Jan. 5, 2023

Heroes versus Celebrities in the Age of Social Media | Ayya Santussika

Heroes versus Celebrities in the Age of Social Media | Ayya Santussika

From time immemorial we have looked up to heroes for guidance and as models of how to live an excellent life: people with virtues such as courage, patience, kindness and wisdom. But who are our heroes today? We live in an age of celebrity and social ...

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From time immemorial we have looked up to heroes for guidance and as models of how to live an excellent life: people with virtues such as courage, patience, kindness and wisdom. But who are our heroes today? We live in an age of celebrity and social media influencers. But are celebrities and social media influencers our heroes?

To answer these questions and more, we have with us our return guest, Ayya Santussika from the Karuna Buddhist Vihara in northern California to discuss the topic of heroes versus celebrities in the age of social media.

And I think she is well qualified to speak on this topic having attained BS and MS degrees in computer science and worked as a software designer and developer for fifteen years in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ayya Santussika is well familiar with computers and the internet. But on the other hand, her search for deeper meaning and ways to be of service led her to train as an interfaith minister in a four-year seminary program that culminated in a Masters of Divinity degree. Later her quest led her to ordaining as a Buddhist nun, and Ayya Santussika has been a bhikkhuni since 2012. And she has kindly offered her time to reflect upon our current fascination with the rich and famous, and what this says about where we are at in a present culture, as well as search for nobler human qualities.


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May you be happy!



Robot Generated Transcription - Expect Errors!

Sol Hanna


Welcome to Treasure Mountain, the podcast that inspires and guides people to find the treasure within human experience. I'm your host, Sol Hanna. From time immemorial, we have looked up to heroes for guidance and as models of how to live an excellent life people with virtues such as courage, patience, kindness, and wisdom. But who are these heroes? Today we live in an age of celebrity and social media influences. But are celebrities and social media influences our heroes? To answer these questions and more. We have with us our return guest, Ayya Santussika from Karuna Buddhist Fahara in Northern California to discuss the topic of heroes versus celebrities in the age of social media. And I think she is well qualified to speak on this topic, having attained a BS and Ms degree in Computer Science and worked as a software designer and developer for 15 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ayya Santussika is a little bit familiar with computers and the Internet, and on the other hand, she's had a search for deeper meaning and ways to be of service, and that led her to train as an interfaith minister in a four year seminary program that culminated in a Master's of Divinity degree. Later, her quest led to her ordaining as a Buddhist nun, and Ayya Santussika has been a bhikkhuni now since 2012, and she has kindly offered her time to reflect on our current fascination with the rich and famous and what's that says about where we are at in our present culture as well as our search for nobler human qualities. Welcome back to Treasure Mountain Podcast. Ayya and happy New Year. How are you today?

Ayya Santussika


Thank you, Sol. It's good to be back. And today I'm doing fine, thank you.

Sol Hanna


I believe it's a very, very wet day there in Northern California.

Ayya Santussika


Yes, it's actually a stormy day with with many weather warnings, high winds, torrential rains flooding, trees falling. But it's pretty natural.

Sol Hanna


It is all part of nature. And I just do hope that all the baconis are safe and warm. As we get this interview underway, I'd like to start by defining our terms. How would you personally distinguish between a hero and a celebrity?

Ayya Santussika


Well, I personally would say that I think what I would say is probably what many people would say, that a hero is someone who's really worthy of respect. And that's based on their virtues and their good qualities and their good actions. And we might see that in certain celebrities, but we also might see quite the opposite. And, you know, so it really is a matter of understanding what's a real value. What do we really want to emulate?

Sol Hanna


Do you think that a celebrity is like a hollowed out form of heroism? That was just on my mind, because we do admire celebrities and we admire heroes, but I'm wondering whether there is this kind of we want heroes, but we've kind of settled for celebrities. What are you your thoughts on that? I think it's something more about confusion. That we it's not so easy to find a hero, in my experience. And so we do settle for being engaged and looking to people who have fame and fortune and that kind of celebrity status. But I think that that really rests in a kind of confusion and not really quite knowing where to look for someone that we can really emulate. And so I don't think it's really a hollowed out version. I just think that we need to reflect upon and remind ourselves of what's really worthy of respect, what's really worthy of our following in line with kind of approach to things. Yeah, and I think that's a good answer. But I just when I think of I'm a high school teacher, and I think that young people really do look to celebrities or social media influencers as people to emulate and follow. And in that sense, I feel that there is some crossover with the idea of a hero because we kind of aspire to them. I'm just wondering we've got people who are pretty or charismatic or edgy or wealthy or famous, and these are the people who we currently and I speak broadly speaking, about our society. These are the people who we admire. Why aren't we seeking out people with genuinely good qualities like courage, compassion and wisdom? And what does it say about our society? Is it just confusion? Well, I guess confusion is at the root of it, in my opinion, but it also. Comes back to how much exposure have we had, maybe in our family or with our friends, any discussions around what we really value and what's worth valuing and so I see this among young people as well as older people when we have the opportunity to discuss what we really think is important at any age. It brings more clarity and it brings more a more conscientious approach. And I think a lot of the time we just don't even think about it. We go along with the crowd. We get swept along with this kind of excitement of the fame, the influencers. And it's more challenging to really. Find true heroes and to develop the qualities in ourselves that's going to resonate with that. But I really think that the whole of the buddhist teachings are really at the basis for this difference in who we look to and having more conversations about who's really worthy of our respect and our attention is really important. And I don't know what they're doing in other parts of the world, but here in California, they've started to mandate classes in social emotional learning.

Ayya Santussika


And my daughter actually is a school psychologist, and she's tasked with creating a course for students to engage in on a weekly basis around this issue. And one day she said to me, this may sound strange, but I just finished five weeks of talking about kindness. And it didn't sound funny to me at all, of course, because this is so valuable. And the more that we, as part of our society, open up the options, the opportunities for any of us at any age to really discuss this and reflect upon it, I think the more we can make really considered choices around who we're following, instead of just being kind of drawn into the excitement or seeking someone that we want to follow, put our interest in, put our faith in without a strong basis.

Sol Hanna


I think that resonates with me. I guess it is easier just to go along with the flow of entertainment and celebrity and so forth. But I've also found that when we actually take the time to deliberately talk about what we value. All of a sudden, it comes to the surface. But of course, that takes a little bit more mental effort to focus on that. Before I move on, I did want to just ask you, from your perspective as Aboriginala Bakuni, what would you define as a hero personally?

Ayya Santussika


Well, the hero is certainly he's someone who also reflects on what's important, what's valuable, what's worthy of respect. And I realized that when I was thinking about this topic when I was young. I didn't have any heroes. I didn't really feel drawn to sports figures or actors or any of the people that were kind of big in media. And it was challenging to know who has wisdom. And what is it, and how can I find someone that I can trust to follow? And I think, really and truly, my personal experience is the one hero that I've really found is the Buddha, and he's the really complete example of what we're looking for. Now, that doesn't mean and all of our heroes have to be quite that perfect. But to be able to really have good moral virtue and kindness and compassion, being really honest and kind, those qualities that really do not harm and that calm down our our greed and our hatred those are the qualities that are really valuable. And our society doesn't always prop those people up. If you think about. Who have been the heroes throughout history. A lot of times it's the generals. It's the people who have participated in a lot of killing. And of course, it's because they've protected the society or furthered, the society that we're in. But to really think about whether or not we want to hold that in the highest regard is so important. And then, of course, wanting to kind of be involved in what's exciting and new, what everybody else is doing. This is a natural thing for human beings, but it doesn't leave us feeling solid and secure internally. It leaves us feeling, I think, anxious and ultimately unsatisfied.

Sol Hanna


And that does seem to be the plague of the age, is the anxiety and the dissatisfaction within us. I want to just comment you've mentioned before, like, about where people's attention is at and how often we go with the flow. And one of the things that strikes me in the public domain of the Internet and the media in Englishspeaking societies, we've directed our trust towards people who may be a wealthy or famous or goodlooking or whatever, but they haven't always had the inner qualities of stability and honesty and integrity. And so as a consequence, we've kind of got people who have often been undermined by that fame. So, for example, we've seen evangelical preachers who have achieved wealth and fame only to be undone by not practicing what they preach or through a manic lifestyle of wealth and fame that can suddenly be conveyed on people. For instance, movie stars, pop stars or even politicians. It seems that fame and celebrity has numerous inherent dangers. What are some of the dangers associated with fame?

Ayya Santussika


Well, the Buddha is very clear about this, and in fact, there's a discourse in the middle lengths discourses, where he lays out what he thinks his followers should do in terms of inquiring whether or not he's fully enlightened. And it refers to how a person handles fame. And he said, you don't know whether this person this person might be very good, but you don't know if they're going to run into trouble with fame until they become famous. And so you see someone has become famous, and then you look at what that's doing for them, them, how they're handling it. And we can see some people I'm thinking of some monastics that get quite famous, for example, but they stay true to their monastic form, and they don't amass wealth, and they don't really care how many people are watching. They just want to share the dumma. And you share the gift. So regardless of what you're doing with your life, the first danger, I think, in celebrity is believing what people are saying about you buying into this image that you're given, because it's never really who you are. I mean, there's no real us anyway. But the point being that when we when we are put up on a pedestal, even as even as a Buddhist teacher, you can be put up on a pedestal, and what people are projecting isn't really what's there. But if we start believing that, then we can get into trouble. And we believe that we're more infallible than we are. We we believe that we have the right to or have somehow achieved the wealth or the popularity, and then people begin to misuse the wealth that comes their way and the power that comes their way. And where are the downfalls? It's with regard to having power over other people, with regard to misuse of wealth and oftentimes inappropriate sexual behavior. And so you start to see what happens with people and how they speak and how they act and if the person and isn't coming back to humility and I'm searching for the right word. It's like a soft understanding of who they actually are and the difference between that and how it's being presented, what people are seeing. They can get into trouble. And even and I've noticed teaching at a big retreat venue I've been on both sides of it up on the stage. The way people see you is like bigger than life. And I've been in the yogi side, seeing the teacher up there and day after day, and you start to have this image of them and you feel this connection with them, and pretty soon you want them to be your teacher. And yet it has a distortion in it. So when we're in that position of being put on a pedestal, we have to climb down and be real. And we can still kindly care for the people who are wishing for someone who knows and can show them the way. And we can still help them, but not from that place. Ajim Possano once we were talking about this and he said, yeah, when you get up on a pedestal, it's a long fall. And that's what we're seeing. So I think that's totally true, isn't it? Yeah, I think that's really what we need to look at.

Sol Hanna


I really appreciate one of the words you use there is that idea of distorted perception, and that those of us in the crowd who are looking on at the person on the diocese or on the screen, we can develop this perception that they're bigger than life, but actually they're still just a human being. I think it's good to be aware of that. I think that's a really important point. But I guess part of the problem is that we as human beings, we are social animals, and we naturally crave the positive esteem of others. But for a practicing Buddhist, how should we consider this urge for positive reputation? I mean, not necessarily even on the big stage, but just within our immediate social group. That urge for reputation, how should we think of it?

Ayya Santussika


I think we should think of it as a good thing and really look at what is. What are the qualities that really make that true and correct and right. And the Buddha talked about this, how important it is to have a good reputation and that it comes from having wisdom. And in that case, he defines it as knowing what's skillful and what's unskillful. So knowing what's wholesome, what's unwholesome. And then he says energy, the energy to cultivate the wholesome and reduce the unwholesome, and then living a blameless life, being virtuous, and, of course, generosity and kindness. And he's very clear about how we can establish a good reputation, and it's solid. It's not like we have to feel like we have to hide anything, especially maybe we could think about heroism in a little bit different way, that it's really about the qualities themselves. And so when we find someone who has more wisdom than we do, we can look to that and learn from that, but that person might not have the other positive qualities that we would look to, and we find that in someone else. And the Buddha talked about that, too, and he said, look for people who are really. Advanced in virtue and emulate that and look for maybe it's someone else who's really advanced in generosity and emulate that. And so instead of the easy package of someone we just want to follow looking more at the specifics of what it is that's worthy of that in an individual prison. I also just wanted to ask a question, which you've kind of answered it, but there's a lot of us who are living our lives online today. And I know just for myself, I'm producing a podcast. I need to promote it. I want people to listen to and like it. But are the incentives of social media, which to get more clicks and more likes,

Sol Hanna


is seeking an online audience inherently dangerous? Or can we protect ourselves in some way?

Ayya Santussika


Yeah, I think I think there is a danger there, but we can protect ourselves because we can notice, oh, my my ego's puffing up. My my greed is growing, and we don't want that. Of course, when we think about it, we realize how fragile that is and how I'm saying satisfying that is. And I think the key to the protection is to think of what we offer as a gift.

Sol Hanna


And if we keep that in mind, what is the gift that I'm giving? Being glad when people pick it up, knowing that it's wholesome and good for them, and wanting them to pick it up in a way that's good for them. This is something that Ajan gunha in Thailand really emphasizes. He says, do everything you do as a gift. And so whatever our work is. If it's a gift, it really eliminates all of the ego investment, the disappointment when people are not happy with what we're doing. We just got to go back and produce that gift with the guidance of how to do it better. And it's it's really beautiful that way. And then it's like we can feel it inside. It's like even though we're doing these things on the Internet, we can really get a sense of people of whether what they're doing has that stickiness in it or not. And we can do it in ourselves. We know when it feels solid and clean, and we know when it feels like grasping and anxious. That's very true, and I love that. That's a very beautiful way of thinking of as a gift, because also that's something we let go of. So if we put something out there and people don't like it or they don't appreciate it, they don't care, well, just let it go. I think that's a beautiful way of looking at it. I did want to ask this question, which I think you've kind of answered, but I do think it deserves to stand alone, which is how can Buddhism, as it comes into the west, avoid falling into this craving for fame, this cult of personality, and just stay dedicated to the principles of virtue, serenity and wisdom? How can we do that when there are clearly these inherent dangers of seeking fame for its own sake?

Ayya Santussika


Yeah. Well, first I'll say that these dangers are exacerbated by being in a position where you need to earn money by teaching them, because then there's even more pressure to say what people want to hear. And so there will be more interested it in coming and maybe kind of reshaping the message of the Buddha or leaving certain things out. And that is a slippery slope. And so it's not impossible to say live as a layperson. If you live as an alms minicant, it makes it a lot easier. You're still not 100% safe. You have to be careful watching your mind. But when we start to see that we're shaping the message, not just so people can understand it better, but so that people are going to be more interested in it and not offended by some of the aspects that are more difficult to take in. When we start to do that, then we need to really check on ourselves. When we when we are teaching Buddhism, if we're saying things that the Buddha didn't say, we are on thin ice, and we need to be careful about that. And when we're leaving things out that the buddha really emphasized, and then we need to really reflect and be careful about that. And the best safety mechanism is to have a strong community of peers who can discuss this and point out to us what's going on. And so it's one of the beauties of living the monastic life. I have other baconis around me and Bikoos and people who we can talk about these things and we can help each other. And I think the same thing can happen in lay circles as well. To understand what it is actually, that the Buddha taught forget about your branding. Forget about whether or not people care who you are. None of that is going to lead to happiness, really, or the goal that the Buddha laid out for us.

Sol Hanna


That's an excellent answer and thank you for that. I think I'll have to bear that one in mind. And I do think that having peers who are good and virtuous, who can support you and who aren't afraid to tell you if you're you're on the wrong track. I wanted to reflect now upon a broader cultural phenomenon on the Internet, and I think it's quite pertinent that you raise that whole issue not just of trying to seek fame, but also many who are making a living via YouTube or podcast or social media. There is that pressure to make money. And one of the things I noticed over the last couple of years during the COVID pandemic and astringent public measures to stop the spread, a lot of people turned online. Indeed, I noticed a substantial spike in online traffic to the Buddhist websites, which I've been part of running in the middle part of 2020 in particular. And it was also during this period of time that a lot of health oriented social media influencers started to wander off the reservation and started spreading conspiracy theories and quack cures. And obviously they were making money from that. And then they went on to start moving into this quasi spirit spiritual kind of teachings. They intuitively understood the power of being a spiritual guru and they were starting to be drawn to that. So they started off as health bloggers or beauty bloggers, and all of a sudden they're starting to give spiritual advice. And I will also just put in a plug for the Conspiraciality podcast, which has been covering this phenomenon quite well. What do you think this tells us about the online audience? In a time of crisis, is there a genuine yearning for influential leaders that take us in a spiritual direction?

Ayya Santussika


Yes, and I feel like this is true, has always been true. There is this desire to have guidance and leadership. And it's also always been true that when someone offers something that seems like a quick remedy, a quick fix, a cure all, that it's very attractive and we're drawn to it. But I think it's a principle that we have to remember that there is no quick fix. And when our desire is strong for anything, then we're vulnerable. We're more vulnerable to being cheated, being scammed. And so that's the place to

Sol Hanna


go when I want something for free, that's when I'm going and get caught up in getting scammed. And so if I really observe that and I look at what it really takes to develop spiritually what it really takes to develop our character and it's not to scare people off, because even small increases in our virtue and our kindness and our generosity and our ability to steal the mind, they bring results. We get results along the way that are encouraging and calming and helpful. But it's not something that's instantaneous. So even the Buddha said, when you look at to someone as a teacher, you have to really evaluate them based on what you see in here. Do you see in here the things that really indicate that this person does have spiritual attainment and wisdom and then really noticing what they do when they're famous, really looking at how they handle temptation. What's happened when we move into the online world and we can reach so many more people with so much speed, then we have to be even more cautious and careful. We have to remind ourselves this isn't going to this kind of instant or immediate kind of no solution isn't really going to lead to the longterm, valuable, deep results. And it's I just lost my train of thought. Hold on. 9s Well, I think that one might be gone. Why are so many of us so gullible to charismatic snake oil salesmen in the disguise of spiritual gurus? Is it just because they tell us what we want to hear? Yeah, I think they sound like they've really got something good, and we want that. You talked about being online and being isolated because of the pandemic. And when we're isolated, we can get off track pretty easily without the benefit of the feedback and reflection of the people around us. And this has always been true. It's just exacerbated or magnified so much through being online. And when I say it's always been true, it's even when the Buddha really praised solitude. So a lot of times, people or serious practitioners want to spend time alone and they want to be off, maybe in the forest somewhere, but oftentimes it leads to a distortion in our thinking that doesn't get mitigated by having people around us. And so this has been an issue for people during the pandemic. We just don't have as much direct feedback from people we know we can trust. And so we get online and we get caught up in the online community. Now hopefully people are more able to reconnect with friends that they can know how how virtuous or not those people are, what to trust them with and what not to. And this is a big help seeking other people to help us know if we're making a good decision maybe about purchasing something or getting involved in an investment kind of idea. Find someone else that you trust

Ayya Santussika


to talk to about it.

Sol Hanna


That's really good advice. And that actually leads to my next question, which was how can we protect ourselves from falling under the influence of those who they may be charismatic and influential, but their intentions may not be compassionate and wise. And of course, we've seen examples. I mean, within the investment sphere, we've seen celebrities selling bogus cryptocurrencies and all of these kinds of things going on. You've mentioned the importance of getting advice from those who we trust. Does the Buddha have any other advice on this topic?

Ayya Santussika


I think it's really valuable when we think we see these exciting qualities or ventures, to also look for the suffering that you can see inherent in the way people are presenting themselves. There's a lot of suffering. There the intensity, the claims. And when we start to see, how can I see this person as a whole person? How can I see anything about them that isn't just the facade that's being put forth, maybe reading more like you talked about? There are people who are reporting on the real story behind some of these adventures, adventures and people. And to really take that into account. Much of it's about stopping, pausing, bringing mindfulness to bear. How can I look at this from a place of wisdom? And if we're alone too much, if we're doing this on our own too much, we can think, oh, yes, this is okay, this is what I want to do, or whatever. We don't stop. We don't even know what to look at or look into when we stop. But that's why it's good to talk with others around us.

Sol Hanna


I want to start just veering back towards this idea of the hero and the kind of qualities that we are looking for and should be looking for. So when we go to people online, when we're going to those influences and personalities, what are we looking for and what should we be looking for? What qualities should we be looking for? One of the qualities that the Buddha talked about that I think is really interesting is looking for someone who doesn't put other people down. So he said, even if you have very good qualities, if you really are solid in those qualities, you won't criticize others for not having those qualities. And that's quite important, looking for those who do not excite greed in others or excite hatred or aversion in others, and do not add to the confusion that people already have. And so looking for people who really are presenting something that you feel really can't be argued against. You know, when you talk about being kind, who can argue against that and want to see that they really are kind? The way they answer questions, the way they talk about their competition, if that's such a thing in their realm, really looking for action on those good qualities. And we can learn how to develop those ourselves, those things ourselves. And the more we do, the more we can see through someone who's not really presenting themselves honestly. The more honest we are the more honest we are with ourselves, the more honest we are about life clear about its ups and downs those eight worldly winds of gain, loss, pleasure and pain blame and praise and fame and disrepute the more we're we're aware that there's always the other side. Just like before, when we alluded to getting on the pedestal and falling off of it. This is how it works in the world. There's always the other side. And pretty soon we learn that we don't want to get puffed up by what we think is the positive. And so when we look to hear heroes, they're solid. We can see someone as a hero because they're doing something wholesome beyond gaining something for themselves, maybe without any thought of gaining anything for themselves.

Ayya Santussika


And that's that's when we really can feel safe and comfortable in following their example.

Sol Hanna


Well, that's a lovely answer and brings me to my final question, which is, how can those of us engaged in Buddhist practice be the spiritual heroes we aspire to be so that we no longer need others any longer, and we can see the qualities that we admire developing within ourselves. It's a step by step process, and it's very good to investigate the Buddha and see where our doubts might be about him and work our way through that and to really follow the entirety of his teachings, even the parts that are hard to look at. So it starts real progress, I think, starts with being willing to let go of even our most cherished views and opinions. And see truth. And as we are honest with ourselves about where we're at, then we can really start making good progress,

Ayya Santussika


and we develop it little by little. And we can feel that like building a wall, building a basis of safety and support, and we can do it. It's within human capability. And that's what's so beautiful. There isn't anything that the Buddha taught that we can't do in terms of our virtue and our serenity and wisdom.

Sol Hanna


Thank you very much. I really want to thank you. This has been a wonderful interview. And on a personal level, I feel like I've really clarified a lot of the questions I had in terms of how to interact in this pretty complex world online. So I really just want to say thank you very much, Aya, for offering this sage advice today. Thank you.

Ayya Santussika


You're welcome, sir.

Sol Hanna


And thank you to all our listeners for joining us for this insightful episode of Treasure Mountain, in which Aya Santusica has offered her sage advice on how to navigate this contemporary cultural world and to find truly noble and heroic leaders and teachers and ultimately to find those qualities that we admire in others, to find those qualities within ourselves. You can find out more about Ayasantusica and Karuna Buddhist Fahara via the links in the description below. This episode Treasure Mountain Podcast is part of the Everyday Tamar Network. You can find out more about the Treasure Mountain Podcast by going through the links in the description below this episode, and you can also find out on the Treasure Mountain website information about all the previous episodes and guests, as well as transcriptions of our interviews. And if you go back to the Everyday Dumber. Net homepage, you can discover more about the other podcasts on this network. Also, I think you might like them. Tell me what you think by contacting me via the Contact page. And if you enjoyed this podcast, I'd appreciate if you could share this episode with your friends or other people who could benefit from its wise advice. And if you like the podcast, you can subscribe to Treasure Mountain Podcast using your favorite podcast app in order to get notified about future episodes. I hope you'll join us again for our next episode of Treasure Mountain as we seek for the treasure within.

Ayya SantussikaProfile Photo

Ayya Santussika

Abbott of Karuna Buddhist Vihara

Ayya Santussika was born in Illinois in 1954 and grew up on a farm in Indiana. While being a single mother, she received BS and MS degrees in computer science. She worked as a software designer and developer for fifteen years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her search for deeper meaning and ways to be of service led her to train as an interfaith minister in a four-year seminary program that culminated in a Masters of Divinity degree. She began traveling in Asia from 1999, learning from master teachers, particularly in Thailand. It was these experiences, along with time spent at Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in California that caused her faith to develop to the point of choosing to live and practice as a Theravadan nun.

Ayya Santussika entered monastic life as an anagarika (eight-precept nun) in 2005, then ordained as a samaneri (ten-precept nun) in 2010 and a bhikkhuni (311 rules) in 2012 at Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles. She has trained in large and small communities of nuns, including Amaravati and Chithurst monasteries of the Ajahn Chah tradition in England.