Buddhists, Books, and Technology

Burma - Rangoon 2011 - young monk with a game

Rangoon, Burma, 2011. A young monk plays a video game.

The Huffington Post has a good article out today on Buddhism and technology: Om Mani iPadme Hum: Why Buddhists Get Technology.

According to Joyce Morgan, the author:

Printing is one of humanity’s great four inventions (together with paper, gunpowder and the compass).

In the West, it helped spread literacy and ushered in the Enlightenment. In the East, seekers after another form of enlightenment were instrumental in its spread. Buddhist monks grasped the value of the rapid reproduction of material — in their case sacred material — at least 600 years before the West.

They did so not just to proselytize but because of an idea central to Buddhism: creating merit. The more good deeds performed, the more merit accrued and the swifter one’s path to Buddhahood, or at least to a better rebirth.

I’m not sure where Ms. Morgan gets this list of four from, but it sounds good enough (an alternate list of top ten include 10. alcohol, 9. the internet, 8. birth control, 7. antibiotics, 6. anesthetic, 5. the printing press, 4. plumbing, 3. tools, 2. cooking, and 1. language). One year ago today, elephantjournal posted an article asking, “Is Money Humanity’s Greatest Invention? And here is an interesting short discussion on BBC radio about humanity’s best inventions, where it is a toss-up between the internet and the printing press.

And indeed, Buddhism did develop “cults of the book” in the early development of the Mahayana. As John Jorgensen writes in Inventing Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch: Hagiography And Biography in Early Ch’an:

… the cult of the relics almost back to the Buddha himself. The cult of the book originates with early Mahayana, in texts such as the Lotus Sutra, which went so far as to recommend the enshrining of scriptures in the stupas (along with the bodily relics?). A rivalry existed between the two cults as a means of creating sacred spaces. They could be symbolised as Dharmakaya (Corpus of the Law) versus Buddhakaya (Body of the Buddha). The b00k replaced the Buddhas speech, the relics his body.

Morgan goes on to connect the power of the book to more recent technology, including the internet:

With the internet in its infancy just over a decade ago, I encountered a Buddhist monk who, from a tiny house in Sydney, Australia, had quickly seen the potential of that emerging technology. He set up what was then the world’s largest Buddhist website. Technology has changed dramatically since, yet the aims of the website (www.buddhanet.net) remain the same: to use communication technologies to make the Buddha’s teachings widely available.

Buddhism tends to be about attention and mindfulness, calming the mind in order to see things as they truly are. These days many people see technology and ‘stuff’ in general as a force in the opposite direction, but this isn’t necessarily so. As I noted in a recent post:

No piece of technology will be intrinsically good or bad. What will matter is how we use it. It is up to us. This is the Buddha’s message.

Free Burma rally - London 2007.

Free Burma rally – London 2007. While some marchers carry signs featuring Aung San Suu Kyi , this Buddhist monk is busy on his smart-phone.

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