September 01, 2011

All About Barbara: Q&A With Buddhism Writer Barbara O'Brien

For the next installment of Tricycle's Q&A's with Buddhist bloggers (check out our previous ones with Kyle Lovett, Justin Whitaker and Waylon Lewis), we're bringing you nine-year blogging veteran and Soto Zen practitioner Barbara O'Brien. The Tricycle community might know her from's Buddhism page, but she has also been running The Mahablog, her personal politics blog, since 2002. Read on to find out more about what she's learned from her readers over the years and why she thinks modern American politics could use a strong injection of Buddhist teachings.


You write publicly about two topics—religion and politics—that a lot of people would hate to discuss with their friends, much less the entire Internet. What's it like to put your opinions out there on a daily basis? It’s the strangest thing, really. I’ve struggled with depressive mood disorder most of my life. I’ve gone through phases in which it was a challenge to speak to people at all. Even when I’m “better” I am shy about speaking up, and I usually prefer to just listen quietly during group discussions.

However, there’s also something in me that enjoys a good discussion, even an argument. On the Web I can express myself without being interrupted or feeling tongue-tied.

It’s also the case that, these days, nothing makes me happier than feeling useful. My Web work is something I can give to others that I hope is useful.

How does blogging—both about Buddhism and politics—affect your practice as a Soto Zen student? How does it help, and has it ever hindered? I think it’s some of both. I have learned an enormous amount from readers. They’ve inspired me, challenged my understanding, and made me more aware of my blind spots.

Also, writing about something makes me look more deeply. I very often end up writing a very different post from the one I started to write, because my perspective shifts while I’m writing.

On the other hand, it’s a struggle to not compose blog posts in my head while I’m sitting zazen.

A danger of being a public opinion-spouter is the tendency to identify with one’s views. I see that among the politics bloggers a lot. Their ideological positions harden into a persona, and their writing ends up being all about protecting the integrity of the persona, even—well, especially—when confronted by facts and events that challenge their views. I try not to fall into the same trap, although I know I do occasionally.

When I first got the gig of being the Guide to Buddhism for, I was both happy and terrified. I am so not a dharma teacher. What if I mislead people with my own ignorance? That still frightens me. In the articles I write for, separate from the blog, I mostly stick to providing beginner-level information. But even then I sometimes read an article I wrote months before and think, Ack! That’s all wrong. And I write it over again.

One of the things I most love about writing about Buddhism is learning about the other traditions. All of my personal experience with Buddhism has been in Soto Zen. Now I’m writing about Theravada and Vajrayana and Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhism, and on and on, along with Zen. There are big, riotous, honking differences among these traditions, on the surface. But there is nothing more beautiful than perceiving the same dharma shining through.

On your Buddhism guide there’s a section called “Reasons to Convert to Buddhism? Why I Can’t Give You Any,” where you write, “Buddhists judge the value of a doctrine not by its factual accuracy but by its skillfulness.” As a former journalism student and a professional writer, do you find any tension between the journalistic way of looking at reality—with its emphasis on fact-finding and truth-presenting—and the Buddhist way? It’s not a problem. Having some inkling of the Mahayana doctrine of the Two Truths is very helpful, because I can appreciate that phenomena have their place and function, never mind their being neither real nor not real.

One striking thing about your blog is that you are never cowed or discouraged by commenters who attack you about your opinion on controversial issues—you always stand by your original post. But do you ever look back at something you’ve written in the past and think, “I was wrong about that”? Oh, yes, I’ve stepped into some pretty big virtual cow pies over the years. I started The Mahablog, my politics blog, in 2002, and I’ve been writing for since February 2008, and that’s many blog posts every week, all written and published without an editor. It would be superhuman to not be wrong sometimes.

As far as not being cowed is concerned…as I’ve said, I’ve struggled with being shy and withdrawn most of my life. But I’m about to observe my 60th birthday, and there are times when I think, enough already. No more ducking and covering.

Most of my Buddhism blogging is commentary on current events or something I’ve read elsewhere. I believe I have a responsibility to bring up ugly or controversial topics, drag them out into the open, even though I’d usually rather not. And I have to express a subjective view; there’s no getting around that. I get some strongly hateful reactions sometimes, but after nine years of political blogging, I’m used to that. Sometimes it hurts; usually I don’t take it personally.

On the Web, people manifest with no context. We can’t see each other. We don’t know anything about each other’s lives and experiences. We are words on a monitor. And you know how perception works, according to the Buddha’s teaching of the third skandha. We identify and conceptualize new things by associating them with things we’re already familiar with.

Without realizing it, often we take the few clues we see on the monitor and construct a whole person in our heads, filling in the blanks with memories and impressions of other people we've known. So there’s a lot of stereotyping and unsupported assumption, and people misunderstanding each other because they’re all re-playing different sets of old tapes. It gets messy. This happens in non-virtual interaction too, of course, but it’s worse on the Web because we’re even blanker slates to each other on the Web than in person.

True story: Once, several years ago, I was active on an online Buddhism forum, and some of the participants were hostile to everything I said. I was a Zen newbie, and I probably did say some stupid things, but for some reason I was being singled out for over-the-top ridicule every time I posted. I dropped out of the forum, canceled my girly-girl screen name, and signed up again with a masculine name. After that, everything I wrote was thought to be perfectly reasonable. Go figure.

Since then, I’ve taken hateful reactions to my writing with a grain of salt. If someone simply points out to me that I’ve said something incorrect or insensitive, of course I apologize and change it. But attempts to intimidate me with insults and hate speech won’t work.

To paraphrase something one of my Zen teachers used to say, I can’t make you angry. You make yourself angry.

I never intend to stir up anger, but neither do I write so that other people will think well of me. And I am way past saying what’s expected of me so I can be part of the group. If I believe strongly that something needs to be said, I say it.

Do you think there’s a place (or perhaps a need) in modern American politics for Buddhism or Buddhist beliefs? Oh, a need, yes. Not that a nation of Buddhists would be perfect. But I do wish people could take Buddhist teachings about attachment and anger to heart.

Political discourse in America today isn’t about government policy, it’s about tribal warfare. Some factions no longer perceive disagreement as disagreement but as existential threats to their tribe, and thereby to themselves. Rational political discussion across ideological lines has become impossible.

Also, many Americans think that anger is strength. I’m serious. Lots of voters flock to politicians who best express and reflect their anger, as if the virtue of anger alone will somehow fill the potholes. They think the angry guy will “get tough” about whatever it is they don’t like about government; like problems will be solved by yelling at them. But we’ve got plenty of “tough” already; what we’re short on is “smart.”

And we’ve got a consumer culture promoting greed and a moral culture promoting selfishness. America is self-destructing from its own craziness.

So, yes, there’s a need. As for a place for Buddhism, that’s harder to say. I hope that my work on the Web will help make a little space for it.

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silcarry's picture

I confess that I read Barbara's Buddhist Blog only a few times and dismissed it as somewhat contradictory with a few Dharma principles.
I guess she addresses my discomfort on her statement: "Most of my Buddhism blogging is commentary on current events or something I’ve read elsewhere.I believe I have a responsibility to bring up ugly or controversial topics, drag them out into the open, even though I’d usually rather not"

What happened with the basic Dharma principles of being non judgemental and open minded, and practice compassion and tolerance which are, indeed, the responsibility of a Dharma practitioner ?.

safwan's picture

Tricycle should not contradict its impartial Buddhist approach by endorsing individuals who publish unfounded and defaming statements against other Buddhist groups. Barbara O’Brien’s blog - spreading rumors that SGI Buddhists community paid money to hundreds of university professors in order to receive acknowledgement - is an act of defamation:

The following specific words stated by Barbara: “SGI's practice of lavishing large amounts of money to buy honors for Daisaku Ikeda” - constitute in fact an accusation to the university professors - who acknowledged merit of SGI Buddhist activities (in promoting peace culture and education), implying that these professors were dishonest or that their approach in awarding SGI - was corrupt. It is an accusation that professors in various fields of culture (in over 300 universities) were lacking in merit in taking their decision (to acknowledge SGI’s efforts) - cleraly stating that it is all about "large amounts of money". Failing to name any concrete example, this defaming statement spread by Barbara’s blog amounts to deliberate spreading of incorrect information and rumors, which also encouraged bursts of hatred-generated comments, (rather than harmony in the Buddhist community).

Spreading rumors, false statements is an expression of disrespect - not only to SGI Sangha - but an attack on the integrity of hundreds of recipients of Academic Awards: individuals who were acknowledged for their merits together with Ikeda in the same process by the same universities.

Ikeda was invited by many universities to lecture on Buddhism and he delivered 32 lectures, and provided dialogue on Buddhism with world figures published in 44 books These and various other facts (of working for humanity’s progress) are the foundation of acknowledging SGI efforts to advance Buddhist concepts of world citizenship and sharing humanity, based on Nichiren’s Buddhism. It is now, at a time of national and global uncertainty, that Buddhists can show the actual proof of the Buddhist solidarity and care for humanity, and that we can work together with respect, rather than spreading rumors and false accusations.

Kriss's picture

Thank you Barbara. You have helped me to convert my outlook from a "them vs us" to "win win" outlook by broadening my view of Buddhism. Initially I was swept into the one and only "True Buddhism" on the righteous Nichiren raft however I am now better able to respect and appreciate all of Buddhism and indeed be more understanding of what members of other religions believe due in no small part to your stimulating and informative "About" pages. I particularly appreciate your thoughts on "stereotyping and unsupported assumption" above. Further to the above thoughts of Dominic on the three poisons I would also like to get your thoughts on why the emotions of fear and anger appear to have always been so dominant in the righteous USA. Until this seemingly deep seated paranoia is properly addressed there is no doubt that bigger and more terrifying wars will continue to be seen as the answers to America's woes.

safwan's picture

I think that our comments, Kriss, function also as a "mystic mirror" - showing us what we employ in our own mind, however we criticise others for the same approach we have. What you liked in Barbara's views about : "Sterotyping and unsupported assumption" - applies also to all - not only to "others". For example, in your comment there was 'sterotyping' of millions of individuals under the arbitrary classification of "Nichiren raft". It is known that there are over 10 or perhaps more schools of Nichiren, and SGI - in particular - agrees with you on avoiding stereotyping and on the necessity to open up and base our attitude on "Humanity first".
As for the question: why people fall in self-rightousness and religious fanaticism, the answer is undeniably obvious in this short and concise explanation:
The mentioned explanation is also a Buddhist view on fanaticism in general and which in particular led to the tragedy of September 11.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Fear and anger are basic human traits not exclusive to "the righteous USA". As we approach 9/11/11, this is becoming apparent in the lives of many people throughout the world. The three poisons are what Buddhism is always up against. Consumed by it, any person resorts to decadent thoughts, words, and deeds. Buddhism's "job" is to encourage its practioners to be strong and courageous in the face of the 3 poisons, striving to bring forth and maintain our inherent (and much more desirable) life condition of Buddhahood.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Our political discourse as well as our national policies are merely the tip of the iceberg reflecting the dominant life condition of the American populace. Our material obsession, anger, and irrationality are known in Buddhism as the three poisons: greed, belligerence and ignorance. We the People need to change first. Our elected officials will follow.