Friday, January 28, 2011

Renewal of the Online Buddhist Practice Discussion

Sing it now - "You're own - digital - Buddha..."

Ok. So, it's been awhile since I have seen discussion about the online Buddhist practice/in the flesh Buddhist practice divide. Yesterday, Brad Warner offered his standard rant against the internet as a practice venue.

Computers are very good at producing simulations of reality. But simulations are not the real thing. A zendo in Second Life is not a real zendo. Your time spent reading blogs about Zen, including this one, is not real time spent with a Zen teacher.

There is some validity in this view. People are very good at hiding behind computer screens, chatting away intellectually, but not actually applying the teachings in their everyday lives.

However, I think Brad's view is missing something.

This is what I wrote in response to his post:

I'm with you on concerns about the impact of over-dependence on technology on relationships and communities. Collectively, we aren't skilled with using the internet, cell phones, ipods, etc. in ways that support healthy, engaged lives. Too often, they are tools used to distract, or avoid the rest of our lives.

However, you do seem pretty fixed on separating online land from meatspace, and I believe that separation is faulty. Consider the ways in which laws have dramatically shifted, workplace policies have dramatically shifts, and education have dramatically shifted in response to the real life impacts of internet use. A threat made on Facebook is now often treated the same as a threat in person. People are hired and fired based on what they've said and/or done online. Police looking for prostitution rings or child molesters certainly see internet behavior as more than just imaginary or a distraction.

As a student of art history, this reminds me of how the camera and photography was viewed by other artists in the early days. Lots of arguments over whether photos were "real" art or not. There was also a certain democratization that happened in the art world during the mid-late 19th century as a result of photography. People who couldn't paint, for example, suddenly had access to a tool that allowed them to capture the beautiful and the awful. And they could do portraits, formerly the bread and butter "possession" of painters.

More recently, with the advent of digital cameras, the same debate has reoccurred. Suddenly, millions of people could take hundreds of photos in a clip, and then work with Photoshop or some other program to "clean them up." Film photographers mostly hated the development in the beginning. And then some converted, seeing the advantages. And others split their efforts between film and digital.

But what I see in that story is a turf war between old ways and new ways, the resistance from the "old school" partly intelligent effort at preservation, and partly a power game based on a belief that they have the only "true" way.

Before the internet, you had teachers and students talking on telephones. Students and students talking on telephones. And before that, you had teachers and students communicating through letters, or artwork, and students talking to each other in the same way. Written teachings are all, in a sense, artificial just as the internet is, and yet those teachings are at the center of most Buddhist schools regardless of lineage. Works of art are also artificial in a sense, but they too offer a vehicle through which awakening can be sparked.

Over at Mind Deep, Marguerite takes up the issue in slightly different way, asking whether or not a person needs a physical, in the flesh sangha to practice with.

Because the body and our relationship to it play such an essential role in our unfolding along the path, it only makes sense to also pay attention to the embodied aspect of our spiritual friendships. If the Buddha was to live in our times, I am pretty sure he would be on Facebook, and Twitter, and blogs, AND I have also no doubt that he would insist on maintaining a live practice community.

A few of us responded that there are many practitioners out there who don't have much access to a sangha where they live. I offered a further suggestion that even those who don't have a sangha close by can try and locate friends on the path to practice with sometimes. After a few years online now, I have come to the conclusion that doing it alone, solely relying on online resources, probably isn't advisable. Obviously, I say this as a long time member of a fairly large community. In other words, I don't know what it's like to do all of this alone for years on end.

But I do think that Buddha placed a strong emphasis on spiritual friendship, on having dharma brothers and sisters to practice with, at least some of the time. In fact, having a few strong friendships, where you can really dig into your lives together, might be more important than a larger sangha or easy access to a teacher. Easy access to a teacher, in fact, is probably a fairly modern phenomenon. Most of the old stories emphasize long treks and difficult entrance barriers around working with a teacher. The number of people who could practice with their teacher on a frequent basis was probably much, much smaller than it is today. And the nature of sanghas was clearly different, at least in the early days. Coming together for a few months and then splitting off for awhile seemed like more the norm. Once temples were established, more settled sanghas could evolve, but still the numbers had to be smaller than they are today because lay centered communities were few and far between, if existing at all.

So, when considering this whole issue, I tend to place a stronger emphasis on having multidimensional, long term relationships with a few or more dharma friends, including "in the flesh" practice and study. One of the main weaknesses I have seen online is that there's a lot of disappearance and a lot of fluctuation. Internet sanghas are a mixed bag - for every Treeleaf that seems to keep going with a decent number of people committed to it, there are a dozen others that die off fairly quickly. Some never get off the ground. Others split up over some intellectual row. Still others get entirely too narrow in focus to maintain a healthy sized membership.

Certainly, any of the above can happen with "in the flesh" sanghas, but the fluctuations that happen online seem to have a greater impact than those that happen online. A Zen group with half a dozen members can keep getting together, even if they don't attract many new folks. Whereas an online group with half a dozen members usually dies off.

What do you all think about these issues? If you're a member of an "in the flesh" sangha, how is your community using the internet, and what do your leaders think about the place of technology in spiritual practice? If you're a practitioner without a sangha, what has your experience been with online-based practice?


Adam said...

As I've said before, SGI is the only Buddhist presence in my local area. If there are other practicing near me, they are either not advertising it on the internet or magazines or newspapers or bulliten boards, or they are commuting to Seattle or Bellingham. I haven't the time or means to do the traveling right now.

As such, it kind of crawls under my skin when people like Brad go on a tirade about how practice over the internet isn't genuine. If it weren't for the internet, I'd never have heard the Heart Sutra chanted by others. I'd never have heard many of the Pali and Zen terms pronounced (such as when I tune in to a couple of podcasts). If it weren't for the internet, I'd never have realized the power of the koan. The online sangha has opened me up quite a bit. I know much of what I do because of it.

That isn't to say that the interwebs aren't without their short-comings though either. There certainly is a different experience hearing others chant and chanting in the flesh with others. Often times, the internet can be a difficult forum for discussion. I find that blog posts, comments, and tweets lack a context that you can only find face to face. But I'm not willing to write off the experience of using the internet as a primary vehicle or base of knowledge simply because of these shortfalls. There are simply too many people in countries where the dharma has not fully penetrated to expect everyone to tune out and drive to their "local" sangha.

Having a family, school, and working full time, I find that the internet provides me with the sustanance I need when searching for tidbits of dharma to integrate into my life. I have no time to practice seated meditation. I listen to the heart sutra and affirming faith in mind daily, and try and head to Access to Insight and read a random sutra daily. Rather than meditation, I do what i can to practice the paramitas, esp compassion, generosity, and patience. I find for now, that the internet provides an adequete resource and sangha for those purposes.

Robyn said...

Change gonna come! Especially where this is concerned. It feels like a real mix for me at this point.

I am away from my flesh and blood sangha, and my teacher has made it clear that he doesn't do dokusan via the telephone or email: it is a face-to-face, mind-to-mind encounter. No substitutions.

That said, I have communicated via email with him, even to the point of describing my practice, and he responded in a way that felt not totally unlike a dokusan experience. He also skypes some dharma talks to the sangha in New Zealand.

And I must put in a plug for, which streams dharma talks and other things from the Mountains and Rivers Order - it has felt like a lifeline sometimes in the past months.

They (the teachers) half-jokingly refer to themselves as the Republicans of the (North American) Zen world because they are so conservative, but there has been pressure from the larger sangha about engaging more via the internet, so I know things will be opening up in some way at some point in the future.

I also have been very happy to have email contact with several members of the sangha - people I can talk with openly about the ups and downs of practicing "alone". But all this is done with the knowledge that I will be back there in person. For me, this is very important. I do believe it is a direct transmission, mind to mind. Too much has happened in that dokusan room that I can never express in words for me to believe otherwise.

I see no substitution for time spent with the sangha and teacher in person - both formal practice and informal time helping out around the Temple. While I understand people's hesitation to "join up" for all sorts of reasons and that there are real issues of geography and access, I know that spending time with my teacher and the sangha in person has radically changed my practice over the last two years. There really is no substitute for it.

Nathan said...

Hi Adam,

I hear your frustration. These kind of rants don't seem very productive, and it's funny to see a guy like Brad, who probably has a pile of solo practitioners following him, say stuff like that.


I'm pretty much in agreement with this "I see no substitution for time spent with the sangha and teacher in person." That's been my experience. I can't imagine having done this alone all these years.

That said, I'm open to the possibility that other ways can be just as powerful for some people. That maybe there are folks out there that can awaken without significant sangha face time, or significant face time with teachers. I want to support that possibility, even though I am one who has benefited from being in a sangha and working face to face with teachers.


Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

Obviously there is benefit in face to face, in-the-flesh, meetings. My years of practice have taught me this. Since starting up my blog however I've been contacted by several people from across the globe who've had no-one in their area to practice with. I'm sure there are LOTS of people in this same boat. I've also helped several people considerably in their practice over the internet and that was just through writing. I'm sure video conferencing would add a whole new dimension to this. Sure it's not exactly like face to face but it's very close. If you were skyping the Dalai Lama I'm sure you'd feel his presence regardless. Remember, it's beyond time and space.

The internet opens up avenues and meetings that previously weren't possible. Point in case, my wife and I met on the internet, engaged a year last, married a year after that, had a child a year after that. Now 5 years on, going stronger than ever. Our best friends also met on the internet, same situation, also have a child now. Actually we have a few couples that have all met that way. You can't negate this effect of the internet. So the proof is in the pudding.

That said, I'm actually JUST about to start offering small group sessions and private meditation instruction over the internet as a service. I have a prototype already setup and I'm just about to start beta testing. The number of emails I get seems to indicate to me the world is covered with people who need help in their practice who can't access a teacher. If they can reach out and get in contact with people then that is all to the benefit of beings everywhere. What is the problem with this?


Max said...

The internet has had substantial impacts on my fledgling practice. First is that I've used it as always as a major source of information. Out of the dozen or so books on Buddhist thought I've devoured in the past year or so, most by far have been researched on Amazon then put on hold through my local library system's excellent web system for easy pickup a few miles away.

Possibly an even bigger impact is dharma talks. The Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA has a recorded collection of well over a thousand talks available for free download and I'm probably up to well over 50 hours of downloads now. Each one has a real human being speaking to the sangha and it's pretty easy to visualize myself as in that room. It gives me a good feeling to think of how much gas I've saved from if I'd had to actually attend each of those talks physically.

Lastly, there's my blog, not a Buddhist blog per se, but one of the main ways I've disseminated my new understanding to the wider world.

All that is great, but I still spend every Wednesday night in a lighthouse by the Pacific shore with about thirty or so others in seated meditation. My real flesh and blood sangha is where the heart of my practices beats.

jundo cohen said...

Hey Nathan,

Thank you again for what you do on this blog.

If anyone is interested, I wrote a little essay on where the technology is heading in the very near future, and our experiences (up and down) with a "no near nor far" Sangha these past years. It starts like this:

With Gassho before a body scanner, sitters will enter the 3-D Holographic Zen Hall from wherever they are. Instantly, a high roofed room, Manjusri Bodhisattva at its center, fills the senses and the 10 directions encircling them. Lifelike images of a hundred others who have sat that day (some hours earlier in distant time zones) occupy projected Zafus all around, and the scent of incense perfumes the air. A young priest walks through the room straightening slippers made of photons, guiding newcomers to their places. Biosensors in the sitter’s clothing adjust posture with a touch lightly felt at the small of the back. A teacher in far Japan, as if a few feet away, offers a talk and responds immediately to questions. Rising from Zazen, all recite as one the Bodhisattva Vows, prostrating toward Manjusri now seen hovering midair as vast as a mountain. The identical scene appears in Holospaces in every sitter’s home or private place, including for one fellow sitting zero gravity on the long voyage to Mars.


By the way, I disagree with Brad on this. So what? Two overly serious bozos disagree on this or that every few years, sometimes dash off an overly impassioned email to each other twice a decade. What is more important are the 1000 things that Brad and I agree on, and the respect I have for him as a desperately needed voice in this stodgy Buddhist world ... and a decent guy. People miss that part sometimes.

Gassho, Jundo

Algernon said...

My mind is open about ways to engage dharma practice via the internet. I might be bringing some of my theatre baggage to it, as I strongly prefer the possibilities that are present when people are sharing a physical location. I like other media, too, I just know there are some things that can only happen in live theatre. Some of that probably spills into my conception of sangha as well. I'm more likely to travel a long distance to see a teacher than figure out skype. Karma!

Nathan said...

Hi Dean,

I think your experience with getting lots of e-mails in response to your meditation instruction offerings is more and more common. Even though I have never offered anything specific like that on my blog, I still get e-mails sometimes from people asking questions about meditation, books, chants, and other issues. It's very true that the internet is opening up new ways to practice, and avenues people never had before.


Even though I have been a member of a local sangha for years, I still find myself checking out dharma talks from around the world. I read posts made on Treeleaf and other "virtual" sanghas. And obviously, I read lots of blogs, and write one. All of this has supported my practice. n particular, it's loosened up a lot of old stories about what Buddhism is and isn't. It's beautiful to see the same teaching handled in so many different ways.


I'm very grateful to my home sangha, and know I'd be in a different place if I'd never found it. And being one of those tweeners in terms of pre/post internet age, I find that some days, I love learning online and other days, I feel like totally unplugging and going for a walk. It's not really as dramatic as "love/hate," but more of a sense that I connect in both "worlds," in different ways at different times.


I'm glad I located your comment. Makes me think their are some comment goblins hanging out in cyberspace, playing the role of tricksters.

Thanks for sharing your essay. It's funny how sci-fi it sounds, and yet isn't really that far off at all. I don't know where this is all going, but it's going to be an interesting ride.

spldbch said...

I like the comparison to photography. I think you get this kind of push back whenever a new way of doing things emerges. Sometimes the new way is clearly more effective and the old way becomes obsolete. Most of the time, however, this is not the case. Typically, there are good things that can be taken from both the old and the new. Often, the result of combining the old and new is something far greater than either could have offered by themselves.