Virtual World Of Buddhism

By: Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi, OEB

I’ve been fortunate to have access to a complete library of Tricycle magazine from the premiere issue in 1991 featuring the Dalai Lama, up to 2016.  It has been an informative and thought provoking journey through some contemporary Buddhist history.  Informative because it is a journey that reveals the impact of causal conditioning on Western Buddhism; thought inspiring because of the transformations that were predicted, some which happened, others that didn’t.  In this moment I am inspired to respond, or maybe to update an article by Tracy Cochran, in the Fall 1992 issue, titled Samsara Squared: Buddhism and Virtual Reality. 

Since 2010 I’ve been offering the dharma in the virtual world known as Second Life (SL).  While it is not the virtual reality that Tracy Cochran refers to in the article it is the closest thing to it that most people can experience in this moment.  Virtual reality is the creation of 3D world. Virtual worlds are 2D environments that can accessed through most home computers.  The author writes, “Within ten years, however, virtual reality is going to become sleek and cheap, and it’s going to be everywhere.”  Nearly 30 years later that prediction hasn’t happened.  Cochran goes on to say, “Soon you will be able to ‘telepresence’ anywhere in the world.  Picture a virtual sangha flying to Mr. Kailas.”  I have not experienced this in a 3D virtual reality sense, but I have experienced something similar in the 2D virtual world of Second Life.  I have flown along the Great Wall of China, marveled at the architecture and iconography in Tibetan temples, and walked through intricate Zen gardens. Populating each area there are avatars that can be anything from someones idealized version of themselves to a full sized, in relation, elephant or a furry little bunny wearing a pink party dress.  Human avatars might appear as ninjas, hippies, wearing suits or ball gowns, or wearing nothing at all.  There are alien figures that come in a variety of appearances and even the occasional Star Trek crew member or black robed witch. 

Hearing that I was sharing the dharma in the virtual world of SL someone once responded, “Seems like you’re just doing a radio show or a podcast.”  It is more than that.  On radio or through podcasts only two of the six senses realized in Buddhist practice are engaged by the listener.  They hear and their conscious mind builds some sort of image of the speaker and of their message.  There is no taste, touch or smell yet the conscious mind might create illusions of them given what is heard.  With its limitations the challenge of what Cochran termed “being present” is possible in a virtual world with some skillful thought and action.

Being present in the virtual world means being mindful that whatever form an avatar presents, there is a human being at the other end of those pixels.  Equally, as a Buddhist teacher or layperson to be aware that a virtual spiritual place must be treated the same as one in the real space. When an individual attends a Buddhist temple in real life there is a certain gravitas, an atmosphere that arises as a combination of place, people and ritual.  Being present means taking advantage of those same factors in a virtual space in order to guide the attending avatars to being present also.  This can be done by creating a sense of involvement and having clear rules that mirror those at a temple in real life for sangha members and curious attendees.  I can best explain by describing the intentional ritual that is part of every Engaged Dharma Insight Group (EDIG) sangha session at the Buddha Center in SL.  Lessons learned from my teacher, Eubanks Sensei, in my role as Guest Prefect for the Order of Pragmatic Buddhists, and the Center for Pragmatic Buddhism guide my thoughts and actions in the virtual world.

The entirety of an EDIG session at the Buddha Center is an intentional ritual.  When I first enter the space I bow to the icon of the Buddha.  Taking a seat on the teacher’s zafu (cushion) each individual already there is greeted by name, and the same for each that enters.  At my request one of the founders of the BC, Yuri, created and placed a set of three candles, an incense pot, and a ching bell in front of the teacher’s zafu.  The ching bell is sounded once to announce the beginning of the session.  Candles are lighted left, right, center and I, in the form of my avatar bow three times from the seated position.  Then the incense in lighted.  Greetings are again extended to any late comers.  A short period of bell meditation is done, 21 strikes.  The Three Refuges, Three Pure Precepts, and the Bodhisattva Vow are recited ending with Sva Ha.  Then a dharma talk is given followed by an opportunity for comments or questions.  This is the opportunity for members of sangha to get clarification or to speak of personal experiences with the subject of the talk. In either instance I offer insight or inquiry meant to expand further the sangha’s knowledge and practice.  Often I give the sangha “homework,” a practice  connected with the subject for them to engage with.  The ching bell is sounded and Sharing of the Merit is recited.  The ching bell is sounded three times and the candles extinguished.  I thank them for their attendance and attention, bow to the sangha and offer them wholesome thoughts for the week to come.  Each step is a ritual intended to make the virtual experience a real experience.  

The ears, the eyes and the mind can be effective modes of absorbing the dharma as long as right speech is used by the teacher, and visual aids are used when appropriate.  In SL there is the opportunity to augment the spoken word with pictures, slideshows and videos.  These visual aids add to the sense of being present and enhance the practitioner’s learning experience.

The biggest challenge in the virtual world is the inability to see and respond to body language and facial expressions, human signals important when mentoring and monitoring sangha members.  There are physical movements called gestures in SL but think of them like emoticons.  You put what you want someone to see, not always what is real.  In true virtual reality the body of the avatar is being moved by the actions of the person wearing the gloves and boots so there is some discernable body language.  In virtual worlds that movement is done by the directions keys on a keyboard.  So, that leaves the question how can a teacher in a virtual setting really know if the offered dharma is having a wholesome effect?

Truth is the effect can’t be definitively known but it can, to a point be discerned.  Discernment involves being aware of a variety of causal factors.  How often do they attend sessions?  What sort of questions do they ask?  Where do they commonly sit in relation to the teacher?  Do they interact with other sangha members?  Do they offer their own experiences and knowledge?  A combination of any or all of these offer insight into how they are engaging the dharma outside of the virtual environment.  These are questions that must be asked where ever student and teacher interact.  In a virtual world ears, eyes and mind input the information into the consciousness.  

Cochran wrote, “The consensus seems to be that the proper and ethical use of virtual reality, from a human as well as a Buddhist standpoint, seems limited to a scientific instrument, as a means to extend intelligence and consciousness.”  Cochran doesn’t say who came to this consensus but I would agree this is true for virtual worlds.  For everyone who enters a virtual world like SL there is a factor of anonymity.  They can appear as whoever or whatever they like and they can act in whatever manner they choose.  There are individuals that use this anonymity to sow discord, to threaten, and to pass themselves off as someone they are not.  Trolls inhabit SL in the same way they do Twitter, Facebook and the comment sections on Yahoo News.  There is little doubt, given human nature that they would find a way to inhabit virtual reality too.  This the main reason I chose to make my avatar look as much like the real me as possible, and that I urge those that attend EDIG sessions at the Buddha Center to go to the Engaged Dharma website and learn more.  It is a way to give them an opportunity to engage in experiential verification and develop some trust in the information that is being offered, to take in step in authenticating their own experience.

Information is one of the three things, along with a sense of belonging to a sangha and mentoring of their practice that a Buddhist teacher can offer to practitioners in a virtual world.  Virtual spaces can be tools of the dharma used to extend a practitioner’s knowledge of how they can choose to be.  Information once put into practice and the value of it experienced transforms into knowledge, knowledge that once it becomes part of their consciousness transforms how they interact with themselves, others and the world around them.  They learn to be better human beings who respond appropriately to the suffering of themselves and others.  They become engaged Buddhists.

Offering the dharma in a virtual space can be an effective tool for explaining the dharma, teaching the history of it and of Buddhism in general, and for mentoring practice.  These are proper and ethical ways of engaging this virtual tool.  There is an important aspect of Buddhist practice that, in my experience cannot be effectively accomplished in a virtual space, meditation.  Meditation, of all the Buddhist practices requires a physicality that cannot be effectively replicated in a virtual environment. The teacher and the student are present in the form of avatars that sit in pre-programmed positions that can be maintained as indefinitely as the power to the computer lasts.  I say to students who attend Buddha Center sessions that an avatar can sit in meditation for years and not gain anything from the experience, only the person behind the avatar can benefit from a meditation practice.  This is to remind them that they are present in the form of pixels, that these forms are delusions and only the human being they represent can benefit from any aspect of Buddhist practice. Meditation is as much a physical act and it is a mental one.  Posture and breathing can be explained verbally and even with diagrams on a board however, without being able to see the physical form of the student a teacher cannot offer them the corrections to posture and breathing that will invariably arise in the early stages of practice.  Then the question of whether meditation sitting sessions have value in a virtual setting.

Meditation sessions are popular events at the Buddha Center in SL.  There are members of the BC staff who are meditation facilitators.  These dedicated individuals schedule regular sessions for members and visitors to attend and engage in various meditation practices, metta and silent practices are popular ones.  The avatars sit in meditative postures on pixellated zafus.  The facilitators explain the practice, some light the candles, burn the incense, and ring the ching bell to begin meditation.  The question is then what happens.  The facilitators are offering the opportunity to sit with a sangha, albeit a virtual one.  There are real people behind each avatar so there is some sense of community and shared experience and this is a positive thing.  However, there is no way of knowing if the person behind the avatar is really meditating or are they web surfing, playing with the cat, or eating dinner.  There is no way to monitor their practice, so mentoring is difficult.  For those who attend and do actually engage in meditation wherever their physical form resides this isn’t really an issue.  For those who attend and do not actually meditate there is an issue.  It is a personal one.  They are abdicating their individual responsibility to themselves and most likely setting an individual precedent of negative habitual behavior.  Whether or not meditation practice in a virtual setting has value is entirely up to the attendee.  So, where is the value in sitting with a virtual sangha?

For someone confined to their home for whatever reason and the person who doesn’t have access to a Buddhist temple in their area there is great value in being able to attend virtual Buddhist sessions. I have been told by multiple attendees at the Buddha Center how much the existence of Buddhist themed virtual destinations mean to the quality of their lives.  For some it is the only avenue they have to learn about and practice the dharma with others. Over time the Engaged Dharma Insight Group (EDIG) sangha has grown and matured. They have developed a level of trust in each other that is indicated by their willingness to speak openly and honestly about their fears, their successes, and their practices. It is a real sangha in a virtual environment.

When I gave my first dharma talk in December of 2010 I had limited experience in sharing the dharma. Now, in my eleventh year at the Buddha Center I have given approximately 1100 dharma talks, lectures and pujas to a virtual international sangha. I share the dharma from a beautiful temple or from what is called “The Deer Park”. I share the dharma with Buddhists and non-Buddhists from across the world. I share real Dharma in a virtual world.

So, is sharing the Dharma in a virtual environment like Second Life the future of Buddhism in the West? No, but it is part of that future. Can it replace attending a physical temple? No, but it isn’t meant to.  For some, who can’t attend a physical temple, for whatever the reason, the opportunity to attend a virtual temple gives them a similar experience. It offers them a place to come and learn Buddhist philosophy, history and practice, and to become a member of a sangha. And, I can only speak for the Buddha Center in Second Life, the setting might seem cartoonish, that there might be a cowboy sitting on a zafu next to a fairy princess, and that you are sitting in your comfortable office chair at home, it is real Dharma in that virtual environment. 

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