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Vienna in the Silicon Pure Land, Part 1: Feeling into the Dharma of Emerging Technology

Cornered by riot police at both ends of an underpass in central Kuala Lumpur, Vienna Rae smelled tear gas begin to fill the enclosed space. Panic spread through the group of political activists and electoral-reform advocates who had been pressed into the tunnel after a peaceful protest. Dropping to the floor for clean air, Vienna, an emerging technology researcher and youth organizer at her local Buddhist temple, narrowly escaped through an emergency hatch before officers began detaining the choking protesters. 

Dazed by the experience, Vienna left Malaysia for a Buddhist Geeks conference in the United States, seeking to connect with a community of like minds inspired by contemplative values to build technical tools for positive systemic change. However, it was not until receiving word that some her friends back home had been tracked down and arrested for sedition that she chose to remain in the US, beginning a chapter of quasi-exile and pioneering work at the intersection of the Dharma and emerging technology.

Vienna Rae. Image courtesy of the author

Hailing from a Malaysian-Chinese family, Vienna grew up practicing a fusion of Mahayana Buddhism, Daoism, and ancestral folk religion that exposed her at an early age to different flavors of spiritual practice. As an active member of the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association in Kuala Lumpur, she began coordinating youth programs at the temple as a way of helping herself and her peers connect with Buddhist concepts in a more relevant context. 

While personally beneficial, Vienna soon recognized that a large gulf remained between the values and practices she was encouraging within the temple walls and the larger reality of life in Malaysia. Specifically concerned with the legacy of political hegemony left by former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad, Vienna decided to channel her energy into civic engagement, and began advocating for electoral reform. Soon after turning her gaze toward political activism, she connected with K. V. Soon, a neighbor and fellow member of the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association, who subsequently introduced her to the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).

In 2013, Vienna supported K. V. Soon as in-country coordinator for INEB’s biannual conference in Malaysia, an experience that proved instrumental in galvanizing her commitment to engaged Buddhism as a vehicle for both personal and structural change.

Electoral reform protesters march during a 2012 rally in Kuala Lumpur. From

A silicon Pure Land

Keen to expand her understanding and technical expertise in emerging technologies such as blockchain, cryptocurrency, and regenerative finance, Vienna flew to the Western cradle of digital innovation: Silicon Valley. Navigating her way through this idealized terrain, Vienna encountered a motley crew of tech bros, academics, hackers, founders, and mild-mannered meditators who resonated with her intention to utilize technology as a skillful means for personal and social transformation. 

One such group that Vienna is still involved with coalesced in 2013 into the consciousness-hacking movement, a global network of technologists, scientists, psychologists, and spiritual practitioners who collaborate in developing tools and practices aimed at enhancing human well-being. Playful and sincere, the consciousness-hacking community explores integrative approaches to technology and contemplation that will be especially examined in part two of this series. For now, it must suffice to say that the techno-Dharma is alive and well in Silicon Valley, stewarded as it is by a generation of talented expats, switched-on engineers, and mindful millionaires. 

Blockchain 101

While hackathons and incense-infused gatherings filled her “down” time, Vienna continued supporting the Malaysian electoral reform movement from abroad by diving headfirst into developing blockchain technology as a structural safeguard against various forms of corruption. 

Blockchain is a catchall term used to describe digital accounting systems designed to securely store information while ensuring transparency. This is achieved by organizing data into blocks, each containing a package of information and unique code known as a “hash.” These blocks are then sequentially linked together, creating a chain-like structure, hence the term “blockchain.” Blockchains are unique in that they are entirely decentralized systems reliant on a broad network of computers, referred to as “nodes,” which work together to validate and record transactions.

Feeling into a Buddhist blockchain

Because blockchains are not owned or operated by a single entity, they represent a significant advance in public internet infrastructure, with many applications for financial transactions (cryptocurrency), digital identity verification (universal basic income), and decentralized organizational management (DAO), to name but a few. In general, any move away from centralized control and into co-created networks tends to first illuminate and then shift harmful top-down structural dynamics toward the more heartfelt values of reciprocity and mutual respect.

Deployed in the context of electoral reform, blockchains offer a transparent and highly tamper-resistant means of accounting for large-scale sensitive data sets—such as polling results—that operates beyond the reach of any ruling government or influential media conglomerate. In this way, blockchains help instill verifiable trust in foundational instruments of democracy that have become increasingly weakened by manipulative politics in the “post-truth” era. 

Recognizing that blockchains can be employed as programmable ledgers for economic design around virtually any form of data, Vienna joined the research team at Stanford’s Kometsky Global Collaboratory to work on Project Kelvin, a pioneering effort at the confluence of Buddhist economics and climate change mitigation. With the intention to “build a financial system aligned with the first Buddhist precept—to not take life,” Project Kelvin’s arc from theory to practical experience will be detailed in part three of this series.

Welcome to the Digiyana

Having now spent the better part of a decade in the Bay Area, Vienna is firmly embedded in a network of friends and collaborators seeking ways of coordinating their combined technical skillsets for the benefit of all beings. From learning communities such as KERNEL, to nascent virtual organizations such as SanghaDAO, Vienna’s enthusiasm and determination to integrate contemplative values with emerging technology is most clearly expressed in her articulation of ChiPunk, a Dharmic foundation for regenerative culture and finance. 

ChiPunk blends “chi,” a way of characterizing the unified life force in Daoist spirituality, with “punk,” an ethos of principled rebellious expression in the face of oppressive power structures. Drawing inspiration from Solarpunk, a modern vision of techno-utopianism anchored in the potential of renewable energy and regenerative community practices, ChiPunk is a contemplative philosophical framework, design methodology and fledgling community nurturing the coordination of chi (both personal and structural energy) for positive systemic change. A constantly evolving interdisciplinary space, ChiPunk warmly invites collaborations with artists, programmers, NGOs and all manner of folk interested in steering technology in the direction of harmonious inter-being. 

Today, Vienna continues to pollinate Ethereum conferences, meditation centers, and hacker houses around the world with her ideas and passionate curiosity. To read her latest thoughts or connect you can follow @viennazero on X (currently rebranding from Twitter) or email [email protected].

See more

ViennaO (Linktree)
Buddhist Geeks (Linktree)
Inside Silicon Valley’s new non-religion: consciousness hacking (WIRED)

Digital Bodhisattva (Facebook)
Digital Bodhisattva (Clubhouse)
Digital Bodhisattva Initiative (Linktree)
International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)
INEB (Twitter)

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Vienna in the Silicon Pure Land, Part 3: Reimagining Buddhist Economics
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