Exploring the Limitations of DIY Dharma

Episode Description:

What are the limitations of DIY and online dharma? In this video clip taken from the Buddhist Geeks Conference 2011, Ethan Nichtern – Buddhist teacher and founding director of the Interdependence Project – explores the limitations of online dharma, the meaning of Buddhism, and offers up a way to become a more sane human being.

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Ethan:    Our entire society, in the words of Generation X, has become very DIY, do-it-yourself. DIY, the interesting thing about this term is it started as an anti-consumeristic phrase but it actually means you get to consume in the way you want. So there seems to be a strand of dharma, a huge strand of dharma where we all want to become spiritual libertarians. Where we want to do the teachings in the way we do them.  You know, my teacher a lot of time says if you’re going to ask a teacher for advice you should actually do what they say.

Chances are they’re going to tell you to do something you didn’t want to do in some small way. That’s what doing something that’s good for you is, right? You have to do something that’s outside of the framework of your habitual apparatus, which means it doesn’t feel immediately good. So I always think of this conundrum of our DIY consumeristic culture especially in the United States of America which is possibly the most libertarian society on earth today in terms of freedoms.

As we all really proclaim our individual freedoms and the way we express these freedom is by doing what everybody else is doing. So we don’t really want to submit ourselves to a community which is the sangha or a teacher which is the Buddha principle that’s beyond our ability to control what feels good in the present moment. And this is one of the big dangers of the superficiality and I don’t mean superficiality in a bad way. I mean in the surface way of internet dharma, of podcast dharma and wikipedia dharma.

So here’s what I want to say, and there’s many different interpretations. We already heard from my friend Kenneth one model of enlightenment. There’s many different interpretations of what the purpose of Buddhism is about. We heard from Kelly the purpose is to end suffering. In my tradition what we say and are saying increasingly is the purpose is to actually create a society that is awake that encourages people to be awake.

I don’t think anybody would say that it’s about attaining a certain state of meditative absorption or jhana or Samadhi, although those are fun and those can be a tool or a method to awakening. But I think a lot of people think it is about that. Yeah. I know it’s not really about meditation, but if I actually could do that, that’s what it’s about.  The word enlightenment is really tricky. I find that people usually just define enlightenment as whatever I’m not experiencing now, which good luck trying to attain something that you have linguistically and psychologically defined for yourself as whatever I’m not experiencing now.

I would like to propose that for my point of view Buddhism is about neither of those things. It’s not about enlightenment. I like to translate the term bodhi awake, enlightened as just the same. The whole purpose of all of these practices is to become a more sane and decent human being. And to try whatever we can, in a world that’s pretty quickly going away from sanity, to spread sanity, to model behaviors to other people and communities to other people where they can feel sanity as well. If you want to become a sane and decent human being, this is my only point, that’s something you only learn from other human beings.


Ethan Nichtern

Ethan Nichtern is the founding director of the Interdependence Project, which started in 2005 with a few people studying meditation together in the East Village and in September 2007 became a nonprofit organization dedicated to Buddhist-inspired meditation and psychology, integral activism, mindful arts, and meaningful media. He is the author of the acclaimed book One City: A Declaration of Interdependence (Wisdom Pubs) . His writing has been featured on Huffington Post, Beliefnet, Tricycle Magazine, BuddhaDharma Magazine, Sentient City, Reality Sandwich, as well as other online publications. Website: TheIDProject.org