Nerds and Buddhism

The Buddha's First Sermon

(Sometimes it’s just better to be quiet and listen…)

Recently I had a small epiphany about Buddhist “culture” in the West, especially convert (non-Asian) Buddhists.

Buddhist communities online and some communities I’ve seen in person remind me a lot of Star Trek conventions or UNIX system-administrator meeting: You meet a lot of white, nerdy, type-A, obsessive people who argue and debate petty intellectual stuff, and some of them have big egos. I work in a large, global IT company so I work with nerdy, type-A, obsessive people daily. When they argue about network security, or other computer discussions, it reminds me of the same discussions I see online discussing Zen Buddhism or just arguing on Wikipedia. It’s the same people.

Being a fellow white nerd, who spends his days blogging about Japanese waka poetry, this was all perfectly normal until I changed departments and started working with lots of non-nerdy people. Suddenly I started to realize how strange I was and how arrogant nerdy people like me can be.

For example, I found this quote on the Internet recently. One of the speakers in this year’s Buddhist Geeks Conference states in his profile:

By simply following the instructions [for meditation] he achieved the expected results, and has since become part of the global movement of meditation reform, a movement that seeks to preserve core meditation technology and supports, integrate helpful aspects from across traditions, refine the techniques and maps through exploration and verification, and spread the message that it can be done. It is also a movement to strip away the aspects of dogma, ritual, rigid hierarchy, myth and falsehood that hinder high-level practice and keep the culture of meditation mired in unhelpful taboos and misplaced effort.

Somehow the last sentence makes me really uncomfortable and offended. It sounds like existing Buddhist traditions (read: Asian Buddhist traditions) are somehow inferior and hindering Buddhists. I don’t believe this person meant any harm but it’s the same haughty tone I hear at work when talking with nerdy co-workers about how to properly setup a DHCP service for an entire region.1

Or, in this old blog post, I quoted an article by Wired magazine, which had this lovely quote:

“All that woo-woo mystical stuff is so retrograde. This is training the brain.”

Again, what arrogance! Retrograde?

To be honest, I have this theory that the smarter someone is, the more unbalanced their personality. I’m not saying stupid people are better, but there’s a heavy cost to being really good at something.

Anyways, my whole point in this post is that I realized that much of what we call “modern Buddhism”, “American Buddhism” or just “convert Buddhism” is kind of dominated by type-A, nerdy, obsessive personalities and this is kind of unbalanced in my opinion. I know there are a wide variety of communities in the West, but the “loudest” are the same kinds of people who argue and fight online about stuff that no one else in the real world cares about. They write the books, they host the conferences, and dictate their version of Buddhism to people who are new and don’t know how to separate fact from fiction. I think the community as a whole suffers for it because it nurtures a narrow view of things, and creates an exclusive club that doesn’t welcome others.

If anyone is offended, please accept my apologies, but I realized many of these same flaws in myself. I am arrogant, nerdy and obsessive, and I am starting to realize that this is an unhealthy way to live. I read a lot about Buddhism when I was younger, but I found that not all of it was helpful. Some of it was just extra baggage that I’ve had to let go, and just be more humble. I always remember something Honen said in the One-Sheet Document (一枚起請文):

Even if those who believe in the nembutsu study the teaching which Shakyamuni taught his whole life, they should not put on any airs and should sincerely practice the nembutsu, just as an illiterate fool, a nun or one who is ignorant of Buddhism.

Sometimes it’s just a lot better to keep one’s mouth shut, and not “put on airs”. I’ve put on airs sometimes, and now I regret it. I have no real training or authority. I am just a guy who’s read books (read: obsession and nerdy) and thinks he knew some things. Now, I realize I didn’t really know much. True masters know a lot (because they have tons of experience), but don’t need to show off how much they know.

People who think they’re smarter than other people probably shouldn’t be the same ones to determine what’s right and what’s wrong in religion. I may be wrong, but history shows when elitism, power and religion mix, lots of trouble happens.

1 My morning was ruined by arguing with another computer engineer about this very subject, and that finally prompted me to write this post, which I had been mulling for a while.

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
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9 Responses to Nerds and Buddhism

  1. Excellent post Doug! I 100% agree…i think it’s become worse since the ‘tech’ world has discovered mindfulness. There are some great, sincere folk involve (Chade-Meng at Google etc.) but alot of what you quoted, the whole ‘this is science!’ people. Meditation as a secular practise is fine, but don’t take a wrecking ball to Buddhism. Buddhism IS mysticism. Any attempt to remove ‘the hoo haa’ is dangerous.

  2. Michael says:

    I agree. Humility is a rare quality for many Buddhists in the West. These are the teachers with much wisdom to offer. I have a hard time following the “celebrity” Buddhists as well. When first studying under my Buddhist teacher, I had no idea he had been a psychology professor before becoming ordained. He never referred to himself or signed as Dr. The same can be said of another teacher I’ve been learning from the last few years, my aikido teacher. It was some time before I was aware that his rank was as high as could be in more than one style. He never talked about it and does not wear the entire gi or belt. I am very fortunate to have these humble and wise teachers to learn from.

  3. Hickersonia says:

    I’ve never interpreted anything you’ve posted to be arrogant or obsessive (nerdy, sure, but that is no big fault in and of itself, right?), for whatever that is worth.

    Thank you for the great post on a very important subject — one that I have had my struggles with in the past, no doubt (me being another IT nerd). Think about it this way: you and I practice quite different traditions of Buddhism yet I think I still learn something valuable from reading your insights (and that of the masters and texts you occasionally quote). Different traditions, whether they be based more on science or are open-minded to mysticism, are naught but lines drawn in sand which quickly dissolve when one sees clearly impermanence and emptiness.

    Please be well, friend!

  4. Doko OBrien says:

    Great post Doug! I think the problem you are talking about in this post can keep a lot of people out of the conversations altogether.

  5. Pork Chop says:

    Couldn’t have written that post better myself. :) That quote from Honen is one of my all time favorites. Yes, I’m sorry to admit it but every time I read the term “woo woo” I want to smack somebody in the face. Maybe this is just self-justification, but I do think there are different types of nerdy, obsessive people involved in these types of discussions. There tends to be one group that clings to some sense of orthodoxy: be it an orthodoxy based on science, historicity, or a particular way of doing things, and this group attempts to assert itself on all other groups. This is not just a matter of claiming its view point to be superior, but claiming that all other view points are completely invalid, and they go out of their way to “convert” those with other view points any chance they get – often resorting to pejoratives when they don’t get their way. I’m not sure that both sides of these discussions act this way, as one side usually just ends up trying to defend their preference, nothing more, nothing less. Would be nice if we were all a little more respectful & tolerant though.

  6. Larry Rowe says:

    Guess you’re not quite here yet Doug: From Chan master Lin-Chi “Followers of the Way, the really good friend is someone who dares to speak ill of the Buddha, speak ill of the patriarchs, pass judgment on anyone in the world, throw away the Tripitaka, revile those little children, and in the midst of opposition and assent search out the real person. … ” Keep at it though you’re bound to get it one day if you keep trying, but then again maybe not.

  7. Jack says:

    Started practicing in the U.S. in 1987, and during my time there it seemed like aggressiveness and contention were pervasive in the American convert groups that I encountered. I was surprised to find something akin to a seething machoismo – mine is bigger than yours, mine works better than yours! Having emigrated from the U.S. in 2000, the European converts I have met thus far do not seem to be fuelled by that type of energy.

    Just as an aside, I worked in a large computer center for twenty years…all I can say in response to your observations is, “Yup.”

  8. Doug says:

    Hello Everyone and sorry for late replies:

    ruairí I definitely agree with you. It just feels too sweeping, too post-modern. It kind of disrespects all the hard work and sincere efforts past generations made. I work in a similar IT company but we have no such community here. I kind of prefer the totally “agnostic” approach of my company.

    Michael Agreed. Right now there’s a lot of “assertiveness” in American Buddhism, and not enough humility. Really good teachers often don’t need to project their credentials in front of others either.

    Hickersonia “Lines drawn in the sand” was a great analogy here. Thanks for sharing that. Also thanks for the encouragement. It is appreciated, but I do see qualities in myself that definitely could use some polishing, even if it doesn’t project on to the blog as I thought it did.

    Doko OBrien Exactly, and that’s what concerns me. It’s just not fair. ALso, I noticed that in ethnic temples, other than the common ethnicity, you get a more broader slice of the population (wealthy, working-class, nerdy, artistic, etc). So, in a way, I believe Asian temples better reflect Buddhist demographic than purely convert ones.

    Pork Chop Yeah, I didn’t want to say “Nerds and Buddhism don’t mix”, but that the existing community feels kind of unbalanced. It’s not a personal attack on nerds though (I am definitely one too), but that the feel of the community reminds me of Star Trek conventions or other such things.

    Eksith Thanks very much. :)

    Larry Rowe Interesting, thought-provoking quote, thank you for sharing. :)

    Jack That’s a good observation. My wife has noticed that: Americans in particular can be assertive to the point of being a little abrasive, compared to Europeans we met. I never really noticed this until I lived in Ireland, then moved back. The contrast is noteworthy. Also, glad to see another IT guy. ;)

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