Sunday, September 22, 2013

Has Tricycle become the Weekly World News of the Whole Foods Customer?

I've seen the magazine at two of my local upscale groceries.  Used to be you'd see Weekly World News or the National Enquirer or some such rot in a grocery.  At other groceries you still do, but there's also magazines with Oprah's mug on them as well.

We have many choices in our free enterprise system, don't we?

I guess I'm asking this question in the title  because I've been re-reading some blog-posts from the last few days, including, but not limited to NellaLou's here,  my own posts, and that of the Speculative non-Buddhists .  It seems to me there's scandals reported in Buddhism all over the place, that DC area shooter, Thailand monks,  Buddhist Geeks conference flippant remarks about unwanted sexual situations, etc. etc.

Who makes the narrative for all this?

Yeah, I'm making the narrative here, and you can help.

But I think it's too easy to sit back and let others define the narrative for us, or perhaps a better phrasing is someone puts forth a narrative and we're inclined to adopt a narrative because adopting a dissonant narrative involves the work of constructing a dissonant narrative.  Or something like that.   But it's why the echo chamber effect we see in right wing media happens in situations outside of right wing media.

So who has been making the narrative in Western Buddhist media?

Well, I'll go through a couple of them, based on what my browser's presenting me at this moment.  Of course they change this stuff, and by the time you get to it the various Western Buddhist media might be different.

But let's look at it for a second. It might give us insight we might not otherwise have.

First, let's look at the  Shambhala Sun's site.  Did you know America is Angry, and the Left became "unhinged" when George W. Bush took advantage of a conservative controlled Supreme Court to stop the vote count in Florida in the year 2000, and therefore questions will always remain about the propriety of his assumption of the American presidency?  Note to Shambhala Sun: I think one reason "America is angry" has to do with articles like this, with their false sense of balance and equivalence.

I mean, this was the first article I looked at in writing this blog post, and right the freak there is the problem I'm trying to point out: Western Buddhist media provides a narrative that really is more of an impediment to ethical practice than an enabler of it.

From that article:

The hostile left-wing Volvo driver might be shocked to hear it, but he’s not so different from Rush Limbaugh: both lack a filter with which to screen their bile. Meditation practice provides this filter by training us to be nonreactive, to consider our actions, to “check in” and directly experience how we feel physically and emotionally before acting on it. They teach us to see the larger world and our place in it more clearly, and to experience what we are feeling with some degree of awareness.

We don’t need to become Buddhists to deal with our anger but everyone can benefit from what Buddhists have learned from millennia of training. These practices are not a panacea or a cure, but a process through which we learn to see our emotions as dynamic and changing. By undertaking this work, we are less likely to give the finger to the next hapless driver who accidentally cuts us off. Or start a war

As I've also noted elsewhere,  there's nothing at all ethical or useful categorically, with respect to Buddhism, in making "non-reactivity" good in and of itself; rather we should strive to have the right action at the right time

Oh, and that's not why at least we Zen Buddhists practice meditation. Sometimes reacting non-responsively to a situation is a good idea.  Sometimes it means death.

But more over, this article is itself injurious to right speech, in my thinking in that it posits a false equivalence between Rush Limbaugh and an angry Volvo driver! And in so doing, presupposes there is a "Buddhist" political point of view and modus operandi.  But, regarding the equivalence:

Dude, whoever wrote that article: Rush Limbaugh is partly a character, like Stephen Colbert, only his real-life politics align with the jerk he plays behind the microphone.

Plus he's worth scores of millions of dollars.

There is no equivalence here.

Not that I'd justify angry drivers whatever the political persuasion.  I don't.  But I also can't justify this kind of speech with an implicit political agenda  purporting to  be "Buddhist" speech. (BTW, do lefties still drive Volvos?  I thought they all went over to Priuses.)

Anyway, to conclude: Shambhala Sun, in publishing such articles, in part serves a purpose not completely dissimilar to the tabloid rags of yore.  But instead of being distracted at gaping at some celebrity  scandal you can be distracted by tut-tutting your head at all the right-wing or left-wing folks, and distract yourself into feeling superior to them because you meditate.

That's some hell of an editorial policy that admits such articles injurious to the 8-fold path, don't you think?

I better get over to Tricycle or I'm never going to accomplish anything meaningful today.

What do I see at Tricycle?

  • Buddhistdoor is recruiting an executive editor.   That's the first thing I see.
  • Scrolling down, I see links to stories, many of which are behind a paywall, but the majority of which seem to deal with either a) "Buddhist celebrities" (e.g.,  Thanissaro Bhikkhu), b) the shooting in the DC area, but above  c) (inclusive of a) & b)) stories in some way related to Buddhism outside  the experiential realm of the average reader of Tricycle. 
  • Then there's the ads.  Buddhist Geeks has an ad there. 

I had to poke around a bit, but at least in 2012, The Tricycle Foundation did receive a grant from the Frederick Lenz Foundation

If you go to Tricycle's "About" page, there is  links to what are said to be IRS forms, but alas, as of this writing, they're dead links.

The fact is, the editorial policy at Tricycle will in some part depend on who gives it money.   The fact that Tricycle still does not acknowledge the wrongdoing of the likes of Lenz, is in effect whitewashing his shady past, and implicitly green lighting new misbehavior.

So Tricycle, like Shambhala Sun:

  • Helps to mystify Buddhist experience rather than clarify it by positing Buddhist content as outside of one's self (perfect for mental cause tourism).
  • Plays down, or ignores  any role it might have in the historical  issues facing Western Buddhism.  For years in Tricycle there were ads from Genpo Merzel's outfit, Eido Shimano's outfit, etc. etc.

How has Tricycle responded? It's unclear as to what their ethical or editorial responsibilities and  standards they have or attempt to meet.  Just like the National Enquirer. 

Once upon a time Tricycle linked to outside Buddhist blogs.  They do not anymore.  They did attempt to create a social network within their domain; naturally this can't demolish any echo chambers in existence.

Now I'm not saying that all the Buddhist luminaries presented in Tricycle or the Shambhala Sun have nothing to say, they're all immoral, yada yada yada. No, what I'm saying is the very structure of the Buddhist media in the West is conducive to not illuminating and dealing with the stench of feces within the sangha.    Tricycle and the Shambhala sun present themselves as hipster kitsch; there is the absolute denial of their own shit  through the absence of its appearance in their context (whereas tabloid rags are kitschy in a way Kundera could not imagine living in the drab Communist world in which he was at the time when he came up with his kitsch formula.)

I don't fault the Buddhist luminaries necessarily for presenting in these magazines; you've got to try to help people wherever they are.

I do think it's time we in the West paid a more critical eye towards these publishing institutions and their role in shaping the discourse in Western Buddhism.


NellaLou said...

Always humorous when Tricycle publishes blog articles with phrases like "Bourgie Bias", "Angry Marxist" and the like as they have started to do recently. They really don't understand the contradiction.

I wonder if they pay those interns to write all those blog posts? Couldn't find an answer to that on their website and can't ask in comments on posts written by them since the previous web editor exiled me and expunged every comment I ever made there. I bring that up only because it's such blatant hypocrisy (I never went beyond their comment guidelines). Same with Elephant Journal, which I gather some people still read for spiritualish fodder and to gawk at naked yoga babes.

Mumon K said...


Whaaat...there's naked yoga babes over @ Elephant???

Well...shades of iconic Demi Moore covers from way back when!

Truth be told, I don't care about Elephant; I don't think it's a non-profit, is it?

But Tricycle claims to be non-profit, yet acts every bit as high-handed editorially as the NY Times, which won't print comments questioning the premise of Zionism when some guy from the Israeli government suggests Palestine shouldn't be a state.

black hole zen said...

Very interesting, lots to think about there.

I think that maybe because Buddhism is so personal, much of Buddhist journalism and feature writing has ventured off into the territory of gonzo stuff, where the personality of the piece (or horrors, the writer) is really half the message.

I don't know many writers who don't have lots of views -- Buddhist or not -- and writers like to, well, write. So we end up with personality-plus dharma writing with a heavy dose of American "I'm better than you because my views are better" first person, Internet-age journalism.

By the way I'm a journalist.

But I think some of it can be attributed to the fact, in the case of Tricycle, that not only is it one of the few commercially viable Buddhist rags, it is one of the only commercially viable rags at all. The only reason we have O magazine is because of Oprah, not because the market for publications is a thriving garden of bounty.

So naturally it leans toward filling its pages, providing a "product" which is Buddhism only in name, and is subject to the same kinds of complaints that can be lodged against most print publications -- i.e., superficiality in mass market appeal, tangential coverage, and things not told.

In my opinion the only story to be told in American Buddhism today (in terms of publications) is what goes on online, at the buddha blogs etc. People speaking freely and openly about topics of interest to them, without the need to make it into something viable, of value, or slick.

Mumon K said...

black hole zen,
Good perspective. I think at present you have a point, but that does mean folks like me have a great responsibility, that I hadn't really considered before.

doppler zen said...

For whatever my small opinion counts, Mumon-san, this blog kicks ass and I really, really enjoy reading your stuff.

Mumon K said...