Saturday, August 31, 2013

On Buddhist Geekery, Gravitas and Ageism

Barbara, of all people, seems to have initiated a  bit of an animated conversation in the Buddhist blogosphere of late, with a post on the Buddhist Geeks conference, and  noting Arun's expected response to its cultural homogeneity.  Barabara thought that the people involved didn't really have that much to say, because of the fact that there wasn't a lot of age and experience. Maybe it's age, maybe it's ageism, but it seems to be something deeper.

Vince Horn remonstrated to Barbara, as you can see in the comments.

I then had a rather lengthy Twitter discussion with him.

Anyway, I think a point of difference exists at least between myself and Mr. Horn, on the point raised here:

Image will appear as a link

Before I begin, I'd like to point out that Mr. Horn's exchange with Genpo Merzel a few years ago was extremely valuable, as it unintentionally exhibited those aspects of Mr. Merzel that showed who he was.  Western Buddhism actually owes Mr. Horn a debt of gratitude for that.

If I had a place called Buddhist Geeks, I'd endeavor to use it as a vehicle to rightly communicate Buddhism, including its practice in day to day life, in the Mahayana flavor in which I practice.

If I understand Mr. Horn correctly he doesn't know how Buddhism needs to be practiced, and moreover an attempt to pointedly endeavor to practice the Boddhisattva vows, to cultivate it into the marrow of one's bones is grandiose and potentially arrogant.

I think this is indeed the point of difference between at least he and I, and it speaks as well to Barbara's, and probably Arun's points made before.

Not that it really matters that much.  But there really is a significant cultural difference here. And it's not, I submit, due to any kind of "literalism" or fundamentalism.

Way back in college I had a professor, Professor Y.  He was almost unique in my school's faculty in that he was one of the few faculty members who lacked a Ph.D.; it was said when asked he would say "Who would teach me?" It was also said that he once did try to do a Ph.D., but he wound up telling his advisor to go f*ck himself. (Nobody knew for sure if that was true. I doubt it, but wouldn't be surprised if it was true.) His manner of teaching was to manically fill up the two long blackboards in the classrooms with equations, completely from memory. None of that Powerpoint stuff they do nowadays.  His manner of expression was pure Brooklyn gangster, albeit with a knowledge of mathematics you could only aspire to have one day.  He never used the faculty recommended textbook,  and instead always handed out Xeroxed notes, written in beautiful cursive handwriting.  He wasn't above saying (literally) "I'll kill you" to someone who might have been in a position to be cheating (but wasn't).

If you didn't know him well, he came across as arrogant, and pretentiously authoritative to the point of being somewhat insane.  You'd think that, except he was the  goddamned smartest, most exacting, most thorough, most fair (in his own failing 2/3 of the class way) professor I had in all my years of schooling, and that was true of anyone who had him and passed his class as well.  My own thesis advisor was less pressure-inducing,  but even he knew, for example those "pictures" of white noise processes in books were not, and detracted from the beauty of what the process was.  Oh yeah, Professor Y. wrote several - only several - fundamental papers in communication systems theory. He wrote no other papers.   But those he did write were fundamental; they revolutionized the areas about which they were written. He didn't cultivate many graduate students, and those he had were better than I am.  And those of his undergraduate students who got C's knew the material better than other professors' students who got A's.   Professor Y. told me a few years ago that he had more respect for someone that took his class and failed in than someone who deliberately avoided trying to take his class. Professor Y's was well known as a very difficult teacher, but regardless of your grade, if you passed his class you knew the material well.

I go on that little diversion to mention one other aspect of Professor Y.: His exactingness and his attention to getting it right made a profound impression on me.   "It's got to be in your blood!!!" he used to say, because people's livelihoods (and in many cases, lives) depended on your ability to come forward with the right answer.

Now do you see why I'm mentioning Professor Y.?  In some ways he was kind of my first Zen teacher, except that he taught Electrical Engineering courses, and his EE Zen still informs my engineering and zen. He taught me the spirit with which you have to approach an engineering problem,  which was the spirit of a ferocious Beginner's Mind, in fact.  You gotta question everything to make sure it's right, for right livelihood.

That, I submit is the convergence of Buddhism and technology.  It really freakin' is.  Thanks to Professor Y., I got to be around to do a few fundamental things that enabled the wireless internet to take off.  It might be why I often get the feeling that Mr. Horn, and some of the other folks re: Buddhist Geeks,  just don't get it.

Mr. Horn, in his reply to Barbara was mentioning there was nothing about the actual content of the Buddhist Geeks conference. Well, as one of those folks who was otherwise engaged during the time that conference went on (limited to 300 folks as it were), I wasn't there. 

But thanks to Mr. Horn, there's content galore related from Buddhist Geeks from which to comment.

Here's an episode called Meditating to Get Ahead.  I will wait for the transcript, since I generally don't have time to sit through an entire podcast.   Let me point out that as a technologist manager (yep, a real flesh and blood one, with about 50 patents to his name),  I need an elevator speech to devote my time to something. I really am a busy man.   MEDITATING TO GET AHEAD?????  Why would one even ask that question, because going in a direction of a "Yes, and it does because..." answer from a Buddhist perspective it's about as Buddhist as Frederick Lenz.

OK, maybe there was substance in that podcast I missed.   Maybe there might have been stuff in there with which I agreed at some level.  But I still don't have time to listen to an entire podcast.  Especially since I've seen the Way conveyed with a gesture.  Well, let's consider a transcript.  But after I consider this elevator pitch: "Truth is a Red Herring."

I'll just say about that, nobody needs a Mr. Ken McLeod to tell you that  "truth" in the context of "true practice" means  you've got to live your life. You sign on the dotted line.  Your practice truly practiced is carried out, it is your "project" as Sartre would say. There's no good words in English for the right verb, but 行なうis a pretty good word in Japanese for what's meant here. To not try to keep the question of whether one is practicing or not...well...Mr. Ken McLeod might not be teaching a Dharma that should be cultivated in the marrow of one's bones, I guess.  I don't know, I saw his site, and there's lots of theory there it seems. But I don't get not much sense of who he might be as a person who has accomplished his project of being who he is as a person of the  Way (法), or why I might see what he has to say on it, and unfortunately in Mr. Horn's exchange with me, I got no sense of that either. 

Again, I'll wait for the transcript.  But I will point out that we're all in 参禅 (sanzen) with each other all the time.  I know as I write this very post I'm failing many people who might be observing my understanding of the 法, but one must keep trying...

Here's a transcript between Vince Horn and Rohan Gunatillake

Vincent:    Well Buddhism is interesting from my perspective cause it is conceived in many different ways. The way that I’ve approached it is as more as sort of an inner technology, a way of transforming the mind. Now that’s a very western and modern understanding of Buddhism. Of course, the roots in the tradition that point to that and yet practicing it in a way where its sort of a little bit removed from those some of the historical cultural pieces is a new thing in a lot of ways.
So I basically approach Buddhism as a model which supports one in transforming certain patterns of mind. So it’s fundamentally focused on the interior subjective experience of the individual. And there are some very important ethical pointers toward how does one live a meaningful life, how does one interact without causing harm to other beings, to other people. And then in a modern context, there’s all sorts of question around how does one interact with the environment, the world, the ecology, etc. And those are big questions as a modern Buddhist I ponder.
Rohan:    I guess Buddhism is interesting as a religion in contrast to some other of the major religions around the world in that there’s always sort an open question. Is Buddhism a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, a practice? Whereas for Islam and Christianity, there’s never a debate whether it’s a religion because of what have been said. It has this focus of this inner work, inner practice which can be, doesn’t necessarily have to come with the more religious trappings but it can do as well. And so it has that flexibility which makes it, the other religion, traditions do that, but Buddhism is one of the most significant which has that flexibility. So it’s totally feasible to say that one is a Jew or Christian or an atheist and have a Buddhist practice of sort and that’s quite interesting.

Huh? Buddhism is a model of an "inner technology?"  With "ethical pointers" to help one live a "meaningful life?"

I realize that with things like podcasts (like this blog) there's things one's said or written that one might have gone beyond.  But if Mr. Horn (and Mr. Gunatillake) subscribe to the views above, I'd submit they really aren't getting anywhere near what Buddhism, as most Buddhists understand it,  is.  They are conflating artificial strawberry flavor with that of a wild strawberry, the kind you can't get except at those higher end food stores we well-off  proto-hipsters keep in business these days.

And it's not a red herring.  People's livelihoods, and in some cases lives, might be depending on it.  I'm going to use a metaphor from the president of the place in which I work though the context is different.  If you had 5,000 years to live, such an approach might be OK.  But you probably don't have much more than 50 years on this planet. In that case you have to move quickly and sedulously to practice the Way, if it is the Way you think has benefit.  

Maybe some folks don't think the Way has benefit.  But if they call "not the Way" the Way, it will confuse folks at best, and at worst?

Your mileage may vary. Thanks for reading this post.


Nathan said...

I used to listen to their podcasts back in the early days, before they got "big" enough to do things like this conference. As a Gen Xer, I liked hearing younger folks talk about the dharma. Some of what they spoke of felt familiar and the like. But after awhile, I realized that it was rare that I actually heard something useful for practice. It was more like dharma candy, and not even very tasty candy at that. I don't know what they talk about at the conference, but it sounds like a big marketing event more than anything.

Mumon K said...

Hi Nathan,

I'm glad, in fact that Buddhists of any and all ages and cultural backgrounds metaphorically rub up against each other in cyberspace.

And we all have differences in one way or another with each other of course, and that's really very important.

I think one issue I have with their conference in particular is their attempt to structure it as a kind of Buddhist Geeky TED-like event.

I'm not a big TED fan.

And I agree with your expression above.

Nathan said...

"I think one issue I have with their conference in particular is their attempt to structure it as a kind of Buddhist Geeky TED-like event."

Yes, I agree. It's feels a little too "put together" or packaged somehow. I've seen a few interesting talks on TED, but tend to feel the same way about it.

Al said...

While I have my criticisms of Buddhist Geeks, I also respect that Vince and others are genuine in what they do. If it is marketing, what is it selling?

That said, the criticism of little of it applying to actual practice is true of 99% of what I see in the Buddhist blogosphere or books. A lot of wanking goes on with little real benefit.

I attended the first two Buddhist Geeks conferences and I found it a good opportunity to meet people with whom I only had online contact previously. I enjoyed some of the talks and I especially enjoyed Shinzen Young and Ken McLeod's interactions. I respect both of these men quite a bit, even if what they practice isn't my Zen.

Mumon K said...


It may be that McLeod has something to say. I'm not sure though; but given the way I understand he has some sort of Buddhism as "service organization" and the information that Mr. McLeod is on an "extended sabbatical" I can't really say.

I actually do / have seen more of Shinzen Young; and I think he's among the best the Buddhist Geeks have.

If it is marketing, what is it selling?

I agree with you...I think Vincent Horn et al. mean well, and, as I said, I think there's positive benefit that comes out of his thing, in the same way that making $100 violins available widely means that 1% of those users will go on to be virtuosos.

Not that I'm a virtuoso, VERY far from it, at least when it comes to Zen practice. But when it comes to technology, the market recognizes some degree of expertise on my part, and I suspect yours as well. I KNOW there's stuff you can do technically that would be silly for me to attempt in the same time frame you could do it.


Mumon K said...


People just who meditate and drop names like Ray Kurzweil just aren't in that category, and it does a disservice to all to situate one's self as having expertise in either category when there's more authentic exponents out there. And Ray Kurzweil isn't a particularly useful exponent of technology prediction despite being given his prestigious fora for doing his schtick. Because widespread poverty, pollution, resource depletion and some of Marx's critiques on capitalism which were valid are absent from Kurzweil's "singularity."

Two other points:
1. There was that Buddhify app. Apps *are* really easy to write. I can't believe how easy they are; as I've recently been re-tooling my Mac to one day suck in data from the web directly to do some natural language processing. Not to minimize what they did on that, but there's a reason there's of the order of a milllion apps out there. And it's worthwhile to question whether it supports practice. Because, question everything.

2. In order to be a good predictor of technical trends, you have to be highly skeptical. Why? Because capital won't be allocated to an endeavor unless foreseeable risks have been identified and countermeasures are in place for handling them. I don't see that there.

But I agree, I think they're sincere. Though I have a problem in general with meditation instruction for fixed price cash.

Mumon K said...

Here's a bit where I had something to say about McLeod in the past:

Just sayin'.

Al said...

Though I have a problem in general with meditation instruction for fixed price cash.

You may have or have not seen my old rants about that.

Generally speaking, I get wary when I see people with less experience than me (and I don't consider myself to be that terribly experienced) acting as teachers to others.

Certainly, most of us who have been around could lead a little meditation circle. That's a bit different than hanging your shingle up.

That said, I have been pleasantly surprised by some of the people at the Buddhist Geeks conference, like Martine Batchelor, for example. While I think diversity is a real problem, I don't think it is uniquely a problem with BG.

As to apps, I think you can write apps to support practice. I have a wonderful meditation timer and I've noodled on other aspects before. They won't awaken you though. That's on you and others to do for yourself, at the end of the day.

Mumon K said...


I totally agree with your last comment. We could all use more diversity.

And yeah, I apps can be written to support practice; including those for activities related to practice. But you gotta pay your dues, so to speak, as you indicate.

When I was modifying my Mac to get a reliable Python development environment I was just bowled over by how easy they make for you to develop apps.

Al said...

I just wish we could write them in python!

I'm a rather craptastic coder and learning Objective-C or Java (for iOS or Android) is not my idea of fun. :-)

Mumon K said...

Al, my understanding is there is a way to create hooks to python via Xcode.

Haven't tried it yet, because I'm not making apps. But I read that...