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Mindful Blogging, Part 1: A Need

February 8, 2010

Image © Stephen Kroninger

Yesterday, during a haven’t-seen-you-in-a-year reunion adventure (involving a puppy, a car, a gorgeous hike, and a gas station clusterfuck), my friend Ivan called me out as only he can.

I was recounting my experience outing myself as “a blogger” at Goddard.  That’s where you made your mistake, he said.  You’re not a blogger; you’re a writer who happens to self-publish online.

Our friendly ensuing debate and the questions it raised have stuck with me.   Are there significant structural factors that differentiate bloggers from journalists, essayists, or memoirists?  Why do I call myself a mindful blogger?  And, conversely, why don’t I call myself a writer?  Why is it that, in the past six years, I’ve never really pursued publishing my own writing in any forms other than blogs?  What is that about?  Preference for a certain form?  Fear of rejection from more traditional, established publications?  Too lazy to write a column?  Or too enthusiastic to stop making posts and helping to shape online spaces?

There’s too much to sort through in one post, so I think this will become a theme of inquiry for the week.  Maybe longer.  One clue to the question of what distinguishes blogs as a literary medium came to me, a few days ago, through an unexpected messenger: a Buddhist quarterly magazine called Tricycle.

Zenshin Michael Haederle’s article “Dharma Wars” (illustrated with the delightful collage above) takes stock of the rocky dramas unfolding online in many American, mostly-convert Buddhist communities.

In the era of Internet blogging and online forums with their unfiltered, rapidfire exchanges, disagreements among Buddhist teachers and practitioners seem to erupt out of nowhere.

It’s hardly news that Buddhists sometimes disagree— there is a long and colorful history of Buddhist teachers debating one another, often quite forcefully, over their understanding of the dharma. And American Buddhism has weathered its share of internecine conflicts, including sex scandals, financial shenanigans, and power abuses. What has changed in the past few years is that some Buddhists are now accustomed to casual online mudslinging and name-calling—in short, behaving just as badly as everyone else on the Internet.

Haederle interviews a wide variety of Buddhist teachers, as well as psychologists and scholars who focus on social effects of Internet use.  Problems plaguing sanghas tend to stem, perhaps unsurprisingly, if somewhat ironically, from clashes among oversized egos.

In cyberspace, we can craft whatever persona we choose and call our blog whatever we want, and Buddhist bloggers often inflate their experience and understanding. Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, a Zen teacher who serves as spiritual director of the Zen Center of Syracuse, likens this behavior to online personal ads, where people have been known to misrepresent themselves (to put it charitably).

Not every Buddhist-themed website is a vehicle for vicious personal attacks, of course. Many teachers and sanghas have found the Internet to be an effective way to post text, video, or audio links to teachings that would otherwise be unavailable to people living far from practice centers. […] In most cases, these sites don’t solicit feedback, but when they do, participants more often see themselves as members of a community, and they may even know each other offline. The discourse accordingly tends to be civil and supportive.

Sounds familiar, no?  The disconnect between online and offline life can seriously distort our self-representation on blogs — and all manner of online forums.  On the other hand, using a blog simply as a container for records of real-life events, gatherings, and discussions appears to be a safer, more responsible way of using the Web to extend community.

But wait a second.  Why give up so easily?  Even if we don’t always represent ourselves accurately online (or ever, for that matter), can’t we take responsibility, with gentle diligence, for our words and deeds?  And is it really that difficult to create a “civil and supportive” online environment where folks can explore dharmic teachings together?

For some Buddhists, apparently, the gentle approach misses the point altogether.  Their goal is not to nurture, but to shock.

Another factor accounting for online rancor may be blogs and teaching websites that promote an in-your-face attitude, says McLeod. […] Brad Warner, a Soto Zen teacher and the author of several books, has seen this firsthand. […] For some readers, Warner contends, these barbed public exchanges help to deflate idealized perceptions of Buddhist teachers, and that’s a good thing.

Sure, many Buddhist traditions include a strong strain of teaching-through-abuse: slapping, shoving, kicking, and starving disciples toward enlightenment.  But while “ruthless compassion” may sometimes work (though I personally doubt its appropriateness in nearly all cases), such flashy methods can become quite risky — especially online.

Shinge Roshi takes a dim view of the whole dharma-teachers-with-attitude phenomenon. “If you see ‘Buddhist teachers’ getting caught in an angry give-and-take, they’re not teachers—or if they are, they never should have been given transmission,” she says. “How can you cast these terrible aspersions on others without bringing shame on your own lineage? That’s really what I’m struck by—that people seem to be oblivious to the karmic results of their actions and their words.

“Karmically, I think it’s quite dangerous,” Shinge Roshi continues. “It is easy to be swept away. People can get into righteous states of indignation very quickly. When there is no one looking in their eyes, when there is no face across from them seizing up with horror, it’s easy to continue.”

It’s a pretty bleak picture.  But the good news is, de-romanticizing spiritual praxis doesn’t require violence.  And, despite its reputation for machismo, gossip, and short fuses (stereotypes fueled by certain myopically sexist discourses — more on that some other day), blogging doesn’t have to feed ego.  Put the two truths together, and there’s room for a different kind of Internet interaction.  A loving, positive, fruitful intersection of dharma and digitization.  Just take it from this guy:

James Ishmael Ford is more sanguine about Buddhism’s move to the Internet, especially when taking the long view. “I think that, on balance, more good will come out of this than harm,” he says. “I think it’s bad for many of the people participating, I think a level of misinformation is ubiquitous, and I think it’s very exciting.”

Word. So now we have a bigger inkling of why Buddhists could use some better blogging practices.  Later this week, we can talk about what they might look like, and which ones might prove most useful in various community contexts.  For now, I’m just going to take another moment to appreciate that awesome collage.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2010 3:00 pm

    I agree, “such flashy methods can become quite risky — especially online.” This kind of teaching may work when there is a strong teacher-student bond where there is a deep trust and caring on each side. That said, we also have to remember the cultural context. In the modern western world, such methods are seen as abusive. Using similar methods on-line is irresponsible and can be a negative experience, especially for seekers who have been abused, to again be traumatized all over.

    Thanks for bringing attention to this subject and linking to my post. I took a quick peek at your blog. Good writing! I will be back to read more.

  2. February 12, 2010 12:28 pm

    Thank you, Miruh, and welcome! Great point about the risk of re-traumatizing readers. Online interactions (particularly on famous sites) are often witnessed by so many ‘invisible’ viewers that we need to keep in mind the broad impact of these public spectacles.

    Your observation of the cultural context has got me thinking, too. I wonder to what extent relativism is an appropriate attitude when it comes to vicious public pedagogical fighting. I do think that American dominant culture has a big problem with maintaining balance in disagreement: we tend to gravitate toward twin extremes of avoidance and polemics; deference and defamation. Whether it’s passive aggression or active aggression, it’s still aggression. So in that sense, a firm yet gentle form of conflict resolution — based in friendship, mutual vulnerability, and deep listening — seems like the appropriate remedy: a “middle way,” pardon the cliché.

    And on one hand, this balance strikes me as ideal in all cases. But on the other hand, it also happens to be my personal favorite mode, so I’m suspicious of universalizing its benefits.

    Like, I think about the monastery that Kaoru Nonomura describes in his autobiographical account, Eat Sleep Sit (reviewed by Clark Strand):

    Near the end of Kaoru Nonomura’s memoir about his year at Eiheiji, Japan’s elite training temple for Soto Zen priests, his friend Choshu suddenly declares that he is leaving the monastery to attend college. “What made you decide to do that?” Nonomura asks, surprised. But the question seems disingenuous. From the beginning, Nonomura and his fellow trainees are slapped, slugged, kicked, and shoved down flights of stairs. Climbing back up only earns them more kicks and blows from monastery officials, as does virtually any violation of protocol, however minor—even eye contact with a superior. A better question might be, “Why on earth would you stay?”

    As described by Nonomura, such violence (which also includes sleep and food deprivation so bad that trainees are frequently hospitalized) is pervasive and unrelenting in the lives of Zen initiates at Eiheiji. Even when the hazing does let up somewhat, it remains an urgent concern: Nonomura and his fellow trainees, having completed the first part of their initiation, are expected to brutalize the newer recruits. It speaks well of Nonomura that when a nervous newbie inadvertently catches his eye in a corridor, he can’t bring himself to administer the requisite blow. Nevertheless, Nonamura seems unwilling to recognize that something has gone fundamentally awry in the traditional training of would-be monks at Eiheiji.

    Or is he? That is the question I struggled with throughout “Eat Sleep Sit”: Does or doesn’t Nonomura recognize the pathology inherent in the centuries-old system of hierarchical one-upmanship and ritualized abuse that characterizes traditional Zen monastic training in Japan, no matter what occasional spiritual insight might be gleaned along the way? That he gleans such insights in the course of his training is a matter of self-report, and all in all they seem worth it to him. But the story Nonomura wrote in red ballpoint pen while commuting every day to his design job in Tokyo is at odds with the story he tells with his feet—shortly after his friend Choshu’s decision to leave the monastery, Nonomura decides to leave as well. The message of the pen seems to be that a do-or-die approach to Zen training is worth every drop of blood and tears you put into it. The feet, however, say that Eiheiji may be a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there for a second longer than absolutely necessary. Which story is the real story? It isn’t clear. And therein lies the magic of the book.

    How are we to understand this hazing in light of, say, globalized patriarchal ideologies that grant men, as a group, the right to employ enlightened brutality at will? Is it unfair to condemn the violence at Eiheji, especially since monastics consent to living there? (As an analogy, I’m thinking of BDSM and sexual play that would be criminally inappropriate in a non-consensual context, and does not appeal to everybody, but can be pleasurable and even empowering in healthy settings.)

    For now, I’m trying to focus on my own communities, my own immediate people — trying not to spin out into too much abstraction. But these questions keep coming up, and I think they’re also important. Thanks again for your thoughts, insight, and general brain food.

  3. February 12, 2010 12:45 pm

    I think one answer to this is let’s make a zine together, really.

  4. February 12, 2010 12:51 pm

    and in addition – only a little bit related but I like it – is this article on failure as essential: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/failure/Content?oid=3393599. I want to talk to you about this in your art forms!

  5. February 14, 2010 3:00 pm

    I’ve struggled over the years with the violence of some of the Zen koans, as well as the training methods like those you mention above. The power-based, male dominant role that the former teacher of our sangha sometimes employed completely backfired in the end, partly I think because it promoted a hell of a lot of confusion about what it meant to be a student of the dharma – especially a lay student being pressed into more and more monastic-like forms.

    I have to say, though, that Haederle’s article is terribly imbalanced , presenting only the “negative” aspects of the Buddhist online community. I actually have an article under consideration at Tricycle that was done partly to present a more balanced view of what’s happening online when it comes to Buddhist practice.

  6. February 14, 2010 5:07 pm

    Leora, let’s make a tea date and talk art and failure — I would love that. :) This paragraph of that cool article resonated especially:

    What am I trying to tell myself? That artistic “success” doesn’t come at once. That you may have to keep trying and trying to create the thing you have envisioned. That even if you make a thing you are proud of, “they” might not like it or get it, or might think that because you have been doing this work for years you are getting paid decently for it, even though you aren’t.

    That you might need to break a lot of pots, and write a lot of drafts, and that not everyone is going to like what you do. Which is why, however your work is received by “them,” you need a good, true, decent friend or two—a friend or family member like Melville had, a writer pal or a bunch of fellow potters, actual practitioners of art—to believe in you and to understand and bear with you throughout the long hard work of creating your art, of your trying to live a life of making art.

    That even if you do make something you are proud of, others may not recognize it at the time, if they ever recognize it at all.

    That then, if you ever do “succeed” in making art you believe in, you need to be able to give it away.

    Mmm. I’ll be thinking about that for a while.

    And nathan, welcome! Thank you for sharing — and I can’t wait to read your article in Tricycle. I hope it gets approved.

    Yes, I have no doubt that there are many existing spaces that Haederle’s article failed to represent, that use the dharma online in much more positive, less drama-filled ways. On the other hand, I do think it’s very important to recognize the prevalence of these negative trends, if only because it allows us to appreciate that much more the positive spaces, and to understand exactly how they operate.

    One of my own major struggles with the feminist blogosphere basically came down to a similar problem. Many of the sites have solid content…but the tone on threads always gravitates toward snark, sarcasm, and vitriol. It wasn’t the dumb “angry feminist” stereotype, but it was an extension of our general culture right now, which values snark a great deal, in my experience. So I think it’s important to first recognize this large (though not totalizing) truth and trend, and then to take a look at examples that demonstrate another way. That’s where I am hoping to go with my Part 2 in this little series: some of the blogs that I really appreciate for their balanced perspective and tenor of kindness, respect, and understanding. Part 3 might theorize some of the commonalities among mindful blogs that make them function the way they do.

    If you have any suggestions along these lines, I would love to hear them! I don’t read a ton of new blogs anymore but I’d love to find a few more recommended wellsprings.

    Thanks again, and I hope we’ll be seeing more of each other! Your blog seems dope.

  7. February 16, 2010 8:26 pm

    “One of my own major struggles with the feminist blogosphere basically came down to a similar problem. Many of the sites have solid content…but the tone on threads always gravitates toward snark, sarcasm, and vitriol.”

    I hear ya. It’s very true. I’ve been hanging around at the blog Racialicious for a good year now because they post a lot of really interesting commentaries. It’s a quality blog, and definitely worth paying attention to.

    But the comments section seems to slide into a venting session often, and sometimes even the posts themselves slide into the same energy. A recent post on some musician named John Mayer – who crossed nearly every line imaginable during an interview with Playboy – comes to mind. I commented twice questioning how several dozen comments calling Mayer a “doucebag” and other names was helping any of us address the real issues presented by this guy’s racist, sexist, and heterosexist comments. Basically, I agreed with those who had suggested directing energy at the publications and record labels supporting this guy, while commenting that it didn’t seem helpful to just rip this guy on a blog he could care less about over and over again. Neither comment was published on the blog, but more comments ripping the guy were. It was as if the blog editors themselves were enjoying the rant-fest that ultimately drowned out the useful, excellent ideas that several commenters brought up in the process.

    This pattern seems pretty common no matter what the content of the blog in question – the overly dramatic, low-blow, sucker punch, and generally nasty gets the most attention, and is reinforced by others. A brutal cycle if you ask me; kind of like watching the U.S. Congress “debate” an issue like health care. Call someone a fascist or a socialist, and people clap loudly. Call the flaws and pitfalls of someone’s policy out in detail, and people yawn and look for something more entertaining.

    It makes me think about the language of posts themselves. How an issue is framed and spoken about effects the responses. I’ve seen posts on Racialious, or other blogs, that were well written in that they made clear, articulate points that were then open to discussion, and also the blogger made a direct effort to ask what others thought about issues X, Y, and Z.

    I often wonder how many of those “invisible” readers refrain from making excellent, potentially impacting comments on posts out of a fear of either being ignored, drowned out by loudmouths, or being blocked out all together.

  8. February 20, 2010 10:02 am

    This is a very interesting conversation. Can’t wait to read part 2.

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