Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Friendly Neighbourhood Internet

Hey everyone, today I happened upon an incoming link from Tricycle.com, perhaps the best known Buddhist magazine out there - turns out we made their weblog:

http://www.tricycle.com/blog/buddha-buzz-buddhism-and-internet-friends-or-foes

So, just thought to share the good news, that our community is seen as playing a part in spreading Buddhism - thanks for your participation, everyone :)

Also, the article is so much in the vein of a recent email interview I was asked to respond to, it seems appropriate to share that here:

BACKGROUND

How long have you been a monk?

10 years this December.

Can you say a little about your religious or spiritual life growing up? Were you from a religious family? Did you have friends who were interested in Buddhism and spirituality?

Our family was nominally religious... Jewish. My father had us celebrate the holidays and we all went through the rites of adulthood. I was always interested in spirituality, though, reading new age books my parents had around. In high school I was introduced to the Tao Te Ching and that was really what got me going on the path to Buddhism.

How did you become a Buddhist? How did you decide to become a monk?

When I was 20, I dropped out of university and went to Thailand. I was looking for Zen or Taoism, which interested me at the time, but couldn't find any leads to authentic centres and eventually settled on going to a local Buddhist monastery where I spent a month in intensive meditation training. That was what really got me into Buddhism, and changed my life path as a result.

At the time I wasn't seriously thinking of ordaining; my instructers were all lay people and I had little contact with the monks. Once I returned to Canada, though, I found myself more and more drawn to monasticism until it eventually became quite an important goal in my mind. I lived for a year in a Khmer monastery in Canada and then returned to Thailand to ordain. In the beginning I only had my parent's permission to ordain temporarily; eventually they acquiesced to my desire on the condition that I return to study university in Canada, which I did for half a year as a monk before giving it up and returning to Thailand.

LIFE IN THE FOREST

I've read some anthropological accounts of the lives of Buddhist forest monks, but can you tell me something about what the life is like?

For example, how much time do you spend alone, in the company of other monks or with visitors?

I spend most of my time alone, but some of that is now teaching online; I suppose I am not a true forest monk these days; I'm not really sure what kind of a monk I am, actually - I do live in the forest, but that isn't the most important aspect of my life.

What are your dwellings like?

Right now I am in a nice, big hut with its own bathroom; earlier in the year I was staying in a cave, and I spent a night on a park bench in May; when I was abroad in June, I stayed in houses, mostly.

What do you find rewarding about the life? What is especially challenging?

If we're talking about the fact of living in the forest, it is what is most comfortable for me; I was born at home in a house in the forest and lived there, home-schooled, for most of my childhood; though I've lived in apartments and houses before, I am most at home in "the bush". The hardship is really a good thing, since it keeps a lot of wordliness at bay; even thieves are often too scared to come to the jungle at night.

I suppose the animals are the most challenging aspect of life in the forest; mosquitoes are the worst, especially since they carry disease. Leeches are a close second here, but they only come out when it rains. Then there are the snakes and scorpions; I was bitten by a poisonous snake this year, so that's something to watch out for. The monkeys can be a nuisance as well, and they aren't afraid of humans like other animals. Still, even with all of these, it is nothing compared to the stress of living amongst human beings

How did you choose to become a forest monk, rather than joining a monastery?

I've never been good with other monks; I think one reason (though others may say differently) is because of the uniqueness of my practice; I keep pretty strong monastic discipline and practice according to the technique of Mahasi Sayadaw. Those two combined make it difficult to find a suitable monastery, but probably a bigger problem is my use of technology which, when combined with my discipline and practice, makes for a rather unique way of life that is best suited to having my own place, I think.

Is it unusual for forest monks to have an online presence? I've interviewed Bhikku Samahita, and wonder if you two are just the tip of the iceberg.

Certainly, I think it is unusual to say the least; some would say "inappropriate" is a better word :) I've lived in a tent in the forest and in the jungle where there was no Internet, so I can say that the norm is to live away from such things. Now, I live with them, but I always think of taking time to disappear into the jungle again. For now, it is enough to know that I am practicing and helping others practice as well.

BEING ONLINE

How much time do you spend online? Do you set aside certain times of day to answer email, write, etc.? Are there periods when you choose to remain offline?

At the moment I am online every day; even some of my meditation is done as an online group. It has become a part of my "work" as a monastic; I don't build huts, but I have built an online community.

What kind of computer do you use? Where is it located?

I use a fairly high-end desktop PC that was donated by a supporter when I was in California; at the time I was living in an apartment trying to start a meditation centre but having more success making videos on YouTube, so the idea of having a good computer made sense. I've had notebooks, but I've given away four already so now I am left with this. It is in the room with me, as I use it on and off throughout the day, even, as I said, for group meditation.

Are there other devices you have? Cellphone, iPad, etc.?

I got a smartphone this year because I thought it would work for Internet, but it turned out not to. I use it now to take pictures of our monastery and post them on the Internet. I have a ebook reader as well, but I don't use that much anymore... it has the whole tipitaka on it, which is nice.

Who runs Sirimangalo.org?

I do; at one point I tried to get someone in California to help with it, but unless they are living in the monastery, they normally don't have time for such things. I've also tried giving it up several times; now that seems impossible, as it has become the home of a very vibrant Buddhist community.

The writer and monastic Thomas Merton discovered photography late in life, and described using the camera as a way of becoming more mindful of the world around him. Are there technologies you use this way?

That's an interesting idea. I don't think the Internet is such a technology, though it depends on what you mean by "the world around" one. The Internet removes the physical world from the picture to a great extent, allowing its users to focus on mental activity, mostly mental gratification, unfortunately. There may be an argument that it helps one to become more aware of the nature of the mind, given the focus it has on mental activity, and if what is meant by "the world around" one is the world of humankind, then I agree it can give insight into the ways of the human world.

I don't think technology aids directly in mindfulness, though; maybe the camera allows one to see things one didn't notice before, but I don't see how it can help one to become objective about those things.

When did you get onto Facebook and Twitter?

I don't use either; I tried Facebook and couldn't see the point of acquiring "friends" as an anti-social monk. Twitter seems equally pointless to me... I have tools that post my thoughts and work on both for me; I have 0 facebook friends, but a page with several hundred "likers", so it's a nice way to spread the dhamma.

How much time do the blog and Ask A Monk take?

The blog doesn't take much time at all, I only post updates about my work and the occasional article about something I'm thinking about; Ask A Monk used to take a lot of time when I was active with it; now it has been consumed by our Q&A forum, and the only videos I've been doing answering questions is at our once-a-week radio broadcast on UStream. That is a lot easier and take a great load off, though I haven't given up the idea of making more question-answering videos.

Lots of people find the Internet full of appealing distractions-- they'll go online to just check their email, then an hour later will be watching YouTube videos of cute cats. Do you find being online tempting in this way? If so, how do you deal with it?

There were times I found myself distracted by YouTube videos; I think because of how depressing life was at those times - it isn't easy to find a good place to study, practice and teach the dhamma, and it is easy to become lax in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Now that I'm in a comfortable place where I can do my work in peace, I don't have much interest in anything besides a cursory glance at the news every morning. I do find that computers make one lose track of time, but that seems just a part of their nature, rather than having to do with temptation.

Do you multitask, or avoid multitasking?

I try to avoid it if possible.

For many of the book's readers, being a forest monk and having a blog and email will seem completely contradictory: being online is about connection with others (and all too often distraction), while monastic life is meant to get you away from those things. Is it contradictory?

I agree, it may be seen as such. I can't say that what I do is right; all I know is it helps me and helps others, and doesn't involve undue stress put on anyone. Being online puts me at arm's length away from the world; I can do good in the world and still ignore all of the worldiness out there. I don't have to engage with others unless it seems appropriate to do so - I have no social obligations, and in that sense, I am still quite "monastic". I don't really make connections with other people on-line; I just help the person or people I'm interacting with and am not troubled by letting go and moving on once that is done.

This way of life works for me, right now, so I do it. I can't say what the future will bring, but I am always conscious of the task at hand, which is our own inner development. Maybe I will just progress slower than some :) In the meantime, it seems to help my own practice to help others, so I don't see a contradiction there.

ONLINE BUDDHISM

Do you see sharing Buddhist teaching online as similar to the monastic practice of accepting visitors? Is it akin to teaching?
I suppose it is; most of what I do is responding to requests for help. I can't possibly reply to even most of the requests I get, so I've found it easier just to set up a community and put resources out there like a bulletin board - that's all the "web" originally was, and that seems to still be the best use for it, as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ have shown.

For me it isn't "akin" to teaching, it is teaching. The reason I got into YouTube is because I wanted a way to make it easier to demonstrate the meditation technique to others; I put a single poor-quality video up as an experiment and within a week it had 1,000 views. That is something powerful; it doesn't tell me that there is anything good in the Internet, it just tells me where people are. If you want to share something, you have to go where the people are - writing books on the dhamma is a bit pointless these days, unless you offer a PDF file as well.

I don't think our goal in life should be to help others, but I think it certainly helps one's own inner development. And if one is going to help others it wouldn't make sense to ignore the only medium that most people pay much attention to any more.

Is there a paradox in sharing Buddhist teachings online, given that many people find the Web a source of distraction-- an endless playground for the monkey mind? Or conversely, does the challenge of learning to take a more mindful attitude to one's online life offer some useful lessons for people interested in Buddhism?

I don't think the web need be a source of distraction; that just tells us the nature of the content out there. People also learn many useful things on the web, via sites like Wikipedia, for example. It is pretty clear that the spread of Buddhism and Buddhist practice has benefited immensely from the Internet. Connecting with others is also a positive quality; the whole culture of "like" is just another form of metta and/or mudita, after all. So, there are undeniably positive aspects to the web, as well as the more often cited negative ones.

That being said, it certainly poses a challenge for the practice of mindfulness; no more than many other forms of activity, though. The biggest challenge the Internet poses, I think, is that it provides instant gratification; that certainly is spoiling people in a big way. Again, I don't think this is due to the nature of the medium, it is due to the content; instant access to the Buddha's teaching, as an example, has been a great boon to all of us practitioners.

Some people have used programs that turn off their Internet access for a few hours, or block their access to Facebook, to give themselves space to concentrate; others use "Zenware," software that's designed to be simple, and to help the mind focus. What do you think about the strategy of using technologies to keep the mind focused? How much can one accomplish by trying to impose mindfulness from the outside-- by lifting distractions, as it were-- rather than cultivating it consciously?

I agree with your description; the best way is to learn these things naturally; I met a man once who has a watch that vibrates every few minutes to remind him to be mindful. That may work for some, but I can't help but think it leads to complacency and repression. Better we realize the full extent of our addictions and learn to transform them with mindfulness rather than impose artificial restraints from the outside. That being said, sometimes artificial restraints are necessary in the beginning; I would never want a new monk or meditator to have a computer of their own, given the difficulty they would have in avoiding the pitfalls of the information jungle.

Is there a path or practice you would recommend for people who want to turn their use the Web or other technologies from a challenge to the calm mind, to an expression of calmness?

We should never use the web as our sole source of dhamma practice; I think it would be delusional for us to think that our online dhamma community is really the most important aspect of our individual lives as Buddhist meditators. I recommend people to use the technology for what it is meant; posting, sharing and gleaning information that will allow us to live our lives more mindfully and clearly aware of our surroundings. In the end, Buddhism is a path inside, not an outward expression, so I think it's better to consider the Internet as a resource, rather than a part of one's practice.