Geeks: help connect Buddhists with resources!

At the 2011 Buddhist Geeks Conference last weekend, a group of us brainstormed about innovations in ways to deliver dharma. [More conference context at the end of this post.]

To continue brainstorming, here are some suggestions and questions. Please comment!

Points of pain

At each stage in the “life cycle” of a Buddhist, finding necessary resources can be hard:


Solutions to all these problems are available somewhere in the Buddhist world. But how to find them?

Existing social institutions are inadequate. For example, a recurring theme at both the Maha Teachers Conference and the Buddhist Geeks Conference was that young teachers are frustrated at not getting support from the Western Buddhist establishment; the establishment wants to give that support, but they have been unable to communicate effectively about “what” and “how.”

Existing technologies also inadequate. Google searches won’t give useful answers to any of the “points of pain” questions. The usually-reliable Wikipedia is worse than useless for researching Vajrayana Buddhism. (That’s the Buddhism I know best; maybe the Wiki is better on other brands.) StumbleUpon’s recommendations for Buddhism don’t work for me. Buddhist web forums are often nightmares of misinformation and social dysfunction.

Can we use Buddhism-specific technology to match Buddhists with the resources they need?

For instance, could we use recommendation engine technology (like Amazon’s) to help match guide beginners to web sites, books, organizations, and teachers? “Since you like Shinzen Young, maybe you’ll like Ken McLeod.” [They are both geeks who use math to explain dharma.]

Can we develop new social institutions to support teachers at each stage in their development? Is it possible that these could cross tradition lines, so that a Theravada teacher might mentor a Vajrayana teacher about pastoral care, or marketing, or financial structures?

Can we develop new economic models that make Buddhist teaching widely available at reasonable cost, while supporting teachers with reasonable incomes?

The Buddhism market has a “winner-take-all” structure. A handful of superstars wind up with huge numbers of students (whom they don’t have enough time for), and more money than they can use. At the same time, many excellent but little-known teachers are under-utilized. How could we disrupt that dynamic?

How many brilliant Buddhist teachers fail to reach students simply for lack of adequate marketing?

Is there a business opportunity in providing marketing services to less-known teachers? This might benefit both teachers and students. It might also help level the gap between charismatic stars with marketing machines and shy but competent and caring teachers. It might also generate income for either a non-profit or, as Rohan Gunatillake advocates, a “spiritual enterprise.”

Maps of the space of providers

Buddhist students need to choose a brand of Buddhism, an organization that provides the brand, and a teacher within the organization. (Or, they need to combine several.)

The traditional classifications may not be helpful. Consider:

  1. a traditional Chinese Ch’an teacher
  2. a traditional Theravada teacher
  3. a modern American Zen teacher
  4. a vipassana teacher from the Insight Mediation Society

#1 and #3 are from the same “brand,” as are #2 and #4. But #1 and #2 probably have more in common with each other, in both style and content. So do #3 and #4. In a recent interview, Reggie Ray says:

I recently went to the Garrison Institute [Maha Teachers Conference]. The [attendees] are people of my generation who are regarded as pioneers of Buddhism in the West. There were 20 of us there, the usual suspects: Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Surya Das, and myself. What was interesting was that we had more in common with each other—we had the same questions, many of the same approaches, and insights. Across huge boundaries—Theravadin, Pure Land, Zen, and the Tibetan lineages—we had more in common with each other than we had with our Tibetan, Theravadin, or Japanese teachers.

So the traditional vs. modern axis may be much more relevant (especially for newcomers) than Zen vs. Theravada.

To help steer students to suitable providers, we may need better taxonomy. In what other ways do providers differ? In what ways do students differ? How do differences in providers relate to differences in students?

I suspect that provider “style” and “approach” and “personality” and “format” are often more important than the content of the teaching. (Again, especially for newer students.) You can’t learn from someone you don’t like and respect and understand.

How do we talk about those factors? Would it be possible to capture them in a database? What are the dimensions of variation?

I have a half-written page about factors to consider when choosing a Buddhist teacher. I hope to post it here soon. (Geekily, it’s based partly on something I wrote long ago about how to choose a PhD thesis advisor in the MIT computer science department.)

Some examples:

Would answers to questions like these help match students with suitable teachers?

Maps of the social path of Buddhism

Maps of the Buddhist path are typically individual. They describe stages of practice, conceptual understanding, and/or meditative accomplishment.

But Buddhism is an inherently social activity. Your progress through Buddhism critically involves a series of types of relationships. These include your relationship with teachers, peers, students, and organizations. These are not as well mapped.

Would advice about how to navigate these relationships help?

There are several books in relating to spiritual teachers, with much useful information. Still, I find them somewhat abstract. And I’ve found almost nothing about how to relate to peers, students, or Buddhist organizations.

Can we map the “life cycle” of Buddhist involvement? Stages of gradually increasing commitment and responsibility?

This will not be strictly linear, because there are multiple possible “career paths.” All involve service to the community in some way; but there are many ways to contribute. Senior figures may be scholars, center managers, inspiring yogis, popular mass teachers, publishers, or theoreticians. There are stages on the way to each. And of course many people pursue several such roles, simultaneously or successively.

What questions should you ask yourself at each stage? How do you know when to move on, into a different role, or to take that role to the next level? What resources do you need to assemble to take the next step? How to find them?

How do you avoid burnout (too common in Buddhist organizations)? How can you support peers in avoiding burnout without overloading yourself?

What social structures could support Buddhist “career development” in a non-sectarian framework?

Is there a role for technology here?

Crowd-sourcing the maps

Can crowd-sourcing provide answers to these questions?

For example, users could add metadata to a database of Buddhist resources. That might include descriptors (tags), ratings, and reviews. (What else?)

Would this be useful? It might, but I see several dangers.

A rating system might make the winner-take-all dynamic worse. (Geeky explanation here, with equations and stuff here.)

My view is that there aren’t good and bad Buddhist teachers, so much as teachers whose differences make them a good or bad fit for particular students. Displaying an average rating is probably counterproductive (as well as potentially demeaning). I would want to avoid any sort of popularity contest.

Rather, a recommendation engine might steer students to compatible teachers.

Such engines usually predict what you will like mainly based on how similar your ratings are to other people’s. In this case, I suspect that useful recommendations will require more detail about where you are at, what you are looking for, and the characteristics of the resources. So tags may count more than ratings. Their accuracy and predictive value might be crucial.

It would be important to avoid the Buddhist web flame war dynamic. Too many Buddhists are sure they have the authentic Buddhism, and you don’t. If you don’t believe X, you are not a real Buddhist (and probably deeply evil). If you do practice Y, you are not a real Buddhist, blah blah blah. How do we avoid this in tagging, rating, and reviews?

I suspect that user-generated tags (a free vocabulary) would produce a lot of heat (“fake” “cult” “New Age nonsense”). It also might not generate much light, because there is not much awareness of the dimensions of variation that matter.

This suggests that, initially at least, a database should define the axes of description. A well-thought-out ontology might be key to success. That could be modified, over time, with experience and community input, and eventually might become user-extensible/modifiable.

Of course, it might also be that there is no useful way of categorizing Buddhist resources. They are, after all, people (teachers), or groups of people (organizations), or produced by people (e.g. books). People never fit well into boxes.

Still, might this be worth trying?

Conference context

I accidentally ended up co-hosting an “Unplugged!” brainstorming session at the 2011 Buddhist Geeks Conference. (The person who mostly had the idea for the session wasn’t able to be at it.)

We were inspired by:

This post doesn’t try to summarize all the good ideas that were generated at the session. I hope other participants will post about them. Thanks to all of you—I have stolen your ideas shamelessly! Please take mine if they are of any use.

Eran Globen has posted his ideas, in wiki format so you can contribute. I’ve used some in this post.

Unfortunately I did not get everyone’s names/handles; some other participants were Rohan, Kyira Korrigan of D.I.Y. Dharma (which has some nifty features that fed into ideas here), Mark Miller, and co-host Hope Niblick.