adrift on a post-modern sea of relativity and uncertainty

I just wrote, and deleted an exceptionally long and self-reflective post about, among other things, my lack of critical posts over the past few months and a central question of mine of late: why the hell am I blogging?

Then I got up, went to get some coffee, and, having returned to the computer, realized that that post was really the kind of thing I should have written for a private journal, were I the kind of person who still kept a private journal. (This may be a subconscious plug that I should start keeping a journal again like I did when I was younger.) And I’m guessing that no one wants to read that. Or, maybe more likely, that I don’t know if I want to share that much with you.

Nevertheless, there were a couple of things in that post that I think are worth putting out there. But they come with the following disclaimer. In my now deleted post, I wrote at length about how I don’t know anything. About how I’ve come to see the world not in terms of absolutes, of rights and wrongs, but instead as a series of complex and nuanced issues that have no right or wrong answer, and that at the end of the day we’re going to have to live with uncertainty, we’re going to have to live with inadequate, crappy answers that make one or two people, if not happy, at least less irritable, and leave the rest of us more or less in a bummed out state of resignation. A state of, “Well, I guess that’s just how it is. And how it is sort of sucks.”

I’ll give two completely unrelated examples.

First, Afghanistan. Everyone in my corner of the world is extremely irritated, pissed off, or at the very least disappointed that the present commander in chief sent more troops to Afghanistan. Their feelings of anger run the gamut from the irrational — “I thought he was Maitryea!” — to the almost petty, i.e., people are bothered about some mundane detail in the President’s plan, like the specific number of troops, but not the merits of the war itself.

For me, I don’t know. It’s an impossible situation. The pacifist in me wants all our troops home. Hell, the pacifist in me want all our foreign military bases dismantled. But I recognize that that’s as irrational a desire as Mr. Loy’s expectation that Mr. Obama was the next Buddha. I also recognize that there really are people out there in the world that really do want to do as much harm to as many other people as possible for equally irrational reasons. And it’s not unreasonable that we should want to keep those people from doing horrible things. Is sending in a bazillion more troops, to anywhere, the answer? Probably not. But what is the answer? Would leaving Afghanistan make things better? And “better” for whom? For us in our comfy middle-class American lives? Or for the people in Afghanistan who just want to live their lives without bombs being dropped on them? Thomas Friedman wants to claim that “nation building” is an inherently good thing because it sends a message to other Islamic nations that democracy (read: free market capitalism) is a good thing. But he doesn’t believe that Afghanistan has the symbolic power as Iraq. But I question that whole premiss. First, what right do we have to say that anyone should build a nation in our image? And, more deeply, why do we assume that democracy (read: free market capitalism) is the best system on which to build a nation in the first place?

So I don’t know what the hell we should do in Afghanistan. That’s why I didn’t run for president. (Frankly, I’ve always thought being the POTUS must be the worst job in the world.) And that’s why, despite a desire to, I haven’t written about it.

Another example. A couple of weeks ago I was talking with a friend, a fellow academic and studyier (that’s not a word but it’s what I mean) of American Buddhisms, and our conversation came around to the labels we use for the “two Buddhisms,” of Asian or Asian-American Buddhisms and “convert” Buddhisms. I’d recently read an article on the business of selling zafus and the author, cleverly in my mind, used the term “elite Buddhist.” I really like the way he used the term because he used it in an incredibly expansive and inclusive way (not that I would use it, necessarily). He used it to include so-called converts to be sure, but he also pointed squarely at the issue of class by remarking that many of these folks come from the same socioeconomic background, i.e., well-educated, professionals. What’s more, he included a host of people often left out of this conversation, the folks that Thomas Tweed once famously called “night-stand Buddhists”: that is, sympathizers who do “Buddhisty” things but may not self-identify as a Buddhists, may not be a member of a Buddhist organization, or may hold multiple identities, i.e., participating in a Buddhist mediation retreat but still attending church on Sunday with the family.

My friend pointed out, and I agree, that there are problems with the label “elite Buddhist.” Chief among them is the fact that there may be people who don’t fit in with the upper socioeconomic class of the majority of this group but, nevertheless, hold similar values and beliefs while engaging in identical behavior. For example, one may be a poor, working-class Buddhist who, for some reason, participates in all of the same practices and rituals as a more affluent Buddhist on the other side of tracks. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that “elite” is a crappy word. It’s gotten even crappier since the talking heads on the right started using it in a derogatory way to describe their political enemies. In a very real way, “elite” Buddhists may be just as condescending as “baggage” Buddhists. (But probably not.)

In the end, my friend and I threw up our hands and the said, well, what is the right word? And maybe there isn’t one. Convert, Western, American, elite, modern, progressive, traditional, Asian, immigrant, heritage, birth-Buddhists — all the words we have all have limitations. None of them is perfect. And just when you come up with a word that may be fitting in circumstance A, along comes circumstance B that looks exactly like A but for one glaring difference that completely circumvents your taxonomy.

So. That’s my disclaimer. That I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. And this particular post is more of a series of questions than anything. And while I may have said that in the past, boy, I sure as hell mean it right now. I am suddenly reminded of our most recent podcast wherein I was speaking of my childhood, surrounded by Christians, many of them evangelical and/or fundamentalists, and how I felt envious of them. These people have answers. I, on the other hand, am adrift on a post-modern sea of relativity and uncertainty.

And no one wants to read a blog about that.

What people do want to read about, what people do want to write about, are various perspectives on the truth trotted out as Truth. And being adrift as I am, I don’t think I can provide any such semblances of Truth. And, somewhat more importantly, is it my place? What right do I have to proclaim that my perspective on reality is any more truthful than yours?

Given my current state, is it any wonder I never succumbed to reacting to the recent kerfuffle over Tricycle’s article “Dharma Wars” that enveloped a large portion of one corner of the Buddhist blogosphere. I remained silent — in part because I have grown tired of arguing with people on the Internet. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think much (nearly all) of the criticism lobbed against Tricycle was valid; and I don’t believe that the kerfuffle was meaningless, pointless, or that people weren’t rightly offended or that they should not have been expressing their offense or opinions. Part of me just felt like it wasn’t my place to judge.

Let me be clear on that point. While the “Dharma Wars” article was squarely pointed at the larger community of Buddhist bloggers of which I consider myself a member, at its heart was an issue that is limited to the larger American Zen community of which I am not a member, namely the accusations made against and by Barry Graham, et al. I feel uncomfortable talking about that controversy because it’s not something happening in my own community. Were someone to ask my opinion, directly, I’d likely give it. But what right do I have, as an outsider, to tell the American Zen community how to conduct its business?

(If I can digress here for a moment, Id like to point out something that just occurred to me. Much at the same time that this blew up all over the Buddhist blogosphere, something truly extraordinary was happening in South East Asia and Oceania. Someone went and ordained some Theravada nuns, an event that certainly generated some digital print but didn’t seem to infect the wider Buddhist blogosphere the way that Tricycle’s article, and subsequent criticism, did. Why is that? I can’t help but think that the events unfolding around bhikkhuni ordination will have a larger and longer-lasting impact on the world-wide Buddhist community than a single article in Tricycle. But perhaps my opinion or observation on this is blinded by my focus. Perhaps if I spent more time (good god, more time?!) on the Internet, especially reading non-English websites, I would have a different sense of the impact of these two events. Perhaps I am only imagining that the Dharma Wars article was more of a conversation starter because I tend to read more English-speaking blogs by people writing in a largely, though not exclusively, North American context. At any rate, an open question, one that I’ll let dangle here for others to swat at.)

At any rate, I am digressing from the real impetus to write this post in the first place. The real impetus was this question about why I blog, about the nature of a blog that engages, more often than not, in cultural criticism, and what it means for me to be a critic. Surly there’s good money to me made in being a professional critic. And surely being a critic is fun. It’s easy to point to someone else’s work and rip it apart and point out flaws and analyze poorly worded arguments. Is that what I want to do? Do I want to be a professional critic? Or do I want to create something? Do I want to be a producer of culture rather than a cultural critic?

(And surely these two thing aren’t mutually exclusive. But that’s another matter altogether.)

And then this morning, quite by chance, I visited Justin Whitaker’s blog. Lo a behold, he’s talking about being a critic. (And, oddly, he mentions me by name, apologizing for being too harsh on me. I’m not sure when Justin has been overly harsh or critical toward me. As far as I can tell, the only other time he’s mentioned me on his blog was in reference to my post “definitions“; and his criticism didn’t strike me as particularly harsh. So, in sum, no need to apologize.) His post is about a couple of things, I guess, but one part of it seems to be the recognition that we often criticize from this place of superiority, that my position is superior to yours, a place of my perspective on the truth is Truth and yours is just crap. A point well taken, sir. But what also struck me was his comment about noting what “hooks” us, about what it is that gets us riled up.

Which brought me immediately back into traffic. Dealing with traffic, or, more specifically, my reactions to traffic, is my great karmic burden this time around. It flared up again this morning when someone tried to make a right-turn lane, and therefore get ahead of me, where there was no turn lane. There was much swearing in my car. I swear a lot in traffic. Traffic is my hook. I react to it. I don’t experience it, I am not aware or mindful of it. I only react. And I hate that.

I suppose that many of us have the same reaction to the things we see on the Internet. Other people’s words are our hooks. We don’t live with their words, we react to them. We set off that cycle of criticism based on these reactions, often without thinking, forgetting, as Justin says, that these other people we are reacting to are fellow sentient beings caught up in the same samsaric mess we’re caught up in.

(By the way, despite Afghanistan, “Dharma Wars,” bhikkhuni ordination, traffic, and taxonomies of American Buddhisms all showing up together in the same post, please don’t think that I believe these things should all have equal weight or more or less import in our discussions or can be reasonably compared to one another. As you can tell, I’m all over the place. The mind makes connections where it does, and often these connections are meaningless.)

Which brings me to today. Here I am at the end of the semester, the season, the year, finishing up some projects, putting some others on the back-burner until the new year, and thinking about where I’ve been of late and where I hope to be in the months to come. I am compelled here to write something lofty and idealistic and hopeful and future-facing. But at the end of the day, I am still very much adrift on that post-modern sea of relativity and uncertainty. And for the time being, that’s where I’m going to stay.

5 thoughts on “adrift on a post-modern sea of relativity and uncertainty

  1. Hi Scott,

    I enjoyed the ride of this post. Actually, I’m more drawn to questions than fast answers these days, and feel it’s a direct result of my Buddhist practice.

    A few thoughts. There’s no easy answer in Afghanistan. And we have an elderly man from Vietnam in our ESL school who was caught up in the post-withdrawal mess, spending three years in solitary confinement for being on the “wrong side,” so I know that a withdrawal of troops is not a means to peace alone. Yet, I personally have zero faith in militaries that are trained in combat, trained to kill, to bring about peace anywhere. We’re also guilty of helping to prop up the corrupt Karzai government, and of using our position in Afghanistan to make military “interventions” into Pakistan, among other things, so I find it highly unlikely anything our military does in the near future will bring about stability, let alone some semblance of peace. So, we either need to start retraining our military personnel over there in non-violent methods, or get out, and help fund a reconstruction controlled by the Afghans themselves. No sweetheart deals for U.S. corporations. No World Bank, IMF directed projects. Just funding and support on their terms to rebuild the nation. And the Brits, Canadians, and the rest of the NATO coalition should do the same. Of course, one major problem is who should the money and support being given to? Karzai’s government? Local political leaders? Local Imams and clergy? Sometimes, number two and three are the same. I don’t know what the best answer is. The only thing I think is fairly clear to me is that the after 30+ years of warfare in various forms, Afghanistan doesn’t need more warfare and military-centric solutions.

    As for the Theravadan nun ordination, I’ve been following the discussion on Arun’s blog, as well as on this blog

    It’s definitely worthy of more consideration and commentary. I, personally, don’t feel educated enough about the issue to say much more than I support the breaking down of sexism in any form in Buddhism, and see this as being a step towards that. Otherwise, I’m just trying to learn about the specifics, and take it all in. This may be true of other North American Buddhist bloggers as well, although it’s probably also the case that some just aren’t too interested, and would rather focus on issues that seem to impact them more directly. (A nice way to say self-centered perhaps?)

    As for the Dharma Wars issue, I felt it was an opportunity to look at some broader issues going on, including the seeming dichotomy between online-centric practitioners and “brick and mortar” based practitioners. As I’m in the middle, a member of both a sangha, and also a regular blogger interested in the online Buddhist community, I find this all very interesting. Just taking Tricycle to task does nothing for me, nor does endless flogging of those who dismiss the online community as meaningless. I’m much more interested in using things like the Dharma Wars article as a springboard for examining commonalities and divergences between groups of practitioners, and seeing what might be learned from all ends of the spectrum.

    The label issue seems to always come down to being a series of partial pointers that never quite satisfy. Awhile back, I quit using the whole “western Buddhism” label because it just didn’t seem to mean much, given all the varieties of Buddhism just in North America. But I still fumble about for labels at times, and find I just have to choose, and accept that it fails to cover it completely. Pointing at the moon, but never being the moon, as it were.

    Ah, a good ramble in response to your ramble. I’ll stop now. Thanks for listening.


  2. Nice post! I am also feeling the snags of blogging. Unfortunately I have these friends who told me: someone has to be the Angry Asian Buddhist! Maybe it’s just time for me to return to my roots.

    Your introspection is much appreciated. May you be an outsider so that your views may always challenge those who prefer to live and think inside the box.

  3. Nice post. Two things really stood out to me.

    “…and that at the end of the day we’re going to have to live with uncertainty, we’re going to have to live with inadequate, crappy answers that make one or two people, if not happy, at least less irritable, and leave the rest of us more or less in a bummed out state of resignation. A state of, ‘Well, I guess that’s just how it is. And how it is sort of sucks.'”

    Sounds like the First Noble Truth to me. You comment, to me, goes right to the heart of that truth, that phenomena are unsatisfactory, they suck. And you’re two examples are excellent reflections of that because they come from you.

    And the second item:

    “There was much swearing in my car. I swear a lot in traffic. Traffic is my hook. I react to it. I don’t experience it, I am not aware or mindful of it. I only react. And I hate that.”

    That is so me! I have a 40-minute commute one-way through Chicago traffic, and I do the same: I react to rather than be mindful of the traffic, and there is frequently a lot of swearing in my car as well. At times, I’m not swearing, but making comments out loud as if I am the grand deity of driving skills, passing judgment on the peons all around me. At times I will chant while I drive, so when something happens I don’t curse, I just chant a bit more vehemently!

    Good post Scott

  4. Wow. For a long, meandering post that, to me, didn’t really get anywhere, people actually read it end to end! Thanks!

    @ arunlikhati: yes. someone has to be the Angry Asian! And I’m glad you enjoyed that article on zafus. I don’t have a firm opinion on the issues the author raises, but I’m glad he does. Those folks over the Journal of Global Buddhism know what they’re doin’.

    @ Richard Harrold: “making comments out loud as if I am the grand deity of driving skills, passing judgment on the peons all around me.” I’m so glad I’m not the only one who does this! You know what they say, there’s only two kinds of drivers in the world: me and everyone else who can’t drive. I can’t wait for the weather to clear up around here so I can get back on my bike!

    @ nathan: Your rambles are alway welcome, sir! And I tend to agree with what you’ve said about the Dharma Wars issues. There’s a lot of very juicy stuff ripe for… conversation… (or criticism!) in both the article itself and the subsequent blogs reactions. And, ultimately, I encourage that sort of back-and-forth as a way for us to challenge our assumptions about practice both in this, online reality and in the other, off-line reality.

    And, frankly, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying NellaLou’s ongoing criticisms over at Enlightenment Ward!

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