how I and others struggle with it.

In fact, I think we have been trained to tie our value and worth to being clear and articulate - to having the answers and solving problems.

It is my desire to break this training down - to be a person who is genuinely OK with either clarity or lack of clarity.

Anonymous said...

yes, same person, yes being tough on you; old phrase tough love. You're worth it, trying to read your words closely, clear and unclear alike.

Actually, I don't think I'm being tough on you particularly. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer: any fool can separate right from wrong; it takes real freedom and no guarantees to separate right from right and wrong from wrong.

If you were a fool it would be a different matter. You are no fool but someone building new answers I think. Don't stop now, IMHO