Friday, January 7, 2011

Too many experts

Crow Taking Flight With Frozen Treetops

One of the first things that impressed me about Buddhist teaching was the way the sutras start with "Thus I have heard." No professions of ultimate, immutable truth or certainty there, just something valuable being passed along to those willing to listen.

That kind of humility is in very short supply on the Internet. Everybody has an opinion of what Buddhism is, or isn't, or how it should be practiced, or shouldn't.

On your left, the hectoring teacher stressing the importance of strict adherence to the Precepts and hard, disciplined effort in practice.

On your right, the class clown turning it all into an exercise in asshattery.

This way, the condescending would-be scholar gently laughing at the quaint customs and primitive superstitions of be-robed Orientals.

That way, the credentialed (or not) Rinzai master with his clever quips and cryptic Zen stories.

Here, the credentialed (or not) Soto master going on about how just sitting is being the Buddha and you're already enlightened from the start and there's nothing to attain.

There, the teacher with her gentle soapy speech bubbles full of comforting platitudes and allusions to the laundry ("After enlightenment, the laundry"—yeah, I get the reference) and the dangers of imposing anything on anybody.

Somewhere in the background, the psychologists and neurologists with their MRI's and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapies.

Chattering everywhere, the hucksters selling meditation CD's and self-help seminars and Spiritual Warrior retreats and cosmetics and mala beads and robes and incense and bronze Manjushris and embroidered zafus and access to celebrity gurus and titles and certificates.

And in between, a loud, rowdy crowd of cliques and clutches and in-groups and out-groups, conformists and mavericks, scholars and practitioners, those in it for the enlightenment and those in it for the cool, making more noise than the proverbial marketplace on a July Saturday.

All the old stuff I've read tells of teachers who spent their lives looking before they thought they had something worth speaking confidently about. We're not talking sitting for an hour a day and going for a retreat or two every year; we're talking spending your every waking hour at it, for one decade after another, with no certainty, just a dogged determination. How many of the people speaking so confidently of what the Dharma is or is not have done anything remotely like that? How likely is it that our contemporaries are just so much smarter and more spiritually talented that they don't need to bother with that tedious crap? Not very.

I think there is a Great Way there, somewhere. I saw some tracks in the snow once, or perhaps I just dreamed them. Perhaps if people shut up for a bit and didn't rush around so madly that they trampled them before you can be sure they were even there, it'd be possible to hear the old ox chewing on his cud, somewhere away from the screaming crowd, or perhaps right in the middle of it.


  1. I'm guessing a lot of the "old guys" blathered on and on as well when they got the chance. We've been handed down the short version, although even there you can see stories about pontificators getting lightning bolts shot through their bullshit.

    One thing I've told people about my blog is that I'm glad I waited to start writing it. Still am a bumbling idiot my share, but I never thought about writing like I do until after I did jukai, and had practiced and studied for several years.

    But I'm totally in agreement that humility is a missing quality online. I'd also add generosity, specifically an openhanded presence that allows dialogue to occur, spreads goodwill even amongst challenging disagreement, and knows when to let go and/or shut up.

  2. None of us are really experts. My teacher started practicing the year I was born and she still thinks of herself as a student doing her best to practice and be a good friend to others.

    I often remind myself everyone is offering something, even if the offer amounts to little more than an opportunity to practice some patience when someone is being an asshat.