Friday, August 20, 2010

Learning About Buddhist Practice Online

Two personal notes, the second leading into today's post. First, I quit my job yesterday. It's a scary leap, but I was tired of the spinning I have been doing over the past few years about it, and feel that the move will open up the space for what's next. Luckily, I've lived frugally, so I can handle a period of joblessness right now.

Second, both drafts of the article I wrote for Tricycle, and which about 20 of you provided generous interviews for, were rejected. I'm going to publish parts of the first draft on my blog, while continuing to work on the second draft for submission elsewhere. Today's post is part overview of blogging and part discussion about the question "Have you learned anything online about your life and Buddhist practice?” Feel free to leave comments about what your response to this question is.

Among the many online features available to Buddhists, the blog appears to be especially popular amongst practitioners across the world. In the English language alone, there are hundreds of Buddhist-centric blogs regularly maintained by both individual practitioners as well as groups of practitioners. The diversity is astounding, spanning across political and social boundaries that rarely are traversed in established Buddhist sanghas or practice communities. Even the group-run blogs are unusual in their breadth, from the Buddhist Military Sangha, a blog maintained by Buddhists in the U.S. military, to the Zen Community which showcases over 20 Buddhist bloggers, ranging from beginning Zen practitioners to well established Zen teachers like James Ford and John Tarrant. In fact, there has been so much activity by Buddhist bloggers over the past several years that a term for us has been coined: the Buddhoblogosphere.

Why the interest in blogs? What is this writing activity about, and what does it have to do with the Buddhism? As a main part of the research for this article, I interviewed over 20 members of the Buddhoblogosphere to find out what drew them to blogging, why they think it’s important, and what they believe the impact of the internet will have on Buddhist practice in the coming years. All blogging in English, these writers represent six nations and at least half a dozen different branches of Buddhism. Among their commonalities was an expressed enjoyment of writing and a general belief that the internet is proving to be a great vehicle of access when it comes to Buddhist teachings and resources. Beyond that, there is much disagreement as to what all this online activity means, and how it might benefit or hinder our spiritual lives.

There were a wide variety of answers to the following question: “Have you learned anything online about your life and Buddhist practice?” Among those answering in the affirmative was Marcus Laitinen, author of the blog Zen - The Possible Way and a teacher in the Dogen Sangha Finland group in Helsinki, Finland. He spoke of his affinity with the teachings of the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, and how he struggled at first “because in Finland we didn't have anything related to Soto Zen.” The internet, especially e-mails between him and his teachers, Nishijima Roshi and Peter Rocca, provided him the opportunity to both develop his own practice, as well as the sangha he currently helps to lead. Another member of the group who said he had learned a lot online was Adam Johnson, author of the blog Home Brew Dharma. Unlike Marcus, though, Adam specifically cites blog reading as a major source of benefit to him Buddhist practice. Not only has he developed friendships with other bloggers, but he says that reading the blogs of other practitioners “provides real life lessons in the dharma,” which gives him “a new way to look at” his life and Buddhist practice.

Others, however, weren’t so enthusiastic. Justin Whitaker, who began his blog American Buddhist Perspective as a student in England, said there’s nothing he has learned online that he hasn’t also learned in “real life.” And James Ishmael Ford, whose blog Monkey Mind chronicles his dual path as a Zen Priest and Unitarian Universalist minister, commented that he has “seen little directly affecting my practice out of my online experiences.”


Mumon K said...

Good luck with your new life. I thought that a meta-post was a good response not only to your post, but to a bunch of posts I've been reading lately.

Adam said...

That's too bad about the article, was looking forward to it!

It was awhile ago that I sent you those answers. I think I'll go back to that email and see how what I've said, and how much has changed/stayed the same since then.

Good luck to you during your work hiatus and new found freedom. I hope you are able to find a new job when the time/situation is right.

Nathan said...

Thanks Adam.

Yeah, the article not getting published was disappointing. The second draft of it was almost entirely different, and I think better written, so perhaps I'll be able to place it, or some version of it, somewhere else.


Was Once said...

Justin's point was correct, that the main reason blogs hold any value, is seeing someone else hitting the same wall. Just knowing you are not alone.

kevin said...

Since I read some of the blogs you mentioned, I'd really like to see that article so don't give up on it.

I've enjoyed reading blogs because of the wide scope from beginners to more advanced practitioners. Beginners don't get published so they get left out in printed books.

I do think it's important for face to face interaction, but people express themselves differently in the written word and are uninterrupted in monologue form so you get whole ideas.

The internet is definitely a dharma gate that redefines infinite, and while it requires responsible reading, there's no reason to shut it out as a supplement to practice.

thanks for the post

Magpie said...

I think I like the inter-connectedness feeling that comes from blogging, that and I'm an English major, published poet, while writing about my life I find I also write about my practice, because it shapes my life.

And I'd probably go crazy if I didn't sort out these thoughts, first on the cushiom and then in the "buddhoblogosphere" :)

And congratulations, and good luck. Taking a step like that is huge.

David Clark said...

I'm sorry your article isn't getting published (at least in the market you first envisioned - keep trying). As I posted on Uku's most recent blog on this topic, reading Buddhablogs helped me move from just being curious to regular daily practice. For the new or casual reader, these blogs can help a person get a lay of the land, so to speak. One may not find anything online that they couldn't have found otherwise, but it certainly can speed up the process for the beginner.

For the blogger, the writing of the blog can become part of a person's practice, helping the writer develop and focus their own practice and if it helps to free a sentient being or two along the way, great!

For myself, I have found blogging a useful means of expressing myself through poetry. I don't have all that many readers so far, but having the blog to post to has helped me develop my creative process and give voice to whatever "realization" I experience along the way.

Uku said...

Wow, quitting job is a brave thing to do! I think it's very important to follow one's heart, not just one's mind. I wish you all the best!

Sorry to hear your article got rejected but let's hope the second draft will make through the next round!

Oh, by the way, I'm NOT a teacher. I'm just a basic Zen monk who has his own group but I'm not a teacher. Yes, I teach but I'm not a teacher. And to be honest, I couldn't care less about the Dharma transmission (Shiho) and other stuff which is official requirement for being a teacher in Soto Zen tradition.

Funny, I wrote yesterday about Virtual Buddhism and Cyber sangha- things. My post can be found from here:

Blogs and forums haven't been so important to me but email connections have been important. I would have done the same without the internet by using postal services and traditional letters but blogs and forums doesn't feel so necessary to me. But I wrote more my feelings about this Online Buddhism in my latest post.

Thank you for your efforts, Nathan! I wish you all the best, take care and good luck with your article!

Uku (Markus with K, not with C. :) )

Nathan said...

Thanks for the great comments everyone. Sorry, Markus, for the mistake about your position in your sangha. I did know you weren't a transmitted teacher, but I guess I got too loose with the term when I was writing.

Like some of you, I also think that blogging can become a part of one's practice. It has for me.

And I am going to keep trying on the publishing end. I learned as an journal editor and during grad school, that persistence is a big part of the process, because a lot of getting published is really finding the right person at the right time. I read hundreds - probably thousands of poems - as a lit. journal editor. And when I look back, the worst stuff always dropped through and then with the best 20%, how I felt when I read it and the journal's mission always seemed to trump everything else. I rejected lots of good work because I was either tired of reading, or because our journal didn't print that kind of writing. Had nothing to do with the author.

Thanks for the well wishes on my job decision as well.


Sara said...

Good luck with the plunge into the unknown Nathan - burning barns indeed!

Anonymous said...


Recommend you get together a small "kitchen cabinet" to listen to and reflect on your next steps and new directions.

Might be good to take a little break and clean out the back closet too and remember to smell the roses.

Tom said...

Good luck with the change in direction ... and I wonder why the article wasn't published? Perhaps they just didn't want to bring more attention to all of the great competition out there :-)

Sabio Lantz said...

(1) Best wishes on future articles and a future job !

(2) I personally think the internet may help lots of folks cull through the varieties of Buddhism a find a practice and selection of doctrines they feel will be useful to them.

James said...

Hi Nathan,

First, best wishes for this transition period.

Second, I hope you find a publisher for the rewrite. As a fellow compulsive putter-down-on-paperer, I know the feelings that well up in the process...

Third, I'm sure your quote of me is accurate. But, I think I would have to modify the sentiment today.

There is the reading of blogs and there is the writing of blogs.

As to the reading, I find much of interest, some of it edifying, and a fair amount noise.

And, gradually I've found a sort of meta sangha emerging out of the buddhist blogosphere. I don't fully know what to make of it. I don't think it a good substitute for in the body relationships, although I'm sure for those who don't have that option it's a gift. But I find I care a great deal for many of those I know only through the medium, and there is no doubt there is community here for me, if attenuated...

Then there's the writing. I know I contribute to a certain amount of noise I mentioned. But, also, it is a vehicle for me to clarify my thinking, and that is an important part of my practice.

I also indulge the thought occasionally I write things of use to those who read my work.

Two cents, maybe three...

Algernon said...

Kwan Seum Bosal!! You are indeed taking a plunge. Best of luck and happy landing, whatever is next.

It will be interesting to read your article. You've been working on how this blogging integrates into Zen practice for a while.

Nathan said...

Thanks for all the well wishes everyone. I am going to take some time to rest, talk to others, meditate, garden, and just be for a bit.

James: "As to the reading, I find much of interest, some of it edifying, and a fair amount noise."

This is my experience as well.

I don't know what to fully make of the online sangha either. In many ways, it feels like we are just in the beginning of it all, and that it's hard to see what's actually happening.

Sabio, I think you're definitely right that newcomers get the opportunity to see what's out there in a way that probably wasn't possible in the past. When I interviewed the set of bloggers I did for the article, some loved this aspect of the internet, and some wondered if the amount of information about Buddhism online was overwhelming.

Since I came to blogging long after I started practicing, it was pretty easy for me to cull out false or poorly conceived information/writing/discussion. However, I can imagine for others who are just starting, it could be challenging to know what's an accurate reflection of the various Buddhisms out there, and what isn't.


Nathan said...

Hey Anonymous - I got your message. I'm around at Clouds most Sundays so if you're in town and at Clouds, feel free to introduce yourself.