Online Buddhists

Philip RyanBy Philip Ryan

When I arrived at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review in the summer of 1996, the question everyone was asking was this: Can Buddhism transition to an online space without losing its essence? We had no idea but we were all ready to try. Way back then, we would laboriously create an HTML document and upload it via FTP to our web server over our 33.6KB modem connection. (We couldn't stay online long or the phone line would give callers a busy signal.) This HTML document then sat at its URL, patiently waiting for its link to be clicked somewhere so that some intrepid Online Buddhist could venture along and read it. Nowadays a blogpost is written, tweeted, RSS'd, picked up on feeds and readers, and distributed everywhere for thousands of people to access more or less instantly. That's big progress for the technology. But what about for the dharma? 

Many people will say that the jury's still out on whether the dharma can effectively transition to webspace, but I'd say the answer is yes and it's already happened. To take just the example of Buddhist blogs, there are dozens upon dozens -- at least 180 by one incomplete count. They are written by individuals working alone or groups at institutions and organizations, but either way, when you turn on your computer every morning (you know that it's good for your computer to be shut down at regular intervals, don't you?) there are heaps and heaps of Buddhist material -- new and old, text, audio, and video -- right there at your fingertips.

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It's a noisy space. There's a lot out there that isn't the highest quality stuff, and not a lot of ways to separate the noise from the signal, but there is enough to keep everyone from the newest newbie to the knowingest know-it-all busy for a long, long time. There's no YouTube movie of Nansen cutting a cat in half yet, but I'm holding my breath waiting. Hopefully it will be animated, like this. Mindful of the crowded Buddhist net, Tricycle tries to balance providing a quiet, peaceful space with providing enough content to stay fresh and keep today's monkey-minded quick-clickers engaged and interested. 

When the dharma traveled along trade routes out of India, new forms blossomed on Chinese soil, and in Korea, Japan, Tibet, Vietnam, Thailand, Mongolia. Everywhere it went the dharma adapted and evolved and met the challenges of the new culture. For a long time in the United States now it has been asked, what will a truly "Western dharma" look like? There are bitter fights online over this all the time, with no resolution or even agreement about the terms of the fight -- "What do you mean by 'West,' kemo sabe?" Well, I mean "not Asia" -- which shouldn't imply Asians aren't involved in the evolution of Western Buddhism. After all, Westerners participated in the rejuvenation of the dharma in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

Lines like East/West blur as the world comes together at a fantastic pace, but some historians will argue that the world was more cohesive and "globalized" a hundred years ago, and that didn't prevent intense nationalism and World War I. In any event, online is not the West. It's a whole other country. It will take wild and weird forms undreamed of right now. (Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition -- or dharma talks on Second Life. But there they are.)

There's a huge challenge embedded in all this. The dharma can flourish online, and this is precisely where many, many people found Buddhism and where they engage with Buddhism daily. They simply don't engage with other Buddhists offline. Can we bring the "Online Buddhists" offline (for a little while) and into actual dharma centers and communities of flesh-and-blood people? 

Why? Because it's harder to argue face-to-face, to insult someone, to mock someone's beliefs, to tell someone you hate them or that what they think is stupid. This is all-too-easy to do with fingers on the keyboard, unfortunately. But while life online may have the illusion of neatness, real life is unapologetically complicated, contradictory, and messy. It's harder to always be right and shield your ego and have the last word every time. People will often refuse the gift of your anger and you'll have to keep it for yourself.

Don't ask me how this will happen. I don't know. But at Tricycle we're trying to create a sense of community and shared purpose that will facilitate more human interaction than you find on message boards and blog comments where flame wars, sadly, still find lots of fuel. We'll keep you posted, or stop by and see.


Philip Ryan is the Web Editor of Tricycle. He has worked for Tricycle on and off (mostly off) since 1996. He is an inconstant and unreliable sitter, mainly in the Zen Buddhist tradition.

7/5/2010 4:00:00 AM
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