Friday, October 29, 2010
The Worldwide Web of Friends
And because so many readers are Zen students, you are my sangha. I have good friends who are not Zen students, and I like the variety of personalities and concerns in my life, but to keep the faith you need those we call dharma friends or siblings, people who use the same language and know the same stories, and for whom practice is a central concern.
I don't like to call this "the virtual sangha." It should not be implicitly compared to sangha-in-the-flesh; it is what it is, and that is real. The "virtual" is defined (online, of course) as existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form, or name. That doesn't immediately untangle for me, but it brings up the interesting question, what is "actual fact." I used to tell students that for me, Poland did not exist - I had never been there and didn't even know anyone who had, so it was just another rumor. Kidding, of course, but making a point. One of my points, by the way, was that a fact is just a fact. It is not accurate to describe it as true or actual. And the online sangha is a fact, even though I can't test it with the gold standard of sitting across an actual table having coffee with you, touching your hand.
There's a fad right now of worrying that this invention has changed our social lives for the worst, taken us to fewer in-body contacts with people. Isn't there something in classical Buddhism about comparisons? I'm thinking of the virtue of sympathetic joy for others' successes, whose far enemy is envy, which is caused by comparing ourselves to that other. More broadly, and from a Zen point of view, comparison is an intellectual activity that should be used only when it is valuable - our question is, what is the experience?
Comparisons or "virtual" and "actual" friends are not really about our lived lives, I suspect, but about the lives we think we should have, or would like to have, small-town lives of lifelong friends who drop in to borrow a cup of sugar (a fantasy that goes back to the day when a "housewife" didn't have her own car). The geographic mobility of our affluence changed all that long ago, as does our class mobility here in America, our lack of leisure, and so on.
Your life is your life. Despite all the bootstrap books, it is not created entirely by your personal goals and acts of will, but by the very ornate and mostly hidden karma that may seem to be a series of accidents. It is your life, around you right here - what you have to work with. I mean to say, I don't want to devalue these friendships by mail by comparing them to an idea in my head. When I consider that statement more broadly- be with where you are, relate to the world in the ways you have - I think it's a pretty good policy in general.
[image: Late chicory at Grailville]