The media

Part of a series of teachings on a set of verses from the text Wisdom of the Kadam Masters.

  • Being attentive to the verbal stimuli around us
  • How the media conditions us
  • How the media can cause us to become apathetic

Wisdom of the Kadam Masters: The media (download)

I wanted to wish everybody a happy Losar, happy new year. I had an idea for something we can do for the new year. When we come in the entryway and we always bow to Kuan Yin, we’re bowing to compassion. I’ve always had the idea that it would be very nice to have (in Chandrakirti’s Supplement to Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way he begins by paying homage to compassion—not to the buddhas, not to the bodhisattvas, but to compassion) and I thought it would be really beautiful if we can find somebody who does English calligraphy to write the verse out and the put it in the entryway near Kuan Yin so that when we bow we remind ourselves we’re bowing to compassion, and remind ourselves what the three kinds of compassion are. That’s the new years idea.

Back to what I’m supposed to be talking about. We’ve been talking about the six conditions that make afflictions arise. We’ve talked about having the seeds (the predispositions) of the afflictions, contact with the object, inappropriate attention, and then last time we talked about the role of detrimental influences (primarily “bad” friends, and what bad friends are), and then there are two more. One is habit, and the other is media. Actually, in the texts of course it doesn’t say “media,” it says “verbal stimuli.” But “verbal stimuli” doesn’t get to us…. Actually, media doesn’t encompass everything that verbal stimuli does, and verbal stimuli doesn’t encompass everything that media is, either. So we kind of have to put them all together.

Basically what it amounts to is the words that we hear from other people. The words could be from the media, the words could be from our friends and family. I’ve already talked a little bit about the influence of friends and family. Here more to talk about, especially in our age, the role of the media and how it influences us.

I’ve had some friends in media, and when I bring up what I consider to be an obvious fact, that media tells us who we are and shapes who we are, the response they say is, “No, we don’t, we’re just responding to what people want.” They see themselves as just responding to what people in society want, but I think it goes the other way even more powerfully, because what we see in the media is what we take on since the time we’re children. It conditions who we think we should be and how we think we should act.

I think so much of that influence is really detrimental. When we look, even starting with the cartoons we watch when we’re children, the cartoons are violent, and we learn to laugh at one cartoon figure clobbering another one. We don’t see examples in the media of people helping each other. We see examples of people quarreling. We see examples of people fighting. We don’t see examples of how people reconcile after difficulties by having genuine communication and working things out. We don’t see examples of cooperation, or even compromise.

This came to me very clearly…. This was already maybe 25 years ago. I was staying at someone’s flat—this was when I was writing Open Heart, Clear Mind,—and there were some children playing outside the flat, and they were playing “Divorce.” A bunch of five- six- seven-year-olds playing “Divorce.” Where did they get that idea? Maybe their families were having divorce. But maybe through the media as well. What does that give them in terms of their thoughts about creating a family when they become old enough to have a family? They’ve been practicing playing “divorce” before they even get married. I think this is quite detrimental to people.

I think, also, the way media tells us how we should act as women, and how we should act (and look) as men as well, is very, very harmful. The figures that we see in the advertisements all have these beautiful bodies, and in fact the people who the pictures are of don’t even look like the pictures in the magazine, because the magazine pictures have been altered. They change all the photos. Everybody looks better. Nobody has freckles or moles. You get thinner. All your hair is the same color. Everything like that. The models don’t even look like the pictures. And yet this is presented to us as how we should look.

I think this is so detrimental. I look at my own background, especially as a young teenager and all throughout teenage years, looking at those photos and reading the teenage girl’s magazines, and what that did to my mind, and how much time I’ve had to spend de-conditioning myself from what that taught me I should be and how I should act, which of course is not who I am, because if I were like that I wouldn’t be sitting here. Would I be?

The same goes for men. You see the pictures in the magazines and you’re taught you should look a certain way and act a certain way, and nobody’s like that. Then what it does is it develops an attitude inside of us that we aren’t good enough because we don’t look like the people in the ads, we don’t look like the movie stars. We don’t look like the sports heroes. So we have this feeling: “I’m not good enough.” And that’s inculcated in us since the time we’re very little, due in large part (I think) to the media, and this becomes a major obstacle to people’s happiness, and to Dharma practice, and it certainly is the cause of a lot of our afflictions. When we don’t feel like we’re good enough it provokes our attachment to what we think we should look like, which makes us act in certain ways. It provokes anger and resentment. It provokes jealousy. It’s basically a disaster for us in terms of our psychological well being.

I think that responsible media—and this is really a big soapbox item for me, that I love to speak about—responsible media has to show examples of how to get along with people. How to forgive yourself. How to forgive others. How to cooperate. How to generate tolerance. Instead of just always negative, negative dwelling on everything, so that even our political situation now becomes the entertainment of who can yell and insult the other candidates more on a personal basis, and there’s no discussion of real policy issues, which the nation really needs to have, but instead it’s just people calling each other names. And then the rest of us thinking, “Oh, isn’t that cute, isn’t that funny.” It numbs us out as citizens of a supposedly free country.

I think the media needs to be more responsible, and I think we need to be much more careful about how we relate to the media in terms of what we watch, and even when we watch stuff, how we interpret it, how we take it in.

I think I’ll continue this part of it on Wednesday, because it involves some discussion, and today is a precept day so we want to make sure we eat on time. In the meantime just spend some time thinking about how you have been influenced by the media in your life. Think of specific things. And what you need to do to–could I say?–heal from the negative, or the destructive, force of media. This includes novels. Not just stuff on the web. Also novels, and sci-fi. What does it tell us we should be? We’ll continue on this topic.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.