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.