Cultivating wisdom in bits and bytes

by Ven. Pannyavaro, The Buddhist Channel, Nov 11, 2013

Challenges to Buddhism in the Digital Age

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- It wasn’t so long ago – about two decades or so - that all the technology we now have was novel – even a bit of a mystery to most people. Now in 2013, the Digital Age is truly here and has become common place, so much so that it has been integrated into our every day life and one almost can’t function anymore without smart phones, emails, electronic transfers, chat and texting.

The availability of affordable hand held devices: smart phones and tablet computers has give ordinary people a voice through social networking that has allows grass root level access that can have a significant influence onsuch issues as social justice, political campaigning, etc.

The World Wide Web, with their search engines provides instant and comprehensive information and data that gives us new ways to interact with the immense world of knowledge.

Social Impact of the New Technology

New technologies have created constant pressure to do more, keep moving and go faster, our everyday lives often do not and cannot reflect our most heartfelt values and ideas. So many of us can become overwhelmed, overextended – stretched and thus stressed!

Which bring us to Internet addiction disorder (IAD), or, now more commonly called Problematic Internet Use (PIU). Some research stresses the fact that the Internet addiction disorder is not a one-dimensional but a multidimensional construct. Various facets of Internet use must be differentiated because of their differential predictors, mechanisms and consequences.

Supporters of disorder classification often divide IAD into subtypes by activity, such as excessive, overwhelming, or inappropriate pornography use, gaming, online social networking, blogging, email or Internet shopping. Opponents note that compulsive behaviours may not of itself be addictive.

In South Korea, doctors call the effects of overuse "digital dementia” *This Asian country is one of the world's most wired societies, with 95 per cent of the population connected to the Internet. There, young people in their late 20s and early 30s regularly show up at clinics exhibiting many of the symptoms usually associated with mental disorders in the elderly. Those symptoms include memory problems, an inability to concentrate, and sleeplessness.

The young patients' difficulties, the doctors say, come from high exposure levels to digital screen media, ranging from televisions to computers to game consoles to smart phones. And while no one has yet calculated how many young Koreans are affected, the phenomenon is adding fuel to the already contentious debate between neuroscientists over the health risks of using digital media.

The genie is out the bottle! An inherent dynamic and characteristic of current technological innovation is a seeming self-propelling rapidity of change and development.

Can anyone say with any reasonable assurance where the path is leading? Is there a tipping point where technological development is no longer confined and subject to human ethics, interests, or understanding? Is the dynamic rapidity of technological development out-running basic pragmatic ethical considerations?

As we move with great speed into this Brave New World, it might appear we are on a pilot-less vessel. At this critical point in human history, could the timeless wisdoms of humankind be utilised to steer us wisely to a positive future, whereby technology serves the interests of humanity, rather than humankind becoming subservient to a technological utopian dream?

The great challenge of technological revolution centres largely on our minds and being, and how we might define ourselves as human beings into the future. The proliferation of media products and information has great potential if used wisely, but conversely also has the potential to create new realities that are fundamentally divorced from the timeless truths that have informed our identities throughout human history until this point.

Perhaps at no other time in human history have we had to address the question, as a matter of urgency, who are we, and what it means to be human.

This is because developments in artificial intelligence are likely to produce forms of intelligence that are indistinguishable or even superior to human intelligence in the ordinary sense, in the very near future. Questions of the redundancy of human contribution may begin to arise. What could we as humans offer or say to counter such assertions of redundancy?

What are wisdom's characteristics that differentiate its understandings from the computational achievements of technology? In discussions about artificial intelligence, it often incorporate the assertion that if an artificial brain could be built which held enough data, and possessed enough computational power, that a new type of consciousness and an associated wisdom could be produced. If conceivable, would this intelligence exist purely in the material realm, or would it be transcendent? What forms of conduct could a belief or faith in the infallibility of such a technological achievement take?

What is timeless wisdom? Does time have anything to do with it? Or is it that the underlying processes of reality are reprehended by successive generations in the present, because these truths exist in nature - in fact, are universal truths. As we create virtual worlds, how will these natural truths calibrate with the perception of the truths inherent to our virtual worlds?

It's the nature of human kind to easily become enamoured with it's creations, to the point of going to the extreme not only their utilisation and function, but in the manifestation of a kind of faith or idealisation, that this creation will provide some certainty in life, and be a dependable liberation.

Can our timeless truths provide a sort of compass, to guide us in this exciting journey of transformation; balancing, moderating and informing our decisions and choices, providing reference and familiar landmarks as we go? Is the integrating of traditional wisdom with the new realities we create the only reliable hope we have of managing the near future without disaster.

The Challenge Facing Buddhism in the Digital Age

When you look at online religion, it can be expected to boom. Eight per cent of adults and 12 per cent of teenagers in the US use the Internet for religious or spiritual experiences, and the number is likely to grow rapidly. So in spite of the drop in interest in mainstream religions and increasing secularization, which is the view that one's life can or should be carried out without a religious element, the age-old search for meaning has found the new medium – the Internet!

The linking together of the world's population in the globalised economy is increasingly undermining the individual's ability to function as a cooperative, responsible member of their society. This happens because the ultimate effect of corporate culture is to reduce the person to a mere consumer, on the assumption that happiness can be achieved through acquisitiveness and the enjoyment of goods.

Buddhism has within it a social dimension that can address global problems, a way to "heal the wounds of the world". This way is the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. The practice of which - while personal - requiring individual effort has consequences that are deeply social. So there is a need now for the socially engaged side of Buddhism to be combined with personal growth and the Path of Liberation as the answer to the individual's alienation.

It will require radical changes before we can see any alternative to current values and attitudes. Yet the Internet could bring about such a social revolution in values, as the corporate world try as it might, has not yet succeeded in dominating it.

Ironically, it has also giving us the means to stand outside the so-called free market economy that would enslave us to a purely materialistic world. If we creatively use the technology, the Internet can also cater for the religious or spiritual side of human nature and the mean of offering care and compassion in this digital world.

Buddhism with its ancient teaching and cultures must seize the opportunity and adapt itself so that it can make a meaningful contribution to the social and spiritual needs of the inhabitants of this blue planet via this new medium.

While Buddhism is not a religion that proselytes, that is, seeking to win over or convert, it certainly has a sense of its own mission in spreading its message. In the past the Buddha's Teachings spread slowly, not only due to the limitations of ancient communications, but because it needed to make a local adaptation to each new culture it encountered.

For example, it took the Buddha's Dharma about 500 years to go from India to China. It is not only the time factor, but also the need to transform itself into "Chinese Buddhism". That is, it had to accommodate itself to the indigenous religions and philosophies, Taoism and Confucianism, before it was acceptable locally.

The difference in a globalised world is that the acceptance of the Buddha's Teachings does not depend on whether it can accommodate itself to a particular culture or religion but the appeal of its core insights. So, in an increasingly secular and globalised world where technology and scientific appraisal is all pervasive, the Dharma or Truth itself stands alone.

The challenge now is can the Sangha, that is, committed communities of Buddhists, use the tools and acquire the skills of the Digital Age? And further, can we find new ways and means of presenting the Buddha's Teachings that are relevant to the digital world rather than the traditional methods of sermons and ritual that has little or no appeal to the technocratic generation.

It's not just technical skills that are needed but the motivation of selfless service and compassion - core values of the Buddha Dharma as expressed in the ancient Bodhisattva ideal. It is becoming increasingly self-evident that we have to move from the limitation of individual and national boundaries to a worldview of a shared planet.

If such a notion as a Cyber Sangha is to come into, it will either come about when young monks and nuns in the scholarly tradition in Buddhist countries go online or more likely, as is happening now, the new generation of Western Buddhists, who are not on the whole conditioned by a particular Buddhist culture, produce more appealing e-Dharma content for its own.

For the traditionalists - hankering for the past - there can be no going back, as it would be foolish to think that one can create some sort of "Virtual Temple" based on ritual and ceremony. Or that one can recreate the particular cultural customs of Buddhism on the net, which unfortunately the pure Buddha's teachings have become so embedded in.

The role of an online Sangha is to offer a spiritual alternative while dissemination the Dharma through eLearning (Electronic Dharma). This would need to go hand in hand with the servicing of the needs of people who are experiencing negative aspects of the globalised economy - the pressures and stresses it creates.

In a rapidly changing digital world, where many are stretched and stressed, we need to come to terms with the effects of such stress and pressure on the human psyche. The experiential knowing of this insight allows us to let go and be free of clinging to the known, to blocking the flow. This acceptance of change and the ability to work with it is in the words of Alan Watts the "Wisdom of Insecurity".

The Internet gives us many opportunities to promote Buddhist values, understandings and insights on a global scale. Buddhism has survived materially until now because of the practice of "Dana", which is a culture of sharing and service, as opposed to the greed culture based on monetary values.

We have the example to the earlier BBS (Bulletin Board System), which had a culture based on a genuine sharing and learning community offering a free service operated by volunteers. This is the way an online Dharma community will ideally operate - as a focal point, a hub for community sharing and support.

Online Healing, the Buddhist Way

In the spiritual vacuum called the modern world - with its preoccupation with having it all, there is a need to make known the contribution that Buddhist mental culture can offer. The techniques of meditation, for example, can be explained and illustrated very well on the net though streaming audio and video, with the student being guided by an online teacher.

The characteristic of the Internet is its interconnectivity - global interdependence. This is a core Buddhist understanding, a universal truth. Its appreciation leads to the maturity that moves from an ego-self preoccupation to an interconnectivity that empathizes with all suffering life.

There will be a new emphasis on lifelong learning, on training and retraining, of development and innovation. This era of all-encompassing change will need to be accompanied by an ability to cope with the pressures caused by the new technologies, without becoming overextended and stressed. So we will need to have the skills to manage our own mental health through the healing practices and insights that the Dharma can give us.

We are seeing that the psychological and healing side of Buddhism is being utilized by present-day psychotherapy. That there has been a shift from what was predominantly the ritual needs of lay people to a search for help and support in an increasingly alienated world. So counselling services in the form of interactive multimedia via the net is the way of the future, as is demonstrated by the popular "chat culture" on the net.

It is to be hoped that a “Cyber Sangha” would be supported by, or be an extension of, the locally based Buddhist establishments, as it evolves into a network of like-minded people - lay and ordained - who come together as an online community, followers of the Buddha, living out the insight of the Dharma and communicating the Buddha's message of intelligence and compassion in this Digital World.

Ven. Pannyavaro is  ‎Abbot and Founder of Bodhi Tree Forest Monastery, based in Tullera NSW, Australia. He is also founder of the most visited Buddhist website in the world, This paper was presented as part of the keynote address, given at the “Inter-Cultural Buddhist Youth Exchange & International Buddhist Youth Forum - Seeking a Balance Through Timeless Wisdom”, 5th November 2013 held at the Chin Swee Temple, Genting Highlands, Malaysia.

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