Virtual Religion: A Case Study of Virtual Tibet
Abstract and Keywords
This essay introduces some of the key issues associated with virtual religious practices. With the development of the MODEM program and public access to the Internet and then the WWW, online religious activity has flourished. On a most basic level, virtual religion has affected religious community, authority, and identity. However, online religious activity has also changed ritual practices, religious information seeking behaviors, and even people’s religious experiences. Virtual religion is having significant impact and changing the way people “do” religion in our wired world. After introducing the topic and key issues, this essay presents an important case study of Virtual Tibet, highlighting the significant changes that can occur in religious beliefs and practices as they are “digitized” and experienced online.
We live in a wired world. Our society and culture are now connected through global Internet networks in a manner that was not even envisioned when the World Wide Web (WWW) was created in the 1990s. With the continued development of hand-held mobile computing devices, the expansion of high-speed wireless networks, and the increase in accessibility to this network, our social world is changing dramatically. These changes have transformed how we communicate with each other, how we do our work, how we socialize, and even how we view the world itself. It should come as no surprise then that the Internet has also changed the way we “do” religion. Although it may feel as if religious traditions and their practices are ancient bastions of belief that are unwavering and rigid, the opposite is in fact the truth. Religions are not static but are constantly changing and transforming, adapting and developing based upon changes in the social world. Religions are born and they die, they change with the times and prosper or they become out of touch with people and become entropic, losing members over the generations to more dynamic belief systems. Reformation, counter-reformation, revival, and innovation are ongoing religious processes and responses to societal and cultural change.
With the development of the Internet and “new media,” religion and religious beliefs and practices continue their ongoing transformations. On a most basic level, the Internet has affected religious community, authority, and identity. However, new media have also changed ritual practices, religious information seeking behaviors, and even the types of religious experiences people have. Online religious activity is a complex event that can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Although it occurs in a “virtual reality” environment, it is often seen as being authentic and real. Much like a shamanic vision, where the ritual specialist travels from this world into another realm, many people feel that cyberspace has afforded a new environment where the sacred can be encountered in new and dynamic ways. Others argue that the online world is a human, technological construction that has no spiritual value. The bottom line is that religious activity is flourishing online. Theologians can debate the complexities of the validity of the experiences; however, as a sociologist, it is not my intention in this essay to argue for or against the authenticity of the experiences people have online, but rather to present them in all of their complexities as an exploration of new forms of religious and cultural expression.
In the Beginning Was the Word
The history of the relationship between religion and media shows that it should come as no surprise that the Internet would quickly be adapted as a tool for engaging religion. However, in the 1970s and 1980s many academics missed the influx of religion online because they were under the assumption that the world was becoming a secular place and that religion and religious beliefs were being moved to the private sphere of the individual—if not disappearing altogether. For many scholars, there was a strong assumption that being modern and technological or scientific equaled being nonreligious. However, nothing could have been farther from the truth. In fact, by 1996 Time Warner estimated that there were three times as many websites concerning religion and spirituality than there were concerning sex (Ramo 1996). When the World Wide Web was still a relatively new tool for public communication, it had already become an environment where religious organizations broadcast their information to their membership and the world at large and where religiously motivated individuals clambered upon a global soapbox and preached to anyone who had a modem.
The first large-scale studies examining Internet usage patterns in the United States found that 21 percent of the users went online to undertake some form of religious activity. Within one year this number had increased to 25 percent, from two million people a day using the Internet for religious or spiritual purposes in 2000 to over three million a day in 2001. Despite the continued increase in total overall Internet users, in a detailed study conducted on users in the United States between March and May of 2003, it was found that 29 percent of the people online had used the Internet to look for religious or spiritual information (Larsen 2000, 2001; Raine and Horrigan 2003). By 2004, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that “64 percent of wired Americans have used the Internet for spiritual or religious purposes” (Hoover, Clarke, and Raine 2004).
Despite these numbers, these data do not tell us much about the type of engagement being undertaken in the new online environment. Early research found that people went online to get information about religion, talk about religion, argue about religious beliefs and practices, share their religious feelings and concerns, post pray requests, chat, conduct religious philanthropy, and even participate in online religious rituals (see e.g., Brasher 2001; Campbell 2005; Cowan 2005; Dawson 2000; Grieve 1995; Helland 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007; Kim 2005; MacWilliams 2006; O’Leary 1996; Taylor 2003). However, more recent research has begun to demonstrate the complex relationship between online and off-line religious participation, the influence of digital networks on religious authority, and the implications of new media on ritual practice and belief (see e.g., Campbell 2010a, 2010b, 2012; Cheong and Poon 2009; Grieve 2012; Helland 2012; Hoover and Echchaibi 2012).
Religion-Online or Online-Religion?
The online religious environment is shaped by two equally powerful forces. One of these forces is the “end user,” the other is the content “provider.” There is a unique relationship between these two groups, much like the relationship between religion and media (see Hoover, Clark, & Rainie 2004), they are not separate individual spheres but powerful forces that meld and blend together to produce religion on the Internet. The first heuristic classification used to examine the levels of religious participation occurring through this medium was developed in 2000 (Helland 2000; 2002; 2005). This classification recognized a distinction between religion-online and online-religion. In the case of religion-online, the website had been created to utilize traditional forms of communication to present religion based upon a vertical conception of control, status, and authority. Here information is presented about religion in a manner that harnesses the Internet to communicate in a one-to-many fashion. Information concerning doctrine, dogmas, polity, and organization is presented but there is no avenue developed for the participants to contribute their beliefs and input into the site. This is a form of top-down communication that is not structured to receive feedback and interaction from the people receiving the information.
The second classification, online-religion, is a form of participation that closely mirrors the ideal interactive environment of the Web itself and allows for many-to-many communication and interaction. Here the Web traveller is allowed to network with the website in a variety of ways, including online ritual, prayer, worship, and even meditation. In these cases, through interactive environments, links, chat rooms, and bulletin boards, the setting allows for the contribution of personal beliefs and can offer personal feedback. This is a much more dynamic form of online interaction that allows for dialogue, the exchanging of information, and reciprocal engagement online.
Two significant factors bracket this form of classification. The first is based upon how the creators of the web page view the online medium, in other words: How do they believe the Internet should be used when it comes to engaging religion on the World Wide Web? In this way, the perception of what the Internet is “believed to be” affects how the religious site will be developed and maintained. The second influence involves the participants themselves and asks: How do they want to interact with the medium and how do they want to “do” religion online? This affects where people will travel to on the WWW and what type of websites they will visit when they want to be religious or spiritual while using the medium.
However, there are significant gray areas within this classification at both the personal and the institutional levels, as different people and different religious traditions “do” religion very differently. A good example from the institutional level can be seen within online Tibetan Buddhism. Recognizing the importance, significance, and potential of the Internet to support the Tibetan community in diaspora, in 1996, Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Namgyal Monastery used a variation of the Kalachakara Tantra (a sacred ritual) to bless the network and sanctify the newly created “cyberspace” for this purpose. To conduct the ritual, the monks used sacred chants while they visualized the interconnected network of computers that make up the Internet and the “space” created by these networks. An image of the Kalachakra Mandala (which had been created as a complex sand mandala earlier) was digitized and put up on a computer screen. This further helped with the visualization of the Internet as being part of a giant mandala which was now spiritually anchored within the virtual world. The event was timed to coincide with the “24 hours of Cyberspace” program conducted globally on February 8, 1996 to raise awareness of the positive impact the Internet could have on society and culture.
At first glance, it might seem paradoxical that an ancient religion would respond in this way to new media and the social spaces it affords. Yet from the perspective of the monks, cyberspace was not artificial or “virtual” but a space that people were engaging in a very “real world” way. In their view, there was no dichotomy between online and offline activity, rather the new online environment was viewed simply as a place where people could do things. As the monks put it, “We pray to reduce the negative things that may happen in cyberspace and to increase the positive things… The person using the Internet has the choice” (see the Namgyal Monastery’s discussion of the “Blessings of Cyberspace,” www.namgyal.org/blessings/cyberspace.cfm).
In this situation, the organized and official religious group within Tibetan Buddhism was conducting a very important online ritual activity, yet it was them “broadcasting” it into cyberspace. There was no interaction afforded for other people within the online environment. People knew that the ritual was occurring and many Tibetan Buddhist practitioners also visualized the Kalachakra emerging online—but the end user could only view the ritual; they did not get to participate in the ritual activity itself. Yet just by witnessing the ritual, they became actively involved in the online religious activity. Many religious traditions “do” religion in a one-to-many fashion, much like a disciple sitting at the feet of a guru to receive teachings, or a congregant sitting in a pew watching the ritual specialist perform libations. In many traditions, that is how religion is done, and it can be done well like this online.
It is essential to recognize that the Internet is different things to different people. Individuals use this technology in various ways, and the manner in which they utilize the medium is based upon what they believe the Internet is and can be used for. Religious organizations and institutions are very conscious of the way their websites function. Nothing appears on the Internet out of chance or by accident, in fact a significant amount of time, money, and thought are required to develop an institutional religious website. The manner in which religious groups structure their websites directly influences the type of communication and interaction that can occur. As Manuel Castell argues, the Internet is ideally designed for many-to-many communications, which represents a form of networked interaction that is significantly different from the form of one-to-many communication used by centralized hierarchies (Castells 1996). Yet some religious traditions do not feel that open, unrestricted, many-to-many communication is the proper way for conducting religious activities. And that is not how they practice religion in the “real world” either.
As different levels of online interaction were developed and created by religious organizations and religiously motivated individuals, different types of online communities began to emerge. One of the earliest and, perhaps, the most influential was Communitree. This California-based online social networking system used bulletin boards to allow people to post messages and respond to other peoples’ comments. This was a new way of communicating, and it quickly became an active online environment where people could “gather together” to exchange ideas, give advice, and communally solve all sorts of problems (from algebraic and academic to personal and psychological). Communitree also devoted a large section of the online community for engaging religious and spiritual issues. This space on the bulletin board system (BBS) was called ORIGINS. It was created by the Communitree users to promote a syncretic, open-ended form of religious discussion in which people of varying levels of religious faith, commitment, and practice could post and respond to questions ranging from divination to the afterlife and from the Christian Bible to the Zoroastrian Avestas. People talked about God, shamanism, and out-of-body experiences and asked for anything from prayer support to healing energy. Using texted messages to communicate in the forum, people began using the Internet to express their religious beliefs and concerns, request prayers and spiritual support, and to simply talk about religion. In a sense, the earliest Internet bulletin board for religion became a computer-generated, unofficial, religious environment. Unofficial or “non-official” religion “is a set of religious and quasi-religious beliefs and practices that is not accepted, recognized, or controlled by official religious groups” (McGuire 1997, 108). This form of religious belief and activity operates outside the bounds of traditional systems of religious authority and is often associated with personal religiosity and spirituality in our contemporary society. Nonofficial religion is fluid and has no set doctrine, code of ethics, or group of religious professionals that regulate the beliefs and practices. On one level, it is a form of religious expression and identification that is part of a social and individual feedback cycle. The beliefs and practices emanate out from the individual through various forms of media and engagement, flowing into the society and culture—mixing, blending, syncretyzing—where they are absorbed, assimilated, transformed, and reengaged by the individual.
This new online religious environment was not structured for traditional hierarchical forms of religious expression and community; it was an open forum of religious dialogue that was so eclectic it defied religious classification—New Age and Californian shamanism alongside Catholic Orthodoxy and Christian Fundamentalism; when you mix that all together there is no “type” of religious identity that can be associated with it. No one was allowed to be a leader; people were respected on equal terms, and individuals could easily enter in religious conversations where everyone was allowed their opinion and their views. Dr. A. R. Stone found, “The kinds of conversations they had in there were of a high intellectual and spiritual character. They talked about new philosophies and new religions for post-Enlightenment humanity; the first time such conversations had taken place online” (Stone 1993). Stone called the belief system developing on the Internet “technospiritual bumptiousness, full of the promise of the redemptive power of technology mixed with the easy catch-all Eastern mysticism popular in upscale Northern California” (Stone 1991). The people involved in Communitree and ORIGINS believed their form of communitas was a model that could transform the society itself. They believed that there was a new type of culture developing because of Internet communication and that the world and religion were changing. “The CommuniTree Group… saw their BBS as transformative because of the structure it presupposed and simultaneously created…. They saw the terminal or personal computer as a tool for social transformation by the way it refigured social interaction” (Stone and Sinha 1995, 270–271).
ORIGINS was the first foray into online religious activity. They had no idea of what would work and what wouldn’t work. It was a religious experiment, and although the BBS eventually shut down, it laid the foundation for how religion would begin to develop online. Their model was to provide anyone with computer and Internet access the opportunity to be religious in and through this new form of media. It was open, nonhierarchical, and nonofficial—this was how they saw religion in the new wired world.
This form of online activity was embraced by the “religious virtuosi” and those wishing to engage with religious beliefs and practices in dynamic ways through the new medium. However, religious institutions also saw the enormous potential the Internet afforded to connect with their followers in a different way. From a Weberian perspective, it could be argued that most people practice forms of mass religiosity, where they are the consumers of religious activities at a fairly disengaged level or only when they are in dire need. The virtuosi, religiously active members of BBS like ORIGINS, are relatively small in number, and although they may be motivated enough to post on a regular basis about religion and experiment with online rituals and such, most people going online were not as engaged with religious activity. The religious virtuosi created websites based upon their religious beliefs and practices, maintained bulletin boards, and even developed platforms for online ritual activities. However, the “mass” of online religious activity that really began to develop was focused upon providing information, news, dogmas, and creating networks to keep people linked with their religious traditions in the off-line world. In an important early study examining official religious use of the Internet and WWW, the PEW American Life Project found that official church sites, “are much more likely to use the web for one-way communication features such as posting sermons and basic information, than they are to have two-way communications features or interactive features such as spiritual discussions, online prayer, or fundraising” (Larsen 2001, 2). For example, of the 1,309 official religious web sites surveyed by the PEW study, only 4 percent (52 sites) hosted discussion areas. Of those, 20 percent were considering removing the feature because, among other things, “the environment became too hard to control” (Larsen 2001).
Although CommuniTree and ORIGINS did not last long, their format and structure had an enormous impact upon the developing Internet systems. A lot of people began using the computer software written by John James for CommuniTree; they fixed up the bugs and patterned their discussion groups upon the “tree” idea. During this early developmental phase and expansion of Internet communications, religious postings and online religious activity remained a significant part of the new environment. Religious activity slowly worked its way into many of the discussion boards, groups, and posts that were starting to fill the new Internet environment. The religious virtuosi were active and engaged online.
The increasing amount of online religious activity was embraced by some and opposed by others, and a division started to occur in the way religion was being promoted and practiced on the Internet. Several official religious organizations and people practicing forms of traditional religiosity recognized the potential of the Internet, and they tried to use this new network to communicate and practice their religion in the same way they had done in the past. Nonofficial or less formally structured religious groups and many people that practiced a more open form of religiosity, religious seeking, or “holistic spirituality” (Beckford 1992) also recognized the incredibly dynamic nature of the Internet, and they started to embrace online religious activity in an open and completely different way.
Official Religion and Online Networks
After seeing the enormous potential of the Internet to communicate globally and in a dynamic, potentially new way, several Christian denominations began experimenting with online activities. The earliest example began under the guidance of Dr. David Lockhead on October 31, 1984 (All Hallows Eve). As a member of the United Church of Canada, Lockhead developed UCHUG (United Church Users Group) on the Envoy 100 Canadian Electronic Mail System. He originally set up the system for two reasons. The first was to overcome the vast geography of Canada (they have churches scattered across a giant land mass), and the second reason was to allow for the communication of “textual information” to church leaders and members. Despite early structural issues (including limited modem communications), the online network system was successful; however, very quickly significant disagreements developed over the way the new medium could and would be used by the church.
The official religious governing body of the United Church of Canada experienced the amazing potential of using the medium to communicate in a one-to-many fashion. It was a great way for communicating clerical issues and connecting from “office to office.” It was also an extremely effective tool for “closed” discussions between church leadership. However, the online members—who at this time were predominantly community church leaders—were using the system to communicate, discuss issues, share their thoughts, feelings, prayer, and, for many, develop an new environment that they recognized as a form of online or electronic community. This varying use of the system worried some of the participants who saw that there was the potential for this communications medium to subtly shift the traditional organizational structure of the United Church of Canada—potentially eroding any form of centralized authority because local groups could now communicate with each other without having to go through any central office. In effect, the Internet allowed for many-to-many communication that was open and did not need to be centralized. In fact, Dr. David Lockhead was the first person to use the term “online religion” when he discussed the ecumenical community he was creating and experiencing through the new Internet medium (1986). However, The United Church of Canada is a unique religious organization when it comes to religious government and governing bodies. For the most part, the church operates based upon a model that begins at the local congregational level, then the pastoral level, the Presbytery, Councils, and finally the Governing Body. This structure is uniquely open and relies heavily upon local boards, committees, and grassroots networks. In some ways, they can function fairly well without a hierarchy. So it comes as no real surprise that they would be much more simpatico with new online practices than other religious groups. The United Church of Canada was one of the first religious organizations to embrace Internet technology, and they quickly recognized that it could play two very different roles within religious organizations and the society at large—for them it was a great tool for developing online community and for engaging religion at a popular or grass-roots level. However, for other religious organizations it was an impressive machine for communicating in a top-down fashion that could help strengthen and reinforce hierarchical power structures and centralized authority (see Helland 2008).
Based upon the positive feedback received from the people involved in the United Church’s early experiment with online activities, the Church moved its activities to a larger computer system that was hosted in the United States. This system was more advanced and allowed for greater online interaction and the development of what they believed very strongly to be an “online ecumenical community.” Once moved into this new system, they were joined by The United Methodists and The United Church of Christ. This online experimentation continued to develop and by 1986, “Joint Strategy Sessions” and “Action Committees” were formed by several Christian denominations in an attempt to discuss how the new Internet system could be used for church mission activities. At this time, Dr. David Lockhead helped develop an independent Internet network called ECUNET. This was a “closed” or secure networking system developed so that these Christian denominations could communicate among their membership and also with each other. Very quickly this became the largest ecumenical computer network in the world, where each group had private Bulletin Boards, secure chat rooms, email list serves, and also communal areas where they could meet online and discuss different issues or just share their faith.
As the creators of the new network stated: “Ecunet is a unique Christian community existing within the Internet, but it differs in several respects: Participants tend to treat each other with more respect in Ecunet than elsewhere on the Internet… moderators set their own rules for their meetings and are able to control who participates and the level of participation for others…. System security is tight; personal correspondence and private meetings are secure enough to allow Ecunet to be used for confidential… highly sensitive matters” (Ecunet FAQ’s). A number of Christian denominations—even ones that really did not get along—started using ECUNET; this included groups from the Mennonites and the Quakers to the Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, and the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. They were using the Internet network in a traditional way for communicating their religion and beliefs to their membership. Although there were “open” and friendly areas within ECUNET where people could experience online community engagement, the system was made by official religious Christian organizations for official religious work.
Welcome to the World Wide Web: Religion Goes Viral
By the mid 1990s the Internet environment was flooded and overflowing with different forms of religious activity. It was being used by official religious groups, the religiously motivated virtuosi, people in diaspora that were maintaining ties with the religion at home, people forming new religious movements, for “mass religiosity,” and in a number of creative ways for a variety of religious and spiritual purposes. There were vast and varying religious representations and with the commercialization of the World Wide Web in 1995/96, this activity surged into the new online environment with such a force that religion and spirituality would quickly become one of the largest groups of websites categories in this new online environment (see Helland Google Tech Talk, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zr4XyY-DJgQ).
Most people simply take the World Wide Web for granted and feel that time online is part of their everyday life; however, the World Wide Web is a very dynamic environment, and it can be used by different people in very different ways. For a large number of individuals actively engaged in using the Internet, there is no question that it is a valuable tool for maintaining social networks. They may use email, instant messaging, Facebook, and blogs to stay connected to their friends, family, work, and even hobbies and interests. However, not everyone utilizes the Internet that frequently or perhaps that intensely to maintain new forms of social networks. In some cases, people may have very limited online social interaction, and they may use the World Wide Web much more often as a tool for obtaining information.
It is important to recognize that the WWW has two powerful and distinct capabilities. The first has to do with data. Information stored on computers that are connected to the WWW through the Internet can be accessed by any computer that is also connected to the system. For example, I can search ancient Tibetan Manuscripts at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (http://www.ltwa.net/library/), view illuminated Islamic manuscripts at the University of Michigan (http://www.lib.umich.edu/), and browse through the Secret Archives of the Vatican (http://www.vatican.va) without having to leave the comforts of my office. The WWW is a massive data storage device that can be searched and is easily accessed and explored through hyperlinks. The second important aspect of the WWW is that it is a powerful social networking tool. Everyone reading this chapter is familiar with Facebook—yet that is only one manifestation of the WWW’s social networking abilities. “Web 2.0” heavily expands upon the social dimension of this medium, promoting openness, interaction, and virtual community—allowing the “end user” the ability to contribute to the online environment.
In most cases, the religious authorities of the church or organization are the “gate keepers” that control how that organization will utilize Internet technology. It is the people in charge of the group that decide if they need a website, what the website will contain, how it will be developed, and so forth. Some religious organizations are more dynamic than others, and the leadership may be responding to the religious community, recognizing that their membership wants (and will use) not only a “website” but things like “godcasts” (sermons that are downloaded from the website for MP3 players), online blogs and discussion groups, church news feeds and updates, flash player images and music, and myriad other technologically savvy tools that are available online.
In other cases, the authorities of the religious organization may be more conservative in their approach to the WWW and its uses for their membership. For example, many of the most impressive religiously based websites, such as that of the Vatican (http://www.vatican.va/), harnessed the medium to communicate in much the same manner in which they had earlier used the radio, television, and even the printing press (Helland, 2004, 2000). In this case, they are disseminating information and communicating to their members and the general public but they have not allowed the environment to be used as a social space. The Vatican website, originally developed and designed in 1995 by a group of Benedictine Monks from Northern New Mexico, has millions of internal web pages hosted on three super computers named Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel. It is a stunningly impressive site. Available in eight languages, it contains a massive archive, information on doctrine and beliefs, the church’s history, and just about everything one might want to know regarding the Catholic tradition. However, there are no interactive areas like chat rooms, no bulletin boards where one can post information and ask questions, and no way to communicate through the website; the site also lacks external links (Helland, 2002; Zaleski 1997). Despite the amazing complexity of the Vatican website, this site has nothing to do with Web 2.0. In fact, even the Vatican’s YouTube Channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/vatican) provides only information and does not allow for posted comments or the exchanging of information about religious and spiritual matters.
On websites structured in this way, the Web traveler is given information about religion; this includes everything from doctrine and polity to information about practices and beliefs, ethics and morals, religious books and articles, as well as other paraphernalia related to religious pursuits. However, when people go online for religious and spiritual purposes, they may want to do more than just get information about religion from an official tradition—especially since many people in the contemporary society consider themselves spiritual and not religious. As the Pew Internet and American Life Project found very early in the development of online religious activity, “higher percentages of the online faithful report online activities related to personal spirituality and religiosity than activities more related to involvement in traditional religious functions or organizations” (Hoover, Clark, & Rainie, 2004).
So what happens when people go online to do more than just receive information about religion if their official religious tradition is only providing this type of material? Again, it is important to stress that large percentages of the population appear satisfied with doing religion in the top-down, traditional, hierarchical way that occurs within organized religions such as Catholicism. If that is the case, then the Vatican website will be ideal for any forms of online religious engagement the “mass” of these people are seeking. However, in our wired world, even the Vatican recognizes that people engage new media in a different way than traditional forms of older media—and they might want more from their online experience. It is a conflict and a difficult discussion for many organized religious groups as they move forward in their adaption and use of new media. It has been argued that the Internet is like the printing press on steroids. That might not be the best analogy but it makes a clear point about how powerful this technology is and also how much it can impact and change our society.
In situations where the Internet is being used to its full potential, in that it allows for many-to-many, nonhierarchical communication and interaction among participants, a new type of computer-supported religious participation is developing. It has a number of different forms and is appearing through a various online practices. The question that cannot be answered is whether the new online activity is creating a “new form” of religious praxis or societal changes in religious authority and freedom of religious beliefs and practices have created new forms of religious activity in our society that is just reflected in the online environment. The answer is most likely that both these forces have impacted on each other, and as religion in society changes, new forms of social media may be accelerating these transformations. If this is the case, then the distinctions between religion-online and online-religion may be blurring as new media permeate our lives.
Case Study: Virtual Tibet
As noted in the introduction, the Tibetan Tradition in diaspora was one of the first organized religions to deeply embrace the Internet, recognizing both its potential to communicate and connect their people within diaspora and also its power as a form of media to communicate to the world the difficult Tibetan situation. Despite “geographical” Tibet being subsumed under the Chinese State, the Tibetan government in exile, official religious organizations, and politically and religiously motivated individuals actively engage the Internet to promote Tibetan sovereignty and maintain their religious and cultural identity.
As the World Wide Web developed, a number of websites were created to promote and support the “Tibetan Situation,” while Tibetan communities in diaspora began to develop comprehensive websites that provided information on everything from Tibetan restaurants and crafts to localized political activities and international news. By 2004, Internet use within the diaspora had become so significant that Thubten Samphel, the secretary of the department of information of the exiled Tibetan government, wrote:
Tibetans in exile are embracing the Internet just as they did Buddhism more than 1,300 years ago. Like a new revelation, the power of the Internet to create virtual communities has fascinated Tibetans in exile. This fascination is intensified by the fact that the ability to create a cohesive community, across international borders, has been denied to Tibetans in Tibet by an Internet-shy China. And Tibetan exiles, scattered as they are across the globe, are converting this fascination into a rash of cyberspace activities that, because of their power to transmit information instantaneously, are profoundly changing the world of the Tibetan Diaspora and beyond. In the process, Tibetan exiles have created a virtual Tibet that is almost un-assailable, free, reveling in its freedom, and growing.
(Samphel 2004, 167)
With the main religious leaders leaving Tibet to live in exile (e.g., van Schaik 2011), they continued to develop and maintain a web of connectedness between themselves and their communities, which were living in a form of “stateless diaspora” abroad or still within the traditional territories that were now under the political control of the Chinese Government. As new Internet communication tools became available, the Tibetan religious authorities began to explore, and then develop, these networks to communicate news and information about the Tibetan situation to both Tibetans and non-Tibetans and to strengthen the communications between the monastic centers (religious authorities) and the Tibetan diaspora community. Originally relying upon volunteers in Canada, the United States, and Britain, several bulletin boards and list-serves were developed for this activity (Anand 2000; Bray 2000; Brinkerhoff 2012; Drissel 2008; Helland 2014; McLagan 1996).
As this online network for projecting and strengthening Tibetan identity inside and outside of China continued to develop and expand, Internet use within the diaspora community began changing based upon the needs of the community. Referred to as the social shaping of technology and the “spiritualizing of the Internet” (Campbell 2005), the users shifted the emphasis from a fourth estate used for combating Chinese propaganda to an online network that began to significantly strengthen the diaspora community. In many ways this primary shift can be viewed as a change from using the Internet to help create a “media spectacle” to using the Internet for maintaining identity.
One key factor in this development was the push by the diaspora community to develop Internet accessibility and connectivity within “Little Lhasa” or Dharamsala, which had now become the religious and political center for the Tibetans in exile. In a major undertaking, Air Jaldi, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating wireless networks for the Tibetan community in diaspora, facilitated a meeting in 2006 where they built one of the largest Wi-Fi networks in the world. Using a complex wireless mesh network, they linked over 2,000 computers throughout the Himalayan region of Northern India. This allowed for the Tibetans in the Dharamsala area to be “wired” despite the poor quality of phone services and limited access to computers. In support of the developing network and the Air Jaldi conference, the Dalai Lama welcomed the delegates and volunteers building the mesh network and in a written message prayed “that the fruits of your good work will be far reaching and long lasting.”
As the WWW is a complex environment that provides the ability for diaspora communities to be both consumers and producers of knowledge and representation, centralized, traditional authorities have difficulty maintaining control over this network (e.g., Barker 2005; Campbell 2007, 2010b; Helland 2000; Turner 2007). In fact, the new Internet networks “may represent the first time that diaspora members are able to consider aspects of their identity, question traditional interpretations of religion and culture, and choose for themselves what their identity ‘truth’ is” (Brinkerhoff 2012: 94). In an attempt to increase representation of the monastic centers and religious authority within this online environment, the Dalai Lama’s official website (originally online in October of 1999) was transformed in 2005–2006 from being purely an information source that promoted the Dalai Lama to a website that engaged with the diaspora community by providing news, teachings, rituals, messages, and speeches. Monastic centers that were being re-established in exile also created websites that increased their connectivity with the community.
Within a relatively short time, Virtual Tibet became something far greater than just a medium used to shape public opinion. It became a “third space” (Hoover and Echchaibi 2012) that allowed for online connectivity and online community, while it also strengthened the networks used for maintaining a globally dispersed group of Tibetans. This overlap between online and offline community identity is much more reflective of a “networked society” where the diaspora group is “culturing the technology… so that it can be incorporated into the community and provide opportunities for group or self-expression” (Campbell 2012, 64). Through actively engaging the Internet and World Wide Web in a number of progressive ways, the Tibetan community in diaspora began socially shaping the technology to meet the community’s unique political, religious, and spiritual needs.
Although there are significant digital divides—particularly between new exiles escaping Tibet and traveling to India and exiles that came to India between the 1960s to the 1980s, this new form of networked society has become extremely significant to members of the Tibetan diaspora for a number of different reasons. In the contemporary online environment, Virtual Tibet is best interpreted as a multisite network that is structured upon five nodes or spheres of websites. Each node plays a pivotal role in maintaining Tibetan identity both online and off in what can best be described as a multisite reality (Campbell 2012). In Campbell’s examination of “networked religion” she argues that
Connected to the idea of a multisite reality is that the online world is consciously and unconsciously imprinted by its users with the values, structures, and expectations of the offline world. Multisite reality means online practices are often informed by offline ways of being, as users integrate or seek to connect their online and offline patterns of life. It also means that there is often ideological overlap and interaction between online religious groups and forums and their corresponding offline religious institutions.
(Campbell 2012, 82)
Religious belief and practice within the Tibetan culture have always been a key pillar of Tibetan identity. With the rise of “networked individualism” (Raine and Wellman 2012), members within the diaspora community are constantly challenged and influenced by “multiple modernities” (Whalen-Bridge 2011) and alternative and competing networks. This struggle of identity and community maintenance is a constant challenge in diaspora, particularly with second generation members that may focus more on developing new ties, rather than on nourishing or rediscovering old social networks (Ardley 2002; Beyer 2006; Nowak 1984; Tiller and Franz 2004; Vertovec 2009). To connect the community in diaspora, multiple online networks help maintain community identity, common goals and beliefs, and leadership structures. As such, Virtual Tibet represents the new development of a technologically hybridizing community that is connecting deeply rooted traditional structures of power and authority with new social media. The five nodes making up the multisite network are (1) Tibetan Government in Exile websites; (2) Tibetan News websites; (3) Cyber-Sanghas and comprehensive websites; (4) social networking sites; and, (5) Tibetan Monastic and religious websites.
The Virtual Tibet case study also raises an important issue concerning privacy, cyber-security, and online activism against formal governments. The Tibetan community in diaspora is aggrieved and persecuted. The community is in a constant struggle with China over issues of territory, independence, autonomy, and authority. This struggle is evident in cyberspace and websites such as Phayul.com (http://www.phayul.com/), Tibet.net (http://tibet.net/), and Dalailama.com (http://dalailama.com/), to name but a few, which have been the focus of concerted cyber-attacks and online surveillance. The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs (University of Toronto) recently identified a cyber-attack focused upon the Tibetan diaspora community that compromised a network of over 1,295 infected computers in 103 countries. Up to 30 percent of the infected computers were considered high-value targets and include computers located at ministries of foreign affairs, embassies, international organizations, news media, and NGOs (see the study here: http://www.infowar-monitor.net/2009/09/tracking-ghostnet-investigating-a-cyber-espionage-network/).
Despite the constant threats and challenges posed by the Internet, for a diaspora community, this new form of media has become an essential and vital component for maintaining identity. Within the Tibetan diaspora, there are three clear benefits derived from being actively online. The first is that it allows for a networked identity within the community itself (Helland 2007). Through the Internet, Tibetans living throughout the world can connect in a deep and meaningful way with other members of the community who may not be living within the same nations or even continents. Non-diaspora people do this as a matter of choice; for the diaspora community it is done as a matter of cultural survival.
The second significant benefit achieved by utilizing new media within the Tibetan diaspora is to connect monks and religious specialists with the community through websites and online activity. Websites such as rigpa.org (www.rigpa.org) or drikung.org (www.drikung.org) allow Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike the opportunity to connect with important religious figures in a way that was not available in the past. For example, a member of the Tibetan community living in Calgary, Canada can undertake distance learning with a lama, participate in online courses, and watch ritual events in real time, despite being thousands of miles away. In diaspora, there is also a developing divide between the lay community and the monastic community, as the lamas are often affiliated with various Buddhist meditation centers that have an elite group of Western followers. These followers often pay large sums of money to attend workshops and teachings and present a high level of devotion to the teachers. The monks must rely on this livelihood for their survival, but this often means that members of the Tibetan community only have the opportunity to connect with their monks during Losar or special festivals (Mullen 2006). With the power of the Internet, the diaspora community now has unlimited access in a new, albeit different way to their religious specialists.
The third important benefit to the community builds upon the second. This new form of connection with religious authorities has developed into a complex network of online ritual activities that co-locate the most sacred aspects of the Tibetan tradition in a very real and meaningful way with the members of the diaspora. New forms of online ritual activity have been developed and facilitated through websites such as dalailama.com (www.dalailama.com) to allow Tibetans in exile (and within Tibet for that matter) the opportunity to have a close and powerful encounter with the most sacred component of the tradition. By placing ritual online, the Tibetan community can engage the very fabric of the religion: the teachings, ritual events, and sacred lamas, which are central to the identity and practices of Tibetan Buddhists.
Ritual activities and charismatic authority do not always transfer well into the Internet medium (Helland 2012). What is unique about the Tibetan situation is how well the charisma of the high lamas is perceived by the community to be accessible, tangible, and real, even if it is facilitated through computer networks. There are two key factors that may influence why online ritual seems to work so well for this community. The first can be explored with “ritual transfer theory” (see Miczek 2008; Radde-Antweiler 2006; 2008). Placing ritual online is a process that requires adaptation and changes within any religious tradition and can be viewed as an ongoing activity that involves the three components of transformation, invention, and exclusion. Transformation is the process of shaping or reshaping a ritual that already exists, changing its content or structure in certain ways so it can be facilitated online. For this process to proceed, there may need to be innovation within the ritual based upon the new media environment, and new aspects or components may have to be developed to allow for the ritual to work online. The final element is exclusion, since certain things inevitably have to be left out of the ritual activity in order for it to take place online. When these three forces act upon the ritual, the people participating are then left with a different ritual than they have previously participated in and they have to decide whether the ritual works or has failed. For many people, the exclusion of being physically present is too much of a change and they will not participate; for others the difficulty might be the lack of nature, the taste of the wine, or the meal after the ceremony. In any case, the ritual transfer process will fail if these three forces somehow destabilize the ritual to the point that people will not recognize it as an authentic ritual activity. For other participants, the changes and transformations that occur to bring the ritual online will be seen as being within a margin of acceptability, and they will view the ritual as still authentic (Helland 2012).
Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, many ritual activities transfer well. At a basic level, most of the ritual activities facilitated online are teachings about sacred Buddhist texts. In this case, the online ritual is considered an aid for greater understanding and to gain awareness and spiritual awakening, resulting ultimately in liberation from the cycle of rebirth (Connelly 2012). However, as these teachings are conducted by the high lamas, their power and “sacredness” is perceived to also be transmitted online when people receive the teachings. In effect, by viewing the teachings, even if you do not understand all of the texts’ complexity, one still gains merit just by being part of the transmission process of the teachings. Due to this perception, the lamas are not merely a visual sign or “summarizing symbol” for the Tibetan tradition and identity, rather they are iconic representation of the divine. The Lama or Rinpoche (“Precious One”) is sacred and holds spiritual or supernatural power that can be bestowed upon his or her students. This occurs during formal and informal oral transmissions. Although in the past this was done face-to-face, through the Internet it is now perceived to be also done online. Technologies such as Skype and real-time syncretic HD video feed allow for a new form of contact to occur between the teacher/ritual specialist and the person receiving the teachings and empowerment. As such, the Rinpoche has a powerful effect upon people who perceive his or her charisma in this way.
Beyond the ritual transfer theory, the second way that online ritual has such a significant impact upon the Tibetan community in diaspora is that the lamas, and particularly the Dalai Lama, are already viewed by the community as being between worlds, both as spiritual beings (bodhisattvas) or incarnate deities and as human monks. This sacredness is conceived as a focus of transcendence, which can rupture normal time and space. It transfers well online because the Internet itself disrupts normal time and space on a regular basis. What makes this online activity more than just a form of “long-distanced” ritual practice (which is very common within Hinduism) or virtual pilgrimage (which is very common within Christianity) is the “co-location” of the sacred through the Internet. Members of the Tibetan tradition in diaspora feel a genuine, authentic, and powerful encounter with the lamas when they engage in online ritual activity.
Co-location was first presented as a theory in relation to online ritual activity by Dan Pinchbeck and Brett Stevens (2006). They argued that virtual reality has a number of common features similar to ritual and that through the liminality of the online environment, people could feel like they were having an authentic experience when they were online. In this case, it was the perception of the participants that gave them a sense of “being there” or a sense of presence in cyberspace. The second use of the term co-location was developed by Connie Hill-Smith (2011), who argued that through co-location, sacred pilgrimage sites could be authentically replicated online. In this situation, it was the sacred place that was co-located in cyberspace, and people who went on “virtual pilgrimage” felt a true sense of connecting with the real place despite its being an online simulacrum of the authentic sacred site.
What makes the co-location that occurs in Virtual Tibet different from the other two cases is that first and foremost, the people engaging in the ritual are not in a virtual reality environment. They are in diaspora, which is a liminal space in its own right, but it is in the “real world” at a computer. For example, recently an elderly member of the Tibetan diaspora community watched the Dalai Lama’s teachings and ritual activity broadcast live from the Main Tibetan Temple in Dharamsala. The ritual conducted in “Little Lhasa” was a teaching on Tsongkhapa’s “Three Principal Aspects of the Path” and included a very special ritual called the White Tara Permission. The Dali Lama stated during the live online broadcast that this ritual was taken from the “Secret Visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama,” which he received in Tibet from Tagdrag Rinpoche. To receive the White Tara Permission from the Dalai Lama, who had received it from a very important lama in Tibet, is a very fortunate and auspicious event for a Tibetan Buddhist. The fact that the person was participating online, in diaspora, rather than at the temple in India was not seen as a great loss. Rather it was viewed as a great benefit and a valid connection between the practitioner and the Dalai Lama. The person participating in the online ritual and teaching lit incense, placed offerings and flowers in front of the computer, and intensely watched the high definition broadcast, listening to the teachings and reciting the proper mantras when instructed by the Dalai Lama.
The second feature that is different from the other two theories of co-location involves the question of place. With virtual pilgrimage, there is a feeling that the sacred place is authentically recreated in cyberspace in such a way that people genuinely feel they encounter the liminal, sacredness of the site, Lourdes France or the Western Wall in Jerusalem being good examples. Within the Tibetan diaspora, there is a deep sense of loss and frustration concerning the Tibetan territory. However, the online representations of Virtual Tibet are not focused as much on the traditional land (or trying to virtually recreate it) as they are focused upon maintaining the tradition and Tibetan identity itself. In many ways this is similar to the conception of a networked community that maintains its “place” through interconnectedness rather than just traditional territory and political borders. As Massey argues, “What gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus” (1997). Within Virtual Tibet, the locus and center maintaining the network are the High Lamas.
In the case of Virtual Tibet, co-location occurs in a three-step process that begins online with a ritual activity that is perceived by the community to work. If the community accepts that the ritual can be facilitated online with a level of authenticity that is acceptable within the tradition, then the online ritual “space” creates a liminal environment that the participants can encounter. This liminal space is in-between worlds and shrinks the real-world distance that separates participants from the ritual activity. It may be that a person is in New York City, sitting at his or her desk looking into a computer screen. But due to the liminality of the online ritual event, the participant is in the present, encountering the transcendent element of the tradition, even if the ritual is being conducted 3,000 miles away. What makes co-location different from just watching a ritual on television (which can be a powerful experience in its own right) is the networked community or the multisite network. Participants are engaged within a web of connectedness when they go online for the ritual. It may be that they are going online to the Dalai Lama’s website, or a monastery website, and there they will encounter the network used by the community for maintaining their identity. The final aspect that makes co-location tangible to the participants is the icon and “sacred center” around which the ritual is structured.
Much like an icon within the Christian tradition, there will be members of the community who do not view the representation (icon, lama, etc.) as something that is divine or spiritual. In many ways this is a good indicator of insider and outsider relationships to the group. An iconoclast will not participate in the rituals associated with icon reverence or worship and will feel no sense of the sacred in the object so revered by the icon-worshipping community. However, for the believer, it is an encounter with the divine.
For the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama is the single most important figure around which Tibetan identity circulates, and as a personification of the protector deity he is the primary symbol of Tibetan unity (Kolas 1996, 57). For the vast majority of community members, the Dalai Lama has an “aura of sacredness” and a level of charismatic authority that is both institutionalized within the structure of the monastic tradition and sanctified by the community itself (e.g., Weber 1978; Smith 1998). Any opportunity to have an intimate or close encounter with the Dalai Lama is seen as being a profound and significant event. Through these new digital networks, the monastic orders are socially shaping Internet technology to provide their community in diaspora with the opportunity to experience the ritual activity and charisma (or sacredness) of their leadership in a new and dynamic way. This is reaffirming, maintaining, and strengthening the bonds between the monastic centers and the community, wherever they are located.
As the Internet and the World Wide Web become more everyday and invisible within our society; they seamlessly intertwine with our individual identities, our communities, and our cultures. For most people in the wired world, it is part of who we are. There will always be forms of digital divides, but for a vast majority of people in developed countries—and especially the younger generations—being online is now a way of being human. Religion in its various forms and manifestations has been online since the beginning; it was a part of the cultural baggage that was brought onboard the new communications medium when it first became a public space, and the “religion and spirituality” category remain one of the largest groups of websites even today.
The case study on Virtual Tibet argued that the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web has created a new form of connectedness for even the most ancient of religious traditions. Although there are digital divides and issues of Internet access, the Tibetan diaspora community has gone to great lengths to create a complex system of interconnected online environments that help support and maintain their identity. Through the social shaping of technology, it is clear that the Tibetan community has developed and now maintains new forms of social networks that are linking them with each other, their religious specialists and religious leaders, and a Tibet that is not limited to a geographical territory.
Through the use of this new technology, the Tibetan tradition has also shown that religious ritual is adaptable, dynamic, and engaged with a culture that is wired and now almost constantly online. With the development of smartphones, Wi-Fi, hide-speed Internet, and inexpensive computers, the world as we know it is changing. Religion and religious practices are not disappearing because of these technological advances; rather these practices are thriving online and transforming praxis in dynamic ways. Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the lamas and the sacred powers that are engaged through the rituals travel just as well through the online world as they do through the everyday world. As Thubten Samphel recognized very early on, the online multisite network of a Virtual Tibet is a very powerful tool for promoting the Tibetan situation to the Western world and for challenging Chinese authorities and powers for the “hearts and minds” of Tibetans. For the diaspora community, the Internet has become a vital tool for communicating information, challenging ideological and political powers, and promoting “Tibetanness.” However, it has also allowed for voices within the Tibetan community to likewise challenge tradition and authority and question their identity in a global world where they are living in a form of stateless diaspora. It is transformative. Yet by developing a strong online religious presence, the tradition itself is changing and allowing for change while it is recreating and re-establishing ancient networks that have maintained a community from the top of the world and the Tibetan Plateau to wherever Tibetans have migrated.
Virtual religion is complex, and we are trying to grasp and study it as it appears before us, unfolding and developing, being created and transformed in tandem with developments in Internet technology, social networking, and other cultural changes. Online religion is not representative of some form of extraordinary activity—rather it shows “ordinary” religious engagement in an amazing and extraordinary environment. This online activity also makes it very clear that religion and religious beliefs and practices are not going to disappear with the continued developments of science and technology. Religion is woven into the cultural meaning-making system, and although many people in our contemporary world many not be the “religious virtuosi,” mass religion is common, and the Internet has afforded a new social space for people to “do” religion in all of its complex forms.
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