Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Spiritual Libertarians"

Our entire society, in the words of Generation X, has become very DIY. Do-it-yourself. The interesting thing about this term is that it started as an anti-consumerist phrase but it actually means you get to consume in the way you want. So there seems to be a strand of dharma, a huge strand of dharma, where we all want to become spiritual libertarians. We want to do the teachings in the way we do them. My teacher a lot of times says if you’re going to ask a teacher for advice you should actually do what they say. Chances are they’re going to tell you to do something you didn’t want to do in some small way. That’s what doing something good for you is, right? You have to do something that’s outside of the framework of your habitual apparatus, which means it doesn’t feel immediately good.

So I always think of this conundrum of our DIY consumerist culture, especially in the United States of America which is possibly the most libertarian society on Earth today in terms of freedom is that we all really proclaim our individual freedoms. And the way we express this freedom is by doing whatever everyone else is doing. So we don’t really want to submit ourselves to a community, which is the sangha, or a teacher, which is the Buddha principle, that’s beyond our ability to control what feels good in the present moment. And this is one of the big dangers of the superficiality. And I don’t mean superficiality in a bad way. I mean in the surface way of internet dharma, of podcast dharma, and Wikipedia dharma.

The above is a quote from Ethan Nichtern, from a talk he delivered at the recent Buddhist Geeks conference. Laying aside for now the various issues people had with that conference, I want to consider what Nichtern is speaking about.

During the first year and a half of the existence of this blog, I wrote a lot about what seemed to be an emerging "online Buddhist sangha." Numerous other blogs also took up the idea of a virtual sangha, considering the various pros and cons to such a "thing." It was, in other words, a pretty hot topic. The big three North American Buddhist mags expanded their online presence during this time, while also stirring up some controversy in the process, most notably Tricycle, with it's infamous "Dharma Wars" article.

Needless to say, things have appeared - at least to me - to have died down around the idea of "virtual sanghas" and "online Buddhism." Perhaps this is because it's become a bit more normalized, something that exists in an ever-changing form, but which amongst a swath of practitioners and dabblers anyway, is basically a given. Or perhaps, in some ways, the current limits of "going virtual" have been hit, thus limiting the amount of interest in such discussions. Perhaps enough disappointments have been had around the fickleness of the online world to have tempered the enthusiasm and nearly missionary zeal with which some folks once pushed the potential of "online practice." In any event, it just doesn't seem to be as "hot" of an issue as it once was.

Let's consider, though, Nichtern's term "spiritual libertarian" a little closer. I think he's on to something with it. However, I would actually argue that it's almost as easy to find this kind of attitude within "brick and mortar" Buddhist sanghas as it is to find online. Plenty of folks attend services, take classes, and do other forms of practice in sanghas without really doing anything else to demonstrate either a sense of responsibility to the sangha, or a willingness to let go of personal preferences.

I, myself, feel like a hybrid - having an independent streak around Zen practice (including frequent experimenting with forms and incorporating yoga), but also a long standing devotion and service to my home sangha. Although I sometimes question that "libertarian" streak, I have to say that I really can't imagine what my life and practice would be like without that devotion and service to the sangha. Especially over the past few years, as our sangha's head of the board of directors, I have had to let go of personal preferences, check the ego at the door, and develop a trust in dependent co-arising over and over again. Something I'm really not sure would have been possible if I had chosen a mostly DIY approach to practice.

In the meantime, I have noticed how difficult it seems to be to establish and maintain something resembling sangha online. Discussion boards wax and wane weekly. Niche communities have come and gone. Google+ is, it seems, a hot box currently - but for how long? The speed of innovation seems to add to the rootlessness that occurs online. Leaping to the hot new program or digital space is often given a priority over maintaining some kind of consistent community where people are currently at.

Treeleaf sangha seems to have had some success at keeping people around, and developing some sense of community amongst people scattered across the globe. However, I can imagine that even they would have something to say about the challenges and limitations of the online Buddhist world.

None of this is to say that the "project" of online practice and/or online sangha is a waste of time. I wouldn't be writing on here if I thought it was. Furthermore, I believe that Zen practice calls each of us to develop a certain kind of independence, but unlike the American notions, it's an independence tucked within interdependence. It's relational in other words, and requires a dance between form and emptiness, between loyalty to a larger sangha of "excellent friends" and an independence to fully discover/uncover yourself.


K Grey said...

"We want to do the teachings in the way we do them"

Whether want this or not not, makes no difference. We do them the way we do them, and can do them no other way.

Preferences are another matter, and are not hindrances. There is no chocolate or vanilla or libertarian or pragmatic dharma to prefer, only the expression of dharma as the unique experiencing of each on their path.

Much of what goes on in the name of dharma is retreading well worn paths through arid terrain, with some changing the appearance of the sign markers and claiming all who come after follow/share their path. Nothing new in this cyber desert. Dharma has never been found on the signs left by others, until all the signs are seen to be empty pointers to one realization.

Algernon said...

Took a little time to reply to this one. My reaction is a little bit of "so what?" like the previous comment, with one caveat for the adventurous.

The caveat is a reflection shared with me by a senior monk who spent some time in Korea. He told me of a certain "spiritual libertarianism" that exists there, as well, with people going off and practicing alone in secluded places in the mountains and woods.

He explained that sometimes these guys (almost always guys) would practice pretty hard, have some kind of experience, but they would have no one to help them integrate that experience. So they would convert it into their own understanding and thus, in my brother's words, "new delusions are constantly being made into religions."

That said, none of this is new, aside from the new media that allows such easy proliferation of signposts -- I'm thinking of comments left in trail books along the Appalachian trail. Whatever is said about hiking the AT, hiking the AT speaks for itself.

Nathan said...

Both of you have good points. It's very true that this isn't a "new thing" at all - and that what's happening online isn't really all that different from what's happening anywhere else.

Sitting with it a bit, I think what drew me to Nictern's comments was my own sense of trying to "make sense" of what's happening online. As well as how people react to something like "online practice" or "online sangha."

All of which might be best let go of.