The Aesthetic of Meditation is Broken

The Aesthetic of Meditation is Broken” is the most recent conversation on the often-interesting Buddhist Geeks site. It’s a design view of meditation culture.

Design is a way of seeing, and a way of knowing, and a way of doing; and it’s a huge part of what I do and how and why, so it’s natural that I found this to my taste. And it’s natural that I found Rohan Gunatillake, the interviewee, saying things I’ve been going on about for a while.

Here are some of them.

It’s not just for Boomers anymore

Buddhism and meditation are mostly a Baby Boom thing. If Buddhism is going to survive, and if 30-somethings are going to meditate, that’s going to have to change. Because the current packaging is generation-specific.

The problems is, Boomers don’t realize they are talking Boomerese. They are unaware that their experience and world-view are not universal, and that their reference points are irrelevant to many in younger generations. I’ve tried to explain this to some, and have so far failed. Change is urgent, and it looks like it has to come from younger teachers.

Lose the goddamn wind chimes

Meditation, and Buddhism, are positioned in the market as products for holistic airheads. In Gunatillake’s words, “it’s all purple patchouli and woo woo language.”

Perhaps meditation and Buddhism can be useful to holistic airheads, but they’re more useful to people willing to do hard work and to understand how the real world works.

To work, meditation has to be rooted in the place and time you live in. Pretending we are in rural medieval India or China or Tibet is an escapist fantasy.

So is pretending that we live—or ever could—in a 1960s hippie utopia.

Looks count

Gunatillake is a professional web designer, and his Buddhist meditation web site doesn’t look like a Buddhist meditation web site. (No wind chimes.) It has what he calls an “urban aesthetic”.

This is really important. Buddhism doesn’t have to look nice.

I worked hard on the visual design of my Buddhism for Vampires site. It really doesn’t look like a Buddhist web site. And that’s its point: Buddhism is for everyone, not just vegan aromatherapists.

User-centered design

I used to work in software design. To make insanely great software, you have to find out what prospective users actually do, what they actually need, what they actually want. This is hard.

Meditation centers too often offer what they think people ought to want, based on what they think people need and do. I suspect those ideas are often quite wrong. But meditation teachers are often quite sure of them anyway. The generational disconnect plays a part here. What meditation teachers offer is usually what they found useful in the 1970s.

To make insanely great software, you have to directly involve users in the design, from the beginning and throughout. Gunatillake suggests doing the same for the “delivery” of meditation instruction. I second the motion.

This does not mean giving users what they say they want. That’s a classic design error. Users aren’t designers, they don’t know what they need, and they don’t know what is possible. You have to co-design with users.

Buddhist teachers often object to taking student desires into account. “Telling people what they want to hear would water down the dharma, turning it into generic ‘spiritual’ pablum. They can’t know what’s good for them.” Alternatively, some teachers do give students what they say they want—and those do churn out generic spiritual platitudes.

So both these are are mistakes to avoid. And that’s hard. (Cue lecture on the First Noble Truth.)

But it’s worth a try.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

4 thoughts on “The Aesthetic of Meditation is Broken”

  1. Great new photo, btw.
    Many of your links lead to your Aro site. But it is ironic since Aro is packed full of all the things you criticize here. I agree with the criticisms. Keep us posted if you find sites or teachers that are paying attention to these points ! Thanx.

  2. Well, maybe not quite all of them! But, yes, as I’ve said elsewhere, Aro is mostly not reaching under-45s (except in Finland—an interesting special case). My guess is it will vanish with the death of its current generation of teachers. But a new generation of Lamas has just been promoted, and some of them seem to share some of my views on this.

    There’s lots of non-Aro younger teachers who I think are doing most things right; but none I can recommend unreservedly.

    Brad Warner talks plain post-1980 English, and has serious stuff to say. His visual design and “delivery mechanism” need work.

    Ethan Nichtern’s Interdependence Project is great on hip branding and fresh delivery, but the actual content seems Boomerish to me.

    The Buddhist Geeks site has innovative delivery (podcast interviews with many slightly-off-center teachers), but some worrying tendency towards fashionable monism.

    Daniel Ingram is interesting and gets a lot of buzz and I like some things about his presentation. I can’t make sense of his main points, though.

    Who else should be included in this list?

  3. “Well, maybe not quite all of them! But, yes, as I’ve said elsewhere, Aro is mostly not reaching under-45s (except in Finland—an interesting special case). My guess is it will vanish with the death of its current generation of teachers. But a new generation of Lamas has just been promoted, and some of them seem to share some of my views on this.”

    Hmm… I try to comment as a 27-ear-old member of the Finnish sangha. I am hardly a member of the boomer generation. When it comes to books, I do spot certain style that speaks maybe more to boomers. However, I have not have that problem with personal communication with my lama. On the other hand, maybe Lama Rig’dzin has a very different style of expression than the lineage holders. His sangha is relatively young.

    If I would become an authorized teacher, I wonder what my style of teaching would be. I have just my blog, but that does not really tell anything, because it is not about teaching really. Regardless, I have been writing in the members’ magazine of the Finnish Pagan Network ( a series of articles where I try to communicate some basic ideas of Dzogchen to pagans. I call this series “Dzogchen for Chaos Magicians”. Unfortunately it is written in Finnish and there are no translations (at least yet).

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