Response to Jerry Kolber About One City Blog, NYC and Certain Attitudes

In a comment to a previous post Jerry Kolber Of the One City blog left this detailed response:

Howdy,

Jerry Kolber here from the One City blog – great article and well intentioned.  Thanks for the mention.

Our intention at One City is to allow people to see practice in action, rather than some put-on version of “practice perfection” that I’ve run into a lot.  Obviously, we know we are going to take our knocks for letting people see process rather than some offered perfect result of overthought processes.

One thing that gets really messed up a lot in translation is this assumption that because I live in NYC and am smart, I am trying to make Buddhism something for smart people who live in cultural centers.

This is pretty much backwards. I have been writing about how important it is for us all to stop putting up walls around different religious ideas, because doing so (esp. from a Buddhist perspective) denies the fundamental aspect of that which is us all.  No practice I’ve encountered offers a greater opportunity for seeing truth in all people – whether Buddhist, Catholic, or whatever – than Buddhism.

Some people like to trash the idea that Buddhism could be incredibly useful to everybody, either by suggesting that the so-called “branding” necessary to spread an idea in modern society is distasteful, or that Buddhism is so involved and intricate and weighed down with specific rituals (which vary completely, depending on the particular person making this particular argument) that is inaccessible to anyone but the smartest and most devoted practicioner.  That sounds pretty insular to me, and not at all what I practice.

As I’ve said before, if that’s true – if Buddhism is only accessible to those deemed “buddhist” by a varying set of rituals, gods, and velvet ropes (said ropes of different color depending on whether you are practicing the Buddhism that was changed by exposure to India, Japan, China, Burma, or America)  – then what we now call Buddhism has very little to do with what the Buddha taught, and if we love what it teaches us, yet adopt that attitude, we stand in our own way of spreading these ideas.  The Interdependence Project is about making Buddhism accessible to people of every background.

Maybe if I lived in Oklahoma and said the same thing, people wouldn’t be so put off. It’s amazing how much the criticism of One City revolves around the simple fact of where some of us live.

Since he’s taken the time to venture out here and to write such a detailed comment I would like to respond in depth.

Things are different out here in the boonies.


Hello Jerry

Am glad you took the time to visit this obscure corner of the Internet and leave such a detailed comment.  I would make you some tea while we sat and discussed these issues if we met in person. Really.

You seem to realize my intentions here. That’s refreshing.

I’ll get directly to what you wrote.

Howdy,

I had a quick flash of a scene from Midnight Cowboy with your greeting.

Jerry Kolber here from the One City blog – great article and well intentioned.  Thanks for the mention.

The mention wasn’t all that flattering. It was in response to a group of words that rubbed the wrong way.  Glad you’re not so ego-involved as to get all defensive and messed up about it.

Our intention at One City is to allow people to see practice in action, rather than some put-on version of “practice perfection” that I’ve run into a lot.  Obviously, we know we are going to take our knocks for letting people see process rather than some offered perfect result of overthought processes.

Yes that intention does come through with some of the writers and some of the posts. I particularly enjoy Ellen’s and Londro’s writings.  Other times it is a little murky. “Practice perfection” is just another suit of clothes someone puts on. A Buddhist costume.  There is no perfect result achievable. The “knocks” happen here too.  This is one of a number of things we have in common.

One thing that gets really messed up a lot in translation is this assumption that because I live in NYC and am smart, I am trying to make Buddhism something for smart people who live in cultural centers.

Maybe if I lived in Oklahoma and said the same thing, people wouldn’t be so put off. It’s amazing how much the criticism of One City revolves around the simple fact of where some of us live.

These two lines are put together so I can address this all at once. First I’m not responsible for most of the criticism of One City, only my own, which is rather infrequent both here and on your blog.

I don’t know what the words “in translation” are supposed to indicate.  Is this the difference between what you mean, what you say and how people perceive what you say and mean? If that is the case then I will address some of those issues. If that is not the case then I am lost with that phrase.

About people and culture

You seem to realize that my criticisms are not a “personal” issue but one of words and presentation on the One City blog. Your other website Three Dollar Dinner presents a completely different side of you. And that’s a really fine project you’ve started there.

On the One City blog there is a lot of mention of your professional accomplishments in the field of television production. (several paragraphs at the opening of posts for example) It’s your job sure and a glamorous one at that.  And as you have earned awards for that work then good on you.

Frequent and lengthy mention of this though, comes across as somewhat self-congratulatory and tinges any article that follows with a sense of being an afterthought.

With the posts by yourself, and also by Ethan, the content often seems to be secondary to promotion.  That is promotion of your organization, Interdependence Project and yourselves both individually and as members of that organization.  Ethan (and occasionally yourself as well) tends to hammer away at the progressive politics a lot too, when he actually posts an opinion and not a blurb by someone else,  but since he didn’t comment here I’ll not go into it further.

I am aware that the history of the blog is as an offshoot of your organization and that it would be mentioned occasionally is to be expected.  As an independent entity all the moreso. But with the move to Beliefnet and that company’s commercial focus and broader reach and the statements made on the blog title itself “A Buddhist Blog for Everyone”  it’s focus might have expanded.

But then the somewhat contradictory qualifying statements

If you’re interested in how your mind works, are interested in meditation (but don’t want to pretend you live in ancient Asia), care about the world, are into media, love contemporary culture, and above all, really dig the truth of interdependence-that nothing happens in a vacuum–then this blog is for you.

belie this. Contemporary culture, media, a rejection of Asian influence often seem to dominate Buddhist content. “How your mind works” falls more into the bailiwick of psychology. The Buddhist related content you provide often appears to reject Buddhism itself in favor of some brand of secular mindfulness.  “Get rid of the Buddha” ?

I don’t have a problem with secular mindfulness programs. There are many and they are helpful for some people. But they are not Buddhism in it’s entirety.  And I’m not talking about specific rituals or languages or robes. I am talking about the breadth of ideological content contained within Buddhist thought.  That is not a culturally specific issue. Mindfulness and interdependence are but two of hundreds if not thousands of concepts within the broader Buddhist content.

This is not to imply that I am saying you or anyone else including Ethan are “Bad Buddhists” or “False Prophets” or whatever. NOT. ABSOLUTELY. And I know that there is some impetus within your organization to quash  questioning thoughts about what one is being taught under the cloak of Buddhism. One indeed does need to tend one’s own garden in this Buddhist enterprise. Without that experience there is no ground from which to give any informed opinion or to be able to act with any amount of clarity. There are times though after one has some experience of tending that it might not be a bad idea to stop a neighbor from pouring salt all over the roots of his tomato plants instead of fertilizer because he heard it worked from some “Super Gardener” with a big following and lots of advertising.

One thing I do appreciate about your work Jerry is the sincerity with which you present your ideas. You seem to really mean it and from the heart not just the head. The message I get from that is that you want Buddhism and it’s benefits to succeed so that people’s lives can be enriched as yours has from practice. This is another thing we have in common.

About place.

It is a fact that when we write it necessarily is in the particular context of where we live at the time and within the influence of that place and the people with whom we interact on a daily basis.

It is not that New York is some “evil” place or that all of the people there are not cognizant of the rest of the world. There are many fine bloggers based in New York and I have friends who have lived there and some that still do.

The city does though have a long history and a certain mythology. As a base of cultural production, including print and electronic media there is a great deal of influence and with that, power, which emanates from it.  As well it has a long  history particularly with writers and intellectuals. One cannot deny these facts.

When taken as facts rather than as symbolic cultural leverage there isn’t an issue. By symbolic cultural leverage I am talking about the power of cultural production  and a milieu that includes an abundance of ideas. Intellectual riches as it were. There is a concentration of creativity, education and leadership in that place. There is also a concentration of economic power with the advertising world and Wall St. being the most prominent examples.

And people are reminded of that every day if they watch television and such programs as Letterman or John Stewart or CSI:NY or about a thousand others.

Within that cultural abundance, for some people, there is not much need to look beyond that milieu. By not doing so occasionally their work becomes increasingly self-referential. This happens everywhere but I am only dealing with the particular case at present.  The world becomes that small place and certain assumptions set in. These assumptions can become veiled value judgments even if we don’t mean them to be.

Let me back up a moment to give you the basis of where I am coming from. I grew up in Saskatoon Saskatchewan. This is a small city in the middle of the Canadian prairies. Isolated and as the lament goes with little “happening”.  It was and is fairly conservative place despite hosting a rather well appointed university. More people come from this kind of background than from one that can support a great variety of cultural and intellectual experiences.

From the viewpoint of the cultural “have-nots” there develops a certain sensitivity to being reminded of this paucity. Certainly that is neither your fault or responsibility but I’m just saying it exists. In sociological terms it is called relative deprivation. If someone in the “have-not” category didn’t know of another situation they would not feel any sense of something lacking.

There is for some people in these areas outside the hot-beds of cultural activity a constant looking beyond. It is a striving to know and to have more of the cultural-intellectual pie.

Of course this relates in many ways to desire and grasping and discontent and suffering. It’s the reason I left that little city more than 20 years ago. It’s the reason many people leave smaller places. But not everyone has that opportunity either.

As you yourself stated in a blog article:

…we also tend to be the trend-setters in culture (by virtue of our leadership through our intelligence, sensitivity, creativity, and self-absorption)

Flaunting access to intellectual and cultural abundance and claiming leadership in those areas gets on people’s nerves. If names are dropped at the same time it furthers the irritation. Couple that with a certain amount of self-promotion and a sometimes arrogant attitude and the criticism rolls in.

As well if you were writing from Oklahoma and exhibited the same attitudes and points I’ve mentioned any comment I’d make would be in a similar vein.  In this case it is the invoking of the intellectual milieu, which has a certain amount of weight to apparently flaunt a particular kind of self-promotion and push some ideas that not only Buddhists by birth but long time practitioners and those with a more religious nature find off-putting. It is not that your opinion is invalid. The point is that your opinion attempts to invalidate others.

The criticisms are not about “the simple fact of where some of us live.” The criticisms are about pushing opinions down people’s throats and using the clout of the power of where you live and a high profile media outlet, the blog,  to assist that.

[So now perhaps you and Ethan have some understanding of Sarah Palin and her popularity as well. When someone of her background, call it relatively culturally impoverished if you will, manages to break into the ranks of the culturally, and in this case politically, elite she becomes a symbol. It is exactly the same process as that which accompanied your current president to his victory. Looking at his record he is performing in much the same fashion as he always did. Workmanlike, diligent, cautious, compromising, well-informed, tentative but also very well-spoken, thorough, polite and intelligent-more of an idealistic scholar, or even visionary, than a manager despite the contents of the election speeches. The symbolic value of his background, and I do mean race to a degree, but also youth, vitality and education especially relative to W. is what provided much of the hype for his "superman" status. It's not always the best road to fuck around with people's symbols. Sometimes they hold them to be more "real" than reality itself. Yes that is fairly delusional but working with that is pretty much the crux of the Buddhist endeavor.  As an aside, my politics are somewhat to the left of yours.]

About intelligence

Some people have labeled me as intelligent so I will speak from that perspective also.

The “smart” label comes with both blessings and curses.  But just because someone is “smart” doesn’t  make them right all or even some of the time. If one starts to believe in that false correlation, especially about themselves, that’s a highly complex delusion to dismantle. It sets up a division where other people’s views are not heard or if they are heard they are dismissed.  One runs into this in academia frequently-profs with their unshakable “pet theories” etc. One ends up doing a lot of intellectual wanking rather than engagement. This is also a big problem in the North American convert Buddhist scene.

Some few elites have learned Buddhism and set themselves up as Dharma power brokers. They have the “official” knowledge and maintain an insularity as keepers of that knowledge. There is disparagement either overtly or covertly (like critical emails to one’s friends!-You know who you are!) of anything or any one that criticizes this approach.

It is interesting Jerry that you and One City blog often reject the Asian elements of Buddhism. While culture-specific symbols may be difficult for “outsiders” to identify with, there is something to Asian Buddhism that I find missing in convert North American Buddhism. And it is the very thing you are trying to engender.

That is a sense of ownership of the practice of Dharma. In Asia, Buddhism is The People’s Buddhism. (I’m liking that phrase a lot lately) There are the religious institutions to be sure, and there are the typical problems of these institutions. But among the people themselves, with or without institutions, the practice of Buddhism, expressed in a popular way, thrives.  In the contexts I am most familiar with, Taiwan and India, particularly the refugee Tibetan community, as well as my more limited observations in Thailand, Japan and China over the years, Buddhism is not the property of the minds of people or particularly a select group of people but of their hearts. This heart-mind is the very thing you speak of when you want to share what Buddhism has done for your life.

It is also the principle thing that I find missing in the North American convert situations many times. It is an expression of  citta and bodhicitta, the union of compassion and wisdom. There is a lot of mushy “happiness” stuff that passes for compassion in many circles and there is a lot of mind-knowledge that passes for wisdom as well. But the union of these, the heart-mind is more difficult to awaken and nurture. People in “rationally” oriented cultures are not used to engaging and expressing from that place. We are only beginning to learn how to do it.

Citta from the Pali word means:

1. the heart (psychologically). ie the centre and focus of man’s emotional nature as well as that intellectual element which inheres in: accompanies its manifestations;ie thought. In this wise citta denotes both the agent and that which is enacted…in Indian psychology citta is the seat and organ of thought…The meaning of citta is best understood when explaining it by expressions familiar to us as: with all my heart: heart and soul; I have no heart to do it: : all of which emphasize the emotional and conative side or “thought” more than its mental and rational side (for which see manas and vinnana) It may therefore be rendered by intention, impulse, design, mood, disposition, state of mind, reaction to impressions….The substantiality of citta is also evident from its connection with Kamma.

condensed from the Pali-English Dictionary by Thomas William Rhys Davids, William Stede p. 266 at Google books.

There isn’t an adequate English translation for what citta means. Heart-mind is probably the closest.

I am bringing this up only because your words seem to come from the Heart-mind yet you are self-labeling as “smart” which is a different kind of thinking.

Self-labeling as “smart” repeatedly in any cultural context feels like a put down to those that hear it.

Quite some years ago I studied creative writing at a graduate level (OK I got kicked out of writing school because they didn’t care for my iconoclastic attitude-I found it hard to worship teachers who thought they were the next Pynchon but couldn’t write). In a screenwriting class there was always this emphasis on “show don’t tell”. Jerry you don’t have to tell people you are smart. It is quite evident in your words.  To state it amounts to telling the audience what conclusions to draw. It insults their intelligence.

In your post about Buddhism for Dummies you said, “I think it’s because Buddhism require a level of intelligence, sensitivity, nuance, and understanding beyond the grasp of the average person.” I explained on that post in some detail why the particular wording sounded elitist so I’ll not reiterate here. And in comments to that post you mentioned:

And yes I do border on arrogant. If I didn’t I wouldn’t believe my thoughts were worth sharing here.

Arrogance being wholly an ego thing isn’t news but I don’t think one has to be arrogant in order to feel that something of themselves is worth sharing. There are other attitudes available such as out of kindness, a sense of connection with people, common human experience, the joy of writing. Arrogance brings with it, to the observer, a feeling of having opinions foisted upon them without regard to their current situation. It can be rather insensitive and in the extreme callous.

Certainly one cannot poll one’s readers for what they “want to hear”. That would be too ridiculous. But considering the varied backgrounds of readers, charging at them with statements about their religion is not a religion and getting rid of the Buddha (a people’s symbol!) tends to trample sensibilities. The latter is kind of like asking American Jewish people to stop fussing around with menorahs and just turn on the lights. Ouch!

More on Your Comment

…trying to make Buddhism something for smart people who live in cultural centers. This is pretty much backwards. I have been writing about how important it is for us all to stop putting up walls around different religious ideas, because doing so (esp. from a Buddhist perspective) denies the fundamental aspect of that which is us all.

It appears Jerry that you are not completely aware of your own biases as they are evinced in your writing.  By writing posts about Buddhism being for smart people, belittling Sarah Palin, downplaying and at points almost denigrating traditional Buddhism and it’s adherents, even as irony and participating in a blog that often flaunts a cultural wealth by using a dialect of the intellectual elite (the Lady Gaga post is one case in point even though you did not write it), frequent references to places that symbolize that elite, regular self-promotion and dismissive phrases and tones in comment discussions (example from Ethan “One more thing and I’m out of here” followed by a tangential comment that did not address the question and there after leaving the commenter dismissed-I can’t remember on which post exactly-if I have time I’ll look it up) are all things that give readers the critical first impression, that Buddhism is for the culturally elite.

Not wanting to put walls up is a laudable goal. But so is recognizing that there are walls  already existing that need to be taken down. These are walls of language, sub-culture, privilege. And whether you realize it or not you live a very privileged life relative to most of the population. And it often sounds like you take it for granted.

No practice I’ve encountered offers a greater opportunity for seeing truth in all people – whether Buddhist, Catholic, or whatever – than Buddhism.

Some people like to trash the idea that Buddhism could be incredibly useful to everybody,

Some people like to trash Buddhism completely as well, but I am not one of them. The liberation of all beings is beyond useful. You and I are both on the same page about this.

either by suggesting that the so-called “branding” necessary to spread an idea in modern society is distasteful,

We are not on the same page, however, about the necessity of anything like “branding”.  Branding implies commercialization. There is so much commercial religion already, and misrepresentation of Buddhism in that commercial realm already is turning the Dharma into a tacky assortment of kitsch. People throw around concepts like Karma, Compassion, Zen like so much dirty Kleenex. And there’s little idea of what these things mean.  The commercial realm is shallow. Buddhism is not shallow.  To try to chop off the “extra bits” of Buddhism to float it in the consumer pool does huge disservice to the entire thing. It’s like trying to fit an ocean liner into a bathtub.

or that Buddhism is so involved and intricate and weighed down with specific rituals (which vary completely, depending on the particular person making this particular argument) that is inaccessible to anyone but the smartest and most devoted practicioner.  That sounds pretty insular to me, and not at all what I practice.

I am not sure if you are expecting me to defend other people’s criticisms of Buddhism or not. It is not possible as I don’t know what those specific criticisms are.  Buddhism can appear intricate and ritualized or it can appear simple. Accessibility requires neither a particular degree of smartness or devotion.I don’t know what else I can say to that.

That there are some people who would like to maintain a certain insularity and position in the Buddhist corporate establishment,  is very evident however.  I am not part of that establishment though.

As I’ve said before, if that’s true – if Buddhism is only accessible to those deemed “buddhist” by a varying set of rituals, gods, and velvet ropes (said ropes of different color depending on whether you are practicing the Buddhism that was changed by exposure to India, Japan, China, Burma, or America)  – then what we now call Buddhism has very little to do with what the Buddha taught, and if we love what it teaches us, yet adopt that attitude, we stand in our own way of spreading these ideas.

There are many strains of Buddhism. I’ve written above about the heart-mind element which is more evident in Asia. That is a separate issue to the more external expressions and tools used by different schools. What methods one group uses may not be the same as another. The Vajrayana schools for example have very precise uses for ritual and iconic images. Very Buddhist uses. This includes all the Tibetan schools as well as Shingon Buddhism in Japan. There are quite a few convert and non-convert practitioners of these schools in America.

Here is a video by Shinzen Young that describes the usefulness of certain rituals and traditional images in context. The video is called Shinzen Describes the Vajrayana Practice. I believe that is the same practice your teacher’s teacher uses as a Dharma heir in his Tibetan lineages.

Before you dismiss another person’s tools please consider that they may be the most appropriate means for that person to realize the Dharma. No one has said Buddhism is only accessible to those who use a specific set of tools. It appears to be your contention however that any tools other than your own are worthless. This is insulting in the extreme.

The attitude you are dissing is not unlike your own at times.

The Attitude

The Interdependence Project is about making Buddhism accessible to people of every background.

That may be the mission statement and I completely agree with it as a mission statement. It is quite similar to statements made by another NYC based Buddhist organization as I’ve mentioned in recent posts. So this question applies to them as well. What is of concern to me most is the means by which that is done.  Does it have to be done at the expense of belittling others including those who are of Asian descent and born Buddhist or who believe Buddhism is a religion or who use a different set of tools or who hold different political opinions or who don’t have your level of education or accomplishment or your access to the corridors of American culture manufacturers or who don’t belong to your “club”?

Sometimes that is the way it comes across. Given your statements to the contrary I am quite sure that is not how it is meant. But that is how it is received. And the effects of that become cumulative over time.

It is an attitude that may lead people to actually dismiss what you are so urgently trying to get across to them rather than to hear it.

When the One City blog is examined in it’s parts it is clear that there is a somewhat diverse group of people involved and that the opinions are diverse to a degree as well. But check which posts get the most attention, even via number and nature of comments. The posts by yourself and Ethan predominate the blog in that regard. You and he have become the spokespeople for your organization.

Blogging by both of you therefore is as a representation of that organization. Which means, intentional or not, paid or not, it is now a professional endeavor.

Unfortunately with that representation comes both responsibility and expectation. Not an expectation in terms of Buddhist behavior, and that is something others have confused on related issues. It is not a reduction to the simple-minded Good/Bad Buddhist argument.  But it is as professional representatives of an organization.

And that organization is not being done any favors by maintaining an attitude of “clubbiness” meaning a closed section of society while professing in statements to be doing the opposite. It smacks of hypocrisy.

Conclusion

Well Jerry I’m getting pretty close to 5,000 words here and that is probably more than enough.

I hope that your words have not been misconstrued here. That would not be the intention.  I am trying to understand your position and to tell you honestly how it is coming across to me.

Thank you for taking the time to read what I have written both here and in other posts and for commenting.

I look forward to what you do on the blog and wish you well in all aspects of your life.

Marnie

8 comments on “Response to Jerry Kolber About One City Blog, NYC and Certain Attitudes

  1. Hi Marnie,

    Thank you – from the whole of my heart – for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to a mere comment by me. Our intentions are the same, and we agree on most everything.

    A friend had actually pointed me to your original article, which I really did enjoy; it’s clear that we have the same intention, and I did not take anything in it personally as you observed. Your intentions were clear, and even more so with your response, and I am grateful.

    Lately I have been questioning the usefulness of back-and-forth communication stripped of nuance (i.e. online, there is no human voice or even handwriting to lend a sense of humanity to that which is said, yet we are expected to engage mindfully with another human being- hard enough to do in person, nearly impossible online), and this dialogue with you has been a refreshing example of what is possible.

    The reaction to the Sarah Palin post – which was a post, first and foremost, about my personal reaction to her and how I tried to transform that reaction into something compassionate – has led me to reconsider what I write about and how I write about on the One City blog, mostly along the lines of what you suggest in your article above. I’m taking a little time to figure out how, or if, I can continue to talk about the less elegant part of my practice in a way that is kind, compassionate, and useful, when I may not always feel those things, without being disingenuous or false.

    A couple of points worth clarifying. When I wrote “we also tend to be the trend-setters in culture (by virtue of our leadership through our intelligence, sensitivity, creativity, and self-absorption)”, I was stating fact, not a matter of opinion. Those are, in fact, the people who get paid to set trends in culture, certain anomalies notwithstanding. Most (not all, but most) musicians, writers, fashion designers, directors, architects, visual artists, magazine editors, etc, fall somewhere in that description. If that rubs people the wrong way, so be it, and perhaps I could have said it more elegantly, but it’s no less true than saying that leaders in the world of physics are leaders because of their intelligence, understanding of mathematics, and facility with difficult concepts.

    Somewhat more urgently, the rest of that sentence is “…perhaps our devotion to the Buddhist path will inspire others who will make the teachings more accessible to less over-analytical folks, who can do it better than we can, because they are less “Monkey Minded” than we are. That could lead to a true personal and cultural transformation, even.”

    My complete point is that Buddhism, as currently taught by most American dharma centers, does tend to attract people who are analytical (or even over-analytical) and can make it appear inaccessible. I can’t not be what I am or working in the profession I work in, and if by dint of that my practice happens to inspire someone to practice who happens to have a public forum or people who “follow” them in the media or online, which then inspires others to practice, I’m not complaining. I’m hoping for the same People’s Buddha you are.

    My comment about the velvet ropes of varying colors is in no way meant to denigrate or dismiss any tools or traditions. I am making the same point you are- that the right tool for the right person at the right time is what works. My point is simply that the criticism by other Buddhists that we or others have “cherrypicked” Buddhism for what works for us is coming, by definition, from a Buddhist who is practicing a particular tradition of Buddhism that has also picked/chosen what works. Just because the picking/choosing may have happened 10, 100, or 500 years ago doesn’t make it un-cherry-picked. Buddhism has thrived/survived in cultures all over the world for milennia, inspiring and transforming lives in every culture, and it’s this very adaptability that makes the teachings so pervasive.

    You write

    “No one has said Buddhism is only accessible to those who use a specific set of tools. It appears to be your contention however that any tools other than your own are worthless. This is insulting in the extreme.”

    In no case have I ever suggested, nor would I, that what is taught at the IDP, or Shambhala, or Karme Choling, or Zen Mountain Monastery, or a Zen temple in Japan, or one of the many storefront Buddhist temples that dot any big city Asian neighborhood, is what is right or wrong for anyone’s personal path. My point in talking about the adaptability of Buddhist thought is that it can be accessible to anyone, anywhere. I have never rejected anything of an Asian tradition. Nor have I ever said that my tools (which aren’t mine at all) are the only ones worthwhile, and I apologize if you got that impression – I’m not sure from where, but nonetheless, that couldn’t be further from what I mean.

    However, in regards to what you write: “No one has said Buddhism is only accessible to those who use a specific set of tools.” on this point alone, I disagree. There have been a great number of people commenting most particularly on my posts about Buddhism as a religion or non-religion who have gone to great lengths to say that Buddhism does in fact require that you adhere to a particular set of tools, rituals, and beliefs, though they are not in any kind of agreement as to what those are.

    For me, practice makes more sense in a more Western-contextualized environment. For others, they prefer to have a more Asian-contextualized environment. I make no judgment about either, but have attempted to offer an alternative perspective to the one that has dominated the public image of Buddhism in America in the hopes that others who are NOT living in a place like NYC and who might be attracted to a more Western-contextualized Buddhist practice can see that this way is possible.

    My experience with Buddhism in non-major-American-cities (limited, but not terribly limited) is that it tends to be Asian-contextualized. Offering an alternative view from the dominant one is not a rejection of Asian attributes, and I apologize for causing you any distress with my inelegant phrasing – but we agree on this point.

    Frankly I think we agree on nearly every point, and here this speaks again to the pots-and-pans nature of internet communication. You and I agree, yet still need to take thousands of words to clarify what is meant even after mindfully trying to delineate our own perception from that which is meant by the words. For those skimming, or reading without mindfulness, it’s even more difficult to ascertain meaning if I’ve clouded it with hot-button words like “smart”, “Asian”, “Palin”, or “religion”.

    I also know that those taking the time to comment (not you – this is far from commenting and is an actual conversation) tend to represent a tiny fraction of those who read the posts. For example, less than five percent of the people who read the Palin post commented. This doesn’t make the comments less valid; if anything, it causes me more concern that those who are passionate enough to take the time to read, then comment (and who, by a majority, tended to be really angry about what I wrote) are leaving a blog that is meant to inspire thought and compassion with anger and suffering in their hearts.

    As I look through old posts, and their comments, I can literally pinpoint my own state of mind when I wrote the post- what was going on with work, what might be going on with my own levels of sleep or exercise, how my practice was going – and there it is, my state of mind and presence for all to read, influencing their day (or not). While I have often defended this as “seeing my practice in action”, you are correct in saying that with the number of readers we have comes a responsibility. I would even say that responsibility should come even with fewer readers!

    Dialogues like the one you and I are having (and which I have also been having off-blog with Ethan, Ellen and others) have led me to re-assess what I can write about and how I can write it in a way that communicates the beauty (and difficulty) of practice in a way that is non-harsh, useful, and kind. Though I have received a lot of positive feedback, I have also received enough considered communication from like-minded thinkers (i.e. you and others) who are challenged by how I communicate some of my ideas that I cannot say “practice in action” without setting aside the ego-fueled self-contextualized tone of how I present my ideas. To do any less at this point would be “practice is frozen”. My own practice has inspired such a well-spring of compassion for myself and others; in literal manifestation my life looks very different now than it did several years ago. That’s all I want to share.

    Until I figure that out, I’m going to be blogging lightly on topics that cannot offend or be mis-interpreted. The online response to what I write is so far afield from what happens when I actually talk to people (of very political/religious/cultural background) that I feel it is time to make some sort of adjustment; but I don’t want to make an adjustment to meaningful thought without it being a deep and true adjustment, so this is something I am thinking on. The answer may be that there is no answer to discussing Buddhism in a non-religious way in a public setting with as many readers as we have now at Beliefnet; it may be too polarizing a subject to avoid distressing people, or perhaps I am still too early on in my own practice to be sharing without injecting too much ego into what I share; this is entirely possible. I’m not sure.

    By the way, I’d love to have that cup of tea – whether in India (is that where you are), New York, or somewhere in between. And re: your post about David Loy, I love all his writing and his last book Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution was terrific.

    • Hello Jerry

      Thanks for your thoughtful and honest response. OK so tea is on somewhere sometime. Sounds great.

      Communication on-line is something, even after all this time, people are still grappling with. Since it’s principle characteristic is speed, there is an impetus to similarly speed up our reactions and words. So as you said one skims posts, emails and other media in general just dipping in now and then like pelicans taking fish out of a lake. Looking for the shiny flash or something moving. And not often going into the depths.

      Communication in any area takes time, even in person. Can you imagine being at a party where everyone talked like they were on Twitter? No wait I think Ive been to that party.

      Your Palin post was one I was going to comment on but every time I read it my reaction changed. I at first took it at face value, then I thought you were being sarcastic, then some combination of the two. So it would have required a lot of contradictory comments.

      The Buddhism=X+YxZ-A crowd tend to be rather rigid in literal interpretation of things. Sometimes I have difficulty with this too. I do think there is a certain line between what is and isn’t Buddhism but it is a wavy sort of line. The biggest thing for me is when it turns into an exercise in reductionism. Like the fondness of some to quote Kalama Sutra without reference to it’s context or the rest of the Canon. And usually there is no acknowledgment of that even being part of a larger whole body of works with which the quoter most likely wouldn’t agree. That’s a kind of cherry-picking which essentially means the person is making up their own religion. It’s like dipping in to try to find something to justify one’s own behavior. Sort of like the way certain extreme evangelists dip into a Christian Bible to justify hatred. Forest and trees approach.

      About those who insist that a particular set of tools are necessary, it is the same kind of argument. I’d even say that something like formal meditation isn’t necessary. I still do it, don’t get me wrong. The reason I say that though is because in the past few years I’ve taken up the Tibetan style prostration practice, partly because the Sangha available to me is Tibetan and it is the people’s popular expression of their beliefs. It’s not an every day thing but about once a week I go to the local temple for it. I have found during that exercise (and it is exercise) the results of it are very similar to meditation, the involvement of the body and the moment. I found that also about chanting when I was learning about Pure Land Buddhism in Taiwan quite a few years ago.

      The thing about all these practices is the Buddhist intention and the effort behind all of them. The liberation of all beings. And Buddhist methods and theory (both ideas) can be instrumental in that. To me that is the core of the whole thing.

      We agree about much. I won’t put a percentage on it but it’s quite a lot.

      A Western expression of methods and theory is a good thing. My only concern about that is when it becomes a mechanical sort of endeavor. Or in some respects a scientific quest. Something ineffable becomes lost in that kind of translation. Something very human.

      This dialogue with you has given me the opportunity to reassess some things as well. I don’t know what will come of that reassessment yet. So my process is very similar to what you describe you are going through as well with these words:

      I feel it is time to make some sort of adjustment; but I don’t want to make an adjustment to meaningful thought without it being a deep and true adjustment, so this is something I am thinking on.

      About discussing religion you also said:

      The answer may be that there is no answer to discussing Buddhism in a non-religious way in a public setting with as many readers as we have now at Beliefnet; it may be too polarizing a subject to avoid distressing people, or perhaps I am still too early on in my own practice to be sharing without injecting too much ego into what I share; this is entirely possible. I’m not sure.

      Perhaps it is the definition of religion that you are operating from that might merit some investigation. If it is defined by the attributes of certain religions, the monotheistic variety in particular, then Buddhism appears “non-religious”. I would apply the words “non-theistic” to it but not non-religious.

      Sometimes the underlying assumptions from which we operate such as “Religion means X+Y” when examined and redefined are what is causing the discomfort.

      The deeper we get into these core assumptions the more surprises we find. That has been my experience thus far.

      I have an interest in the use of language in society and in terms of the individual (socio- and psycholinguistics are the fields). One statement I ran into recently really peaked my interest. While I am not a big fan of Neuro-Linguistic Programming they have a certain saying that tends to ring true with me. It goes:

      The meaning of your communication is the response you get

      This sounds rather contradictory on the face of it but in thinking about it I find that it is useful in reconciling differences between what I say and mean and how my speech and meaning are being perceived. If one is getting a response that is within the parameters of what one “intends” then the communication is being received as true. Meaning and expression align. If not then there is some kind of disjointedness occurring that merits attention. It is about accepting the feedback from others as truth rather than attempting to fool one’s self with one’s own truth. So many times we have conversations that break down with the phrase “But that’s not what I meant!” (I may make a blog post about this phrase in the near future as I think it merits some more thought)

      I am also working on trying to solve some of these conundrums.

      Jerry I thank you for taking the time to respond to what I’ve written. Sounds like we’ve both gotten something from this exchange.

      You are welcome here any time.

      Marnie

  2. Wow, this has been quite the article and response. Marnie, I have to say, even though I am not politically far left, I love the phrase, “The People’s Buddhism” or “People’s Community”, and I think that in itself is a great starting point for this growing community.

    Now, on to the article (Jerry’s, Marnie’s and Jerry’s response) First off, I think some of Jerry’s clarifications are much more open to and accepting of all the enormous variations of Buddhism that are happening here in the West. From the very traditional to the very secular, each tradition and way of practice has its own merits and its own quirks. To place one persons practice over another persons, whether it be insinuated or outright, can be seen as arrogant and insensitive. Intolerance, religious or otherwise, is a disease that unfortunately infests a lot of thinking, much of the time, unknown to the person.

    Since I am a bit thick and slow, as I am a hick from the backwoods of Virginia, I’m going to cut this somewhat short.

    1.Ownership – In the West, the voices that get heard the most as authorities on Buddhism are usually from the big well funded outlets. Many times these ‘outlets’ don’t take into account the enormous and vast differences and nuances’ of practice. In a few cases, some of these outlets place an aire of authority on their words and tend to see themselves as playing King maker. This is unfortunate, as the fastest growing population of Buddhists lay outside these realms, as we now see Christians, rural folks, suburbanites, secularists and dumb hicks, such as myself being drawn to Buddhism.

    But Marnie said it best with; “Some few elites have learned Buddhism and set themselves up as Dharma power brokers. They have the “official” knowledge and maintain an insularity as keepers of that knowledge. There is disparagement either overtly or covertly (like critical emails to one’s friends!-You know who you are!) of anything or any one that criticizes this approach.”

    2. Accessability – I agree here from both Marnie and Jerry’s sentiments about increasing the accessibility of Buddhist thought to those new to the practice. Of course I harp on this issue a lot, but unlike our fellow NYC residents, the vast majority of North America that live outside major city centre’s have absolutely no access to a flesh and blood sanghas. While defending this idea or notion of an iSangha, that many of us bloggers did, it was absolutely amazing the number of these more culturally and intellectually aware folks, not only dismissed the notion of learning about Buddhism on-line, they completely degraded and demeaned those who have no other outlet available to them. Talk about snobbery! Apparently, we weren’t authentic enough for them…this goes back to the idea of ownership.

    3. Intellegence – I have made it no secret on my blog that I see a lot of intellectual snobbery as it pertains to Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. Many people, especially converts, with lots of letters behind their name tend to stroke their own ego by speaking on levels intended to be lofty and difficult to comprehend. In the book Zen Mind, Beginners’ Mind, Shunryu Suszki said it best when (paraphrasing here) Buddhism has a long, deep and wide river of philosophy, and this is all well and good, but finding the true nature of ourselves is the point, not some intellectual interpretation. I think it is both fascinating and interesting to sit and read and also write about all the wonderful philosophical points, but at the end of the day, what good will it do you to focus only on that; Buddhism must be something that helps us, in this life, in this very moment.

    I have used my allotted number of Virginia brain cells for the day, so I think I’ll just thank you both for a very fascinating and helpful exercise that I believe this exact type of back and forth that is sorely needed from behind the velvet ropes of the big brains and cultured experts that run the big blogs and publications. Jerry, thank you for stepping outside that rope, to listen to these most valid concerns, which Marnie so eloquently wrote.

    • Hi Kyle
      Thank you for your lengthy comment. What’s with the self put downs, thick and slow and the like? Everything you say around that contradicts such a self-description. I think you are using some hyperbole there. At least I hope so.

      You have brought up such good points that I want to take some of them up in a couple of blog posts. The three points that you have delineated, some from my post and comments and from Jerry’s and your take on reconciling theory with real life process are interesting points of departure for further thought.

      Thanks for writing at length and so cogently.

      • Thanks Marnie,

        I look forward to your thoughts on these.

        As for the self deprecating put downs, well, with Jerry’s comment about his being smart, you know me, I like to balance things out to the extreme. :-) No knock on Jerry though, I know he is smart. LOL

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Response to Jerry Kolber About One City Blog, NYC and Certain Attitudes « Smiling Buddha Cabaret -- Topsy.com

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