Learning and teaching Buddha’s Dharma via digital media and the internet – this could be a controversial topic. Every part of our lives is permeated by information technology; and yet – or exactly therefore – the thought of this digital transformation also happening in our Buddhist communities is unsettling for many. Should Buddhism not be our last technology-independent resort? Our domain of de-accelerated mindfulness in a world of instant messaging and instant satisfaction? “Why am I reading this online article instead of actually sitting on the cushion?” you might think now. For many of us, Buddhism is the unmoving root in a whirlpool of information overload and overstimulation.
I like to think about the people of ancient India, who after years of oral tradition of the Buddha’s teachings started to write his words and instructions down. Going from “thus I have heard” to “thus I have read” might have been as controversial for the people of the time as it is for us today in regard of our modern attempts to make Buddha’s Dharma accessible on the internet. In hindsight, textual tradition was probably a good move, considering that it has helped Buddha’s teachings to spread to multiple countries and endure the centuries, so much so that even we, as modern Europeans, can benefit from it 2600 years later. We must also acknowledge the fact that the written Sutras have become more than just a medium that conveys information; they themselves have become spiritual entities and have inspired Buddhist schools to form around them.
So here we are, having two modes of transporting the Dharma from one person to another, which feel equally pure, natural and in accordance with tradition: on the one hand the direct person-to-person exchange between master and student or among peer practitioners, and the written texts on the other hand. Different Buddhist traditions may place different emphasis on either of the two, but I think we can all agree that both are irreplaceable. While personal communication is natural for human beings and can have a spiritual deepness which is difficult being transported in a written form, it is volatile and bound to a small space and time. While written sutras are permanent and widely distributable, they can be hard to access; even more so their non-intellectual components.
Audiovisual media are filling the gaps between text and face-to-face communication, in that they provide an accessible and natural communication channel that is as spatially and temporarily unbound like the written word. So rather than fearing that these media would replace anything that is proven and established for centuries, I would suggest viewing them as a useful tool, an expedient means if you will, to fulfill a certain purpose in a certain situation.
One of these purposes is certainly the lowering of barriers: videos and podcasts can be the perfect entry-level contact for people who are drawn to Buddhist Ideas but not yet determined enough to work through scriptures or directly join a Sangha. I have heard valid concerns that providing this kind of ‘shortcuts’ to the Dharma further promotes laziness, short attention spans and a general lack of mindfulness, and thus in a way contradicts values held up by Buddhists. Although this can’t be argued with, let me ask you this: if you believe that the traits named above are problems of our modern information society (as do I), and you would like to provide other perspectives, how would you get people to listen? Throwing books at them doesn’t sound very promising; personal dialogue is surely most effective but limited in the number of people you can reach. “Quality before quantity!” I hear my imaginary discussion tell me; but here is what I propose: If you are serious about your beliefs and think that Buddha’s Dharma is the way to end suffering and promote peace in this world, then sharing the Dharma with as many people as possible becomes a great purpose (and saving it for the “worthy ones” sounds a bit counterproductive). This is not about proselytizing; if you are visible and offer what you have, everyone is free to listen or not.
However, providing an easy entry to a more serious pursuit of the Dharma is not the only application for digital media. I think especially podcasts deserve our attention here. In comparison to online videos, podcasts tend to be longer and less focused on the grabbing of attention. These quasi on-demand radio shows are generally a good choice for those who want to dive deeper. Plus, listening to podcasts is exceptionally easy to integrate in a busy schedule; car- or train rides are ideal opportunities.
So, there is only one question remaining: among the flood content out there on the internet, how do you find authentic Buddhist material among all the lifestyle- motivational- personality-building- and-what-have-you- messages that somehow suggest a Buddhist background and philosophy? And where do you start looking? This can be challenging, especially as a “beginner”.
The European Buddhist Network is a recent project of the EBU that can help with that. Aside from other goals, we try to collect videos and podcasts from all European Buddhist communities at one place, in order to make authenticBuddhist insights easily accessible to all Europeans, independent of their religious background. We hope that this project will benefit practitioners of various Buddhist traditions, believers of other religions and atheists alike.
For people on the search for their path, the European Buddhist Network provides a concise overview of Buddhist schools in Europe. However, you will not find any theoretical descriptions there, rater you can listen to videos and podcasts directly from the Sanghas. In this respect, we believe that the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
For Buddhists, the Network promotes a sense of “European Buddhism” and a chance to look a bit beyond their noses. The EBU is doing important work on an institutional level, but these attempts are largely hidden from the individual practitioner. So, the idea was to establish a more tangible level of connected European Buddhism, where the individual Sanghas can be perceived as a part of a beautiful international community rather than a solitary boat. When you are happy and content in your own Sangha, there is hardly any reason to invest time and effort to try and understand others; which is a pity, as these kinds of insights can really enrich your own practice and change your perspective on it. At least this was my experience: After practically growing up with the Yun Hwa Sangha of World Social Buddhism and never feeling the urge to look for something different, it was not until I got entangled with the EBU that I started to really appreciate the richness of Buddhist traditions that we can find in Europe alone. I believe that the use of audiovisual media could lower the barriers in this context as well and greatly support the mutual awareness and appreciation between Buddhist traditions; a video of a Dharma speech a couple of minutes long might bring give you a taste of a Buddhist school’s essence.
Digital media and their distribution over the internet will not substitute traditional personal teaching or the written sutras in any way; let us rather view them as extension to our set of methods for relaying the Dharma. Just a different finger pointing at the moon.
About the Author:
Simon Brenner is a student of Ji Kwang Dae Peop Sa Nim. He is a computer scientist working on the digital restoration of ancient manuscripts.