Friday, February 1, 2013

Social media and secret practices

If you're my friend on Facebook, you know that I share a lot of links. I think of Facebook as a community bulletin board or an envelope of newspaper and magazines clippings that I want to send off to my friends. Here's a bunch of stuff I think is interesting or cute or need-to-know. Maybe you'll think so too.

A large part of what I share is related to Buddhism. (The rest has to do with feminism, grammar, cats, and food. Some music.) So I was interested when I saw Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's "Social Media Guidelines for So-Called Vajrayana Students" posted on his Facebook page. He's speaking to students in a particular tradition, the Vajrayana path, but his suggestions raise interesting points for all practitioners.

Basically, it boils down to: Don't talk about your practice. Don't post images of deities, don't post your mantra (won't count toward your 100,000 repetitions), don't talk about your teacher or your practices and empowerments. He writes: "If you think images from your weekend Vajrayana empowerment are worthy of being posted up next to photos of your cat on Facebook, you should send your cat to Nepal for enthronement."

Guess he didn't recall that the Buddha said sarcasm is not skillful speech. But the Buddha didn't say anything about the Vajrayana, actually. Some say he taught vajrayana practices, but since they were secret, between him and specific students, they didn't become known until later (third to eighth century). Others say they grew from non-Buddhist traditions, particularly Indian Tantras and Bon practices in Tibet.

Vajrayana practices, he says, are secret "to protect the practitioner from the pitfalls and downfalls that ego can bring to the practice. In particular, practitioners tend to fall prey to 'spiritual materialism,' where their practice becomes just another fashion statement intended to adorn their egos and make them feel important, or have them feel that they’re part of a ‘cool’ social tribe, rather than to tame and transform their minds."

Putting aside the secrecy aspect, Khyentse raises some good points. I share quotes (with and without photos of cats) on Facebook because they touch something in me and may do so for others. It only takes one idea that catches our attention to launch a deeper look at the dharma. Or maybe it takes seeing a dozen quotes that resonate and realizing they're all from the same source. For those of us who aren't dharma brats, something had to arouse our interest.

And my teacher, Ethan Nichtern, has noted that many formerly secret practices are available to anyone on the Internet. If it's out in the public, those with some understanding have some responsibility to it. Vajrayana practices can seem pretty bizarre.

But I also feel strongly that the dharma should be respected and protected. There's a depth of understanding that comes from practice, from working with things over time. It's also interesting to go back over things you were introduced to earlier and see how it's different when you've practiced more and gained perspective.

And I worry about the dharma being trivialized or reduced to a buzzword -- mindfulness, comes to mind -- and practice turning into three breaths and a mala on your wrist. Khyentse offers an important observation for all practitioners:

Trying to impress others with your practice is not part of the practice.

For practitioners, it means examining our intention. Are we hoping to impress? To sound authoritative? To win an argument? To appear farther along the path than another? To have secret knowledge? To have achieved something? To be worthy of praise? If the motive is connected with ego, it's likely not skillful. Who benefits from what you share?

Here are more of the guidelines:

-- Don’t attempt to share your so-called wisdom: If you think receiving profound teachings gives you license to proclaim them, you will probably only display your ignorance. Before you “share” a quote from the Buddha or from any of your teachers, take a moment to think if they really said those words, and who the audience was meant to be.

-- Don’t confuse Buddhism with non-Buddhist ideas: No matter how inspired you might be of rainbows and orbs, and how convinced you are about the end of the world, try not to mix your own fantasies/idiosyncracies with Buddhism.

-- Respect others. If you think attacking other buddhists will improve Buddhism, do a service for Buddhism, take aim at your own ego and biasedness instead.

-- Don’t create disharmony: Try to be the one who brings harmony into the sangha community with your online chatter instead of trouble and disputes.  

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