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Five Steps To Skillful Means In Buddhist Forums

Dominick Spirelli

The traditional method of Buddhist dialogue is a hierarchical model. The Buddhist teacher, almost always male, provided the information. The students job, like a good plant, was to absorb nourishment and provide energy toward growth. Seldom did the teacher address questions from students or request the student's impression of a particular text or concept. Buddhism in the Information Age has transformed this model.

The concept of "Buddhism" itself was the first step in this transformation. The notion of a unified religious whole does not exist within the Buddhist tradition, but has instead been created by scholars for the purpose of dialogue and study. This semantic construct is partly responsible for the information decentralization of the buddhadharma. Authority has changed hands. No longer is the Buddhist teacher recognized as the only authority. Scholars, writers and lay practitioners are reshaping Buddhism into Western forms, either expanding it or degrading it, depending on your opinion of their work.

Knowledge is decentralized, and for better or worse, everyone has gotten into the role of information provider. The new conduit for this knowledge, the supplement or replacement for the endangered species known as print media, is the online realm. The biggest strength and weakness of print media is focus. One watches television, listens to the radio, or reads a magazine or book not simply for information, but for a perspective on information. We choose our newspapers, stations and authors based on what we want to hear, what filter we wish to employ to focus our information.

The new medium, the online realm, detests filters. Every user is their own filter, everyone decides what is important and what is not, and they spend countless hours letting you know of their decisions. 12,000 Usenet newsgroups exist on every imaginable topic. An unknown number of private discussion groups, or lists, now populate the net for those who want to focus their discussions even narrower. Even more startling is that these groups are growing at an astounding rate. The idea of reading everything that happens online is impossible. In fact, the bandwidth has increased to such an extent in the last year, that unless you have a special high-speed telephone line from the phone company, it is physically impossible to transfer all that information onto your computer within a twenty-four hour period.

The problem with this tremendous growth in bandwidth is signal degradation. Rather than surf through information, the current verb describing the act of reading Buddhist online forums is slog.

The difficulty is a marked decrease in quality, an increase in the signal to noise ratio (expressed as mindless chatter) and an ego driven pettiness and one-upmanship that demonstrates a genuine lack of compassion and understanding. Some say the solution to the bandwidth problem is intelligent agents, sent out to gather information on predetermined topics to be presented to you like a newspaper. However, this ignores the true interactive nature of online information. We are not just users anymore, but are in fact true participants. We not only read the news, we create the news. Instead of adding another filtering mechanism to our information, the answer to the bandwidth dilemma is to instead find new ways to increase signal strength.

Fortunately, over the last few years I have discovered five ways the average online user can improve discussion in Buddhist forums. By using these techniques, you can avoid conflict, act with genuine compassion and make your online experience rewarding.

1. Keep Discussions of Practice and Belief in the Abstract

This is something that every graduate student learns and a vital practice for Buddhist practitioners. Avoid talking about what you do or what you believe in public settings. It's generally considered inappropriate and can lead to personal attacks and criticisms. There is a world of difference between the statement: "My understanding of Chöd practice is that consciousness is ejected from the top of the head" and "When I do Chöd practice, I visualize my consciousness leaving my body."

The first example allows you to discuss the finer points of the practice (when appropriate), compare notes with other practitioners, and share your understanding with those who can help you or those you can help. The second example, the personal post, is problematic. First, you might be seen as bragging about your practice, which not only is against Buddhist teachings but it impedes conversation. Second, you may actually be bragging and not be aware of it -- see Chogyam Trungpa's book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism for examples of unconscious egotism masquerading as spiritual practice. Third, if someone disagrees with your position or practice, you may take it personally and not get the full value of their criticism, or worse they may become reluctant to comment on your post for fear of insulting you.

Attempts at distancing yourself from your posts do not need to be cold and sterile. Look at examples on the net and see which model you feel more comfortable with. Do the personal posts put you at ease or make you reluctant to respond?

2. Evaluate the Message Before Posting

Before posting a message, ask yourself a couple of important questions. First, does this post require a response? Second, what kind of response is the writer expecting from this post?

If everyone were to ask these two questions before posting a message, the quality of online discussion would increase, and some newsgroups, like alt.zen would cease to exist!

Many posts, when you think about it, don't require a response. Occasionally, you may be tempted to make a "me too" response to a post, what I call the America Online Syndrome. A message may look something like this:

I think the Dalai Lama is one of the foremost living examples of embodied compassion. I only wish some of our Western Buddhist teachers would use him as an example.

RESPONSE: -- Yeah, me too!

Other messages are clearly an attempt to illicit a negative response. In the Usenet forums, this is known as "drive-by flaming". An individual, intent on creating anarchy, may post a message denouncing abortion to a variety of newsgroups, including the pro-life, pro-choice, Rush Limbaugh and related groups in an attempt to create controversy. All responses to the message are then re-posted to every other conference. You can sometimes tell by the message header that the message was posted to a large number of groups.

Drive-by flaming also occurs in Buddhist discussion groups, in which individuals make absurd claims or ask insulting questions about Buddhist teachings and Buddhist culture. Some of these people are undergraduates with too much time on their hands and a warped sense of humor. Others may have more of an evil intent. See last issues article by Oliver Seeler entitled Do Chinese Spies Attack Buddhists on the Net? The solution to this problem, as you may have guessed, is not to publicly flame the poster. If you do, you not only play into their hands, but you create another layer of sludge in the forum that everyone else must traverse (karma). This kind of situation is where real Buddhist practice plays a role. Instead of attacking the offender, ignore the post. Ignoring the post is the exact opposite response desired by the poster. Eventually, these immature folks will get bored and find something more gratifying, like watching BayWatch on TV or play on the Penthouse Web site.

3. Act with Compassion

Once you've decided to post, attempt to evaluate the most compassionate response. It seems like a simple thing to do. We try to do it in real life, but there's something in the electronic medium that can dehumanize the situation. Remember, just because a message is posted in public, it doesn't mean that it needs a public response, or even an answer at all.

Try to use real world criteria for answering messages. Even if someone asks a terribly personal question about their practice in a public forum, there is no reason why you need to give a terribly personal response in the same fashion. Use private E-mail. By keeping your response private, you have a much better chance of keeping things civil and actually reaching the individual without a knee-jerk feeling of personal attack on their part or ego involvement on your part. You also avoid personal attacks against you from people who don't agree with your approach.

Don't feel like your response has to have a solution within the electronic medium. Don't hesitate to direct someone to counseling, a suicide-support line (or discussion group!), a Buddhist center if their solo spiritual practice is running into trouble, or the bookstore. As you may have noticed off-line, some people just want to vent their feelings, without actually looking for solutions. Also remember that forum moderators are just that, moderators. They are not spiritual teachers, counselors, confidantes, or your mother.

4. Avoid UsingTricky Acronyms, Emoticons and False Language

The old-world Internet (what we had a few years ago) used its own lingo for communication. It included acronyms like IMNHO (In My Not So Humble Opinion), RTFM (Read the f***ing Manual), and ROFL (Rolling on the Floor Laughing). As a larger cross section of society moves online, these abstract conventions only serve to hinder communications. Avoid them. Use language in a creative manner that expresses how you really think and feel, rather than using trite phrases.

Also to be avoided are tricky emoticons, or keyboard symbols that vaguely appear as smiley faces :) winks ;) or unhappy black-eyed net users with their tongues sticking out. *(-

Finally, the last problem is false language. You'll see a variety of Buddhists on the net ending their messages with Gassho, Tashi Delek, Namaste, or other formal greetings of peace and happiness. It seems natural to want to express as much good will as possible. However, the online medium resembles a conversation more than a letter. Avoid using these formal terms unless you could imagine yourself saying such a phrase in a face-to-face encounter. This not only preserves the value of the phrase but it adds sincerity to your post, regardless of whether you use them.

5. Follow Guidelines Within Your Spiritual Tradition

Dharma is like medicine, and just because you've been taught a few cures, it doesn't make you a doctor. Check with your spiritual teacher before you take it on yourself to teach or discuss issues of practice and doctrine. Most teachers make it very clear who can teach and exactly what that includes. If you are not careful, you could not only harm others with teachings they are not prepared for, but you may also harm yourself by not being equipped to deal with the results.

Emptiness is a prime example of good medicine becoming poison when an incorrect diagnosis is made. Many practitioners on the Internet, especially Zen students, talk incessantly about emptiness, or "shunyata". This creates a constant crisis among new practitioners, uninitiated practitioners and non-practitioners alike, who have a difficult time grasping this Ph.D. level bit of Buddhadharma. It causes suffering; avoid this game.

Again, this is another one of those guidelines that you wouldn't think much about in a real-life encounter but for some reason seems to fall away in impersonal Internet meetings. Maybe this will change in the future, when we have personal avatars that look, feel and sound human, but until then, we have to make common sense a priority and remember that the machine is only the medium.

Methods are many; principles are few. It is true that general Buddhist principles apply towards any form of communication, but with these five guidelines you can reinforce your practice on the Electronic Frontier without becoming a hell-raising cybercowboy.

Dominick Spirelli

Source: CyberSangha: The Buddhist Alternative Journal

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