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date: 25 May 2017

Buddhism and Media Technologies

Abstract and Keywords

Buddhism is flourishing on the Internet and digital media. However, the form and usage patterns of Buddhist media technologies have varied considerably from the earliest oral texts to the latest online versions of the Buddhist canon. Do such media transformations merely transmit the old dharma in a new bottle, or do they change Buddhism’s message? Are these changes to be welcomed or shunned? This chapter explores how various media technologies tend to promote particular aspects of Buddhism, and also how different Buddhist worldviews shape how these media are used. First, it sketches a short genealogy of Buddhist media technologies. Second, it concentrates on contemporary digital media, briefly describing Buddhist bulletin boards, email lists, websites, computer apps, virtual worlds, and video games. Third, the chapter explains digital media’s procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial affordances. Finally, it illuminates how digital media affordances are shaped by the technological worldview of convert Buddhism.

Keywords: Buddhism, digital media, Internet, online, technology, convert Buddhism

As the oldest extant proselytizing religion, Buddhism has always had a penchant for utilizing the latest developments in media technology to spread its message. In the wake of the well-known fifteenth-century Gutenberg Bible, it is often overlooked that the oldest extant printed book is actually a copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra that reads: “Printed on 11 May 868 by Wang Chieh, for free general distribution, in order in deep reverence to perpetuate the memory of his parents” (Lee 1940, 9; see McLuhan 1962).

In contemporary society, Buddhism continues to explore the use of new popular media. For example, on September 15, 2014, a search for “Buddhism” in the Apple iTunes store yielded 419 applications (compare to Wagner and Accardo 2015).1 One of these applications, Karmasation, was offered for free under the category of “Lifestyle” and promised to “track your karma and improve a score that matters” (GFO Design 2013). This is in addition to the thousands of Buddhist websites, blogs, and podcasts that are available to anyone with access to the Internet.

As these examples illustrate, from the earliest texts that were transmitted orally to the latest online versions of the Buddhist canon, the form and usage patterns of Buddhist media technologies have varied considerably (Grieve and Veidlinger 2015). Do such media transformations merely transmit the old dharma in a new bottle, or do they change Buddhism’s message? And if changes in the religion follow on the heels of new technologies, are these to be welcomed or shunned? Opinions about digital technology have run the gamut from wary skeptics who fear that it can be a hindrance to progress along the Buddhist path (Hershock 1999) to enthusiastic evangelists who embrace the possibility that technology can be spiritually transformative (Kurzweil 1999). The website Buddhist Geeks sees digital media as aiding in the path to enlightenment and asks, along with many practitioners who are contemplating the future of the religion, “How can we serve the convergence of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology and an increasingly global culture?”2 This contemporary debate about the benefits and detriments of the latest media to the practice of Buddhism has a family resemblance to earlier disputes that arose from time to time as radically new media were being made available in popular culture. For example, in Cambodia, the use of printing presses for Buddhist books was prohibited until the 1920s out of fear that mass production might diminish their sacred value (Chigas 2005, 30). Perhaps in hindsight we might criticize (p. 470) the Buddhist establishment in that country for taking this position, but as the debate rages on in our own time about the degree to which Buddhists should embrace new media, it is important to remember that good reasons can be forwarded for all the positions on the table.

We take a middle path in the debate between media as mere transmitters of content, and media as corrupting the authentic meaning of the message (Shannon 1948; McLuhan 1964; Mander 1978). Obviously the Buddha’s dharma could not exist in the world of daily life if not for the media technologies by which it is communicated. Also, just as different languages affect the meaning of the Buddha’s message (Park 2012), so different media technologies influence how Buddhism is understood and practiced. We argue, however, that while media technologies tend to promote particular aspects of Buddhism, different Buddhist worldviews also shape how these media are used (Campbell 2010). Using the Karmasation app as a touchstone, the chapter discusses four issues. First, we sketch a short genealogy of Buddhist media technologies. Second, we concentrate on contemporary digital media, briefly describing Buddhist bulletin boards, email lists, websites, computer apps, virtual worlds, and video games. Third, we explain digital media’s procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial affordances. Finally, we illuminate how digital media affordances are shaped by the technological worldview of convert Buddhism.

It is important to gain a better understanding of Buddhist media technologies because while Buddhism thrives in digital media environments, almost no attention has been given to its study. The field of religion and new media is large, for in 2001, the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s “CyberFaith: How Americans Pursue Religion Online” demonstrated that already over 25 percent of Americans were searching for information about religion online, and this number has only grown since then. Furthermore, Buddhism seems to flourish online more than other traditions (Veidlinger 2015b). For example, while the Pew foundation’s “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” (Pew 2007) indicates that American Buddhists account for only 0.7 percent of the nation’s population, research shows that Buddhist-related activities constitute around 5.3 percent of online religious practice in the virtual world of Second Life (Grieve and Heston 2011), and other online environments also boast high rates of Buddhist engagement (Ostrowski 2015; Veidlinger 2015b). However, despite this, the major pioneering studies of religion and media technologies have all but ignored Asian traditions. This is even more apparent specifically with digital media. Over the past few years, a number of scholars have begun to study religion and new media, and have questioned how these affect notions of community, authority, identity, and practice (Brasher 2001; Cowan and Dawson 2004; Hojsgaard and Warburg 2005; Karaflogka 2006; Campbell 2010). Buddhism, however, has not been prominent in these studies, even though many forms of Asian spirituality have had an even bigger impact in the digital environment than in offline society (Veidlinger 2015a). Likewise, even these few studies that do touch upon it tend to approach the topic from a decidedly Western perspective (Cho 2011).

Media Technology and Buddhism in Historical Context

Media technology refers to the material systems by which people communicate (Grieve 2006, 19–20). Like languages, media technologies do not merely transmit information, (p. 471) but shape the message by accelerating, retarding, or blocking a communication’s meaning (Carroll 1956; McLuhan 1964). For instance, television accelerates images and sound, retards interior mental reflection, and blocks smell and touch (Mander 1978). Understanding media technology is significant because by shaping communication, media technology also molds the society in which that communication takes place (Krotz 2008).

Media technologies also can create an environment for religious change (Hjarvard 2006). As the media theorist Walter Ong argues, different media afford different religiosities (1967; see Mander 1991). Ong suggests that religion began in an era of orality, was transmitted into visual form through the writing of manuscripts as well as the printing of books, and is now taking shape in the world in a new way via electronic media (Grieve 1995; Grieve and Heston 2011; Campbell and Grieve 2014). A host of other thinkers have realized since Ong that along with other physical embodiments of religion, such as dress, images, and sacred spaces, media “structure experiences of the transcendental,” as anthropologist Birgit Meyer has said (2006, 20), and therefore both religion and media should be understood in concert. A better understanding of Buddhism can therefore be expected to emerge through an investigation of its relationship to media technologies as well.

The Buddha himself knew that communicating his message to as many people as possible would be a key element in the success of his Dharma, or teachings. From the beginning, the Buddha stressed that monks should go forth and spread the teachings in their own language (Vinaya II, 139), and from that time, communication has played a crucial role in Buddhism. The Buddha lived probably during the fifth century b.c.e. in northeast India before writing was used in that region (von Hinuber 1989), and therefore all of his sermons were retained and passed on through an oral tradition that partook of the astonishingly sophisticated tradition of Vedic memorization (Staal 1986), and added some of its own techniques (Allon 1997). The Suttas all begin with the phrase evaṃ me sutaṃ, which in Pali means “thus have I heard,” attesting to their oral origin. Monks would spend many hours of each day memorizing texts, and much of their training and the very organization of the early sangha into groups responsible for different kinds of texts were structured so as to foster the memorization and transmission of the teachings (Veidlinger 2006a). The texts themselves were usually designed for memorization, and a number of their formal features developed in order to facilitate memorization (Collins 1992). Many early Buddhist texts took the form that they did in order to be easily memorized, as much as to embody the Buddha’s teachings in a specific way. Here we already see evidence of one of the key elements of media theory, namely that the medium used to transmit a message will often have profound effects on the shape and form of its content.

Once writing came to India in the middle of the third century b.c.e., it was the great Buddhist king Asoka who was the first to use it in any appreciable way. He was quick to see the benefits of this new technology and placed inscriptions on rocks and pillars at key points throughout his kingdom that communicated his decrees to the people and helped to promote the Dharma as well. Most of the evidence of early writing in India in the centuries after Asoka is likewise Buddhist in nature, such as donative inscriptions on stupas and other sites of Buddhist import (Salomon 1995). Writing was not just an expedient means to transmit and record content, but also shaped Buddhist practice. For instance, among the earliest Mahayana literature is the influential Prajnaparamita genre, which dates back about two millennia and highlights the importance of wisdom and insight into emptiness. In these texts the faithful are commonly enjoined to copy and worship the text itself in passages such as the following: “… if someone else were to learn this perfection of wisdom, recite and (p. 472) study it, and wisely attend to it, would reveal it to others, and would honour, revere, and worship, with flowers, etc…. a written copy of it; then [he] would on that account beget … merit” (Conze 1975, 248).

Moving a few centuries later in history, we find that one of the most important developments in human communication was a product of the Buddhist milieu in medieval China: printing evolved in monasteries during the heyday of the religion in the Tang dynasty (618–907 c.e.) (You 2010). Like writing, printing was also deeply entwined with the practice of Buddhism. For instance, as stated at the start of the chapter, and as can be seen in Wang Chieh’s book, it is likely that the admonition to generate merit by copying the Mahayana texts inspired Buddhists during this period to carve the pages of sacred texts such as the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra onto wooden blocks and print many copies in what were the first printed books anywhere in the world.

As this genealogy makes clear, for centuries Buddhism has been taking advantage of the latest means for getting its message across, and has also been profoundly affected by changing media technologies. This strategy has only increased during the modern period. For instance, when radio was introduced in Asia, it was eagerly taken up by Buddhist preachers to communicate sermons and canonical readings to the masses and helped to allow people in remote villages to gain access to the teachings of the leading preachers and scholars of the day. Tape cassettes were also used for this purpose (Engel and Engel 2010). Again we find media technologies molding Buddhist practice. Such modern media have radically changed the shape of Buddhism by, among other things, affecting the authority of the monks who previously were the sole guardians of the sacred texts. Until these relatively recent developments, most common people in Buddhist countries had access to the teachings of the religion only through the sermons given by local physical monks. Now, they could access the teachings from their own home on television or radio, or in printed books, which has led to a growing interest among laypeople in meditation (Braun 2013), as well as renewed interest in the original canonical texts, which often place less emphasis on the kind of merit-generating rituals that have been the backbone of local Buddhist practice throughout Asia for centuries (McMahan 2008).

Contemporary Digital Media Technologies

In contemporary society, Buddhism is still at the forefront of media technology. For instance, the Karmasation app is free, and after registering and completing a survey, the application gives users a choice of starting a “karmasation” or awarding “karma points.” If you choose to award karma, it displays a map of the world on which are located different pins. Clicking a pin displays a karmasation, which is an event to which users can award karma, such as “trashed my car in an accident this morning luckily no one was hurt.” Karmasation then asks the user to “post your actions, thoughts, and experiences, and receive genuine feedback about whether you have earned good or bad karma.”

What is the relation between digital apps such as Karmasation and other digital media? In the not so distant past, the Buddhist presence online consisted of email lists and bulletin boards (Ostrowski 2015; Prebish 2015). Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism were among the (p. 473) first people to establish Internet-based discussion forums, the oldest of which is Buddha-L. Buddha-L came into being in 1991, at which point there were few discussion forums to use as a model. The Buddhist Studies WWW Virtual Library was another early resource from 1992, containing such things as bibliographies, biographies, directories, Buddhist electronic texts, poetry, and sermons (www.ciolek.com/wwwvl-buddhism.html). The Journal of Buddhist Ethics, founded in 1994, was the first peer-reviewed online journal in religious studies and has been a model for many other online journals established since that time (Prebish 2015). This includes popular forms as well. For instance, Buddhist magazines aimed at practitioners, such as www.thebuddhadharma.com, www.shambhalasun.com, and www.tricycle.com, reside on robust and well-trafficked websites that are often visited by those seeking information about Buddhist beliefs and practices, and in particular how they relate to life in contemporary society.

Presently, besides apps, contemporary Buddhist media technologies generally consist of websites, virtual worlds, and even video games (Connelly 2015). By far, most Buddhist digital media consists of websites. For instance, a particularly popular and helpful website with information for the serious student about all forms of Buddhism, including primary and secondary textual sources, full-text ebooks, Buddhist art, extensive links to other Buddhist sites, and much more is www.Buddhanet.net. It exemplifies the way that contemporary digital media are being used to shape, strengthen, and transmit Buddhism. As the website states, “In this way, an ancient tradition and the information superhighway will come together to create an electronic meeting place of shared concern and interests.” There is also a great deal of information that is brought together on the information hub www.buddhistchannel.tv that appeals to a similar audience. Another important arena is Buddhist blogs, which have exploded in popularity over the last several years (McGuire 2015). Nate DeMontigny’s blog Precious Metal features a logo showing a man with a shaved head and multiple tattoos, wearing a black T-shirt with a dharma-chakra on it, with two arms in a meditative gesture and two others making the “sign of the horn” or the “rock hand sign” while also holding Buddhist prayer beads and a vajra.3 Many similarly eclectic ideas and images can be found on other Buddhist blogs throughout cyberspace.

Buddhist digital media also consist of virtual worlds and video games. An example of a virtual world is Second Life, a three-dimensional immersive, interactive virtual world housed in cyberspace, and accessed via the Internet. Through on-screen representations, called avatars, millions of Second Life users explore virtual worlds, communicate and socialize with one another, as well as create, sell, and purchase virtual goods. Surprisingly, many Second Life residents practice religion, a sizable percentage of which consists of a form of Buddhism that centers on the Zen-inspired practice of silent online meditation (Falcone 2015; Grieve 2015a). An example of a Buddhist-inspired video game is the digital artist Bona Kim’s The Buddhist, which is meant to adhere to the tenets of Buddhism by divorcing it from a “hero / heroine-driven linear narrative.”4 A second example of a Buddhist-inspired game is Ian Bogost’s Guru Meditation for Atari consul and iPhone, which was the designer’s attempt to “to create a legitimate zen meditation game.”5

Digital Media Affordances

Yet, are the Karmasation app and other digital media really new, or are they just the same old Dharma packaged in a new contemporary digital wrapper? Take, for example, what (p. 474) might be the most surprising form of online practice, the Buddhist communities found on virtual worlds (Grieve 2010, 2012, 2015a, 2015b; Grieve and Heston 2011; Falcone 2015). This is a wholly new social space in which users practice Buddhism, and Buddhist teachers spread the Dharma. It is remarkable that although the medium is completely new, and is not restricted by physical limitations, many of the practices that occur within the virtual world itself look rather like those that occur in the actual flesh-and-blood world. Avatars bow as they enter the meditation hall, and then proceed to take a seat on a zafu, after which they sit in silent meditation, bodies perfectly posed. Sometimes, an actual monk living at an Asian monastery in the real world may give a Dharma talk, often even using voice chat technology that makes his real voice appear to be coming from the avatar. After the session, there may be a tea and an informal discussion among members before going on their way.

Conversely, many pre-digital media technologies resemble contemporary forms. Are digital applications such as Karmasation radically different from earlier forms of Buddhist media technology? If by “app” we mean a simple technological device that encapsulates some key data and helps one to achieve certain tasks throughout the day, then a maṇḍala is a media device that is really a kind of “app.” It encodes an enormous amount of information that helps the faithful to negotiate the spiritual realm, and serves to remind the aspirant about key features of the Buddhist cosmos and the message of the Dharma.

We maintain, however, that while having a family resemblance to earlier forms of media technology, contemporary digital artifacts such as Karmasation differ because of their four affordances: procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial (Murray 2012, chap. 2). Affordance refers to the properties that shape how an object can be used (Gibson 1979, 127; Norman 1988, 8). For instance, a doorknob affords the opening of a door. One could force a door by kicking, but using the knob affords its smooth release. New media are composed of such things as digital audio, digital video, and computer games, as well as online media such as websites, email, social sites, and multi-player games. Digital media, as opposed to analog media such as newspapers, film, and vinyl discs, can be glossed as those electronic media that are handled by computers as a series of numeric data (Grieve 2012). All digital media technologies are composed of programmable bits that can be used for symbol manipulation, and thus share common affordances. “Bit,” a portmanteau of binary digit, is the basic unit of computer-assisted communication. As opposed to analog media that use a physical property of the medium to convey the signal’s information, bits, like a row of on/off switches, can have only one of two values, which are most commonly represented as “0” and “1.”

The first affordance is the procedural, which refers to how digital media can execute conditioned responses (Murray 2012, 51–55). Digital media can mimic the linear unisequential design of legacy media such as films and books; however, its uniqueness lies in the ability to execute abstract sets of instructions and rules known as an algorithm. For instance, when one opens Karmasation, one is given the choice between either starting a karmasation or awarding karma. If one chooses “award karma,” one is taken to a geographic map that displays all local “karma events.” The classic example of the procedural affordance is Joe Weizenbaum’s program Eliza, which applies formulated responses to the user’s statements in order to simulate a nondirective conversation with a psychotherapist.6 The procedural affordance is clearest, however, in the physics of virtual worlds such as Linden Lab’s Second Life. Physics here refers to the underlying code that simulates the laws of nature by enabling or limiting a user’s choices (Bartle 2004, 3). Because of the procedural affordance, digital media allow for (p. 475) emergent events with many possible versions that branch out during use, rather than just a single version. Digital media’s procedural affordance is clear in Karmasation. For instance, by posting your own “karma events,” and voting on other’s posts, your own “karma profile” emerges from your responses. Just like Google’s search engine, however, Karmasation’s procedural affordance gives the appearance of infinite possibility. In fact, however, your choices are limited by your prior choices, as well as the scripts built into the computer code.

The second affordance is the participatory, which defines the ability of users to intervene, respond, and see the effects of their intervention in real time (Murray 2012, 55–66). Karmasation “allows users to both post and vote anonymously, earning and awarding karma points along the way … giving other users the opportunity to vote and award good or bad karma.” The participatory affordance calls for a coded dialogue with digital media, and users have an expectation that things will happen according to their actions. Such dialogues follow a coded script. Often this script is rigid, such as in phone-based automated customer service systems. Sometimes the script is transparent and overlooked, as exemplified by the blinking cursor of a word-processing program. As illustrated by Karmasation, participation increasingly calls for social interaction with other people as well as human-machine interaction. Social media consist of such things as chat rooms, bulletin boards, discussion lists, blogs, wikis, instant messaging formats, virtual worlds, social networks, and media-sharing. Karmasation not only incorporates participatory and social media into its app, but also has supporting blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts.

Digital media technologies also afford new communities and other social relations. We are now seeing the development of communities of Buddhist practitioners online, known as cybersanghas, which, as Charles Prebish (1999) has pointed out, include several types: sites that provide information about events connected to real-world communities; online extensions of existing Buddhist sanghas that allow for the practice itself to occur online—virtual temples (see, for example, http://www.polyboon.com/worship/inside/worship.html); and virtual sanghas that exist online only, with no corresponding physical meeting place (Helland 2004, 2005). There are also many groups connected to Buddhism on social networks such as Facebook and in virtual worlds such as Second Life. YouTube videos, podcasts, and especially blogs about topics related to Buddhism proliferate, and there are e-cards, smartphone apps providing daily doses of Buddhist wisdom, virtual tours of Buddhist sites and temples in Asia, and much more (McGuire 2015). The Internet is also used to mobilize political opinion about Tibet and to create a sense of community in the face of Chinese oppression (Helland 2015; Osburn 2015). In the future, there is little doubt that Buddhism’s digital presence will expand even more as these technologies pervade every corner of our lives (Connelly 2015).

The third affordance is the encyclopedic, which refers to digital media’s unequaled potential to store and transmit information (Murray 2012, 55–66). Digital media technology’s unequaled encyclopedic capabilities respond to the human need to collect, preserve, and transmit knowledge. As Gordon Moore noted in 1965, new computer chips seem to be released about every two years, which double the processing power of the preceding generation. “Moore’s Law” has held true for over half a century. The readable tape drives of the 1960s held up to two million characters (two megabytes) and were the size of a household refrigerator. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, personal computer storage was measured in terabytes, and users carried keychain-sized storage devices equal to dozens of the 1960 tape readers. Even more important for the encyclopedic affordance is that (p. 476) most digital media now connect to the Internet, which at least gives the illusion of access to universal knowledge.

Much Buddhist digital media utilize the encyclopedic affordance for the storage and transmitting of scripture and other documents. For instance, in the late 1990s, the Vipassana Research Institute (VRI), founded by wealthy Indo-Burmese businessman S. N. Goenka, produced a CD-ROM containing the entire Pali canon, based on the Burmese 1956 edition produced at the sixth council to honor 2,500 years since the Buddha’s Nirvana (www.tipitaka.org), and there have been numerous other projects to put the Dharma into a digital form. The VRI edition allows the text to be read in a variety of scripts, including Latin, Devanagari, Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, and even Mongolian. Such changes were intensified with the popularization of the Internet. For instance, a Thai edition of the Pali canon from 1928 has been digitized and put on a CD-ROM by Mahidol University, and the website www.AccessToInsight.org has put a great many English versions of the texts online. Currently, there are many searchable databases with enormous collections of Buddhist texts, including the Chinese canon (http://21dzk.l.u-tokyo.ac.jp/SAT/index_en.html) as well as the Tibetan canon (http://www.tbrc.org).

The final affordance is spatial, which refers to how digital media are perceived as spaces through which users navigate (Murray 2012, 66–80). The spatial affordance is clearest in virtual worlds and video games in which users perceive themselves to be moving through different environments. The spatial affordance can also be seen in the graphical user interface (GUI) in which users operate a mouse to “move” windows, icons, menu, and pointing devices (WIMP) around on a computer’s screen. It is also evidenced in how digital media are spoken about. Users “log on,” “go to” webpages, and also “open” files on their computer screens. Again, the spatial affordance is not readily clear in the Buddhist app until one starts a “karmasation,” at which point the screen changes to a map of the user’s current location to which a pin of one’s post is added. The pinning of the karma event to the map interpolates the user into a larger community, in which other users can award karma. Both the posting of karma events and the awarding of karma create a conversation between user and application that is organized through digital media’s spatial affordance

The Convert Buddhist Digital Media Technological Worldview

Buddhist media technologies are also shaped by the technological worldview out of which they emerge. A “technological worldview” reflects the ways in which media technology are linked to economics, politics, and culture (Grieve 2013, 2015b). There is no doubt that from the beginning a romanticized Buddhism and Buddhist ideas loomed large in the development of modern computer science (Veidlinger 2015a; Grieve 2015b). Take, for instance, the well-known cases of Steve Jobs, who for a significant period considered himself a Zen Buddhist, and Mitch Kapor, who called the first commercially successful spreadsheet program “Lotus.” One might assume that the entanglement of Buddhism and digital media occurred because many of the founders were influenced by the 1960s counterculture (Nelson (p. 477) 1974; Markoff 2005; Turner 2006). Long before the 1960s, however, the pioneers of computing often used ideas derived from Buddhism to describe the world. For example, MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener, who pioneered the field of cybernetics in the 1940s, described it as “the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society” (quoted in Turner 2006, 22) and emphasized that it was a systems approach to organization rendering the traditional, hierarchical command chain into a more effective command cycle in which feedback was incorporated into the calculus of the system (Grieve 2016). Wiener himself quickly began, through his studies of cybernetics, to take on a remarkably Buddhist understanding of human beings, famously saying, “We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves” (Wiener 1967, 130; Grieve 2015b).

Many early developers perceived that Buddhism shared with computers a creative freedom to revolutionize the world. The “digital” was seen to have a manifest destiny; it was a positive and revolutionary technological development through which all the world’s problems could be creatively and innovatively solved (Rheingold 1993; Brasher 2001; Thacker 2003). As Esther Dyson and her colleagues argue in “Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” digital media will lead to the “creation of a new civilization, founded in the eternal truths of the American Idea” (1994). Often, digital Buddhism is tied to a similar technological ideology in that it is seen as not only a new way of communicating, but also as a new vision for society: its practices are often posed as revolutionary, and are tied to the triumph of human creativity and freedom over dogma and blind tradition. As Karmasation reads, “People may simply enjoy the self-validation and awareness they gain from using Karmasation, but we’re also hoping that the App inspires some friendly competition to earn the best karma score, thereby promoting positive actions. We truly believe Karmasation can change the world for the better.”

As a religious media technology, Karmasation attempts to make sense of the contemporary world by invoking sacred practices and beliefs. It makes suffering bearable by making it meaningful. Yet, because it is viewed as creative and not tied to a tradition, Buddhism today is often seen as a way to be “spiritual but not religious,” as a way to make sense of the world, and do good, without giving into the dogma of organized institutions and blind belief (Roof 1993, 1996; Zaleski 1997; Dawson and Hennebry 1999; Fuller 2001; Pew Internet Project 2001; Armfield and Holbert 2003; Hoover, Clark, and Rainie 2004). As Karmasation reads, in your free time “have fun while improving a score that matters.” Examples of “karma events” include a doctor who helped the homeless, a man giving a $200 tip, a firefighter saving a dog, and a motorcyclist who retrieved a cup of coffee off the top of an SUV.

Future Outlook

Looking at the state of media and Buddhism today illustrates that contemporary Buddhism is being shaped for many people by the affordances of digital media technology. When a smartphone application like Karmasation helps users share “karma,” there can be little doubt that the Internet, mobile phones, video games, and other incarnations of digital technology are changing the face of Buddhism worldwide. As more and more people spend increasing amounts of time online, Buddhism is likely to be shaped to a significant degree through its (p. 478) relationship to new media. Online Buddhism greatly expands the possibilities for Buddhist involvement on the part of people who have geographical or physical challenges when it comes to finding or gaining access to a real world Buddhist center. The anonymity provided through this system also allows for more frank discussions about, and also criticisms of, Buddhist doctrine. The access to information that was previously the preserve of highly trained scholars or advanced practitioners, coupled with the horizontally networked nature of the Internet, tends to weaken the existing hierarchies in all organizations, including Buddhism (Campbell and Teusner 2011). Virtual worlds in a variety of forms will also play a larger role in religious practice, and as they do, the very notion of who and where a person is will be challenged by the embodied nature of such practices as prostration and meditation.

Buddhism seems to thrive online because its popular form shares a worldview with digital media. Buddhism in particular possesses historical, philosophical, and practical attributes that are salient to the topic of contemporary media technologies. Digital media are nothing if not impermanent. Webpages are liable to change every day, and woe betide they who think that an item found online at a particular site will be there next week. The deep entanglement of suffering with this sorry state of impermanence is very much apparent to anyone who has ever worked on an essay, only to find it disappear when the computer crashes before it was saved, or becomes infected by a malicious virus that erases the memory. Furthermore, that there is no permanent, unchanging self is highlighted by the experience of digital media, where one person may log on to various Internet sites using completely different personas (Veidlinger 2015a).

The Buddhist ideas of karma, dependent origination, and compassion are salient to the digital world as well. Just looking at one’s Facebook wall, for example, makes it very clear that what one does is not occurring in a vacuum, but has ripples that extend far beyond the doer, and that may come back to the doer in some way in the future. Social media may help to cultivate compassion in various ways as well, the most basic being the simple but powerful effect of seeing one’s connections to others around the world. Much as Buddhism emphasizes the interdependent nature of things in the world, where nothing stands on its own, and everything is conditioned by other things, so social media bring to our awareness the presence of others in our lives, and of us in theirs, which has been shown to generate compassion. A massive study of how the Internet affects relationships was conducted in 2004 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project; it showed that the Internet does not appear to be damaging interpersonal relationships and attitudes toward each other. The study showed that people often use the Internet successfully to mobilize their social networks in times of need and consequently are more likely to receive help (through networks established on the Internet) than are people who do not use the Internet.7

Buddhism, a religion that has historically adapted very successfully to new media environments and also holds the idea of constant change as one of its defining ideologies, is thriving in this new world order. There is no doubt that the characteristics of digital technology in many ways imprint and inform the character of contemporary Buddhist practices. On one hand, digital media create a new opportunity for Dharma Practice: by clicking a link, Karmasation allows for instant religious practice. Yet, the anxieties that necessitate such clicking, and also the fact that there are few traditional face-to-face opportunities or locations, are produced by a liquid modern life, and stem from the conditions of late capitalism in which traditional religious communities, institutions, and practices have dissolved under pressure from a market-driven economy. Digital media, in whatever (p. 479) form, will play an increasingly significant role in the future of Buddhist media technologies. Because of its flexibility and relative inexpensiveness, digital Buddhism will continue to play a key role in allowing people to actively explore and create novel, temporary, and flexible forms of Dharma practice. Moreover, if we have not already reached the tipping point, digital media will soon be at the center of information and content distribution, having absorbed newspapers, printed books, movies, and even television. This may lead to quite a change in the scholarly approach to Buddhism. Because the discipline of Buddhist studies has often assumed that “Buddhism” can be reduced to printed scripture, new and popular religious practices that are based in these new media have tended to be marginalized in the past. By understanding emerging media technologies, however, we can glimpse the near future of Dharma practice, especially as it is a response to contemporary life.

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Notes:

(1.) This number is just a few less applications than the 491 that were found during a search for “Christianity.” Considering that there are at least four times more Christians in the world than Buddhists, the fact that there are just a few dozen more Christian apps speaks volumes about the degree to which Buddhists and people interested in promoting Buddhism are busily using the latest media technologies.