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?