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The Bad Taste

Thank Allah, this kind of “bad taste” seldom afflicted my teaching activity, and so it has been possible to preserve the widest possible space for conveying the practice of meditation with as much freedom of expression as is required by any given situation. Nearly most of the time.

And yet, there is still that coccyx-remainder impulse inside, sometimes, to make things at least at little bit more agreeable for people than what feels natural. The words of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” are so near they haunt my cells: We should “must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.”

The challenge of conveying an authentic voice can be daunting. To take an example: engaging social media in the work of Dharma. It really feels like quite an unsolvable challenge in these days of highly-sensitized reactivity. While the progressive political and social worldview I hold has always felt like the sanest, even most enlightened and certainly most compassionate approach to the evolution of humanity, frankly the woke-culture excesses of this optimal progressive worldview just bother and irritate without end.

(Recently, two prominent young Buddhist leaders asked me to join two very influential Buddhist councils or organisations in the US, in an advisory capacity. They said it would be good for my work, good for the Zen Center Regensburg “profile,” and good for my Teacher’s lineage if I accepted a position on one of these pan-Buddhist, pan-religious faith-boards. Without the slightest nano-hesitation, I politely declined. It feels that within the first meeting or two, someone would be showing me the door out, because it would be really hard not to come across as too sharp or “insensitive.”)

Many good friends have been urging me to become active on Clubhouse, the new social-audio platform that has everyone’s attention these days. I’ve been advised that this could be a helpful new way to share Dharma teachings: audio-only, there is not that edgy little part about video communication, all of the facial-reading and -signalling that evolution taught us to do automatically with other faces we encounter.

I signed up, and dropped in on a few conversations about brain science. I learned some things. I got to hear Joscha Bach thinking out loud in real time, which is always really edifying. There was also the usual meaningless mindless chatter that happens when humans have space to fill with other humans, and also some stuff that could be helpful for people. I could definitely see a reason for how and why people would think this a good way to assist people to practice meditation. For that goal, I’m always all-in.

But… the constricting scent of too-careful expression hung so thickly in the bandwidth. There seemed to be too much careful “positioning,” and with that the careful virtue-signalling that makes me frankly want to vomit. There was an audible gasp or two when the word “shit” popped out of my mouth — not as a curse, but a story-flavourer, a speech or reaction-emphasizer. I don’t know how long I will use that platform to plunk down seeds of Dharma, for whatever my contribution might be worth. But it has been suggested enough that it’s seemed at least good to try. With the whole social media magnifier effect of it, I feel I’d have to “walk on eggshells” all the time just not to offend, or seem abrupt.

On top of all of this, there is still this lingering fear of becoming well known. That brings its own set of paranoias. A hell of an irony, isn’t it? Having a social media profile on Facebook for over 12 years, and a twice-daily meditation livestream, and editing the public utterances into YouTube videos on Zen. Ironic that someone would do such things and still wish to “not” become well-known. But there is this exceedingly fine line that seems to run through attempting to nudge the invisible algorithms, through harnessing exposure measuredly, to spread out seeds of Dharma, and the overexposure that dilutes the power of Dharma. I don’t ever want to be so over-exposed that rude truths cannot be spoken, only the sweet dulcimer tones of the latest meditation-for-relaxation app. Yet, for all of its fraught dangers, something compels me inexorably along this razor-thin line between sharing and ubiquitous exposure (“the Internet never forgets”), especially as it relates to the power of social media.

But my philosophy is this: I wish the world would wake the fuck up. We all wish the world to wake up. From His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Greta Thunberg, Cornel West, and Robert Thurman and Al Gore and Bernie Sanders and Sam Harris and all the rest, we wish the world to waken from its destructive, self-annihilating slumber. And for me, having this mind-hacking technology of Zen, and having had the indescribable good fortune to have received the teachings of the Teacher I had, and train with other great masters in Asia, I feel particularly compelled to do something to share these things with others. I don’t want to be anyone’s guru. I don’t want to lead a movement, and nor am I emotionally intelligent enough to do so. I have no illusions about being some model worth following, or causing some important spiritual revolution. I’m not your guru, nor will it help you if I were to become that.

It is simply that I am controlled only — somewhat madly — by this compulsion to share Dharma. It is often commented back that I seem preternaturally “driven” by this work, and I often feel this deluded sense that there is some “mission” to carry out, that must be carried out, and hopefully by better actors than me. Some of the other Western monks, in our years in Korea, would even mock me as “the Jesuit”. Others said that I was a missionary, both the Jeremy Irons AND the Robert DeNiro of “The Mission” (don’t expect to see the former, since you’re more apt to get the latter, especially the version of him before his “conversion” to a more straightforward path). Maybe this is the old Catholic school influence. So be it. It seems you can be genuinely happy with all of that if it leads to even a spoonful of liberation. It is impossible to not see my own liberation bound up with the liberation of others.

But there is this wish, this mad compulsion to get the message out, and it will not stop. It is not driven by some wish for fame. And I have no illusions about “saving” lots o’ people — I’m just putting stuff out into play, technologies I learned, and emphasising them with utmost being and then letting the chips fall where they may. I might one day put a gun to my head if I ever stopped sharing this precious teaching and precious mind-tech, after having benefitted so richly from it myself, from some of the greatest guides in some of the most important traditions.

And yet, here’s what’s most problematic: I tasted “fame” and a kind of weird “celebrity” already. Had that nightmare experience in Korea. There were many benefits, and yet what remains is the intense stress and suffering that comes with it. There was this constant public-facing orientation to every single thing I did. And some of that remains, albeit in a far, far, far more reduced concentration in the West. I’m just very nervous about that happening again. This is a terrible example, so forgive me, but it expresses the inner feeling as best as I can say it: Like someone who has experienced something like date-rape, maybe, I have deep apprehensions about engaging the old “scene” again.

So, I am actually quite leery about surrendering this precious solitude for that ephemeral noise and distraction that comes from being too well known. We are working a little harder on this new meditation app — yet another mistake. But it is being engineered as a tool which can provide the ecosystem (chanting meditation, sitting meditation, etc.) that could hopefully support the practice of people who cannot make it to retreats where I am teaching. I often get letters from people who are in Iran or in the Deep South of the USA or some remote region of Canada or Latin America, who do not have access to a Zen retreat center anywhere nearby. They despair of every having that experience to be guided in their meditation sufficiently to grow independent in the practice themselves.

And so this app might appear. But I feel deeply ambivalent about it. I am ambivalent about this very blog itself.

So, hopefully things can be done slowly enough that I can delete things or stop some project if it starts to intrude on the solitude too much, or if it requires such compromises of expression that I feel it is presenting the teachings and the practice in a bad light. Not allowing it to become commercialised is one way one could perhaps prevent that from happening. Because I am self-producing the app, I have no obligations to appeal to some commercial “profit motive” that would dictate content or attitude.

It is all a work in progress. If used well, this app would enable people to practice more without me needing to travel as much here and there to lead the retreat experience.

The irony of it all! Doing all this work in order soon to disappear somewhat more. I have always welcomed the space where there might be tensions and seeming contradictions. But it’s worth a try. Not a few people have urged me to start a podcast. And several have offered to helm the project. I have rejected that outright. Could we get a little credit for sometimes getting this right?

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