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B&W Questions and Gray Answers

To Guru Or Not To Guru?

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A Reader recently wrote:
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I have been a follower since very near the start of the podcast series and I strongly appreciate what you’re doing here, it’s good that you’re helping bring a higher level of understanding of Buddhism to many people globally.

However, I’ve noticed that of late, when people are sending in email questions they seem to be seeing you as more and more of a guru and are looking for absolute answers on complicated subjects which, for the most part, you have been giving them.

I don’t doubt that you know much more about Buddhism than I do at the present time, possibly more than I ever will, but I still personally believe that the concept of Buddhism is one that is free-flowing and does not rely on simple yes/no answers ‚Äì such as declaring buying dog food a karma neutral situation – from anyone, let alone from a simple layperson such as you or I. That’s why I feel it’s an extremely positive thing for you to be giving your input and your own personal take on people’s questions, however it’s important that people don’t mistake your word as being final and absolute.

I hope I do not come across as too confrontational here, this is just my personal take on the last couple of weeks’ emails. What are your thoughts?

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My Response:
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You make several great points there.

I noticed right off the bat that you said, ‚ÄúI have been a follower since‚Ķ‚Äù I hope you only misspoke there– It’s true enough that I want a big audience, but I hope nobody gets the impression that I’m looking for followers! Yes, I’m kidding; I know that’s not what you meant, but you just never know what some people out there might be thinking.

Let me make a clear statement on the topic. I am not a Zen Master! My training is from the University, not the Temple. My official expertise is strictly on an academic, almost secular level, and I can talk with some knowledge about Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and a few others as well as Buddhism. I’m a writer and a teacher, not a priest.

That being said, I am a practicing Buddhist, and have been for years. I have read and experienced a lot on the subject beyond my training, so yes, I do know a good bit on the subject. Still, as you point out, I am a layperson. I hope you’ll find that the majority of my posts are more directed at ‚Äúteaching‚Äù rather than ‚Äúpreaching.‚Äù

Early on, I explained about the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and other basic Buddhist concepts. Those things are pretty much facts, or at least ideas whose meaning are generally agreed upon; you can read about them in thousands of Buddhist books. The “rules” of Buddhism are fairly simple. The application of those rules is often not so clear.

Very few ideas are really black and white in Buddhism. Buddha’s ‚ÄúGolden Path‚Äù is the pathway of moderation in all things. There are few black and white / right or wrong ideas that have no exceptions. The Buddhist world is very grey from walking down that middle path.

I will agree that some of the questions I’ve been getting recently have been deceptively complex. The one about the dog food and the one on performance reviews come immediately to mind. I thought I was pretty clear, especially in these two posts, that I was only giving my logical opinion. This is one reason I always invite anyone to comment on the blog; MANY of the answers I give could be argued differently. Buddha didn’t have any wise words about dog food or performance reviews, so sometimes we have to work things out on our own. That’s one reason Buddhism places such an emphasis on meditation and reflection.

The bottom line is that I love getting your emails and answering your questions; keep them coming in! However, always keep in mind that my opinions are just my opinions, informed perhaps, but still just opinions. I’m hoping that through this ongoing mail list/website/podcast I can help you all learn enough about Buddhism to come to your own conclusions about things like this.

6 comments to B&W Questions and Gray Answers

  • Gambatte

    I think Brians well aware of this as are those who read the comments after the emails etc.

    Its not too long ago he was directed to the Kalama Sutta(sp?) by another comment, I believe on reincarnation? – (Thanks for that BTW, an interesting thread to follow)

    Personally…I quite like the way this sites run. There are a lot that either have zero depth or seem to be run primarily for would be monks/nuns. Disecting arguments to the ‘N’th degree, it can become extremely dry when it becomes so academic.

    For me it gives a simple grounding, from where I can go and find out in further depth, if I need.

    Thanks Brian for choosing this ‘middle way’ 😉

  • Chris

    From a very personal viewpoint, I am not part of a local buddhist community (as there isnt one), and I find the site a way to ask the questions and seek advice that I would do in person if I could, and its great that I can ask an experienced practitioner.

    I like to listen to well informed opinions, and I love to debate over moral conundrums.

    Maybe thats what is needed – if more people throw their opinions into the mix (both veteran and novice) and respond a little more, then we can fire up a debate, and learn a whole lot more – this might also help if people are putting too much stock into one response.

    Keep up the good work !!

  • From Jesse:

    Informative and warm, Brian’s role is extremely valuable. The site is just simply nice. I too like the moral conundrums.

    Of course, Brian does not offer a complete solution. I sense, perhaps know, there is alternative ways to intepret things.

    What is said, appears to be said with a mixture of the academic and the practical, and just maybe a buddhist emerging exclusively from the ‘temple, not the university’ may say things a bit, or lot, more differently.

    In musing, what, Brian, specifically is the ‘academic’ subject you studied- since not all my ‘comparative points’ have been answered (smile)

  • From Brian Schell:

    Jesse, my major was “Religion Studies.” Although I emphasized the “Eastern Religions” aspect of the subject, I also had plenty of courses on Christianity and Mythology. I blame the mythology courses for my preference toward the practicality, rather than than the mysticism, of Buddhism. I certainly don’t want to offend anybody, but Buddhism is the only religion I have encountered that really emphasizes practicality over “magic.”

    If I had to pick a specific “weak point” in my religion education, it would probably be either Islam or Catholicism as a specific branch of Christianity. I only took one class in Islam, and it was very politically-correct and “whitewashed” in my opinion. As for Catholicism, well, let’s just not go there right now.

  • From Brian Schell:

    But you are correct in that I rarely explain everything fully or in-depth. Daily Buddhism is a site for beginners, where I introduce various topics. The original column I wrote a few years back (read the “About Daily Buddhism” from the tabs at the top of the page for that), was essentially just an inspirational thought or short koan every day. It’s only since the addition of the podcast and my return from Japan that I’ve expanded that into slightly longer “lessons.”

    Still, I try to keep each day‚Äôs post to just a couple of brief paragraphs, readable at work while the boss isn‚Äôt looking 😉 There are plenty of books and other sites on the net that explain Buddhism in full, with all the jargon and name-dropping and self-referential pretentiousness that I cut out here. I don‚Äôt want to be another one of those. I realize that many people will eventually ‚Äúoutgrow‚Äù the Daily Buddhism as they learn more on their own, and that‚Äôs a good thing.

    I take it as my goal to make Buddhism more accessible to people who don’t want to get lost in the jargon.

  • From Jesse:

    Quite sensible approach to the site, Brian. Conceptual building blocks are developed here.

    In reality, I do not think even the more exprerienced practioner will, in our world, find this site wanting: the tone, the reflection on the topics are ‘daily’ reminders of the practice.

    In Paris, works and sits a close friend of mine. He was the first vegetarian I knew and the first person who spoke daily about Philosophy and Buddhism.

    Few in France are vegetarian or, I believe, inspired by Buddhism. And as a result, I have introduced him to your site, hoping the daily realities of Parisian life are eased by the reflections here.