(Sometimes it’s just better to be quiet and listen…)
Recently I had a small epiphany about Buddhist “culture” in the West, especially convert (non-Asian) Buddhists.
Buddhist communities online and some communities I’ve seen in person remind me a lot of Star Trek conventions or UNIX system-administrator meeting: You meet a lot of white, nerdy, type-A, obsessive people who argue and debate petty intellectual stuff, and some of them have big egos. I work in a large, global IT company so I work with nerdy, type-A, obsessive people daily. When they argue about network security, or other computer discussions, it reminds me of the same discussions I see online discussing Zen Buddhism or just arguing on Wikipedia. It’s the same people.
Being a fellow white nerd, who spends his days blogging about Japanese waka poetry, this was all perfectly normal until I changed departments and started working with lots of non-nerdy people. Suddenly I started to realize how strange I was and how arrogant nerdy people like me can be.
For example, I found this quote on the Internet recently. One of the speakers in this year’s Buddhist Geeks Conference states in his profile:
By simply following the instructions [for meditation] he achieved the expected results, and has since become part of the global movement of meditation reform, a movement that seeks to preserve core meditation technology and supports, integrate helpful aspects from across traditions, refine the techniques and maps through exploration and verification, and spread the message that it can be done. It is also a movement to strip away the aspects of dogma, ritual, rigid hierarchy, myth and falsehood that hinder high-level practice and keep the culture of meditation mired in unhelpful taboos and misplaced effort.
Somehow the last sentence makes me really uncomfortable and offended. It sounds like existing Buddhist traditions (read: Asian Buddhist traditions) are somehow inferior and hindering Buddhists. I don’t believe this person meant any harm but it’s the same haughty tone I hear at work when talking with nerdy co-workers about how to properly setup a DHCP service for an entire region.1
“All that woo-woo mystical stuff is so retrograde. This is training the brain.”
Again, what arrogance! Retrograde?
To be honest, I have this theory that the smarter someone is, the more unbalanced their personality. I’m not saying stupid people are better, but there’s a heavy cost to being really good at something.
Anyways, my whole point in this post is that I realized that much of what we call “modern Buddhism”, “American Buddhism” or just “convert Buddhism” is kind of dominated by type-A, nerdy, obsessive personalities and this is kind of unbalanced in my opinion. I know there are a wide variety of communities in the West, but the “loudest” are the same kinds of people who argue and fight online about stuff that no one else in the real world cares about. They write the books, they host the conferences, and dictate their version of Buddhism to people who are new and don’t know how to separate fact from fiction. I think the community as a whole suffers for it because it nurtures a narrow view of things, and creates an exclusive club that doesn’t welcome others.
If anyone is offended, please accept my apologies, but I realized many of these same flaws in myself. I am arrogant, nerdy and obsessive, and I am starting to realize that this is an unhealthy way to live. I read a lot about Buddhism when I was younger, but I found that not all of it was helpful. Some of it was just extra baggage that I’ve had to let go, and just be more humble. I always remember something Honen said in the One-Sheet Document (一枚起請文):
Even if those who believe in the nembutsu study the teaching which Shakyamuni taught his whole life, they should not put on any airs and should sincerely practice the nembutsu, just as an illiterate fool, a nun or one who is ignorant of Buddhism.
Sometimes it’s just a lot better to keep one’s mouth shut, and not “put on airs”. I’ve put on airs sometimes, and now I regret it. I have no real training or authority. I am just a guy who’s read books (read: obsession and nerdy) and thinks he knew some things. Now, I realize I didn’t really know much. True masters know a lot (because they have tons of experience), but don’t need to show off how much they know.
People who think they’re smarter than other people probably shouldn’t be the same ones to determine what’s right and what’s wrong in religion. I may be wrong, but history shows when elitism, power and religion mix, lots of trouble happens.
1 My morning was ruined by arguing with another computer engineer about this very subject, and that finally prompted me to write this post, which I had been mulling for a while.