Tuesday September 27, 2005
Why blog? Is blogging an idle pursuit, an endless process of self-revelation and exhibitionism, marked by an inescapable vanity; or is there something more potentially valuable going on? Now that thinkBuddha – a project I embarked upon after several months of false starts, and with some degree of trepidation – has been underway for several months, I am beginning to appreciate the value of sitting down every few days to write something about Buddhism in relation to my everyday concerns. And so the question I want to ask is this: could blogging be useful as a part of Buddhist practice?
Going back to the ancient world is helpful in getting an idea of how blogging could act as a kind of practice. The ancient Stoics believed that writing was an important way of, in a sense, accounting for oneself. They advocated the writing of hupomnemata, or journals, on a daily basis. Such journals were seen as a way of transforming the passing thoughts, sensations and ideas of the day-to-day into a more enduring ethos, a way of being in the world. Everyone’s favourite French intellectual Michel Foucault writes that:
Hupomnemata, in the technical sense, could be account books, public registers, or individual notebooks serving as memory aids. Their use as books of life, as guides for conduct, seems to have become a common thing for a whole cultivated public. One wrote down quotes in them, extracts from books, examples, and actions that one had witnessed or read about, reflections or reasonings that one had heard or that had come to mind. They constituted a material record of things read, heard, or thought, thus offering them up as a kind of accumulated treasure for subsequent rereading and meditation (See Foucault, The Essential Works 1: Ethics p. 209)
These journals were not so much records of ‘spiritual experience’ – which, after all, is fleeting and is only experience. They were not there to confess or to testify to something otherworldly; they were there to recapture the thoughts and sensations of the everyday, so that through continued reflection they might give shape to a new ethos. The purpose of hupomnemata was to avoid the dissipation of reading, the scattering of too many ideas and too many books, to give form to the day’s sensations and thoughts and impressions.
Reading without writing, according to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, is exhausting; and writing without reading just leads to this dissipation. So the practice of writing on-going journals is a way of gathering thoughts together, of taking the various disparate elements of our lives and weaving them back into the everyday.
There are other examples of this practice – from the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon in 11^th^ Century Japan to the Commonplace Books of the Victorian era (see the article Blogs are not as original as we think). It is nothing new, then. Perhaps, in fact, it is as old as writing itself.
Sei Shonagon notwithstanding, there may be less of a tradition of this practice of writing within Buddhism than there was in the ancient Graeco-Roman world. Nevertheless, there are some fine examples of this kind of journalling amongst Buddhist practitioners. A good example is Basho’s writing of haibun travel journals, with their accounts of things experienced on the road, written in a terse, simple style. So, even if today we do it sitting at keyboards rather than with a brush or a pen, this knitting of thoughts and impressions, this unfolding day-by-day, this weaving of a pattern from the disparate elements of our lives, is an old, old tradition.
I like that. I like the thought that in writing this blog, I have Seneca, Basho and Sei Shonagon as my ancestors. It makes it seem a worthwhile and worthy enterprise…
Image courtesy of Priyanphoenix
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