October 20, 2011

Q & A with Adam Tebbe, the Broommaster Behind Sweeping Zen

Adam Tebbe is the founder of Sweeping Zen, a digital archive of information on Zen Buddhism that contains teacher biographies, lineage charts, and Tebbe's own blog. Tebbe has also founded The Buddhist Dispatch, a Buddhist news online magazine that just launched a week ago, and the Kannonji Zen Retreat in Second Life, where practitioners with no local sanghas in their area can meet virtually to meditate or listen to dharma talks.

Tell us about your work with Sweeping Zen—what motivated you to start the website? What’s been the most difficult part in establishing it as a legitimate database source on all things Zen? Thanks for this opportunity. Sweeping Zen began as a kind of hobby for me in May of 2009. I had been an editor at Wikipedia and most of my edits were on articles related to Buddhism or jazz. I saw a few other websites out there that were attempting to cover Zen Buddhism but, in my estimation, it could be done so much better. The inspiration behind the website was also the result of reading James Ishmael Ford's book, Zen Master Who?, published by Wisdom Publications. On Wikipedia, you must demonstrate notability in order for an article to appear on their website. I understand why that is but I wanted to see something broader, covering more lineage holders, priests, etc. So, I was motivated by a love for writing, this practice, and by my desire to see a website devoted exclusively to Zen practice.

The most difficult thing regarding the legitimacy aspect of your question revolves around participation. Although many teachers have participated by submitting Dharma talks, biographies, events and news items, there are still some who I think shrink away from an online identity. I don't know if they think that it somehow goes against the grain of the practice—promoting oneself or one's center, or if it's a suspicion of motivations behind the website. I can actually sympathize with both sentiments in a way, but I think that in the digital age Zen centers (and Buddhist centers in general) are going to have to engage a generation that has their eyeballs constantly fixed on a computer screen. It will likely make or break many organizations.

Are there any plans for Sweeping Zen to become self-sustainable, or is it important to you that Sweeping Zen remains free to access? What lies in the future for Sweeping Zen? Absolutely. The problem is that I'm not a businessperson; I'm an amateur writer. I've talked with several people about how to incorporate it, perhaps as a nonprofit—but I'm unable to do that on my own. If there is anyone out there who could help me, I'm interested in hearing what you have to say.

I'm still committed to keeping the place free. I'm going for the old time-tested model of advertising and also started a new website, The Buddhist Dispatch (http://thebuddhistdispatch.com), which will offer news from all the different traditions. Sweeping Zen is obviously a niche site, which makes it difficult to keep it self-sustaining. I've always been of the mindset that if you work hard eventually you're going to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's been proving to be a rather long tunnel!

So, so far the site just accepts contributions from people who feel they value the work that is being done; I also offer advertising packages. I personally hate it when I go to a place that wants to charge me to see an article—I understand why it is done but, for the end user, it isn't very friendly. I don't want that to happen to the website. This is part of the reason I started The Buddhist Dispatch, for its broader appeal. That doesn't spell the end of Sweeping Zen—it's just an acknowledgment on my part that, in order for me to continue doing what I love, I may need to get my hands into more things. I love writing, I love Buddhism—and so both of these endeavors are an extension of that, an extension of my doing what I love. I feel tremendously lucky. We'll just keep doing what we've been doing, as it's much more than me, and remain open to new ideas as we trudge onward.

About a year ago when you asked readers to contribute to Sweeping Zen, they matched your asking goal within one day. What do you think it is about Sweeping Zen that has attracted such devoted readers? I was really surprised by that. It took about one day to raise $700 to meet the next year’s hosting costs. From some of the feedback that I've received, I think it has become a place where people feel that honest conversations can take place about subject matters that are often kept hushed or quiet. Yes, there has been plenty of coverage in the past of controversies of some sort or another, but often they just sort of die away—out of sight, out of mind. At Sweeping Zen, I think people really appreciate the commitment to not let a story just die out of either convenience or lack of attention span. Because, honestly? The unethical teachers who are out there have often relied upon stories just going away—then they simply set up shop again elsewhere, once the eyeballs have moved away, and return to business as usual. I think people are tired of that. I'm not saying that it's not going to still happen but I hope it happens much less if more places pay attention to it when it happens.

You’ve been quite vocal on your Editor’s blog about sexual and financial scandals within the Zen world. How do you navigate the line of airing controversy and pushing for change, but not alienating sponsors and readers? Yeah and I've toned that down a bit. I started to get a little bit away from the original vision, which was to allow the authorities themselves—the transmitted teachers and such—to do the presentations. But, sometimes there are things that I just felt needed to be said that weren't being said, and I only hope I struck a good balance. It's always difficult to figure out a way to not alienate people. I'm not so sure it can be done.

If you don't publish a story, you may alienate people. Readers will stop to think, "Are they somehow covering for them? Does this publisher lack courage?" Alternatively, readers can also think that you have a vendetta. "Why don't they'll just let this story die? What's the big deal, it's just sex between consenting adults." Or maybe it's, "You're making the Dharma look bad."

So, it's one of those damned if you do and damned if you don't kind of situations. I tend to just side with what is true and let the chips fall where they will. What else can one do? I guess I could pretend that all of the Buddhist stories out there are happy and peachy, but I'm just not wired that way. I mistrust anything that seems to present something as wholly one-sided. I think that's why many people no longer trust religion, or are no longer interested in spirituality. There is a tendency to present it all in ways which are Pollyanna-ish.

Your Editor’s blog is also often strikingly personal. You’ve made the choice to share details of your life—like your crime record as a teenager and your recent journey to find your birth parents—that other bloggers tend to shy away from sharing. What were the motivations behind those posts? Have you ever regretted sharing so much to such a wide and unknown audience? Do you think readers appreciate your openness about your life, or have you had to deal with unwanted criticism? I think that Zen practice is about being 100% honest. That means a lot of things to different people. I've always been the type of person who shares myself fairly liberally. I wanted to let people know that Buddhism is not comprised of perfect people. We come from all walks of life and have all kinds of experiences in our background that brought us here. We should never let the past own us.

I felt that if I didn't share some of the stories of my life, particularly the part about my criminal record—that I was somehow being dishonest. I thought it was important to share that so that people could gauge my own ethical outlook and perhaps understand better where it is I'm coming from sometimes. Having that in my background has (I hope) made me a less judgmental person; when a person has to walk around with a negative label for the rest of their life, you really understand how big of an impact that has on people. From employment status to relationships, negative labels can be really destructive. So, my hope was that in sharing those details that it could be instructive for people. It could make them less judgmental. Just because someone has done something in their past that they are not proud of doesn't mean that they're incapable of change—sometimes change which is quite radical. I've only felt like I've started to really come into my skin in recent years— probably since I turned 30.

The adoption journey I've decided to keep private for a number of reasons at this point, though I certainly talked quite a bit about the lead up to finding my birth parents. I've decided to be public but not everybody wants that, so you have to respect their anonymity.

Overall? The feedback I've received has been remarkably positive, though there was some criticism from a teacher regarding the blog activity. I think they feared the website was becoming more about Adam Tebbe and less about Zen. I didn't understand that sentiment. For one, my blog posts at the website are a minority of the posts published and, also, how is being brutally honest not Zen? I honestly just don't get it. That said, it has made me think more about whether or not I should post something personal, about it's importance in the grand scheme of things.

There are of course limitations of virtually practicing Buddhism in places such as your Kannonji Zen Retreat on Second Life, but are there any unexpected advantages to doing so? Do you think it’s possible to have a substantial connection online with a teacher or sangha members through Second Life or another medium? Because of the energy required at Sweeping Zen and now The Buddhist Dispatch, as well as some freelance newsgathering I'm doing for Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, I unfortunately don't have much time to spend in Second Life these days.

While it was more active with teachers coming in to give live talks, it was nothing but a great experience. Of course, it's something that is easy to criticize due to the virtual aspect, but I always looked at the strength—community. It definitely has and had that going for it, which isn't always something easy to build or find. I think a lot of people benefited from the talks that were given and I hope that we can get back to that again in the future as my schedule winds down a bit, because I did enjoy it. Second Life isn't just comprised of middle-aged men in their underwear at their computer! There is also a large demographic of disabled individuals logging in who just don't have free mobility to move around as they like, and Kannonji offers an opportunity for such individuals to connect with a community of like-minded individuals and receive Dharma teachings. Is it a replacement for actual practice? No. But then, what is practice? In my mind, a huge part is fully engaging whatever it is you are doing. In that light, I see it merely as a supplement. For some people, I know that they feel it is their main outlet for engaging the buddhadharma. I think that's wonderful.

I'm all about meeting people wherever they are, not where we think they should be. In the Mahayana bodhisattva ideal, the bodhisattva is one who must be prepared to even enter hell—in fact, that's more or less the playing ground of the bodhisattva.

What’s the dharma scene like in Ohio? Here in southern Ohio there are basically two groups, both in the Korean tradition. There are the Zen groups started by Zen master Dae Gak, formerly of the Kwan Um School of Zen, and also Great Cloud Zen Center founded by Rev. Jiun Foster of the Five Mountain Zen Order.

I've done a retreat at Great Cloud Zen Center a while back but have never sat with the groups led by Dae Gak. I've recently found a really awesome group up in Toledo—The Toledo Zen Center, founded by Jay Rinsen Weik and Karen Do'on Weik. Rinsen and Do'on or both ordained priests affiliated with Boundless Way Zen in New England, and I really dig what they do there. They have an active community who is very welcoming and a Dharma program for children, which isn't something you always find.

I suppose some people might not agree with teaching children Buddhism because of our own experiences perhaps with Sunday Bible schools and whatnot. I just observed a really down to earth group of people who welcomed me with open arms and, regarding the kids program, all of them seemed interested in what they were learning (in fact, on Sundays they come in after the adult sitting and report on whatever they've learned that day).

You’ve mentioned on Sweeping Zen that you’re a die-hard jazz fan. Tell us some of your favorite jazz bands! Ah, jazz. It was either going to be a website on Zen or jazz when I first got started with all of this. Jazz had already been covered out the wazoo and there are just so many musicians out there that would've been difficult to start such an endeavor up.

My favorite instrument is the trumpet, hands down. Some of my favorite musicians include, of course, Miles Davis, and others like Tomasz Stanko, Anthony Braxton, Chet Baker, and a whole host of others. I'd have to say the Blue Note era is one of my favorite jazz eras.

 

Missed one of Tricycle's Buddhist blogger interviews? We've had one so far with Kyle Lovett, Justin Whitaker, Waylon Lewis, Barbara O'Brien, and Lt. Jeanette Shin.

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freeman.hrn's picture

I give this guy a lot of credit so seeing a real need and taking control and fulfilling that need. I hope that he sees a tremendous amount of success with his future endeavors. He deserves it.

ronibobby's picture

its nice to see somebody actually doing something community wise concerning Zen. Ive read your blog and in my opinion your personal life put out there is just a wonderfull example of pure honesty. I thought that was at the core of zen itself.