February 8, 2010

Welcome to Twitter Hell.

Tibetan Buddhism, Don’t Ask Alyce—and How to Stop Online Bullies.

~ by Bill Schwartz @RyderJaphy on Twitter (via @elephantjournal)

“Hell is just resistance to life.” ~ Pema Chodron

Props to Waylon for publishing “Bite me, Boulder Buddhists.” That took a pair, my friend. Not bad for a “Dharma Brat.”

Now for the latest controversy—what everyone is tweeting about these days—the appropriateness of questioning Dharma teachers on Twitter. My position: if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Last September, here in Chicago Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, my beloved guru of 28 years, was taking questions from the Karma Thegsum Choling audience. At 80 years of age he rarely leaves his charges at Karme Ling, in Delhi, New York, where he is Master of the traditional three-year retreat.

[That spring I had suffered a silent heart attack. Over six months I went from a middle-aged man with perfect blood pressure and cholesterol, who had never smoked, rarely drank, walked an hour daily along the lakefront, and most important, because of a family history of sudden death, saw my internist every three months…to a senior citizen who couldn’t walk half a block unassisted.]

In my private interview the day before I had asked for Rinpoche’s final instructions and blessings; though feeling at death’s door I insisted over his protestations on doing my three prostrations and sitting on the floor. Old-school Karma Kagyu to the bitter end, no way was I about to take a seat higher than my Vajra master.

Even if it killed me!

At the end of the audience, I blurted out my question, “I can’t help but think of Rinpoche as anything but perfect. But do you ever feel like you aren’t good enough?” The translator was from Taiwan and wasn’t familiar with the idiom. “You know, disappointed in yourself, like you don’t measure up to expectations.” Before the translation of my question was complete, Rinpoche was smiling and laughing.

“All the time,” he responded. “I’ve lived in the West over 30 years, don’t speak English, don’t get the culture of my students”…and the list of complaints he had about himself went on (to the delight of the audience). For whatever reason, I’ve always been able to ask difficult, pointed questions of the most venerated teachers of the lineage without a second thought.

In our tradition here in Chicago, that is the purpose of our afternoon session. We don’t do the lineage supplication [request of teachings] beforehand or dedicate the merit [to all sentient beings] afterward. According to Rinpoche, “The questions have improved over the years, but they aren’t Dharma.” Obviously, this is simply an opportunity for people in the audience to ask whatever is on their minds.


On Twitter, the other week, I asked Jetsunma Akhon Lhamo (Alyce Louise Zeoli) of the Palyul lineage of the Nyingma tradition a question. She’s on Twitter constantly, tweeting under @AkhonLhamo about animal rescue mostly and promoting the prayer vigils she presides over at her center in Poolesville, Maryland. Not my cup of tea, but she asked me to follow her, and with proper Twitter etiquette, I did so.

I had just finished reading Tyler Dewar’s (@tylerdewar on Twitter) recent interview in Bodhi Magazine with the 17th Karmapa. There was a graph in which His Holiness discussed the importance of sangha [community] as a harmonious coming together. Nalanda West, Seattle, Washington (@NalandaWest), had tweeted a link to the interview, and I re-tweeted it to share with the people who follow my Twitter stream.

Then I asked the question, “What does His Holiness mean?” and people began to chime in to discuss what they thought. Much to my surprise Jetsuma chimed in with “Consistency.” I tweeted back “What do you mean?”…

…and the sh*t storm began. Maybe I missed something, but she called me an asshole and made a snide remark about my heart, which gave her devoted Kunzang Palyul Ling followers the green light to begin attacking me.

I laughed it off and mentioned it in my last Elephant Journal article—“I’m an asshole, but that’s beside the point”—and returned to my daily routine of practice and tweeting Dharma quotes and music during session breaks without giving it a second thought. I had no idea of the Twitter hell I was about to catch.

From the point of my initial exchange with Jetsuma, the attacks escalated from strangers ridiculing the fact that I’m dying of congestive heart failure to a personal threat—“I know people in Chicago”—from one of her devoted followers. I’ve always known that the Nyingma have had issues surrounding Penor Rinpoche recognizing the “actor” Steven Seagal as a tulku, but I had no idea what a pile of sh*t I had stepped into.

Thankfully, Twitter isn’t a message board, and I can block Jetsuma’s followers from seeing my Twitter stream. I’ve had to block only one person who created a shell account to spam my @Replies (Twitter inbox) with threatening messages. Why would a Dharma teacher on Twitter allow her or his followers to behave in such a shameful manner? Perhaps she didn’t know. I haven’t a clue.

Ending on a positive note…Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (@ponlop) has followed me back; he wasn’t following anyone on Twitter when I wrote my last article. We’ve been exchanging direct messages (private tweets); he enjoyed “Bite Me, Boulder Buddhists” and mentoring me through the process of dying.

Also, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (@yongeymingyurrinpoche) is on Twitter now, but has yet to tweet.

What about Twitter hell? My bad; it ended in a tweet. “Founding member Chicago KTC, well regarded over 28 years, will not hesitate to take legal action against anyone stating otherwise here.” And so while we can “drive all blames into ourselves,” as the Lojong slogan goes—and while I remember to be grateful to my “enemies,” who are my greatest teacher—well, Twitter hell turned out to be for those deluded enough to think they could push Bill Schwartz around. Later.

Karmapa Chenno

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