The most valuable asset a coder has is a clear mind. — Coding Mindfully
I remember how in the mid-1990s, my Board of Education promoted initiatives around character education, swiftly to be replaced with another around multiple intelligence, that too swiftly replaced with differentiated instruction, swiftly replaced with yet other programs. No chance for consolidation. Onward and upward.
On the other hand, computer skills have been touted for quite some time as the make or break key to 21st century success. Our global pandemic response could never have been as quick or as thorough without real-time medical modelling, Bluetooth contact tracing, virological gene sequencing, rapid deployment manufacturing, and a host of other initiatives made possible by computers.
Learning how to write computer code has become increasingly emphasized in schools. Children as young as five are being initiated into the realm of “if-then” logic, “for” loops, iterative design, and debugging, to augment their already-prodigious UX skills acquired from years of playing with cellphones and tablets in their strollers! We have large-scale initiatives like “Hour of Code,” “Digital Literacy,” “Girls Who Code,” and guidance departments pushing computer courses. Coding is the new life-hack paradigm. But it’s a bit of a zero-sum game, because there are only so many hours in the school day. When we’ve all been in lockdown, we’ve been more reliant than ever before on our digital devices, but we’ve had lots of time each day to get up the learning curve.
The underlying logic of this is that while you don’t need coding skills to use applications, you do need them to create new ones, and in the new digital economy that’s where the money will be. Never mind that those coding jobs will likely be shipped to India or some other country where there are millions of coders willing to work for low rates in a gig economy, or that lots of coding will be done by AI.
Meanwhile, vast swaths of our knowledge about how to thrive on this planet are going the way of how to recognize edible plants. I’m not just talking about touchy-feely things like civility (Communities of Character), or connectedness to nature (NatureSacred); I’m talking about basic stuff like how to feed ourselves, relate to other human beings, and what six feet of distance looks like. Granted, I’m unlikely to need masonry skills to build a new Borobudur in the near future, but I would like to think that being a “mindful” keyboard monkey is not my only future. There is a fundamental difference between Lifeworld and Codeworld.
For Buddhist teachers, geek skills are similarly in super-high demand. From Tripitaka digitization and AI translation of religious events, to YouTube teachings and Facebook Watch Parties, and far-flung congregations, sangha leaders are increasingly expected to master new media. Indeed, there is a subtle bias upvoting celebrity teachers who offer omni-channel output versus those who don’t. By extension, they might be expected to delegate some of those responsibilities to sangha members who are enlisted for the cause. Buddhist coders are in demand! I am not immune. I’ve been looking for someone to take on the tech responsibilities for the web directory of 600+ Canadian Buddhist organizations that I have been running for 10 years. I want to take it to the next level of interactivity with a mapping API, user-created input for program changes and the like, infrastructure for pictures of places of worship (inside and out), reviews (or at least comments), and so on. I’ve made repeated requests to the community. No takers.
When I taught ninth grade students about binary mathematics for coding, I explained its value to students as being like a second or third language. If you are multilingual, you are at an advantage; it’s not that one language is better than another. The same applies for math. Reality is bigger than the labels we impose on it; being flexible is the transferable skill. It’s called resilience. We need that flexibility now more than ever.
Likewise, coding is valuable, but it exists within a larger context. Consequently, I spent less time on binary or coding in the senior courses, and more time on systems thinking and the project management skills (see PMBOK) needed to design and implement new computer applications, media assets, buildings and built landscapes, and so on. I also explained to students that systems thinking and project management skills are extremely important in just about every facet of the working world.
What would happen if we applied the same kind of meta-cognitive thinking to Buddhist practice? Buddhists understand the graduated path, and the need to build on fundamentals. From there, the Middle Path lies between two extremes.
On one hand, I see Buddhist teachers replaying The Buddha’s Greatest Hits over and over. Let me explain what I mean by way of an example. When I discovered Buddhism late in the 1960s, there were very few books to be had, and of those some with the greatest notoriety were the least trustworthy. Now we have a plethora of Buddhist books—so many, in fact, that Buddhist media outlets are swamped with too many to review. Do the authors have something new to say or are they simply doing cover versions? Goodness, next thing you know we’ll have a Broadway musical based on the Gandavyuha Sutra.
On the other hand, when I hear Buddhists adopt the language of coding or digital technology and culture to express Dharma truths, I often feel it’s a clumsy grafting. The real advance of computer culture is not in coding; it is in the cybernetic understanding of systems. That grand overview is what Buddhists are having trouble articulating in the face of evolutionary forces unfolding much more swiftly than any of us can respond to. It’s kind of ironic, since Buddhists are typically seen as being the go-to explainers of karma, the cybernetic matrix of cause-and-effect. You might say we “pwned” the space.
I know Buddhist teachers will tell me that Buddhism is indeed about understanding the totality of reality, and that Tathagatagarbha and Indra’s Net are but two examples of how we do that. What I’m still grappling with: what would a rigorous, systematic application of that core ideal look like in the arena of urgent modern environmental and epidemiological problems such as zoonotic novel viruses?
Here’s one perspective from Mindfully Facing Climate Change by Bhikkhu Anālayo (2019):
From an early Buddhist viewpoint, animals and nature are not invested with value in and of themselves. The Earth is not conceived as a mother, and the teaching on dependent arising is not an affirmation of the interrelationship of all things.
An approach to environmental concerns that wishes to stay in line with the teachings of early Buddhism can therefore best be developed based on an anthropocentric perspective, in the sense that the human body requires appropriate living conditions on Earth in order to be able to serve as a vehicle for progress to awakening. Such an anthropocentric paradigm comes with a recognition of the moral responsibility of humans toward other sentient beings.
If that is truly the case, I humbly suggest we need to reconsider our commitment to such a perspective, or at least to expand it dramatically to include some other motivation to deal not just with this pandemic, but also climate change, mass extinctions, acidification and eutrophication of the oceans, chemical contamination, freshwater depletion, and so on. We’ve only just kicked that can down the road a bit.
In the world of code, we debug a program before we run it. Life does not typically afford us that luxury. We live in a sliver of biosphere less than 12 miles thick, from the top of Everest to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. It’s so slender that it is functionally invisible from space, appearing as a two-dimensional film on the planet. The parameters for life in that Goldilocks zone are unforgiving. Even the branching code of evolution operates within tight constraints. Continuing to ignore that code, we will be getting more than flashing pixel error messages.
We cannot afford for our Buddhist teachers to ignore the green practice path, to devalue it as lacking transcendence, to continue in an anthropocentric view of the Buddha’s deeper message, or to deny the interdependence of our reliance on a healthy biosphere to survive and our need to look after it.
Bhikkhu Anālayo. 2019. Mindfully Facing Climate Change. Barre, PA: Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.
Grobmeier, Christian. 2013. The Zen Programmer. Seattle: CreateSpace.
Project Management Institute. 2017. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide), sixth edition. Newtown Squre, PA: PMI.
Coding with Empathy
Digital Literacy Exchange Program (Government of Canada)
Hour of Code
Girls Who Code
Community of Character
Asian Classics Input Project
The Treasury of Lives
Buddhist Digital Resource Center