Ethical Blogging Part I

I had another post planned for today, but I read something yesterday that rather disturbed me. Actually a couple of things, but I will deal with only one today. I’m just going to write this off the cuff, so to speak, so it might be a bit disjointed, and may seem like a rant, but so be it.

If you think of yourself as a Buddhist then as far as I am concerned you have an obligation to try to practice and behave as one. This is not a free for all party. There are some standards, and sorry to say, they are not really subject to your interpretation. At least not until you have had some real years of practice, or you are a qualified teacher.

Some people think Buddhism has nothing to do with morality or ethics. They’re wrong. Ethics is one of the cornerstones of Buddhism. And one thing I’ve noticed in the Buddhist Blogosphere is that some people also seem to be under the impression that when we switch on our computers, the reasons for why we should engage in ethical behavior somehow magically vanish. Ethics has no on or off switch.

If you are going to identify your blog as Buddhist then I believe that your blogging should reflect Buddhist values. That means more than just blogging about compassion and peace and stuff. Your blogging should be ethical and compassionate. It is neither ethical or compassionate to mislead people.

Most blogs are about opinions, and as such, they have a limited value. But whether it’s opinion or some sort of factual reporting, blogging falls under the category of journalism. It’s very true that people believe what they read. People forget that it’s merely opinion, especially when there are so-called facts thrown into the mix.

When mixing opinion with fact, I think one has to be very careful to make sure that somehow they stay separated or duly noted for what they are. When representing something as a fact, it should be a clear fact that is verifiable and linked to a source. To use hearsay or someone’s opinion and represent them as facts is, I believe, unethical.

If I were to write something like “In Zen Buddhism the practice of hitting people with sticks is widespread,” I would have to call this a misleading fact. Yes, it is true, it’s a fact, but if I don’t provide the context and some explanation, readers could get the wrong impression. If I want to be ethical, fair and balanced, then I should either mention that this is just something I’ve heard and since I have no personal experience with it, it should not be taken as a hard fact, or I should write that this only occurs within the context of formal meditation sessions and only with the consent of the practitioner. Otherwise, people might think that Zennies are just a bunch of stick-wielding abusers going berserk.

If I say that I am going to offer my opinion and then present what appears to be layers of facts that are not linked to any sources beyond a vague mention of some individuals I know, this is the same thing. Misleading and unethical.

As Buddhists we should try to rise above the fray, not sink to the lowest common denominator. We should try to set an example for others, not follow their misguided examples. Just because everyone else in this crazy world today seems to have forgotten about fair play and the importance of having some integrity, we should to? No way.

I think we should have the spirit that as Buddhists we will hold ourselves to a higher standard than anyone else. Why so? Well, I’ll have an explanation for that and more on the subject of ethical blogging when I’ve had time to sort out my thoughts. Had to get this off my chest for now.


We Have Met The Enemy

Growing up I loved the “funnies” in the newspaper, especially the Sunday Funnies when the comic strips had big panels and were in color. My favorites were the usual suspects for that time: Peanuts, Blondie, Dennis the Menace, Steve Roper, Tarzan, Flash Gordon and so on. I really liked Milton Caniff’s illustrating in Steve Canyon and Hal Foster’s in Prince Valiant, but I usually found the story lines in those two strips rather boring.

Pogo was a strip I didn’t appreciate until I was a bit older. That’s because it often contained more mature humor and references that were way over my head. In this way, Pogo was like the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, which I didn’t get a lot of until later on either, and then in the 1990’s, Pinky and the Brain. Both of those shows included some very dry and sometimes, sophisticated humor. A lot of bad puns, too, but that’s beside the point.

Pogo was the creation of Walt Kelly, whose birthday it is today. He’s not around to celebrate because he died in 1973 at the age of sixty. Kelly was an animator and cartoonist who worked for the Walt Disney studio from 1935 to 1940.  After that, he drew for Dell Comics, where in 1941 he created the characters of Pogo the possum and Albert the alligator.

In 1948, while drawing political cartoons for the New York Star, he decided to use Pogo and Albert in a daily strip and thus Pogo was born on October 4, 1948. In syndication, it became one of the most popular strips in the country, appearing in over 400 newspapers and it continued running until a few years after Kelly’s death.

Pogo was a real mixed bag, a combination of wit and broad humor: sometimes it was just silly, sometimes it was social and political satire. It would take too long to describe Pogo – the setting, the characters, etc. I recommend you check out the official Pogo website here to learn about all that.

Even if you’ve never heard of Pogo, chances are you’re familiar with one very famous phrase from the strip. It was a parody of a message received during the War of 1812 by Army General William Henry Harrison from U.S. Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry after the Battle of Lake Erie: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” Kelly first used it in the forward to a Pogo book in 1953, in which he defended his attacks on McCarthyism. The best known version of the phrase appeared on a anti-pollution poster for Earth Day 1970.

First, here is the comic strip version featured in daily newspapers a year after that initial Earth Day, and then the passage from the forward of The Pogo Papers.

By the way, today’s comic strips don’t do much for me. The humor is more contemporary, but the artwork is nothing near the quality of old masters like Walt Kelly.

Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle.

There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.


Walt Kelly, 1953

Happy Birthday, Walt. Long live Pogo.


The Nature of the Mind

Ole Nydhal is from Denmark. He’s a teacher  in the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Also the founder of  a worldwide lay organization, The Diamond Way. I’ve attended a few of his talks and have spoken with him, briefly, a couple of times. I like his informal teaching style and liberal attitude.

I know he’s the subject of a few controversies, but I’m too far away from them to have any opinions. The first time I attended one of his talks, he just walked into the room, wearing a plain white t-shirt and faded blue jeans, hopped onto the edge of a table and started talking. No pomp and circumstance, no fuss, no muss. He’s a Lama and that’s supposed to be a big lofty deal, right? When I spoke with him afterward he seemed to be a pretty ordinary, down-to-earth guy. That told me a lot.

Actually, being a lama is not really a big deal. It only means teacher.

I don’t remember where I culled this from, but it seemed like a natural segue from yesterdays post. Here is Lama Ole Nydahl talking about the nature of the mind:

There are two kinds of wisdom: that which concerns the things happening in the mind, and the kind which knows the mind itself. The first we learn in schools and universities. It enables us to have interesting jobs, earn good money, drive fast cars and die with more debt than our neighbor. It is very fine, but when they put us in the grave, all benefit is gone. This wisdom is limited to things that we cannot take with us.

Insight into the nature of the mind, on the other hand, can never be lost. Mind is open, clear and limitless like space – it has never been born and can never die. For that reason, whichever of its aspects we realize, they are of a permanent nature and will benefit us from life to life.

Mind in its true nature is open, clear, and unlimited. When it recognizes its space-like nature, all fear is lost. Knowing that our essence cannot be destroyed, complete security arises, a resting in oneself. The important insight here is that we are neither the body, which gets old, gets sick and dies, nor the thoughts, which come and go. What looks through our eyes and listens trough our ears right now is radiant space. It is beyond coming and going, birth and death.

Wisdom – the enlightening kind pointing to the mind’s timeless nature – also manifests as our true nature. It shines forth naturally when the veils of disturbing emotions and stiff ideas have been removed. Experiencing things both as they truly are and as they appear, one can benefit countless beings.

Photo: Ginger Neumann


The Internet and Monkey Mind: Reevaluating Online Practice

Tarzan's chimp, Cheeta, had a real bad case of Monkey Mind

Saturday CSPAN2’s Book TV re-aired a panel from the 2010 Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest this past June. The subject was how technology is affecting our minds and one of the panelists was Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

The book has been called a “Silent Spring for the literary mind.” I would say any mind. Carr is of the opinion that the Internet is changing our brains and not necessarily for the better.

Here is a pretty accurate transcription of what Carr said at the beginning of the CSPAN2 program. After reading a sentence from Carr’s book (“The price we pay to assume technologies’ power is alienation.”) the panel moderator went on to ask him if he thought “alienation is a necessary byproduct of our winding up bombarded by all this stimuli?”

Yes, I do. I’m using alienation not in the kind of metaphysical sense, but in the very simple sense that technology alienates us in different ways from ourselves . . . it happens . . .  in the most extreme and the most personal and the most intimate ways with media and other technologies that we use to think with . . . I think we’re seeing it with the Internet and other digital technologies. One on the hand they give us enormous convenience, they give us access to far more information than we ever had access to before. But on the other hand . . . they are emphasizing a certain mode of thought and deemphasizing another mode of thought. I think what the net and related technologies are doing is emphasizing the side of our mind that wants to skim and scan and browse and jump around and gather as much information as possible,  a very kind of primitive side of our mind . . . but what they’re deemphasizing is a very different mode of thought, slower, quieter, more solitary, the mode of thought that underskins contemplation, introspection, reflection . . . and I believe that we’re seeing on a personal level and a societal level a shift away from those modes of thought to this ever faster more superficial . . . mode of thought . . . My fear is that lose our capacity for the more contemplative modes of thought we are going to lose something very important to us as individuals and also one of the underpinnings of culture in general.

If Carr’s right, or only half-right, perhaps we should reconsider how we choose to use the Internet and other new technologies. This would seem especially crucial for Buddhists, or anyone who practices meditation. According to Carr’s research, our brains are changing on a cellular level and not only are we losing our ability to pay attention and focus, but also we’re eroding our contemplative mind, the very thing that we as Buddhists are trying to cultivate.

Those who have been so earnestly promoting online practice and sanghas might now want to reevaluate. I’m not saying that they have no value, yet considering some of the rather extravagant claims I’ve read, not to mention some insensible criticisms of traditional modes of communication, I am beginning to feel that this is seriously misleading people, however unintentionally.

I am certainly aware that these new technologies are not going away, nor would I want them to, as I greatly appreciate and enjoy all the convenience, access to information and fun they provide. However, the prospect of a future overrun by people with ADHD is rather frightening.

Actually, Buddhism considers Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to be our normal state with or without technology. We call this “Monkey Mind.”

Those of you already familiar with the term might have noticed how Carr’s statement quoted above contained a very accurate description of Monkey Mind: “the side of our mind that wants to skim and scan and browse and jump around.”

Most scholars seem to believe that the term “Monkey Mind” originated in China. I’m not so sure. Chih-i in the T’ung Meng Chih Kuan or “Stopping and Seeing for Beginners,” composed in the 6th Century CE, quotes a sutra (which not identified in any English translation that I’m aware of): “A fixed mind is like a bound monkey.” This sutra could be an apocryphal Chinese text, but it could also be an authentic Indian sutra.

In any case, a modern meditation master, Yin Shih, in his book Experimental Meditation for the Promotion of Health, offers a good explanation of Monkey Mind:

The mind is like a monkey and does not stop for an instant. What then should we do? We should prevent this monkey mind from moving by tying it to a stake and it will cease jumping about aimlessly. In the practice of [meditation] the first step is to fix the mind on an object (hsi yaun chih). When the false mind moves, it looks for something that is called its object. When all of sudden it thinks of one object, then of another, and then of a third and a fourth; this is its clinging to objects. The purpose of [meditation] is to fix the wandering mind to a post in the same way that a monkey is tethered to a stake; this stops it wandering.

A number of reliable studies in recent years have shown that people with ADHD can benefit from meditation. In fact, nowadays, it is almost universally accepted that meditation is an effective tool for reducing stress, improving health, and boosting concentration and creativity.

Most of us know this and it shouldn’t be necessary to go through all the reasons why a “contemplative mind” is something that we should not only cultivate, but cherish. The questions we need to consider are: Does the Net and other digital technology cancel out everything we gain from meditation? Do we break even? How should we balance this out?

If, as Carr suggests, the contemplative mind is important both individually and culturally, then we need to take steps to protect it. Of course, not everyone is convinced by Carr’s arguments, and they point to the fact that the jury is still out, after all while some studies support his thesis, others have found significant cogitative benefits from exposure to the Internet and digital media. But if we ignore the possible negative effects, if we wait until the jury comes in, it may be too late to reverse the damage done.

Lastly, let me share with you something from Winston Churchill. It’s a piece of wisdom that has really helped me out as I’ve made my way down this long road of life: “Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room.”

Now you know.