I avoided the iPod craze for a long time. I had been in a long-term relationship with Palm OS devices, and though they don't handle MP3s or Podcasts as elegantly as iTunes + iPod I was hesitant about purchasing yet another device. I hadn't even seen one in action until my mother bought her own little Nano then sought my assistance to load it with music. I had my doubts about the click wheel, among other things. Needless to say, after playing with her device and the iTunes software for an afternoon I swooned over the iPod and it's charms and later purchased my own. Soon after that purchase, I started searching for Buddhist-centric podcasts. This was circa summer 2007.
I was already aware of Zencast, and quickly added it to my list of Podcast subscriptions. A few clicks and searches later, I stumbled upon a new program called Zen is Stupid. I downloaded the back-broadcasts and have been listening ever since. Week to week, I often had a queue of around 5 unheard episodes but I closed the gap this week and must now wait until Sundays to hear something new from Gwen and Patrick.
My daughter often peers over my shoulder when I'm using the computer. She saw the title 'Zen is Stupid' and took offense. Her initial reaction was that someone was using a podcast to diss Buddhists, and so indirectly they were dissing her. I smiled inwardly to her reaction, because while she has a good understanding of general Buddhist concepts, she didn't quite understand that there is a koan somewhere in the title. Hence, the first reason why I like this podcast:
1. Gwen and Patrick don't take themselves (or zen practice) too seriously
In fact, the first episode (if I remember correctly) was about taking it (it, meaning practice) too far. They touched on the importance of a practice without all of the trappings (or without attachment to the trappings) such as the need to surround oneself with certain malas, statues, and scrolls. Practice is not found in things, though it is not unheard of for people to have a certain attachment to their Buddhist things.
I have to admit, my initial reaction to this project while listening to the initial episode was conflicted. There were moments when Gwen and/or Patrick seemed to be standing on a high horse, looking down on other practitioners and explaining why they felt they weren't living up to some keep-it-simple Zen standard. They seemed to contradict themselves a bit, and they came across (in moments) quite self-congratulating and snobbish. But something about what they were doing was interesting to me and I listened on.
2. Gwen and Patrick have a point of view
One of the things I've learned through my own blogging experience is that it is not uncommon to receive some backlash when you express a view that readers or other bloggers disagree with. If you say something critical about this or that book or this or that article or this or that blogger, people feel you are being somehow 'unspiritual' or 'mean-spirited' for expressing an opinion. As practitioners, as human beings, we all have opinions though... even about the so-called spiritual matters. Expressing and sharing those opinions shouldn't be frowned upon. We can all learn something from the expressed viewpoints of others whether we agree or not.
Some feel that laypeople should just shut up and listen to their teachers. I'm sure some question the need for personal blogs or podcasts on Zen or Buddhist practice. What is the value in hearing from someone who is not an ordained teacher? What do these non-clergy have to offer? Are they participating in a self-inflating exercise, or do they have something valid to say?
In my opinion, the laity is just as important as clergy. It is very easy for students to look up to teachers, to view them as somehow above or apart, to sense that their accomplishments (though they are really reflective of their discipline, dedication, and desire to teach) elevate them beyond us mere mortals. The best teachers defy this line of thinking through humility and conscious efforts to humanize themselves... discouraging others from the belief that they are doing anything extraordinary. But ironically, this makes teachers seem extraordinary. Some may question whether or not they will ever achieve the same level of patience, discipline, dedication, or presence that their teachers convey. This is where the laity comes in.
We are, all of us, taking one baby step after another in this journey called practice. As human beings, we need to connect with and hear from other human beings who have the same struggles and bump up against the same challenges in practice that we do. Gwen and Patrick achieve this very well. They don't try to be perfect. They don't claim to have all of the wisdom. Really, they just have a weekly conversation as friends where they question and grapple with the intersections between practice and life. I think we all do this, to some degree, until we resolve there are no distinctions to be made between practice and life... when life becomes practice and practice becomes life.
3. Gwen and Patrick are not like me
I especially like hearing from Gwen and Patrick because they are not like me in many respects. While Gwen and I seem to have a lot of the same books on our shelves, their chosen careers and lifestyles are totally different from my own. Why is this a good thing? Because I think one of the problems we have in the world is that we don't expose ourselves to people who weren't cut with the same cookie-cutter that we were. So I like both that they have a point of view and that they are coming from a perspective that is often different than my own.
4. The podcasts are short
You don't have to pencil in time in your weekly agenda to listen to this podcast. It is short enough to listen to during the shortest commute. In my opinion, short podcasts are much more accessible than lengthy podcasts or audio programs. You can still fit them into the busiest life.
I'm not saying that Zen is Stupid is for everyone. As the reviews posted to iTunes reflect, some will enjoy it and others won't. Such is life. What I am saying is that an opportunity is presented when we are offered a chance to listen in on people who talk about spiritual practice in a personal way. When we think to criticize, disagree, or find fault, it is an opportunity to witness our own humanity. When we find moments of agreement and laughter, it is an opportunity to smile with an extended community that we may not have known without today's technology. When we hear lines of thinking expressed that point to the universal... that trace the lines of the connecting knot, it is an opportunity to experience that connection, to embrace our interconnectedness and know that we are not alone.