As we plunge more deeply into the Internet Age, the question of how rapid technological innovation is changing our understanding and practice of Buddhism naturally comes to the fore.
None of us is exempt from the challenge of maintaining presence in the midst of an always-on digital environment. Each of us must figure out how to live with a barrage of e-mails, social media updates, news articles and other information, and try to make some sort of coherent meaning out of it all.
For modern dharma practitioners, one question likely to arise in the midst of such an influx of stimuli is this: how do the practices of mindful awareness, lovingkindness and concentration relate to this light-speed Internet age? Is this new epoch making it harder or easier to realize the truths of the dharma here and now? After exploring the convergence of Buddhism, technology and culture over the past eight years through a project called Buddhist Geeks, I’ve come to see the emergence of three trends that could radically shape the future direction of Buddhism in the Internet Age.
The first trend is something that many of us are already familiar with. It started with the rapid growth of the Internet in the mid-’90s and has continued unabated since. This trend has to do with the way that Buddhist sanghas are going virtual. It started a couple of decades ago with practitioners connecting online via messaging boards, and then in the mid-2000s progressed to digital media (blogs, books and podcasts). In the last few years, online video software has increasingly made it possible for folks to interact in real time. This has brought about a growing community of practitioners who connect online and who may get all of their support from cloud-based sanghas.
In the years to come, look for this trend to continue and for the geocentric community model, i.e., the notion that people get together to practice primarily in physical space, to wane (though probably not disappear). It is hard to imagine it now, but virtual-reality and augmented-reality technologies are poised to bring about a level of immersiveness that feels nearly indistinguishable from in-person interactions. Whole sanghas will migrate online, and many new ones will start there. The benefits for these communities include being able to organize around ideas and people rather than geographical location. Other advantages also include the ability to participate in genuinely international groups, with a variety of perspectives coming to bear that were typically only available in very large cities. It will also lower the cost of participation, as there is a much lower fixed cost associated with maintaining virtual spaces than with physical ones.
The second trend has to do with the observation that Buddhism is currently being unbundled. This unbundling started with meditation being pulled out from the three trainings of ethics, meditation and wisdom. This happened in modern Burma with the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition (see Erik Braun’s recent book, The Birth of Insight), and also with the longstanding emphasis in the Ch’an and Zen traditions on the central importance of meditation. Such changes laid the groundwork for the extremely popular mindfulness movement and the further unbundling of mindfulness, one of the dimensions of meditation training, from Buddhist meditation itself.
This unbundling has enabled all kinds of new possibilities—including these typically religious mind-training techniques entering various aspects of secular culture and recombining with new disciplines, thus creating new mindful-hybrid approaches (such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy within contemporary psychotherapy). It has also brought about many criticisms and concerns regarding mindfulness losing its liberative potential or becoming subsumed by the more negative aspects of capitalist culture.
In the coming years, look for additional elements of Buddhism to become unbundled—such as compassion, concentration and even meditative insight.
The final trend that relates to the convergence of Buddhism with the Internet Age is in the development of a whole host of new contemplative technologies—what could also be called technodelics. These technologies are in an early stage of development right now and are still relatively unimpressive in comparison to traditional techniques done over long periods of time. Emerging technodelics include things such as meditation apps, electroencephalography (EEG) headsets (such as those you might have seen in photos in recent years wired up to the scalps of Tibetan monks in Western neuroscience experiments), and physical sensors measuring different aspects of our biology, such as breathing, heart rate and skin conductance (measuring the amount of sweat on the skin).
As the field of contemplative science continues to develop and as our increasing understanding of the biology of contemplation converges with next-generation hardware—tools such as virtual-reality headsets, wearable computers, increasingly powerful EEG headsets and direct-current brain stimulation devices—be prepared to see the emergence of technologies that can actually enhance our ability to meditate. Several early prototypes and finished products in this field point to enormous possibilities, including an app called “Calm” that uses neurofeedback in the form of particular sights and sounds to help move you toward the state programmed into the app that corresponds with a calm experience.
In the realm of finding even more digital calm, Yale researcher Judson Brewer is at work on one of the most exciting EEG projects currently in development: creating an application that gives real-time feedback on the activity levels of the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) area in the brain. I spoke recently with a long-term meditator who has tried versions of the Yale/Brewer app. He was stunned to find that the feedback from his latest session was clearly related to an experience of selfless perception.
Meditation teacher Shinzen Young has raved about the prospects of a technology called transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS)—a form of neuromodulation technology that can activate and deactivate particular areas of the brain with a mild electrical current:
Our current systematic ways of bringing people to stream entry could be described generically as two-component systems. We give people certain ideas (darshana), and we give people certain practices (sādhanā). I envisage the possibility that, in the future, there might be a third component added: science/technology-based boosters (modern upāya).
—Shinzen’s Blog, shinzenyoung.blogspot.com, July 25, 2012
I know it may sound like science fiction, as it did to me several years ago, but I suspect these contemplative technologies could usher in a new era of interest in consciousness that may make the human potential movement of the ’60s and ’70s pale in comparison.
The opportunity I see for Buddhism is to provide a context of deep meaning, time-tested practices for working with difficulties, communities of intimate learning that can support the wise use of these technologies, and a space for continuing to explore what awakening means in this time and place. That these Internet Age forms of Buddhism will often look radically different from today’s forms is hard to doubt. But I think the focus will continue, by and large, to be on the diminishment of human suffering and the awakening of the most profound aspects of the heart and mind.