BUDDHISM ON THE INTERNET
Religions are amongst the keenest to exploit the Internet’s potential and Buddhism is certainly no exception. It seems the path to Nirvana can now include a few hours in cyberspace each day, but how are Buddhism and the Internet affecting each other?
SEAN HEALEY explores their blossoming co-evolution.
Buddhists, religious scholars, and seekers of enlightenment the world over are starting to see the Internet as a dataline to the heavens, its seeming limitless oceans of information perhaps persuading that the answers we all need can be found somewhere online. The net is more than just an information resource, however, also being a powerful communication tool. In giving us new ways of interacting with the world, and new models of it, it alters our ideas about how we fit in. Yet are the effects of computer-mediated communication and dwelling in cyberspace for extended periods compatible with the pursuit of a spiritual path? If you can believe the Buddhists who are online already, the net is breathing new life into Buddhism, and the wise use of the net’s tools can help us “transcend the wheel of life”.
When the Venerable Pannyavaro returned as a Western Buddhist monk from intensive meditation in Burma about four years ago, he established an association in Sydney called Buddha Dharma Education Association. He also established Australia’s first Buddhist electronic bulletin board and currently maintains the web site – an enormous and widely respected site that enthusiastically meshes timeless Buddhist insights with the latest technological “bells and Whistles” of the net. Now 36 months online, and receiving up to 50, 000 hits per day, BuddhaNet generates lots of e-main traffic and incredibly positive feedback from it’s mostly non-Buddhist users. It’s not surprising then that Pannyavaro is a strong believer in the potential of the net.
Surfing Pannyavar’s BuddhaNet site is like riding a slow wave as it size and spunky design ensure that some aspect compulsively draws you in, such as its high quality gallery of Buddhist Art, the Interactive Wheel of life (a clickable graphic interface of the Buddha’s teachings on ” Origination” via the Wheel of Existence”); a directory of Australian Buddhist Organizations, listings of Buddhist retreats and courses, the Dhamma Data, a comprehensive glossary of Buddhist terms, or the BuddhaZine – their online magazine.
Sound files of meditation instruction can be downloaded and played back on your computer later.
BuddhaNet also contains a massive Electronic File Library where you can download titles such as Buddhism in a Nutshell, Buddhism & the Eco-crisis, a poem by Allen Ginsberg about meditating, a file on a Buddhist view of economics – which turns out to be an entire book, and an article which explores Buddhism and concepts of beauty. Given that BuddhaNet is only one of hundreds of Buddhist-related sites, its’ easy to understand there’s an abundance of suitable information for the beginner or the scholar, available from a net connection anywhere. You can even access the entirety of the words of the Buddha and his immediate disciples, as preserved in the Sri Lankan version of the Pali Tipitaka (ftp://ffp.cac.psu.edu/pub/jbe/Pali).
Information by itself doesn’t deliver enlightenment, however, as Hazel Henderson argues in her book Paradigms in Progress: Life Beyond Economics, focusing on mere information has led to an overload of ever-less meaningful billions of bits of fragmented raw data, as opposed to meaningful new patterns of knowledge. Given also that “experience” and being “present” are defining elements of Buddhism, even if net users are accessing Buddhist ideas and absorbing them intellectually, this isn’t enough by itself.
“We need to go beyond thinking, beyond thought, because thoughts are just symbolic, just constructions to describe our experience of reality. Thoughts are never reality”, explains Ven. Pannyavaro, “so even when I teach meditation in person, its difficult to convey the sense, the need for “immediacy”, for being present without conditioning, and so over the net, that’ obviously a lot harder.”
“Being mindfully present with whatever you’re doing is the key. Even when you’re online you need to be aware.”
Buddhism’ disseminators may be comfortable using the appropriate technology to spread its teachings, yet they remain aware of the potential danger of imbalance due to over-fascination with technology. According to Zenshin Roshi, a Zen Buddhist in San Diego, the benefits of immersion in cyber reality depend upon the spiritual life of the net user. In an online article, Technology and the Buddha Dharma, he writes: “Do you have an inner life? Do you relate to the forces which create you and are you? If you do not, then immersion into cyberreality is on going to dig you a bigger and deeper hole in the aforementioned Third Buddhist Silicon Hell. On the other hand, if technology is but another instrument in our bodhisattva hands, then you have bought the Upaya Pentium.”
Such incongruous associations and colourful phrases are plentiful within Buddhist net-spheres, reflecting the melding of geeky gadgetry with the search for ancient wisdom. We find jargon-hidden advice like “flames do not burn where there is no fuel. And the fuel is in one’s own mind, not the mind of the offender” (a flame is net jargon for an angry response). Interesting phrases or words such as DigitalDharma or Dharma Bums on the net co-exist with neologisms like CyberSangha, which is a Buddhist journal dedicated to exploring alternative methods of Buddhist practice, especially electronic means such as the Internet.
A Sangha encompasses all sentient beings, past, future and present, who pursue the path to spiritual liberation. Sangha also denotes the members of a localised Buddhist Community. And now CyberSangha is used to describe that “community on the path to spiritual liberation who have, as an additional gift, the ability to communicate instantly without regard for their geographical proximity.”
The CyberSangha has now grown to such an extent that it’s no longer possible to keep up with the volume of information. Rather than creating community, more numbers have brought a wider range of opinions and the subsequent splintering of CyberSangha into ever more specialist groups, explains Gary Ray, Editor of CyberSangha, describing an effect the net is having on religions generally, not just Buddhism.
Predictably, there are plenty of other people and groups taking advantage of the World Wide Web’s capacity for cheap, relatively easy global publishing and networking. The capacity to attract a global audience to your very own niche religion or virtual congregation, has tended to support a diversifying of approaches to Buddhism, and allows controversial or specialist topics to be explored. This ease of publishing the nets structure which allows your site to be found just as easily as those o f established institutions, and the easy availability of interaction and feedback for authors and readers means that the net threatens existing hierarchies and challenges the established traditions.
“The Net offers us a voice that previously would not be heard,” says Mark Vetanen, webmaster of Dark Zen (http://www.teleport.com/~zennist/zennist.html), a site which aims to provide information which is understandable to all, not just scholars or those who are familiar with certain terms. “We use the Internet to challenge popular opinions, bad scholarship and just downright cut mind-control groups who use Buddhist language to entrap seekers and enrich the gurus.”
Yet diversity is great, according to Ven Pannyavaro, who feels that the net has “stirred up the big pudding and is reviving Buddhism, helping it become more a part of the general culture. For Pannyavaro though, the pre-internet days of electronic bulletin boards offered more community and connecting, and a greater spirit of sharing, a belief shared by those who have watched the Internet grow.
How does Pannyavaro respond, though, when flippant types ask whether he’ll one day be meditating in Virtual Reality?
“I’m actually very comfortable on the net, comfortable with the spacelessness. It’s like looking at the stars… that sense of immensity… and I find it meditative to lose sense of bodily boundaries.”
Others can be more blunt.
“Basically, if one wants words, go to the net. If one wants meditation, sit on your ass.”
Or as CyberSangha editor Gary Ray puts it; “I think technology is very useful in allowing the individual to be educated as to problems and possible solutions. But at some point you’ve got to turn everything off and start doing some hard work.”
[This article was first published in Conscious Living magazine, Issue No 38 March/April 1997]