Two podcasts: rebuilding the ruined city of Buddhism

Buddhist ruins at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, courtesy Christoph Rooms

Two new Buddhist Geeks podcasts with Vincent Horn and me, in conversation:

This will be the first in a series of Geeks podcasts on Buddhist ethics, with a variety of guests.

I described that framework in “Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence,” and its relevance in “Better Buddhisms: A developmental approach.”

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Two new podcasts: tantra and ritual creation

Vincent Horn interviewed me recently for the Buddhist Geeks Community. An edited version is now available as a pair of podcasts:

I enjoyed the interview considerably. Vince asked some questions I wasn’t particularly expecting, and I came up with coherent answers. I haven’t actually listened to the podcasts, because I find my own voice grating, but I’ve been told they are good!

Much of the content will be familiar if you are following the blog, but some topics came up that I haven’t covered before. Also, some folks find it easier to absorb information by voice than text.

What ritual feels like when it works

Vince Horn interviewed me today for the Buddhist Geeks Community. One of the questions he asked was about ritual. My outline has several posts on that topic—but they may be months in the future. So these are some quick thoughts on the value of ritual for contemporary religion.

His question:

This is probably one of the most confusing aspects of Vajrayana Buddhism for many folks, and perhaps also the most confusing aspect of most religions for modern people.  You make the assertion that we could have a modern tantra that is ritual-free, but that this probably isn’t a very good idea.  What are the redeeming aspects of ritual, and what might modern rituals look & feel like?

Let’s start with the biggest reason we all hate ritual. If you say “ritual,” the word that is most likely to come to mind is “empty.” Mostly, our experience of ritual is that it’s meaningless. It’s boring and stupid. It’s something we’re forced to sit through, even though we’re not enjoying it, and the values it expresses are ones we don’t agree with.

What’s more, it doesn’t seem like anyone involved really believes in what they’re doing. Even the leaders of the ritual are just going through the motions, and it doesn’t mean anything for them either. The only purpose of the whole thing is to enforce institutional continuity and power.

That’s a dead ritual. It’s a zombie ritual, and we should put a bullet in its head.

All of this is true for most Buddhist ritual as well, definitely including traditional tantric rituals, which can be super boring and pointless. In fact, they usually are.

So, basically, if you think of the exact opposite of all this, you have what ritual should be—and can be.

When it’s working, ritual is not in the least boring or stupid. It’s emotionally exciting and intellectually fascinating. It’s intensely meaningful.

In fact, that is what ritual is all about: intensifying, concentrating, and directing meaning. It inspires, it produces ecstatic states of consciousness, it provides purpose, and drives commitment and action.

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On criticizing fellow Buddhists

When I was about 25, I had published some scientific papers, and was getting to be known in an international academic community. I was full of piss and vinegar; testosterone, rebellion, and altogether too much cleverness. I wanted to tear down an intellectual establishment that seemed corrupt, hidebound, and befogged by holy dogmas and hidden assumptions. I was quite rude, in print, to researchers whose ideas I thought were WRONG WRONG WRONG.

Then I started going to conferences, and I met many of the scientists who I previously knew only from their academic publications. Most of them were nothing like what I had imagined based on their work. Their personalities did not seem to match up with their writings.

I remember in particular meeting one researcher whose papers I had savaged. He was kind and friendly. It turned out that we had a shared love of birds, and we had an enjoyable discussion of corvids [ravens and their allies]. I felt quite ashamed, but also grateful for having learned something.

I’ve just been at the 2012 Buddhist Geeks Conference, and had something of the same experience. Some Buddhist leaders, whose work I’ve criticized on this blog, are clearly good guys. Seeing them in person, or interacting with them, gives a very different sense than their writing.

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Geek thiglés

Thigles at 2012 Buddhist Geeks Conference

I’m just back from the 2012 Buddhist Geeks Conference. It was Big Fun.

This is a picture, taken by Hokai Sobol, of spontaneously manifesting geek thiglés.

Geek thiglés can self-manifest when you get critical mass of geekery in close proximity. The picture, left to right, shows me, Daniel Ingram, Rin’dzin Pamo, and Ken McLeod. Hokai was just ahead of us, and together there was quite enough geekitude to spark thiglés.

Thiglé” literally means “dot” or “sphere” in Tibetan. According to some Tibetan cosmologies, all phenomena are actually composed of thiglés. However, they are normally invisible. Certain Dzogchen meditation practices enable you to see them. Around sufficiently advanced meditators, they may spontaneously self-manifest, so that ordinary people can see them as well. Maybe also cameras.

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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:

  • I think I want to learn to meditate. Where should I start? Why are there all these different kinds of meditation? How do I choose one?
  • I’ve learned basic mindfulness. I want to go further. I’ve heard that mindfulness comes from Buddhism, so I started to google that and got overwhelmed. Where’s the basic stuff?
  • I’ve read some books/web sites about Buddhism. They all seem kind of weird, and they all disagree with each other. How come? How do I know what to believe?
  • So many different brands of Buddhism. Which is the true one? [Better question, of course: which is best for me?]
  • I’ve listened to a bunch of podcasts, and now I’m inspired to start taking classes, or maybe go on a retreat. How do I choose a Buddhist organization to go with?
  • There’s no Buddhist organization where I live. I guess I’ll have to start a meditation group myself. How do I find people to sit with?
  • I’ve been meditating for a year. It went well until recently, when all this scary stuff started coming up! What do I do?
  • I think I need to find a personal teacher for one-on-one instruction. How?
  • I’ve been affiliated with a teacher/center/lineage for several years and put a lot of energy into that. But I’m starting to think its style is not working for me anymore. Should I switch?
  • My teacher told me I’m ready to start teaching, but can’t give me much guidance about what that means. I know how to meditate and the basic doctrines, but how do I relate to students? I’m not like him/her; I can’t do it that way.
  • I have a few students, who say they get a lot out of my teaching. I think I could be useful to many more, but I don’t know how to reach them. I don’t want to market myself; that’s gross. But how else are prospective students going to find me?
  • I have a dozen students. More people want to be my students, and I feel responsible to them, but teaching is already taking all my spare time. I want to quit my day job, but I don’t see how I can be a full-time Buddhist teacher and still support my family.
  • I have several dozen students. We’ve outgrown my living room. They want to open a center, but how are we going to pay the rent?
  • I have more students than I can handle personally. I want to empower some of my students as teachers, but I’m not sure they are ready. And even if I do, there’s more new people than even they could handle. How can we serve the newcomers without losing focus and quality?


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 on Approaching Aro 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:

  • What kinds of contact do they provide?
  • How much time can you get with them (one-on-one or in a group)?
  • How much do they talk about concrete life issues vs. more abstract theory?
  • How systematic (structured) is their presentation?
  • How much pressure do they exert on students?
  • How much emotional support do they give?
  • How do they expect students to relate to their sangha?

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:

  • Rohan Gunatillake’s talk on bringing the tech startup model to Buddhism
  • His manifesto on Buddhist user experience design (which I discussed on this blog a couple months ago)
  • A panel discusion on the need for new economic models for Buddhism
  • A panel on the Buddhist generation gap, which pointed out the communication disconnect between young teachers who need resources (but don’t know how to ask) and the established teachers who are willing to provide them (but don’t understand what the young teachers need)

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.

The Buddhist Geeks Conference rocks

I am at the Buddhist Geeks Conference in L.A.

It’s extraordinary. There’s a level of enthusiasm, engagement, excitement here far beyond what I’ve experienced at any large Buddhist gathering. It totally rocks.

It’s making me feel more optimistic about Buddhism than that I have in many years—perhaps ever. It’s not so much the intellectual content (although some of that has been remarkable) as the vibe of “we can do things differently, and create an unexpected future for our religion.”

I may write a more detailed post in a few days when I’ve thought things through. For now, this is just to say wow, you oughtta be here!

(You can get a sense of the excitement by reading the #bgeeks11 Twitter hashtag.)

Buddhism is a conversation

One other thought.  Vince Horn, the primary organizer of the conference, opened it by saying that his goal was to bring about interesting conversations.  (With the other organizers, he’s succeeded.)

I was reminded of these words from Robert Sharf, in an interview in Tricycle (about Buddhist Modernism):

Q: Before you referred to Buddhism as a critique of all essences, including the idea that there is some essence in Buddhism that is transmitted over time. So, then, what is Buddhism?

A: One way of looking at Buddhism is as a conversation, and this conversation has been going on now for over two thousand years—a long time… It is a conversation about what it is to be a human being: why we suffer, how we can resolve our suffering, what works, what doesn’t, and so forth. These are big issues, and whichever one you choose to look at, you are not going to find a single Buddhist position. There have always been different positions, and these would be debated and argued. But all parties to the debate were presumed to share a common religious culture—a more or less shared world of texts, ideas, practices—without which there could be no real conversation…

You are confronted with many answers that generate new sets of questions and perspectives. But it is important, I think, that we keep the conversation going here. It opens one up to dramatically different ways of understanding the world and our place in it. Through our participation we help shape the conversation, and the conversation, in turn, shapes us. To abandon it would be to lose something precious.