Dude. Where’s my Lightsaber – Dharma Wars

2009 December 1

Front Yard, Tricycle by Alixandria Kathleen/

Front Yard, Tricycle by Alixandria Kathleen

I’ve been fairly quiet on the whole buddhablogosphere brouhaha with Tricycle magazine and surprisingly so. You see, I’ve made a living out of social media, community building and cultivating conversations online. *Warning- Lots of self-reference here so if you’re loathe to navel-gazing or lots of ‘I’-chat- skip this post.

So here it is. My perspective:

To me, the exchanges that I see that come from participating in the online space are really not all that much different that what takes place in person. I’ve cried when reading about the loss of a family member as recounted on a blog and sent tonglen the author’s way. I’ve been thrilled when I’ve read about how reading about my experiences have helped others to know they’re not alone in walking the path. I read about folks experiences with as much interest over a mug of tea as if there were right there in front of me at my kitchen table.

I’ve never claimed to be a teacher, an enlightened being, someone who’s achieved high levels of realization or anything remotely close to this. I’ve worked through a lot of shit and I have so much more shit to work through. I’m an ego junkie. I gossip sometimes. I beat myself up often. I have thin skin and a monkey mind. I am the laziest meditator and practitioner.

I began to cultivate an interest in Buddhism back in 1994 and as someone who lived in a small town, I didn’t have many folks to interact with. Both Tricycle magazine and the Shambhala Sun were so valuable to me in that they gave me a feeling of community where a physical community didn’t exist for me. Their authors weren’t necessarily teachers per say, but ordinary beings who were also having trouble with practice or recounting moments of clarity with precision and delight.

This takes me to present day and the article in the Winter 2009 issue of Tricycle magazine titled ‘Dharma Wars’ by Zenshin Michael Haederle which asks “What is it about the Internet that turns Buddhist teachers into bullies?” I came away from reading this article thinking that it was sorely missing out in presenting some of the successful teacher-led online communities that have thrived over the years and came across as a diatribe dedicated to drive folks away from the potentially harmful internet into the comfortable arms of the editor-curated content provided by Tricycle magazine.

Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy magazines. I also do enjoy reading blogs. <media middle way>

The article sadly perpetuates the mistaken belief that Buddhist teachers have to be held up to an ideal that we impose on them, rather than encouraging us to question everything. I certainly had come to many realizations and road-blocks when working through the stories I heard passed along about Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and did read Stephen Butterfield’s expose on Rinpoche titled “The Double Mirror” (Forget a bit of rancor online – this was a whole book dedicated to the perceived shortcomings of a great teacher. Wowsa.)

The world has changed. Our communication tools have changed and we no longer are exposed only to media outlets for our information. We can now interact with stories and each other. Some people, whether they are Buddhist or not will decide to use this power for altruistic and compassionate goals whereas others will not be so mindful. Being online allows us to exercise the ability to take a moment before hitting ‘send’ and reflecting. No different then when we decide to engage in harmful speech in person. The container is no different. The mind is no different.

By shining the flashlight only on the negative, I believe that Tricycle may have acted with it’s own interests in mind (to sell more magazines, keep advertisers happy, obtain more traffic) and didn’t think of the hypocrisy inherent in using the internet to criticize behaviour on the internet. The media landscape has changed. Dissemination of information has been revolutionized. I can only hope that Tricycle decides to be a bit more in tune with the spirit of web 2.0 – openness, transparency and community rather than seeing it for a cash cow and a means to generate more revenue.

In closing, unfortunately not much by way of guidance had been given as to how Tricycle recommends Buddhists carry themselves online and granted, this isn’t their specialty. It would have been great to see a story or sidebar dedicated to providing advice on how to display mindfulness online and perhaps some reference to sutras that relate to the topic of right speech. Perhaps members of the buddhablogopshere wish to fill in the blanks on this area of the topic where Tricycle magazine failed to evaluate?


Do you feel that you are mindful online?

Do you reflect on your posts before you hit send?

Are you your true self online?

Have you ever taken an online discussion offline out of not wishing to air the disagreement in public?

10 Responses
  1. December 1, 2009

    O Wise and Wonderful TMcG! Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    You asked…
    Do you feel that you are mindful online? Sadly, I am often a jerk. I try to practice Right Hearing instead of Right Speech. I don’t want people I interact with to ‘hold back’ on what they are spurred to say. I want the truth; the WHOLE truth; ALL OF IT, damn it.Do you reflect on your posts before you hit send? Yes, but I always allow a few cracks in the mellifluousness, such that some rich fertile soil can be seen past the rosebuds.Are you your true self online? Scarry as it may seem, yes. I am perhaps my true self ONLY ONLINE. In so-called real life I shiver in closets hiding under thick quilts.Have you ever taken an online discussion offline out of not wishing to air the disagreement in public? Sure. But not with as direct an intent to shield the public or save face as the question suggests.

    • TMcG permalink*
      December 1, 2009

      Ah Tom. You always make me think! I love that.

      My questions might sound a bit holier than thou and in retrospect, I see this. So I should eat my own dogfood and answer these questions myself:

      Do you feel that you are mindful online?
      I lead 2 online lives. My professional work life and my professional Buddhist life (I’m in no way suggesting that Buddhism is play – It’s much harder work and takes much more training for ‘certification’ – if that ever comes! I think that anytime I’m online, I run the risk of posturing or getting carried away with negativity when I come across it. I can be quite jealous so sometimes the internet can inflate these poisons for me as I’m exposed to more people than just the ones I interact with in person. Sometimes the internet causes me to run away with the perceptions I have of someone rather than the reality that is inherent with face to face interaction.

      Do you reflect on your posts before you hit send?
      Yes, but this comes from my old life from the advertising world where a comma could cost you a couple of thousand dollars.

      Are you your true self online?
      I have no idea what I was getting at when I asked that question

      Have you ever taken an online discussion offline out of not wishing to air the disagreement in public?
      I’ve held a position of community manager where I needed to make sure that folks in an online environment were civil to one another. I like a bit of roughness and some level of organic matter to be in communities otherwise it’s like a gated group of robots. Perhaps I’ve been fortunate that nobody only has really called me out on any bullshit – yet. Maybe this post may start it! I’ll welcome what comes 🙂

  2. Brian permalink
    December 1, 2009

    Thanks dude, for a great breakdown of the situation and the rhetoric about what good Buddhists should be like.

    Since you asked… well you really didn’t ask specifically this but you did point to this question in the body: what is a useful guide?

    I’d like to offer that the vital, relevant factors of right speech are not limited to face to face interactions but all forms communication. This is the guideline I was taught: Is it truthful? Is it useful? and Is it timely?

  3. December 2, 2009

    This is a really thoughtful analysis. That you work in the field adds to it as well. You know this stuff. Your words have got me thinking about a future blog post-thanks for the suggestion to the buddhablogopshere, I think I’ll take it up. These questions are great. I’ll give it a go at answering them as well.

    Do you feel that you are mindful online?
    I try to be. I am not a “blurter” on-line or in real life.

    Do you reflect on your posts before you hit send?
    Always. What hits my blog or email is usually a 3rd or 4th draft. 1st drafts in some cases would burn a hole in the screen.

    Are you your true self online?
    Mostly. I don’t write from a “persona”. But I take a little more time to consciously refine what I’m saying than I would in person where feedback is immediate. And I always remind myself that it’s people reading this, just like in a conversation.

    Have you ever taken an online discussion offline out of not wishing to air the disagreement in public?

    Many times. Not to hide something but to thrash out details (which can be boring for readers and sometimes gets too many tangential threads tangled into an issue) or get more information before I post something or out of respect of a person’s privacy or if some confidentiality issue is involved.

    Really interesting post you’ve done here.

  4. December 10, 2009


    I enjoyed your post and, in fact, one of our editors did suggest that in retrospect, it would have been useful to run the sort of sidebar you propose. Early on, when we first launched our site, we posted a “Right Speech Guide” that another Buddhist site provided us with. (It did little good!)

    Still, I think your assumptions about our intentions are simply wrong when you write:

    “I believe that Tricycle may have acted with it’s own interests in mind (to sell more magazines, keep advertisers happy, obtain more traffic) and didn’t think of the hypocrisy inherent in using the internet to criticize behaviour on the internet.”

    Publishing the article was not a crude ploy to “sell more magazines” or “obtain more traffic.” Nor was it an indictment of the online world–after all, we’re a part of it and have been for nearly 15 years, and our staff works long hours to make dharma digitally accessible.

    As for making the article available online: What better place than the internet to critique behavior online? And is it really sensationalistic to run an article that quotes and critiques public speech? It’s pretty standard fare. I spend plenty of time online and Michael Haederle’s critique was pretty mild compared with much of what I’ve read.

    If our primary purpose were to bring in cash (“I can only hope that Tricycle decides to be a bit more in tune with the spirit of web 2.0 – openness, transparency and community rather than seeing it for a cash cow and a means to generate more revenue”), we would not have set ourselves up as a not-for-profit. And if we had no sense of the significance of web 2.0, we wouldn’t have launched the Tricycle Community.

    Nothing will replace meeting with a teacher face to face–I agree with Brad Warner here–but there is plenty good to be done online. My take is that Haederle was holding speech online to the same standards he’d hold it to anywhere else. You can differ with his idea of what Right Speech is (no need to agree here), or determine for yourself who’s a bully and who isn’t (it’s a subjective assessment), but the standards applied would remain the same–online and off. If anything, Haederle is acknowledging the importance of online speech.

    I don’t get the impression that your speculation with regard to our motives is shared by the majority of Buddhists online if the interaction we’ve had with so many over the years is any indication. Nor can anyone criticizing the article (or Tricycle) claim to speak for the online world; it’s a pretty diverse place.

    I’m glad Tricycle helped you when you felt isolated as a Buddhist. It’s one of the main reasons we publish in print and online. Reading that encourages us, although that may not be what you want to hear.

    I would ask you to reconsider your criticism. I can dismiss bizarre rants and false accusations (no doubt nearly everyone in print and online has to tolerate tirades although I doubt most get through them) but I haven’t known your blog to encourage either. And so I felt compelled to respond.

    Many thanks for the forum,

    James Shaheen
    Editor & Publisher
    Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

    • December 10, 2009

      Thanks for your reply James. I certainly appreciate that you’ve taken the time to comment on my blog post and to offer up your perspective.

      I didn’t intend my post to be hyper-critical towards Tricycle (it’s pretty mild in comparison to much of what I’ve been reading from other bloggers regarding the whole issue and it’s impact on me as a reader isn’t as ‘first person’ as that on the parties involved in the article) and in retrospect, can see how some of my speculation could be taken to be quite ‘sharp’.

      In many ways we are still learning how to behave and conduct ourselves online and I wish to believe that your publication wrote this article as a means to show an example of dharma 2.0 gone off the rails, rather than any of the potential reasons hypothesized in my blog.

      I hope that what comes out of this exchange is further knowledge and collaboration. This kind of discussion is healthy and in my experience, has helped to show me that I may have put a few too many labels onto your publication.


  5. December 12, 2009

    I appreciate your willingness to be open about this, even more so because you disagree with our publishing the piece. And you’re right that your criticism has been mild by comparison. I’ve responded to people who seem to have honest questions and criticism and it seems to me that you have both.

    If I were writing simply as an individual blogger, I’d have more latitude and I’d probably open the floodgates of personality. But since I am representing an organization–and one whose mission I am passionate about–I’m doing my best to be clear about the organization’s intentions. And we have good intentions. Still, it’s legitimate–even necessary–to publicly call out anything we do that people feel is wrong. In a recent post, for instance, questions have arisen about our journalistic integrity, a perceived conflict of interest, and the negative effect it is thought to have one Buddhist school in particular (see Brad Warner’s post on this). This is a legitimate issue to raise, and in this case, however the message is delivered, I’m obliged to respond and will. So the openness you call for is helpful and justified.

    I am in fact learning a lot from reading the criticism. If it’s just anger, though, I understand that, but there really is no way to respond when there’s nothing to indicate that dialogue is desired. So I especially appreciate your willingness to engage.

    And yes, we do have a lot to learn; as Rod wrote, we all do and I’ve never thought otherwise. I’m hoping we can learn together as the community that you yourself are helping to build.

    I acknowledge there’s room for personality and rough-and-tumble give and take and I read it like the rest of you do. I’m just in no position to jump in (I have to admit, like most, I wouldn’t have the time to even if I were inclined) but I do have the time and responsibility to discuss issues I think are important to our community, however controversial those issues are or however passionately points are argued. The rest I’ll save for the Huffington Post–which reminds me, I’ve delivered ther only once (I got emails that make all of this look tame).

    The temptation to become defensive and the tedious desire to win an argument or hurl ad hominems are things I deal with, too, but in the end, if our intentions are good–and I think they are–we all can do better.

    All best to you,


  6. December 12, 2009

    PS: Regarding the post I referred to: apparently, it wasn’t Brad Warner’s, although it was sent to me as such. I checked myself–I really don’t know whose it is, so it’s difficult to respond.

  7. December 15, 2009

    Sorry Mr. Shaheen, but there’s many of us who saw that article as a symptom, with a cause related to Frederick Lenz.

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