Anne Cushman recounts her adventure seeking romance online through the Buddhist singles Web sites
The idea comes up as a joke. I’m a journalist and a newly single Buddhist mom. Why don’t I investigate the new online “dharma dating” sites, and write about my experiences?
I found the idea both intriguing and horrifying. For years I’ve mocked the idea of shopping for a mate the way you’d shop for a book on Amazon.com. But lately, several of my friends have met partners online; several others have had fun going out for dinners, movies and hikes with people they’d never would have known without the Internet. According to Business Week Online, almost 5 percent of the U.S. population is now listed on Match.com. Arranging dates through Buddhist sites promises something novel: a wide assortment of potential friends, all of them single and sharing a primary interest in spiritual practise. As a mating strategy, it probably beats cruising a vipassana retreat.
After my marriage went down in flames, romance was initially the last thing on my mind. (Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that I was still wearing a nursing bra.) And at this point, I’ve been around long enough to know that a romantic partner is not a guaranteed ticket to a dukkha-free life. Love, it seems to me, is a combination of serendipity and hard work. Wouldn’t I be better off using my time and energy rooting out the cause of my suffering—craving—at its source? Shouldn’t I focus on contemplating emptiness and interdependence to the point where I’d get just as much joy from an evening alone sorting socks as from a night making passionate love in front of a fire to Indian sitar music?
Oh, who am I kidding? “Sure,” I tell my editor. “I’ll check it out.”
I get paralyzed in huge bargain-basement stores. Given 15 aisles of shoes to choose from, I’m likely to give up on the whole project and go home barefoot. So I pass on the New Age megasites and just sign up for the two that sound explicitly Buddhist: dharmaMatch.com and DharmaDate.com.
Despite its name, dharmaMatch turns out to be a fairly general site, aimed at singles of all religious persuasions “who hold their beliefs, values, and spirituality as an important part of their life.” Its home page features a lovely young couple locked in an embrace, surrounded by giant soap bubbles—as if to remind us of the impermanent nature of romantic love, even as we pursue it.
DharmaDate is more narrowly targeted toward Buddhists: “We want it to be an informal sangha meeting place where you can be yourself. Or be your non-self.” The sign-up process includes a series of in-depth questions about practise and beliefs that are explicitly designed to screen out non-Buddhists (who, presumably, would otherwise be flocking there in droves, drawn by the legendary licentiousness and raw animal magnetism of dharma practitioners).
The first thing I must do, on both sites, is choose a screen name. I try for Yogini, but it has already been taken. Dakini? Same deal. I rule out Bikini as unwise, and settle instead on Tahini, which also happens to be the name of my cat.
Sign-up questionnaires ask me to evaluate every aspect of myself: physical appearance, lifestyle, personality, dietary preferences and, of course, spirituality—to a depth I imagine not normally addressed by the average dating site. (“What happens after the body dies?” is a question I’ve never seen before in a multiple-choice format.)
Within hours of posting my profile, an email arrives in my inbox. Great news! it crows. You’ve received a Smile on dharmaMatch.com from Siddharta Gotama!”
Weeks 2 to 3
As the introductory Smiles continue to arrive—From Manly Meditator! From DharmaDude!—the first thing I discover is this: There are apparently a lot of thoughtful, attractive, spiritual singles out there. Sure, there are some scary ones: The guy who rants that he likes trees better than people. The guy who suggests in his opening email that we live together on a ranch, where we will castrate our own goats. But for the most part, the Smiles are linked to intriguing profiles: An Argentinean jazz musician who studies Tibetan Buddhism and hatha yoga. A burly poet who shares custody of an 11-year-old daughter. A Zen priest whose online photo features his shaved head and black robes.
Wait a minute…a Zen priest? Shouldn’t he be beyond all this? I picture him chanting in the zendo: Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them—right after I check dharmaMatch for any new hotties…
It just goes to show: As human beings, we’re hard-wired for connection. Of course, our spiritual practises help us dissolve the illusion of a separate self and know we are supported in every breath by the whole universe. But at the same time, it’s also good to feel supported by a real live person who actually cares that we had a bad day, the kids were brats, the boss was a tyrant, the computer kept crashing and we failed to solve our koan.
Forty percent of the U.S. population is single, according to The New York Times, up from 28 percent in 1970. And an increasing percentage of those singles are 40 years and older. Many of the profiles I read, just like my own, have ghosts hovering in the margins: ex-lovers, ex-spouses, shared children. Sifting through them, I envision us all bobbing around in the ocean after a great cultural shipwreck. We tighten our life preservers, clutch our bits of driftwood and wave at one another across the water.
I begin exchanging emails with the people who have contacted me. The jazz musician sends flirtatious messages at midnight, signing his name with a sprinkling of kiss emoticons. The poet sends poems he has written and photos of his cabin and sailboat on a silver lake. The getting-to-know-you questions pelt me through the ether: “What’s the most fun thing you’ve done this week?” “What spiritual teacher has influenced you the most?” “What do you think true freedom is?”
As a writer, I already spend a good portion of my days staring at my computer screen; I quickly discover I don’t want to conduct my social life there. The DharmaDating emails drown in the flood of messages from the real world: work appointments, family sagas, baby announcements, friends inviting me to potluck suppers.
Untethered to the world of blood and bones, the candidates for my affection drift out of my mind like balloons on a windy day. I forget what I’ve said to the Zen priest and what to the jazz musician. I forget whether the photographer has grown-up kids, or whether that’s the software designer. I repeatedly forget my password. I’m tempted to copy and paste from one of my answers into another, just to save time—but surely that’s tacky? Increasingly, I don’t get around to responding to the emails at all.
This of course has its own pitfalls. When I inadvertently fail to return a Smile, I receive my first flame: “Is this the way enlightened people behave? Well if it is, I might just as well go to the local bar and become an alcoholic, smoke cigarettes, and associate with big furry women who grunt when they talk. And what do you think might be the karmic consequences of being responsible for my demise?”
I decide to perform some geographical triage. I will politely decline correspondence with anyone who doesn’t live within a reasonable distance. Those who live nearby I will steer as quickly as possible toward face-to-face meetings.
Weeks 4 to 5
I consult Online Dating for Dummies, which recommends that the first meetings be brief, for coffee or tea, and that they be held in busy public places. So I meet my first date at a bookstore café that’s bustling enough to feel anonymous. I wonder how many of the couples I see at the tables around me are meeting for the first time, exchanging chit-chat while surreptitiously checking each other out to see if they can imagine spending the rest of their lives together.
My date is a small, serious man with a long-time vipassana practise. We look at each other awkwardly, clutching our mugs of herbal tea. I break the ice with what seems like an innocuous question: “So what do you do?” He gazes at me as if this is the weirdest question anyone has ever asked him and repeats, incredulously, “Do?!”
I decide to do more pre-screening next time. After a few intriguing email exchanges, I chat on the phone with a yoga practitioner who teaches world religions at a prep school. We converse easily about our children (he has two preschool-age sons), our spiritual practises (we’ve studied with some of the same teachers), our academic interests.
When I arrive at the bookstore café, he’s not there yet; I browse through the paperbacks, discreetly eyeing each arriving customer. Across the aisle, a stocky, dark-haired man is doing the same thing. We exchange glances, then look away—clearly, neither of us is the one the other awaits. It takes a good 10 minutes before we approach each other and discover that we are each other’s date.
We order tea and begin to talk, trying to get used to each other’s non-virtual presence. Although I hadn’t been aware of having any clear expectations, I feel slightly let down. This guy is every bit as thoughtful and pleasant as our conversation had led me to believe. But the man I had imagined was taller, with a commanding physical presence due to his 20 years of intensive Iyengar yoga. I find myself glancing toward the door, still waiting for him to show up. I imagine my date is waiting for a different version of me as well—perhaps one in retouched black and white, like my publicity photo.
Stirring my tea, I realize this is one of the many strange things about online dating. Normally when you meet someone, you encounter him or her first in the flesh, so whatever story you begin to spin in your mind centres around a character who vaguely resembles the actual person. But when you meet someone online, the mind—in a textbook illustration of what Buddhists call papancha, or “proliferation of thoughts”—fleshes out an entire image based on a tiny photo and a few lines of text, and begins generating plots in which this imaginary figure plays a leading role. When you actually meet the person, he bears no resemblance to the person you’d imagined—how could he?—so you feel a wave of disappointment. It’s like seeing a movie based on a favorite novel: That’s not Rhett Butler!
Weeks 6 to 10
I don’t take the prep-school teacher up on his offer to meet again. I’m moving to a new home a three-hour drive from where he lives. Distracted by the details of packing, I take a break from the dating assignment. In the move, my Internet connection goes down for a couple of weeks; I get back online to find a backlog of dharma-date emails in my inbox, along with a pile of tasks that need attention. Dharma dating feels like one more duty on which I’m falling behind.
I begin declining all correspondence, saying truthfully that I’m just too busy right now. But I keep glancing at the profiles with idle curiosity, the way I sometimes stop in at garage sales. I’m fascinated to observe how quickly my mind rules people out—and on how little evidence. “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences,” wrote Seng Tsan, the third Zen patriarch. The same might be said for dharma dating.
Free of the counterbalancing weight of actual human contact, I eliminate suitors for random, insignificant reasons: Too short. Too tall. Too old. Too young. Too little hair. Too much hair. Spelling vipassana with the wrong number of p’s or s’s or n’s. Claiming to be enlightened.
Weeks 11 – 13
Because I still want to write this article on “dharma dating,” I decide to plunge back into the dating sea again. I meet up for dinner with a former devotee of the tantric guru Osho, who now runs a car-rental business. I have tea with a music producer and vipassana student. A professor of East Asian philosophy invites me to an “ecstatic trance dance” held at a Middle Eastern belly-dancing restaurant. A psychologist and mountain climber offers me a tour of his co-housing community.
What is the spark—Chemistry? Karma? Neurosis?—that leads us to want to spend time with one person more than with another? Whatever it is, I don’t feel it with any of my dates, although they are all likeable people. The very activity of dating feels fluffy and insubstantial compared with the weight and texture of my daily life, filled as it is with the countless domestic details of child rearing, work and friendship. Romance seemed easier to stumble into in the old days, when I didn’t have so many… appendages. But of course, these appendages are what make my life worth living.
I tell myself that I should probably persist past a first date. After all, haven’t some of my best connections been with people to whom I didn’t immediately feel attracted? But my life is already full of friends I don’t have enough time to see. I resist the idea of carving out time for relative strangers.
Perhaps dating is just a way to practise keeping the door of my heart open to intimacy—without attachment to results. In the process, I can notice the habits of contraction that keep me feeling separate from other people: judgments, expectations, fears, busyness, guilt, chronic feelings of insecurity or superiority.
Or is this theory just an attempt to spiritualize an essentially absurd activity, one despoiled by consumerism and steeped in the double delusion that love is out there somewhere and that with persistence and a fast Internet connection we can track it down?
Weeks 14 to 15
I go out to dinner with a computer programmer who used to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. Over Thai food, we talk for three hours, although I’ve told the babysitter I’d be home in two. Over the next two weeks, he floods me with long, chatty emails. He tells me about books he’s read, movies he’s seen. He muses on artificial intelligence, the history of Supreme Court justices, his relationship with his nieces and nephew and sisters. I tell him that, as a writer, I don’t enjoy socializing by email. He responds with a five-paragraph essay.
I lose patience, and send him a plea: “Ack! No! Stop! Send smoke signals! Beat on a talking drum! Skywrite messages in the blue! Throw tomatoes at my window! But no more emails!”
I’m not cut out for cyber-dating, I decide.
It seems I am an anachronism. I’m just not interested in “getting to know someone” by typing words into a box on a screen. For me, connections unfold slowly, through repeated encounters in natural settings. I like to observe animals in the wild, not in a zoo. Instead of exchanging pleasantries with strangers online, I’d rather go deeper into my life as it already is, and celebrate the intimacy—with friends, family, and community—that is already nourishing me.
I’ve never been someone who spots love instantly. Overcoming my innate reserve usually takes days, weeks, even months spent sweating side by side on yoga mats or scrambling eggs in the kitchen of a shared house.
I’m seeing someone again.
He’s a wise, loving, and funny friend I met the old-fashioned way, years ago, when he dropped by my magazine office to do some work. We’ve been in and out of each other’s lives ever since. Maybe it took a dip into cyberspace to open my eyes to the depth of our real-life connection.
Like everything else, I know that this relationship is subject to the laws of impermanence—so I don’t want to jinx things by writing any more about it.
But I will tell you this: He doesn’t have email.
Anne Cushman is editor of the quarterly U.S. Buddhist magazine Tricycle, in which this story appeared in May 2006. More information: www.tricycle.com