October 17, 2012
That’s “Mr. Graham” to You

Reading U.S. political commentary online, I’m fascinated by the way candidates and elected officials are referred to by their first names. Gingrich is “Newt,” Romney is “Mitt” or “Willard,” Obama is “Barack” or, sometimes, “Barry.” In Arizona, Brewer is “Jan,” Giffords is “Gabby” and Arpaio is “Sheriff Joe.”

I don’t see this trend in European political commentary (though one exception I’ve noticed is that the Mayor of London is referred to as “Boris” as often as “Johnson”), and so I wonder if it’s just another part of the infantilization of U.S. culture, this casual and false familiarity. It is in resistance to this that, even when writing on this blog about the activities of close friends who have public lives, I refer to them by their surnames - because it is their public personas, not private selves, I’m writing about. They are my friends, but probably not yours, and so on this blog they are, for example, Hentoff or Moorhead or Fondation, not Nick or Mark or Larry.

The illusory nature of online familiarity is something I particularly notice when people I don’t know address me or refer to me as “Barry,” which few of my friends call me. (Some call me by my Buddhist name, others call me by a U.K. nickname commonly given to people with my first name.) So, despite the appearance of intimacy, someone addressing or referring to me online as “Barry” is most likely showing that they’re not acquainted with me personally.

I suggest that as much meaning is to be found in the terms we choose in discourse as in the opinions expressed, so I wonder if the irrelevant personal bickering that so often takes the place of actual discourse in the U.S. is reflected in the names that strangers use to address one another.

September 15, 2012
As Plato wrote in the Republic, “There are a lot of fake quotes on the Internet.”

I’ve noticed two that are making the rounds this morning (and it’s only nine o’clock). In this column in The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald writes, “George Orwell famously wrote: ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations’”. Actually, Orwell wrote no such thing; it’s based on something William Randolph Hearst is claimed to have said: “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.”

The other is being attributed to Abraham Lincoln: ”I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” Like so many of the “quotes” from Lincoln, he never said it.

July 24, 2012
Are Porn Theater Customers Like Fred Willard Exhibitionists?

When I heard that Fred Willard got arrested and lost his job at P.B.S. for flogging the dolphin in a porn theater, two (admittedly obvious) questions occurred to me:

What else do they expect someone to do in a porn theater? It’s like busting someone for drinking in a bar.

Doesn’t Fred Willard have an Internet connection?

The second question got me wondering… Since the vast majority of people in the U.S. have Internet access, how do porn theaters stay in business? I assume their clientele must be people with exhibitionist fetishes, for whom the erotic thrill is not what’s onscreen, but that they can be seen masturbating to it.

December 9, 2011
The Most Important Thing About the Internet

November 16, 2011
Defend Internet Freedom

From Root Simple:

PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

This sort of advocacy is unusual for this blog, but we believe a free Internet is essential for both cultural innovation and democracy. Sure, the Internet is mostly made of porn and kittens, but we like it as it is. What we don’t want to see is it being unduly controlled by either the government or corporate interests, so we’re participating in American Censorship Day by offering up this information to our readers.

Today, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is headed to the House Judiciary Committee. The purported purpose of this bill, and its counterpart in the Senate, is to stop infringement on copyrighted material, but the scope of the proposed law is way too broad and vague, and if you spin out the implications, downright scary. It has has the power to censor the Internet. It can blacklist or bankrupt sites on whisper-thin grounds, it will impede small businesses and new start-ups, and even punish individuals with jail time for infringing copyright in smalls ways, like, for instance, posting a family video in which copyrighted music is playing in the background.

This bill is likely to pass, and it will happen soon.

It’s hard to summarize all the nasty pointy prongs of this legislation in a few words. The video above does an brief overview—be sure to watch to the end for last second updates. Our smart friends at the EFF, who are helping us with the whole Urban Homestead trademark thing, have written several cogent, lawyerly pieces about this legislation:

Disastrous IP Legislation Back and It’s Worse than Ever  

SOPA: Hollywood Finally Gets a Chance to Break the Internet

American Censorship Wednesday

Today there is a call for mass action. You may have noticed some of your favorite sites have blacked themselves out in protest.

If you’d like to take action, the EFF has provided a page that helps you shoot a pithy email to your own congresspeople. It only takes a couple of seconds and feels really good:

March 4, 2011
We Must All Become Grandmothers

In 2009, a venerable American Zen teacher was holding a week-long sesshin. Students came from all over the country, and the world, for the sesshin, and there wasn’t enough room for them all to sleep at the house the Zen Center had rented, so some students who lived locally were asked to let visitors stay with them.

One man found his house-guest quite pleasant until he found that the guest had urinated on his carpet and also emptied a bottle of hair-dye on it. When the sesshin was over, the man told local sangha members what had happened, and tried to arrange to see the teacher to complain.

Instead, he was allowed to talk to one of the teacher’s Dharma heirs, who was a businessman. The Dharma heir lived out of state, and was just visiting, and didn’t know this man, but he tried to get the man to recant his story and sign a statement that what he’d said wasn’t true. “It was the standard corporate thing,” a member of the sangha told me. “Just coming up with an official line and trying to get everybody to agree to it.”

The man stuck to his story, and other sangha members vouched that he wasn’t crazy.

He wasn’t crazy, but he was now hurt and angry. He wrote an email to the Zen Center, saying that the teacher must have known what the guest - a longtime student of the teacher - was like, and yet hadn’t warned him. The teacher didn’t read email, but a family member who lived with the teacher did. The family member, declaring that the man was crazy, went and bought a gun in case he became dangerous. The teacher didn’t expel him from the sangha, and he kept coming to the sits, even though he was in danger of getting shot. The Dharma heir kept trying to get him to recant his story.

This, remember, was a zendo led by a great teacher. But, clearly, something wasn’t working.

Recently, there have been two high-profile scandals in the American Zen world, both involving the sexual behavior of prominent teachers.  (Full disclosure: I have been accused of misconduct myself.) The allegations made against these teachers do not seem to be in doubt, and both have resigned from their positions as leaders of their respective Zen Centers. And both have continued to be spitefully attacked by other Zen teachers online - so much so that the former students of one of the two wrote a letter asking 44 Zen teachers to back off, essentially saying that they were harassing rather than helping. The teachers who displayed this pack behavior claimed to be doing so for the good of the “Maha Sangha.”

In fact, it was driven as much by personal vendettas. One of the two teachers was finally exposed when a colleague, who, in the past, had lied to cover up for him, went public with letters dating back 40 years that revealed the teacher’s sexual intrigues. The reason he made the information public was that he was approached by a former student of the teacher who was angry because the teacher had written a letter announcing that the former student had not been ordained to teach and was fraudulently claiming that he had. It was about revenge.

The other disgraced teacher, the one whose former students were being hounded by 44 other teachers, has been particularly loudly and persistently denounced by a fellow Zen teacher who didn’t bother to mention that she was sexually involved with him back in the days when they were Zen students together, or that she had also had an affair with the teacher they both practiced with.

Career ambitions… Sexual affairs… Lies… Revenge… Does this kind of drama differ from what you find among the long-term employees of any corporation?

Rachel Boughton is an editor and Zen practitioner. When she heard I was writing this piece, she suggested that we should get 44 Zen teachers to write an open letter against Internet flame wars.

Last week I remarked to another Zen teacher who has abstained from joining the clamoring mob:

Recently, with the mean-spiritedness I’ve seen by Zen teachers directed at _ _ _and _ _ _, I’ve been pondering the fact that in the U.S. it seems to be about package rather than about content, and that the Zen community behaves like any other organization, ruled by petty, personal agendas. If there is such a thing as the “Maha Sangha” they keep speaking on behalf of, I want nothing to do with it. It’s become clearer to me that Zen as it’s traditionally practiced, transferred to the west, doesn’t go deep enough, or maybe far enough.

He replied:

It may be that there’s going to be a gradual splintering into fundamentalist and liberal Buddhism. The core of fundamentalism seems to me the “I’m right and you’re wrong” stance.

On reflection, I realized that I was wrong in seeing it just as a problem of the west. This kind of thing is not new in Zen’s institutions. Legend has it that in the 7th Century, when Hongren, the Fifth Ancestor, declared Huineng his successor, he advised Huineng to leave the monastery and go into hiding, or else envious monks might try to kill him.

Stephen Batchelor, in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, debunks the romantic story of the silent transmission Mahakashyapa received from the Buddha, and explains that when the Buddha died Mahakashyapa pulled off a power-grab.

As it was then, so it is now. Discussing her time as a student of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Charlotte Joko Beck laconically observed that the people who were practicing with Maezumi “weren’t being very nice to each other.”

John Tarrant has written, “In the end, Zen is only true if it has a good heart.” By that criteria, throughout history, institutional Zen has rarely been true.

Is the problem with Zen, or with institutions? Buddhism began not with someone deciding to form a corporation or pursue a career, but with a person having left all institutions, first secular and then religious, simply looking at the universe in a clear light, asking for nothing, free of self-concern. So the Buddha’s Zen was true, as was Huineng’s, Hakuin’s, Ikkyu’s, Dogen’s…

The First Ancestor, Bodhidharma, is said to have sat in his cave ignoring a man standing outside in the snow until the man cut off his arm to prove his sincerity, which convinced Bodhidharma to accept him as a student. Centuries later, Ikkyu wrote:

don’t wait for the man standing in the snow to cut off his arm
help him now

In the 13th Century, when Dogen Zenjii was dying, he gave his final instructions to his student Gikai. He said, “Within the Buddha Dharma you have a strong Way-seeking mind… but you have not yet cultivated a grandmotherly heart.”

Zen isn’t true, or at least isn’t complete, without grandmotherly heart - not the attached, self-centered love of a proud and controlling parent - who wants their kids to do one thing and not another, believe one thing and not another, be one thing and not another - but the benevolent, accepting love of a grandparent who  just wants the kids to be happy. Grandparents don’t form corporations and strategize to get the title of best grandparent, or grandparent-in-chief.

Zen isn’t really about sitting still, contemplating emptiness. You can do that for forty years, and still be as mean-spirited and self-centered as you were before you started your practice - but now you’re a mean-spirited, self-centered person who’s really good at sitting still and contemplating emptiness.  For our practice to be true, we must all become grandmothers, taking everyone - friends, enemies, strangers, rabbits, microbes - as our grandchildren.

December 3, 2010
Washington Times Editorial: Wave Goodbye To Internet Freedom

From this editorial:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is poised to add the Internet to its portfolio of regulated industries. The agency’s chairman, Julius Genachowski, announced Wednesday that he circulated draft rules he says will “preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet.” No statement could better reflect the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality of Obama administration policies.

With a straight face, Mr. Genachowski suggested that government red tape will increase the “freedom” of online services that have flourished because bureaucratic busybodies have been blocked from tinkering with the Web. Ordinarily, it would be appropriate at this point to supply an example from the proposed regulations illustrating the problem. Mr. Genachowski's draft document has over 550 footnotes and is stamped “non-public, for internal use only” to ensure nobody outside the agency sees it until the rules are approved in a scheduled Dec. 21 vote. So much for “openness.”

June 3, 2010
Cavemen With Computers

After I Tweeted a link to this article, I got some emails asking if I think the Internet is a bad thing.

Considering that I blog almost every day, I’d have to be quite confused if I thought the Internet was bad. I think it’s a tool, neither good nor bad. Like many tools, it can be useful, or useless, or destructive, depending on what you do with it.

I find it useful for reading news, and sharing information. I like that when I write something that has no obvious journalistic home, I can post it on my blog and have it read by what is now a considerable number of people, all over the world. I think the Internet has made things more difficult for oppressive governments, corrupt officials and brutal cops. All of this (and much more that I’m not thinking about) is good.

But the Internet can also become a substitute for real activity, real relationship, real community, real life. I know people who seem genuinely unable to tell the difference. They talk about the people they “hang out” with, and the “place” where they do so… and then I find that they only know these people as words and photographs on a screen, and that the “place” they are talking about does not exist, but is actually a website. I think it is because of its separation from actual (as opposed to virtual) life that people on the Internet so often act like mean-spirited children.

I have seen lonely people become lonelier, angry people become angrier, when they chose emoticons over smiles, pixels over flesh, and text over voices and laughter.

I have no doubt that Nicholas Carr is right about what too much time spent online does to the attention span. I feel it myself if I spend more time than usual online. Even though I spend a large chunk of each day at my computer, writing, I carefully limit the time I spend online. 

And, for as long as I’ve stuck to that, the Internet has done me nothing but good, and has impacted the rest of my life in wonderful ways. I have found people through reading their work online, or through their reading my work online, who have become close friends when we met in person. A couple of major romantic relationships have been with women I met that way. Editors who had read my books used the Internet to find me and offer to publish my work. And certain women who liked the idea of contacting a writer whose work they enjoyed for a booty call have found me online.

So the Internet has gotten me friends, gotten me partners, gotten me published and gotten me laid. I’m not grumbling. But, though it can be a useful tool in making life easier, it should not be mistaken for life itself.

If you can tell the difference between masturbating while sending erotic emails, and actually having sex, then you can probably tell the difference between “virtual” life and real life.

There are websites about cooking that have good recipes, but these are only useful when you get offline and into the kitchen and get intimate with stove, skillet, food, and, best of all, people to eat with.

September 21, 2009
Virtual isn’t real

Someone asked me what I think of “virtual sanghas” or “cyber-sanghas” - groups of people who don’t meet in person, but use message boards or other online methods of communication, overseen by a teacher.

Before answering that question, I should state that I’m not the most learned person when it comes to the Internet. Even though I blog and Tweet almost every day, and use email, and have a Facebook and Myspace, I don’t spend a lot of time online, and most of the time I do spend online is spent on email or reading news. I like the Internet and find it useful; its speed of communication and access to data, when used prudently, can make life a lot easier. But I think it too often replaces real life and real relationships with imaginary ones. I have no interest in living life through a computer screen.

So it will probably surprise no one that I think there is no such thing as a virtual sangha. A bunch of people, one of whom may be a Dharma teacher, typing on keyboards is not a sangha.

A sangha practices together. Practice means the hard, inconvenient work of getting up and getting to the sangha meeting, sitting zazen, having dokusan, doing zazenkai and sesshin, and, day-to-day and week-to-week, working with your teacher to unravel the conditioning and core beliefs that run your life. It means engaging and interacting with the sangha, doing whatever tasks you are assigned to keep things working efficiently.

I don’t mean that you have to move to where your sangha is and attend every meeting (though that’s certainly the best way). I have students who don’t live here, and who are serious about their practice - but I require that they get out here and work with me in person as often as they can. And I tell them that I’d much rather see them sitting with a local sangha than sitting at a computer, thinking that the words and images on the screen are real.

A virtual sangha serves its purpose about as well as virtual food and drink. It might look good on the screen, and you’ll have no dishes to wash afterward, but you’ll receive no nourishment.

March 1, 2009
How the Internet is rewiring our brains

No one ever said on their deathbed, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer.”
- Danielle Berry

This article, from the current issue of The Sun, speaks for me.

Anyone who has spent a few hours on the Internet understands how reading a single paragraph can lead to a multimedia journey so far-reaching you forget what you originally went online to look up. Nicholas Carr — author of last July’s Atlantic cover story, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” — believes the distracted nature of Web surfing is reducing our capacity for deep contemplation and reflection. He began developing his theory when he realized that, after years of online information gathering, he had trouble reading a book or a magazine. As he puts it, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory… . I’m not thinking the way I used to think.”

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