challenge that Buddhism faces today is not with the Dharma itself,
the Buddha's teaching - as the timeless message embedded in
the Four Noble Truths maintains its validity - but how to present
this ancient teaching as a meaningful alternative to people
who have been shaped by the values of the consumer society.
is a new era of technological innovation sweeping the world,
which has spawned a new medium - the Internet's World Wide Web,
a very powerful communications network and learning environment.
The Internet should not be seen as just a new way to disseminate
or repackage the Buddha's teachings but potentially as a base
for an innovative online Dharma Community - a Cyber Sangha,
that offers alternative social and spiritual values.
grounds can we realistically predict the future of the Internet?
Well we can get some idea from the trend in the online growth.
At present about 6% of the world's population uses the Internet.
Almost one billion people, or 15 per cent of the world's population,
are predicted to be using the Internet by 2005. Last year, the
US accounted for 34 per cent of Internet users, Europe 29 per
cent and Japan 10 per cent. By 2005, web use in Europe and Asia
will outpace that of the US. And according to reports, the spread
of mobile phones and other devices that link users to the Internet
will add to this increase.
nations, the reality is that, most people lack access or cannot
afford the Internet or modem communications. Overall, about
400 million of the world's six billion use the Internet daily.
Those growing up on the Internet will one day make up the bulk
of the population and there will be very few nonusers down the
look at online religion - it can only 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, according to a study. 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 net.
together of the world's population in the globalised economy
is 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.
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
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.
If we creatively
use the technology, the Net can cater for the religious or spiritual
side of human nature and the means of offering care and compassion
in this digital world.
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.
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 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. But in the process of accommodating itself to the local
culture the Teaching is transformed and can be very different
from the original.
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. In fact the cultural accretion has to be differentiated
from the core understandings before it can be seen to resonate
with universal truths. So, in an increasingly secular and Globalised
World where technology and scientific appraisal is all pervasive,
the Dharma or Truth itself stands alone.
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.
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.
a notion as a Cyber Sangha is to come into being - and realistically
it will probably take a generational change - it will either
come about when young monks 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.
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.
of an online Sangha is to offer a spiritual alternative while
dissemination the Dharma through E-learning (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.
Insights and the Internet
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. I'm not suggesting that we create
some 'virtual utopia' as the Dharma tells us that there is no
certainty and that things are inherently unstable and insecure.
The experiential knowing of this Insight allows us to let go
and be free of clinging to that which is known, to block the
flow. This acceptance of change and the ability to work with
it is in the words of Alan Watts the "Wisdom of Insecurity".
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. This leads to misuse of the
technology, as the motivation is merely to make a dollar, as
we have seen in the recent collapse of the Dotcoms, which views
the Internet as a market place it can exploit. In contrast to
this 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 largely 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
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 through 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.
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 modern Psychotherapy, that there has been a shift
from what were 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
new Digital World.
or Electronic Buddhist learning can become a tool for spiritual
as well as social development, when access is improved and learning
techniques are refined. The reality is that it can never altogether
replace face-to-face teachings but has added a new delivery
medium that allows for skill-enhancement and easy accessible
training. The worldwide Buddhist community will need to develop
its own e-learning content with the traditions coming together
and pooling their knowledge and skills and researching new ways
of presenting the Buddha's Teachings out of compassion for this
It has never
been considered that the Buddha's teachings are to be found
only in the text, actually in the past the Dharma was transmitted
as much through oral teachings. There is a temptation to merely
dump data (facts) online rather than exploit the new ways of
presenting information that the technology provides. Data and
information do not necessarily translate into knowledge.
approach in teaching the Dharma is through sermons with the
teacher and the content being unchallenged. The new way is through
group learning via discussion. On the Net its through chat groups
where the teacher or moderator acts as a facilitator for an
ongoing debate or discussion.
of Internet learning is that you have access to information,
and you also have access to other people, students or experts.
It's the combination of the two that provides an extra dimension
than most other technologies. In fact what is happening now
is that students are looking for resources themselves and then
interacting with them.
from animated characters that act as virtual teachers, could
be the future of online learning. Experts predict that successful
electronic learning computer programs will become more sensitive
to human nuances and motivation - software that initiate human
exaggerated publicity or hype in the news media about the Internet
was common, but with the collapse of the Dotcoms we can take
a more sober view of the situation. The reality was and is more
of a digital divide, which is a term for the difficulties some
groups in society face in even getting access to computers and
applies to the economically disadvantaged Buddhist countries
in the Theravada tradition, Cambodia, Myanmar and here in Sri
Lanka. Online technology is unequally distributed because access
to and use of computers and the Internet mirror the socioeconomic
divide between rich and poor individuals and nations. Another
factor is that the English language dominates cyberspace so
students and others with little or no understanding of English
are often denied access to online learning. Although this is
changing as the Net is becoming more multi-lingual.
True Buddhist Teaching or Not?
matter that we will have to face is how can we know that what
is posted on the Internet is an authentic Buddhist Teaching
or not? The way to judge this is to match what is posted with
the Four Noble Truths as all Buddhist traditions accept the
Four Noble Truths as the structure for their practice in one
form or another. But there have been individuals who make extravagant,
even bizarre claims to some special knowledge or Enlightenment.
I can suggest at least one way to judge this. The transmission
of knowledge in Buddhism is essentially based on lineage, which
is the verification of the students understanding by a lineage
teacher or master. While there is a purely text based teachings,
the scholarly tradition, the practice of mental culture is based
on experiential learning which can be checked by a lineage holder.
So whether the postings on the Internet claiming to be the Buddha's
Dharma are authentic Buddhist Teachings or not, or whether it
is just the concoction of a cult - could be checked through
its lineage, or lack of it.
of the Future?
some it may seem rather futuristic, broadband and interactive
technology promises an enormous expansion of the potential of
the World Wide Web to create a true online community and enhance
online learning. On the other hand, we have to work with the
current limitations until the interactive technology matures.
And especially, we will have to come to terms with the realities
in Buddhist countries that are being left behind in the information
to address this problem is the use of hybrid technology. To
this end we are developing ways to deliver e-learning content
via the text-based material on the Web or through Intranets
using CD-ROM. For example, BuddhaNet has produced a CD-ROM on
"Buddhist Studies for Primary and Secondary Students"
that can be use on an Intranet in schools or Dharma centres.
The CDs is actually a web page (HTML files) that includes Adobe
PDF (Portable Document Files) documents of all of the material,
which when printed can then be photocopied. Also we have produced
a multimedia CD that interfaces with our web site, and includes
over sixty Buddhist eBooks.
temples and bricks and mortar centres will continue to service
people needs for the Dharma, yet this can be expanded and enhanced,
and may I say made more relevant, if the evolving Cyber Sangha,
who need resources, is supported in its aim to develop the Dharma
online using the latest technology that is available.
a teaching is ancient that doesn't mean that it cannot sit comfortably
with the new technology. If the Buddha were alive today, he
would surely be at ease in the digital world. There is a new
generation growing up with the Internet's technologies, who
regard it as the natural place to find information, for online
learning and for spiritual and emotional support. Can we hope
that it will be a place that one goes to have a meaningful experience
of the Buddha's Dharma as well - it's the future!
Pannyavaro is the Webmaster of Buddhanet, President of the Buddha
Dharma Education Association and a Vice-President of the World
Fellowship of Buddhists.