Thinking About Michael Haederle’s “Dharma Wars”

There’s been quite the brouhaha in the Buddhist blogosphere about Zenshin Michael Haederle’s article Dharma Wars in the latest issue of Tricycle, the first of the national Buddhist glossies.

There have been some significant rejoinders to the article. I think Enlightenment Ward and the Buddhist Blog the most on point, so far.

I have a walk on part in the article, and so feel I have a dog in this hunt. And so some of my own thoughts…

Mr Haederle’s thesis is that there is a significant amount of misinformation as well as harsh and harmful speech within the Buddhist blogosphere.

I agree.

Sadly, I believe Mr Haederle, a professional journalist as well as a long time Zen practitioner, and surprisingly to me, used ill chosen examples for his illustrations, distracting readers from his larger point.

He led off with the story of allegations that a Zen teacher had fabricated his authorizations. I thought this an example of what is good about the Buddhist blogosphere. Real issues were raised, important ones for people seeking real Zen teachers.

But Michael Haederle used this as an example of incivility, at least as I read it, and that missed the whole point, again, as I saw it.

Although this example in fact shows where some of the weaknesses of the Buddhist blogosphere lay.

The various blog entries say what they say. In my opinion when someone starts a blog they assume some responsibility, at the very least, for accuracy. And I think most who blog feel that impulse, and largely try to tell the truth as best they discern it. It doesn’t mean they’re right. But they do seem by my read to try. The responsible next step, of course, is to let those charged respond. One chose not to. The other did, posting for a time his documentation. It has since apparently been taken down. Based on how they responded and with what they responded, people are free to draw conclusions.

The real ugliness usually comes in the comments sections of the blogs. Here people seem to feel free to say whatever they wish without regard for civility or, and this is the most important part, any care for accuracy. I was quoted regarding where I think people often seem to get their information. I was thinking of blog comments when I spoke. I regret seeing my crude remark in print, but not the point. The comments section that followed the Santa Monica based Zen teacher Brad Warner’s blog for some time was the most extreme example I can think of. The comments were frequently so vile that even one of the more in your face writers in the Buddhist blogosphere found it too much and finally shut down the comments.*

Similarly I felt Mr Haederle confused the issues around the Venerable Warner’s public attacks on the Salt Lake City based Zen teacher Genpo Merzel. One can question Brad Warner’s choice of words. I do. But he also raised real questions about the Venerable Merzel’s psycho-spiritual program Big Mind, particularly its claims of guaranteeing Zen enlightenment experiences, as well as the venerable’s association with the Frederick Lenz Foundation, an organization that appears to exist to rehabilitate a minor cult figure from the late twentieth century through lavish expenditures on more main stream Buddhist activities.

This last point has been a sparker for one of the blogosophere’s major problems, as I see it. Conspiracy theories. The Frederick Lenz Foundation is a supporter of Tricycle. And many other worthy causes.

People do love to go for the conspiracy. I received a couple of notes myself accusing me as an interviewee for the article as part of a larger conspiracy – to what purpose I wasn’t precisely sure. But I think it had to do with destroying the Buddhist blogosphere in order to sustain the sagging sales of the Buddhist glossy magazines…

There are other examples of where Mr Haederle went wrong in his article, but I think I’ve made my point.

Now my interests are pretty much confined to the Zen subset of the Buddhist blogosphere. And I have a couple more thoughts about it, about misinformation and incivility, and how it all, taken together, has value…

I think sometimes the blogosphere is a vehicle for people who want to teach but who have not trained with or at least have not received authorization within the tradition they want to represent. They make up their authorizations or claim traditional authorizations are themselves worthless. Their teachings are a ragbag of good, bad and indifferent. (Well, that might be true of those of us with those authorizations, as well. But I think they’re vastly more inclined to go off the rails than those who’ve done the work…) There aren’t many, but they exist. Buyer beware.

At the same time there are legitimate teachers blogging. I personally like Dosho Port’s Wild Fox Zen, frequently I enjoy Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, and while still not very regular, I particularly enjoy John Tarrant’s Zenosaurus, David Rynick’s Perspectives and Melissa Blacker’s Firefly Hall.

However the vast majority of Buddhist and Zen bloggers are just practitioners. They make no claims of authority. In fact most bend over backwards to make sure there’s no confusion in that regard. Among my favorites are Enlightenment Ward and the Buddhist Blog mentioned above. After posting this a friend wrote to me saying only mentioning two regular people’s blogs while noting five by teachers was unbalanced, as the vast majority of blogs are not by teachers, and he implied, there are more good blogs by just folk than by teachers. I think he’s right. So, also, I recommend the Worst Horse, Sweeping Zen, Zen Under the Skin, Marcus’ Journal, and while having spotty postings of late, one of my favorites is Homeless Tom.

Enlightenment Ward maintains the most comprehensive list of links to Buddhist blogs I’m aware of. Worth browsing…

All these blogs, whether from teachers or lay practitioners offer a wonderful mix of opinion, news and gossip.

Good stuff.

Mr Haederly concludes his article with this.

“James Ishmael Ford is more sanguine about Buddhism’s move to the Internet, especially when taking the long view. ‘I think that, on balance, more good will come out of this than harm,’ he says. ‘I think it’s bad for many of the people participating, I think a level of misinformation is ubiquitous, and I think it’s very exciting.’”

He very much got me right there.

And I think its true…

* As of today, 26 November, The Venerable Brad Warner, just re-opened the comments section at his blog.

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