Zen in the cyberspace

October 6, 2010

Internet is a very effective and efficient way to spread the Dharma: it allows Universities like the Institute for Buddhist Studies Austria, to reach people far in the World, and keep the discussion about Buddhism fresh with inputs from different prospective. We need to consider that tools are as valuable as the use we make of them. Internet is not only a virtual space, it is a web of communities, so it can be used to share text and teachings, create a sense of belonging and mobilize resources. Many of the dictionaries and Sutra’s archives are already mentioned in our e-learning material. For this reason, here I will focus on my prospective of Seon in cyberspace.

There are several examples of “Buddhist early-adopters” of internet. This include the Chollian Buddhist Community ( http://www.buddhasite.net/ ) which already in 1997 had created its own website, with dedicated address. This community, made by and for Koreans, mixes online and offline meetings. Considering the availability in Korea of fast-internet, Internet can become an important channel. This is especially true if we consider that 80% of Korean population is concentrated in urban centers, while many Temples are scattered in the rural areas, making it more complicated for working Buddhists to take part in their Temple’s life.

Another example is the Zen Mountain Monastery ( http://www.mro.org/ ) which in 1996 already had a Cybermonk (a senior monastic available through e-mail to answer Dharma questions) and was organizing “Dharma Combats” to test understanding of Zen, posting on the site and mailing a koan , then discussing it in the Chat. By having public chat, where both current students and visitors can share comments, ZMM ensures the answers are fast, and spontaneous. When smaller groups meet, the result is a slower-paced, more intellectual interaction.

It is interesting to see lists from the 1990s, like the one available on http://www.colorado.edu/ReligiousStudies/TheStrip/Archive/ambud/journ.html and verify which initiatives have evolved, which ones are just not updated anymore and which ones are no longer available.

Most of the academic researches mentioned in the bibliography point out the risks related to spirituality in the cyberage, like undermining of religious leaders’ authority, peers loyalty being stronger than loyalty to central authority, etc. Considering the main point in Seon is not a central authority, but the relationship teacher-student and transmission by example, Seon approach can only be enriched by blending new media with the traditional face-to-face communication.

Seon is in tune with our times: it is not realistic to expect lay-people to be able to dedicate themselves to a fully academic approach to Buddhism, while also taking care of their families and mundane obligations. Seon provides this intuitive approach to Enlightmenent; also, by making clear there is no secret knowledge to access, but simply a need of removing the veil of ignorance from our eyes and see things as they really are, it is in tune with science. The Taego school goes even further, by allowing married members of the Shanga to be ordained as monks or become Dharma instructors.

Online, all these features of Seon can be leveraged to make other people’s lives better. Some of us already walked a path and recognized in Buddhism a way to find answers; others have not decided yet to pursue a spiritual path, but still are searching for answers to their daily challenges: how to calm our mind? Improve our relations? Educate children? Etc. It is likely that, sooner or later, these people searching for practical answers will feel there is something more missing, and may decide to embrace Buddhism.

To make these statements concrete, below we analyze some of the tools available to Seon – and any other Buddhist school or spiritual group – with their main features, strenghts and weaknesses.

Social networks
FaceBook and similar platforms allow to create profiles for individuals and pages for organisations, post updates, pictures, etc. Considering the amount of people using SN, and also the frequency with which they come back if the social network is well focused on friends and not occasional meetings, it is an optimal tool to keep people engaged, informed and make easier for them to share their support for Seon. Main weakness is the growing spam, and the potential risk of losing active users – like MySpace – if the community is not well focused. They can be used to organise online meditation sessions. Facebook groups and pages need to be updated often, even several times per day; leaving the door open to more than one moderator, and also have “fans” comments, help in this. There are two main tracks to take in creating such groups: one is to have a smaller, even invitation-only, group, which is strongly focused on a particular Buddhist order, where people really know each other personally. The second, to have “interest groups”, like meditation, happiness, etc., where the message is focused on a benefit for the members, such benefit being delivered through the tools available to Buddhist practitioners. These tracks can be taken at the same time, and people from the first track play a major role in growing the second track group, especially when the project is at its beginning. The author of this paper tried to launch an indepent social-network, MyPacis.eu, focused on peace starting from Europe. The number of users was growing fast, meaning a lot of time and some financial resources started to get drained, so a suggestion is to piggy-back on existing social networks, unless one has a lot of time and money to invest to keep the community moderated etc.

Including Blogger and WordPress, which allow to post articles, updates, comments. Very user-friendly, and also search-engine friendly (attracting readers who searched for the Seon topics we blogged about). Even with comments, usually are less interactive than a community, but allow selected users to contribute with their own articles, so readers may become also writers. Useful to post and comment koans, Buddhist news, etc.

Applications like Twitter allow to write, in 140 characters or less, short updates. Ideal to publish Koan, and get immediate short comments. Not suitable for longer discussions. Also, many users follow hundreds of micro-blogs at the same time, it is easy to be buried under the number of updates.

Already used for years by Universities, especially in US with Typo3, several commercial solutions and also open-source ones. Allow students to study at their own place, and interact through forums etc. To keep the learning experience fresh, if possible it is useful to mix online and face-to-face learning. Regardless of how useful and interesting one e-course is, some people feel less committed when they learn online, this resulting in less timely actions and often high drop-rate from start to end of e-courses. Like WBU is doing, e-Learning can be used to spread the Dharma. Considering licensing fees for commercial software can leave deep bites in non-profits budgets, it is better to focus on open source solutions.

Other tools
Several other communication channels and platforms are available to spread the Dharma. These include:

Wikis: collaborative encyclopedias. Like in the case of Wikipedia, volunteers add, edit and monitor new entries. Wikis are often comprehensive, but sometimes not fully reliable. Especially when topics get very specific, it is necessary to ensure peers review the articles for accuracy. Several Dharma-related entries are already in Wikipedia.

Forums (phpBB): allow users to start threads, reply to existing conversations, etc. Very useful tool for asyncronos communication, they often need moderators to remove spam, off-topic or unpolite messages. They are the most user-friendly way to discuss Buddhism for daily practitioners.

Podcasts (distributed by iTunes): effective way to reach iPod users. Listeners can download single podcasts, or subscribe to receive for free and automatically all the future updates. In addition to audio podcasts, there are videocasts; visually powerful, but limited in use because many people prefer to listen while “on the go” than to watch on small screens. This media is used a lot by organizations as FWBO.

Mobile applications (for example, iPhone on Apple’s application store): including Zen bells, Buddha’s daily quotations, etc.

Text repository: plain-text, digital version of Sutras and commentaries. The most basic form of internet use, still very powerful in making text available World-wide at no costs.

There are also a number of sites which are not “formally” Buddhist, but still offer opportunities for engaged Buddhists, for example:
1Non-profit: several Buddhist associations and groups can be reached online.
2Social entrepreneurship: there are Buddhist entrepreneurs, like WildMind, offering their services online, respecting the precept of rightful occupation.
3P2P: several Buddhist documentaries are available for free online. It is important to visit beforehand the site of the documentary-makers, to ensure they agreed to share freely online their work. Virtually all makers provide free previews, on P2P or YouTube, a number charges for the full version.

For people who are already committed to family life and also to practice Buddhism, is very important to have access to guidance at flexible times. Also, reaching Buddhists in their native language is very important, because some explanations may be complicated to understand in foreign languages.

Of course, there are elements that, as pointed out by Madelein Frost on http://storage02.video.muni.cz/prf/mujlt/storage/1205309867_sb_r07-frost.pdf would be missing if the only experience people have about Seon would be limited to online practice. What we advocated here is a melting of online and offline practice, which takes the strengths of both.

This post is part of Zen: from China to cyberspace free booklet. You can download for free the whole book here.

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