The Koan of Fake News

How to Stay Afloat in a Sea of False Information

By Roshi Enkyo O’Hara

A favorite image in many Buddhist traditions is of the bodhisattva who ferries people from the world of delusion, across the sea of suffering, to a home of wisdom and compassion. The word “bodhisattva” means awakened being, or in today’s language, a “woke” person. To be awake is to be aware of the multiple layers of narrative that run through our world, and their relative agenda and truth-value in attempting to explain what is happening and what would be the best way to proceed. And, from a Buddhist perspective, to be awake is to be aware of our inherent interdependence and responsibility to one another. Thus, the need to cross the sea of confusion and suffering.

I think of this image now, when so many people of the world—and particularly in the United States—are experiencing a sea of false information, waves upon waves of scary, angry, and completely unreliable “news.” How can we navigate these waters—as individuals, citizens, and, whether we realize it or not, as bodhisattvas?

In human history, there have always been rumors, accusations, and lying. But here in the public domain of the U.S., over the last century, many of us have come to respect and take for granted the professionalization of democratic journalism and to trust—more or less—the daily news as we have taken it in.

So, it’s no wonder that we are confused and distraught at the current state of information about the world we care for and the peoples in it. As a news-consuming public, we are coming out of a period of somewhat dependable gatekeepers—the establishment news, the establishment broadcast networks—sources that tended to hold the middle, although bordered on both sides by smaller, more ideological versions of what was occurring in the world. But now, we are shocked at the proliferation of various versions of what is happening—of “facts” and “truth” in the public square.

It seems as if, through the ubiquity of the Internet—the very technology that many of us hoped would bring an era of democratization—we have found ourselves swimming in rough tide of bias, falsehood, and angry lies. And it is so easy to be taken along by this tide of false rumor and innuendo.

The question we now face is: How can we navigate through this sea of uncertainty about what is fact, what is true, what is really happening in our world? How do we not fall into our own self-pleasing version of events occurring around us?

First, we steady our boat. As we open our daily newspaper, post, or tweet sources, let’s try to begin with a balanced and quiet mind, a kind of steady equanimity, even in the most trying times. A deep breath helps. By steadying ourselves, we become aware of our own state of mind, and how it receives the news that flows toward it.

We watch the waves inside and out.

The inside waves are our visceral reactions to the news. Are we excited? Does this piece of news delight me and make me want more? Is it attracting my greed? Or, on the other hand, is it generating anger, perhaps even hatred?

Am I feeling disgust or attraction as I read this? How do these feeling affect my attitude toward others? Is this a point of view, a fact, or a trigger?

And on the outside, using our discriminating mind, we can ask ourselves: how are my reactions being played by the source, writers, and publishers? What was the incentive to have published this news? What was the intention? What are the effects of my belief in its truth? And what about others—what will be the effects of their trust in this news?

By using our body as a tuning fork, we can discern our barely conscious emotional response to the news. And by using our mental discernment and inquiry, we can interrogate the relative “truth” of the news we are consuming.

If you are in accord with the news, can you feel the energy rising in your body, eager to consume more? On the other hand, how about when the news butts up against one of your cherished beliefs or attitudes? Can you tolerate it enough to follow the information, seek the source of the news, and to investigate it?

Having checked our own responses, and having investigated the intent of the writer and publisher, we can chart our own course of response. We might want to share the information, comment on it, or rely on it as an element in our understanding of our role as a citizen of the world at this time. Or, we may want to warn others of the falsehood, and use it to spread perception of the problem of fake news.

All of this requires constant awareness and attention. That’s why I call it the “koan of fake news.” A koan does not have an easy answer; in fact, a koan often has many trajectories, and reveals truth in different ways, depending on the situation and the people involved. So, too, our work on the issue of fake news. A single word, a shifting of emphasis, can change how we understand what is being reported. An outright lie, a devious insinuation, can magnify a rather innocuous association. We need not only our internal awareness and our external discriminatory wisdom, but also determined patience and willingness to continue to seek the truth. When we do this we can stay awake and keep rowing the boat.

Roshi Enkyo O’Hara is Abbott of the Village Zendo in New York City. A Soto Zen priest and contemporary American Zen Teacher, she integrates traditional meditation and koan practice with social engagement and peacemaking. A Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order, she taught for many years at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, centering on new media technologies and social justice.

Photo courtesy of Stefan Gunnarsson on Unsplash

3 comments on “The Koan of Fake News”

  1. Charles Taylor says:

    My daughter, a graduate student working on her Ph D, will have her tuition waiver taxed as real income if the “new” tax proposal is passed as is. She will pay $12,000 a year in taxes for her tuition alone, or 1/2 her income as a Teaching Assistant. What’s to become of higher education if this tax bill passes? I am a Soto Zen Buddhist, and I am Tai Shi, what can I possibly do for my daughter? What will poor people do to better their lives in this country. I am calm poetry, and shall I write calm poetry? I will say poor people throughout this world are forced to flee from the wealthy. How will they cross the sea of discontent? How will they feed their babies, and how can greed, ignorance, and anger be asuaged? How will we teach of truth and beauty? Who will speak up for the poor if all are poor? I cannot just sit.

  2. Larry White says:

    The perspective is totally different when we come to experience the reality that our separate self or ego is an illusion. Our task on the path of Zen is not to tune and modify our understanding of the world we live in through the window of our illusory self, but to drop the illusion and experience the world from a totally different perspective. It is unfortunate that the “non-task” of dropping the illusion is not the main task taught in our Sanghas to people on the path. This reality cannot be understood but can only be experienced. So the task becomes, “how can an epiphany or Satori regarding the nature self be stimulated or allowed to happen?”

  3. “To dwell in the here and now does not mean you never think about the past or responsibly plan for the future. The idea is simply not to allow yourself to get lost in regrets about the past or worries about the future. If you are firmly grounded in the present moment, the past can be an object of inquiry, the object of your mindfulness and concentration. You can attain many insights by looking into the past. But you are still grounded in the present moment.” Thich Nhat Hanh

    If you live this way, living in the present… then “fake news” won’t throw you off, you will easily realize that it is not truth and be able to move forward without it affecting you. This takes practice by looking into your own mind and facing yourself without judgement, then you begin to look at the world with compassion and discernment without fear.

    Meditation teaches us how to adjust our focus and tune into the world in a new way. It is not the absence of feeling or bad things but it helps us deal with these things in a better way, so yes in that way it is about modifying the way we see ourselves and the world around us.

    “Awakening can happen gradually or in a flash of insight.” It happens with practice and it will happen without forcing it.

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