Building Engaged Global Cybersangha

Via on Aug 11, 2010

In a world where decreasing civic involvement threatens democracy and human welfare, is spending more time in front of a computer really going to reduce suffering in the world?

Second Life Protest for Burmese Monks (video)

When I created a Zen Peacemakers Facebook fan page while I was in training in residence, I didn’t foresee that I would later get hired to help develop our online community further. You mean Facebook is about more than hooking up with friends from kindergarten and you are going to pay me to use it!?

The Dangers

As Waylon talked about on Walk the Talk, internet technology can be used for good or ill.  As scholar Laura Busch explains in Digital Compassion, at its worst, the internet is a means of surveillance and repression by authoritarian governments. In her longer essay (download PDF), she also explores the distinction articulated by the Venerable P.A. Payutto between “consumption technology” and “constructive technology”. As a form of mere consumption, the internet “colonizes our consciousness” transforming us into inactive coach potatoes where the sedative of sitcoms and commercials is replaced by homepages and pop-up ads.

Global Cybersangha: Building Community & Teaching Dharma

At its best, Busch goes on, we construct a socially engaged global cybersangha, where Buddhists and others around the world connect across geographic and other boundaries, deepen cross-cultural understanding and, as a result, take real action to alleviate suffering through activism and service. Online dharma pioneers Roshi Joan Halifax, Vince Horn and Alan Senauke claim that the internet is an effective tool for building community and transmitting the dharma.

Roshi Joan, the founder and director of Upaya Zen Center, recently had to switch from a ‘friend’ page on Facebook to a ‘fan’ page because she reached the limit of 5,000 friends. She says: “Facebook and other social networking sites bring the dharma to many people who would not otherwise have access to it. This is a new and wonderful upaya, skillful means, to touch the lives of so many people. One of the things I have appreciate about Facebook, is the chance students and practitioners have to enter into discussion around dharma themes. Another is that many teachers will find their way onto the same newsfeed and one feels a widening sense of sangha through the presence of so many practitioners. And personally, I find myself amused when a “perfect stranger” approaches me in Slovenia or Hong Kong and says: I am a Facebook friend. The sense of Indra’s net becomes stronger with every post.”

Along with Gwen Bell and Ryan Oelke, Naropa University graduate Vince Horn created the Buddhist Geeks podcast and blog. They have interviewed key leaders in Western Buddhism, reaching an audience of 60,000 downloads per month. In the future, Buddhist Geeks will move into the realm of online teaching and events and study seminars. Vince says: “One of my main areas of interest and exploration has been in whether or not dharma can be taught online. What I’ve concluded, after talking to so many innovative dharma teachers—including those that lead day-long retreats online, who have created Zendos in Second Life (a virtual reality simulation), and those that are creating artificial intelligence programs to help guide meditation students in their practice—is that the answer is not “if” a successful transmission of dharma will happen online, but rather “how” that will look. And if Buddhism’s rich history is any indication, it will almost certainly include a multitude of skillful means.”

Alan Senauke said that “If one watches the recent film ‘Burma VJ,’ the value of web and social media is clear. The most important factor in the Saffron Revolution is that monks, nuns, and activists were willing to risk everything. But because of the courage of journalists and their ability to get images, video, and reporting out to the wider world, we knew of these actions in real time, unlike the tragic Burmese uprising in 1988. The work of activists and the presence of journalists and those bearing witness are inseparable. This is much the same as in the U.S. civil rights movement, where activists from oppressed communities depended on local, regional, and national media to get out words and images that ultimately changed the laws of the U.S. and the realities of racism.”

Developing Real Engagement

While social media triumphalism appeals to the geek in me, I’m also aware of aspects that are ridiculous. As a Socially Engaged Buddhist, I would extend the distinction between consumption and constructive technology to Buddhist practice and philosophy itself. I heard one fellow practitioner scoff at “nightstand Buddhists” who consider themselves Buddhist because they feel good reading the Dalai Lama before going to bed, as opposed to real Buddhists who meditate with a teacher.

But can mediation itself also become a consumption technology? Isn’t it conceivable that an advanced practitioner could have deep mystical experiences of the oneness of life on the cushion and then neglect to actualize them in their lives off the cushion? And what does actualizing the interconnectedness of all people mean in a world of pervasive inequality?

Just like there are nightstand Buddhists, there also nightstand Socially Engaged Buddhists and coffee shop activists. Activism without heart is dangerous, but politics without action is useless. The Zen Peacemakers see it as our spiritual practice to meet unmet needs of all suffering people, whether they are interested in meditation or not- that means food, shelter, jobs and other support services. We also offer meditation, yoga and stress-reduction techniques available to all people without limitations by class and race.

Work on the Ground

As the Zen Peacemakers inspire and train Buddhists of all denominations to do socially engaged practice, we search for the proper balance between the high-tech and the high-touch. At the Bearing Witness Blog I try to bring to a wider audience work being done in prisons, schools, homeless shelters and streets throughout the West. I hope that this will inspire people to get involved and provide practical information guiding them to do so by highlighting opportunities.  I wonder how I can best work with other groups to get this job done more effectively.