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Enlightening the Web: Buddhism in Cyberspace

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This feature was originally published in Spanish on Buddhistdoor en Español. The following is a translation of that article.

In recent decades, our daily lives have been significantly transformed by the development of new information and communication technologies that are having increasingly powerful impacts in fields as varied as economics, education, politics, religion, and interpersonal relationships. Today it is possible to buy or sell absolutely anything, pay for services, consult your personal finances, earn a university degree, or find a partner in cyberspace.

In this setting, spirituality has been affected to a degree that we have only recently started to comprehend. The ability that cyberspace gives us to navigate through time, space, and cultural boundaries contributes greatly to having much easier access to different religious traditions. Buddhism has been particularly impacted by new information and communication technologies, and has been a pioneer in consecrating the internet as a sacramental space. By way of personal computer screens and mobile devices, we can now read texts that were once absolutely inaccessible, listen to Zen masters, Tibetan lamas, and Theravada monks anywhere in the world, and participate in transnational communities. Thus, Buddhist practitioners have the chance to experience and live their religion not only by going to actual brick-and-mortar temples, participating in rituals there, or attending lectures by flesh-and-blood teachers, but they can also follow virtual sanghas and learn from masters throughout the world. 

Buddhism’s enthusiasm about technological advances can probably be explained by the fact that this spiritual tradition has always been at the vanguard with regard to incorporating new ways of transmitting its teachings, such that dissemination has been associated with the development of technological innovations since the beginning. For example, Buddhism was a pioneer in written texts when, under the reign of King Valagambahu of Sri Lanka around 50 BCE, the Pali Canon was transcribed onto stone tablets.

From singularityhub.org
From singularityhub.org

Further, many Buddhist practices support using the imagination, visualization, and sound, which strongly resonate with the audiovisual nature of the online world. Thus, the internet is especially suitable for conveying—for example—the sensorial experiences of Vajrayana Buddhism, which are created through traditional visualization practices and by reciting mantras. The virtual world of the internet, with its avatars and fluid identities, also fits well with the Buddhist concept of the individual and the world, which it believes are impermanent and illusory entities. Along this line, one could craft a parallelism between the fluid identities on the web and the Buddhist concept of the human body as a vehicle we employ to move through the—apparently real—world of samsara.

Tibetan master Namkhai Norbu broadcasting a retreat via a webcast. From dzogchen.net

At present, there are a multitude of mobile applications related to Buddhism, such as Awaken* and Headspace**, which offer guided meditations and teachings by Buddhist masters. There are other devices that employ digital technology, such as a robotic Buddhist “priest” that chants sutras during funeral services in Japan,*** or a mokugyo (traditional percussion instrument) that displays the syllables of the Heart Sutra on screen to its rhythm, and even a Tibetan mala (rosary) with a chip that can count mantra recitations.**** However, perhaps the most significant transformation in this regard is the possibility of religious leaders communicating remotely and in real-time, live, with their disciples, who are often scattered throughout the world.

As an anthropologist who works in exploring the history of Buddhist groups formed in Argentina in recent decades, I had a chance while doing fieldwork there to hear about several user experiences of new technologies in these communities. One of them is that of Zen master Daniel Terragno, who since 1999 has run the local chapter of the renowned organization founded by Robert Aitken, the Diamond Sangha. In addition to his biannual visits to the country from his home in Sebastopol, California, to run summer and winter retreats, Terragno communicates frequently with his students via Skype, both during group gatherings and in private interviews (dokusan). Another case that illustrates this phenomenon is that of Tibetan master Namkhai Norbu, founder of the international Dzogchen community who, until his recent death, broadcast his teachings during retreats via live webcasts. Using this medium, he was able to stay in touch with disciples around the world. These examples are not exceptions, but are increasingly the norm. Leaders as high as the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa also make extensive use of the internet, making live broadcasts on YouTube on the teachings, initiation,s and empowerments of different divine beings, such as Chenrezig and Green Tara.

Zen master Daniel Terragno sharing dharma and greetings at year’s end.
Photo by Sonia Miriam Ortiz, Argentine manager of the Viento del Sur sangha

We can therefore see a growing shift toward online Buddhist experiences, with practices lose their anchoring in traditional time-and-space settings, establishing new places for worship in virtual environments. Thus, Buddhism is known, learned, and experienced through communication flows that circulate over digital networks.

Moreover, it merits mentioning that while the internet provides a space where sacramental activities can be conducted, it does not in and of itself have a spiritual nature. This spirituality is produced by delimiting sites established especially for this purpose and codes of ethics that govern conduct in these spaces. Indeed, a large part of internet content is diametrically opposed to spiritual application, as this technology can promote compulsive practices such as addiction to video games, social media, multitasking, consumerism, and narcissism. Further, the internet is often the stage for abusive and violent behaviors and even has a dark side—the so-called darkweb or darknet, a type of virtual underworld where drugs, weapons, and human organ trafficking is conducted, as well as advertising for child pornography and paid assassins.

These phenomena represent extreme manifestations of the mind’s habitual reaction patterns that move between the poles of desire and aversion, greed and rage, attachment and rejection. Let’s consider how “Like” and “Don’t Like” clicks on social media foster these types of reactions. Thus, the progress entailed by new information and communication technologies goes hand in hand with the need to have an ethical framework that favors their suitable use.

Flyer from a live YouTube broadcast of the Dalai Lama. From gim.ac.in

In coming years, different Buddhist disciplines will probably increase their use of innovative technologies, opening up to deeper transformations in the area of rituals, meditation, and the transmission of teachings. I am thinking of the possibilities involved, for example, by using augmented-reality devices or virtual-reality headsets, which enable interactive immersion in alternative worlds. It is not farfetched to imagine new multimedia spiritual experiences, having augmented-reality glasses that enable us to gaze on the tantric deities of Vajrayana in a hologram, digitally reproducing that which has been viewed internally with the mind’s eye for hundreds of years. Will these technologies replace the use of the imagination for meditative purposes, or will they become complementary tools that contribute—like Tibetan thangkas—to learning the correct way to represent these divinities?

It is difficult to hazard a guess about this relatively recent phenomenon. However, it is possible to highlight what Buddhism may offer when using new information and communication technologies in a positive way. I think it is important here to have a guide for moral conduct (sila), in order to cultivate a conscious, alert and attentive attitude (samadhi) and to develop wisdom (panna), which lets people understand when one has fallen into patterns of greed and aversion that cause suffering (duhkha) in cyberspace. In this regard, I believe that Buddhism as a religious tradition can provide extremely valuable tools, thus contributing to “enlightening” the internet.

Dr. Catón Carini has a degree in anthropology from the Universidad Nacional de la Plata (UNLP), a master’s degree in social anthropology from the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, and a doctorate in anthropology from the UNLP. He works as an associate researcher of the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) of Argentina and as a professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the UNLP. He became interested in Buddhism in 1999 when he began practicing Zen meditation with the French teacher Stéphane Thibaut of the Zen Association of Latin America. Subsequently, he focused on the practice of Vipassana meditation in centers linked to the Burmese master S. N. Goenka, as well as the practice of the Dzogchen tradition of Vajrayana, under the guidance of Tibetan teacher Chogyal Namkhai Norbu.

New Mindfulness App Takes Aim at Socially Conscious Meditators (Buddhistdoor Global)

** Can Your Smartphone Help You Meditate? (Buddhistdoor Global)

*** Latest Buddhist Gadget from Japan: a Fish-shaped Karaoke System for the Heart Sutra (Buddhistdoor Global)

**** Acer to Enter Buddhist Tech Market with “Smart” Prayer Beads (Buddhistdoor Global)

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