Geeks: help connect Buddhists with resources!

At the 2011 Buddhist Geeks Conference last weekend, a group of us brainstormed about innovations in ways to deliver dharma. [More conference context at the end of this post.]

To continue brainstorming, here are some suggestions and questions. Please comment!

Points of pain

At each stage in the “life cycle” of a Buddhist, finding necessary resources can be hard:

  • I think I want to learn to meditate. Where should I start? Why are there all these different kinds of meditation? How do I choose one?
  • I’ve learned basic mindfulness. I want to go further. I’ve heard that mindfulness comes from Buddhism, so I started to google that and got overwhelmed. Where’s the basic stuff?
  • I’ve read some books/web sites about Buddhism. They all seem kind of weird, and they all disagree with each other. How come? How do I know what to believe?
  • So many different brands of Buddhism. Which is the true one? [Better question, of course: which is best for me?]
  • I’ve listened to a bunch of podcasts, and now I’m inspired to start taking classes, or maybe go on a retreat. How do I choose a Buddhist organization to go with?
  • There’s no Buddhist organization where I live. I guess I’ll have to start a meditation group myself. How do I find people to sit with?
  • I’ve been meditating for a year. It went well until recently, when all this scary stuff started coming up! What do I do?
  • I think I need to find a personal teacher for one-on-one instruction. How?
  • I’ve been affiliated with a teacher/center/lineage for several years and put a lot of energy into that. But I’m starting to think its style is not working for me anymore. Should I switch?
  • My teacher told me I’m ready to start teaching, but can’t give me much guidance about what that means. I know how to meditate and the basic doctrines, but how do I relate to students? I’m not like him/her; I can’t do it that way.
  • I have a few students, who say they get a lot out of my teaching. I think I could be useful to many more, but I don’t know how to reach them. I don’t want to market myself; that’s gross. But how else are prospective students going to find me?
  • I have a dozen students. More people want to be my students, and I feel responsible to them, but teaching is already taking all my spare time. I want to quit my day job, but I don’t see how I can be a full-time Buddhist teacher and still support my family.
  • I have several dozen students. We’ve outgrown my living room. They want to open a center, but how are we going to pay the rent?
  • I have more students than I can handle personally. I want to empower some of my students as teachers, but I’m not sure they are ready. And even if I do, there’s more new people than even they could handle. How can we serve the newcomers without losing focus and quality?

Matchmaking

Solutions to all these problems are available somewhere in the Buddhist world. But how to find them?

Existing social institutions are inadequate. For example, a recurring theme at both the Maha Teachers Conference and the Buddhist Geeks Conference was that young teachers are frustrated at not getting support from the Western Buddhist establishment; the establishment wants to give that support, but they have been unable to communicate effectively about “what” and “how.”

Existing technologies also inadequate. Google searches won’t give useful answers to any of the “points of pain” questions. The usually-reliable Wikipedia is worse than useless for researching Vajrayana Buddhism. (That’s the Buddhism I know best; maybe the Wiki is better on other brands.) StumbleUpon’s recommendations for Buddhism don’t work for me. Buddhist web forums are often nightmares of misinformation and social dysfunction.

Can we use Buddhism-specific technology to match Buddhists with the resources they need?

For instance, could we use recommendation engine technology (like Amazon’s) to help match guide beginners to web sites, books, organizations, and teachers? “Since you like Shinzen Young, maybe you’ll like Ken McLeod.” [They are both geeks who use math to explain dharma.]

Can we develop new social institutions to support teachers at each stage in their development? Is it possible that these could cross tradition lines, so that a Theravada teacher might mentor a Vajrayana teacher about pastoral care, or marketing, or financial structures?

Can we develop new economic models that make Buddhist teaching widely available at reasonable cost, while supporting teachers with reasonable incomes?

The Buddhism market has a “winner-take-all” structure. A handful of superstars wind up with huge numbers of students (whom they don’t have enough time for), and more money than they can use. At the same time, many excellent but little-known teachers are under-utilized. How could we disrupt that dynamic?

How many brilliant Buddhist teachers fail to reach students simply for lack of adequate marketing?

Is there a business opportunity in providing marketing services to less-known teachers? This might benefit both teachers and students. It might also help level the gap between charismatic stars with marketing machines and shy but competent and caring teachers. It might also generate income for either a non-profit or, as Rohan Gunatillake advocates, a “spiritual enterprise.”

Maps of the space of providers

Buddhist students need to choose a brand of Buddhism, an organization that provides the brand, and a teacher within the organization. (Or, they need to combine several.)

The traditional classifications may not be helpful. Consider:

  1. a traditional Chinese Ch’an teacher
  2. a traditional Theravada teacher
  3. a modern American Zen teacher
  4. a vipassana teacher from the Insight Mediation Society

#1 and #3 are from the same “brand,” as are #2 and #4. But #1 and #2 probably have more in common with each other, in both style and content. So do #3 and #4. In a recent interview, Reggie Ray says:

I recently went to the Garrison Institute [Maha Teachers Conference]. The [attendees] are people of my generation who are regarded as pioneers of Buddhism in the West. There were 20 of us there, the usual suspects: Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Surya Das, and myself. What was interesting was that we had more in common with each other—we had the same questions, many of the same approaches, and insights. Across huge boundaries—Theravadin, Pure Land, Zen, and the Tibetan lineages—we had more in common with each other than we had with our Tibetan, Theravadin, or Japanese teachers.

So the traditional vs. modern axis may be much more relevant (especially for newcomers) than Zen vs. Theravada.

To help steer students to suitable providers, we may need better taxonomy. In what other ways do providers differ? In what ways do students differ? How do differences in providers relate to differences in students?

I suspect that provider “style” and “approach” and “personality” and “format” are often more important than the content of the teaching. (Again, especially for newer students.) You can’t learn from someone you don’t like and respect and understand.

How do we talk about those factors? Would it be possible to capture them in a database? What are the dimensions of variation?

I have a half-written page about factors to consider when choosing a Buddhist teacher. I hope to post it on Approaching Aro soon. (Geekily, it’s based partly on something I wrote long ago about how to choose a PhD thesis advisor in the MIT computer science department.)

Some examples:

  • What kinds of contact do they provide?
  • How much time can you get with them (one-on-one or in a group)?
  • How much do they talk about concrete life issues vs. more abstract theory?
  • How systematic (structured) is their presentation?
  • How much pressure do they exert on students?
  • How much emotional support do they give?
  • How do they expect students to relate to their sangha?

Would answers to questions like these help match students with suitable teachers?

Maps of the social path of Buddhism

Maps of the Buddhist path are typically individual. They describe stages of practice, conceptual understanding, and/or meditative accomplishment.

But Buddhism is an inherently social activity. Your progress through Buddhism critically involves a series of types of relationships. These include your relationship with teachers, peers, students, and organizations. These are not as well mapped.

Would advice about how to navigate these relationships help?

There are several books in relating to spiritual teachers, with much useful information. Still, I find them somewhat abstract. And I’ve found almost nothing about how to relate to peers, students, or Buddhist organizations.

Can we map the “life cycle” of Buddhist involvement? Stages of gradually increasing commitment and responsibility?

This will not be strictly linear, because there are multiple possible “career paths.” All involve service to the community in some way; but there are many ways to contribute. Senior figures may be scholars, center managers, inspiring yogis, popular mass teachers, publishers, or theoreticians. There are stages on the way to each. And of course many people pursue several such roles, simultaneously or successively.

What questions should you ask yourself at each stage? How do you know when to move on, into a different role, or to take that role to the next level? What resources do you need to assemble to take the next step? How to find them?

How do you avoid burnout (too common in Buddhist organizations)? How can you support peers in avoiding burnout without overloading yourself?

What social structures could support Buddhist “career development” in a non-sectarian framework?

Is there a role for technology here?

Crowd-sourcing the maps

Can crowd-sourcing provide answers to these questions?

For example, users could add metadata to a database of Buddhist resources. That might include descriptors (tags), ratings, and reviews. (What else?)

Would this be useful? It might, but I see several dangers.

A rating system might make the winner-take-all dynamic worse. (Geeky explanation here, with equations and stuff here.)

My view is that there aren’t good and bad Buddhist teachers, so much as teachers whose differences make them a good or bad fit for particular students. Displaying an average rating is probably counterproductive (as well as potentially demeaning). I would want to avoid any sort of popularity contest.

Rather, a recommendation engine might steer students to compatible teachers.

Such engines usually predict what you will like mainly based on how similar your ratings are to other people’s. In this case, I suspect that useful recommendations will require more detail about where you are at, what you are looking for, and the characteristics of the resources. So tags may count more than ratings. Their accuracy and predictive value might be crucial.

It would be important to avoid the Buddhist web flame war dynamic. Too many Buddhists are sure they have the authentic Buddhism, and you don’t. If you don’t believe X, you are not a real Buddhist (and probably deeply evil). If you do practice Y, you are not a real Buddhist, blah blah blah. How do we avoid this in tagging, rating, and reviews?

I suspect that user-generated tags (a free vocabulary) would produce a lot of heat (“fake” “cult” “New Age nonsense”). It also might not generate much light, because there is not much awareness of the dimensions of variation that matter.

This suggests that, initially at least, a database should define the axes of description. A well-thought-out ontology might be key to success. That could be modified, over time, with experience and community input, and eventually might become user-extensible/modifiable.

Of course, it might also be that there is no useful way of categorizing Buddhist resources. They are, after all, people (teachers), or groups of people (organizations), or produced by people (e.g. books). People never fit well into boxes.

Still, might this be worth trying?

Conference context

I accidentally ended up co-hosting an “Unplugged!” brainstorming session at the 2011 Buddhist Geeks Conference. (The person who mostly had the idea for the session wasn’t able to be at it.)

We were inspired by:

  • Rohan Gunatillake’s talk on bringing the tech startup model to Buddhism
  • His manifesto on Buddhist user experience design (which I discussed on this blog a couple months ago)
  • A panel discusion on the need for new economic models for Buddhism
  • A panel on the Buddhist generation gap, which pointed out the communication disconnect between young teachers who need resources (but don’t know how to ask) and the established teachers who are willing to provide them (but don’t understand what the young teachers need)

This post doesn’t try to summarize all the good ideas that were generated at the session. I hope other participants will post about them. Thanks to all of you—I have stolen your ideas shamelessly! Please take mine if they are of any use.

Eran Globen has posted his ideas, in wiki format so you can contribute. I’ve used some in this post.

Unfortunately I did not get everyone’s names/handles; some other participants were Rohan, Kyira Korrigan of D.I.Y. Dharma (which has some nifty features that fed into ideas here), Mark Miller, and co-host Hope Niblick.

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28 Responses to Geeks: help connect Buddhists with resources!

  1. SNL had a skit way back with a “tele-psychic”. Maybe there could be online volunteers one could connect to and “chat now”. But seriously, isn’t it meant to be part of the process to wrestle with these questions and decide for oneself instead of being given the answer?

  2. Eran Globen says:

    Hey David,

    Lots of good stuff here! I like your list of possible pain points – definitely a lot that people can work on right there.

    A few interesting resources come to mind:
    – Hokai’s interview on buddhist geeks that touched a lot on the student-teacher relationship. Starts here: http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2010/07/bg-180-the-invisible-forces-that-shape-western-buddhism/ and goes on for a few episodes.
    – My friend Havi who’s mostly a Yoga teacher (in a very wide sense) has a lot to say about self promotion online, especially when it feels icky and some other stuff that could be helpful to a budding teacher. She calls it biggification – http://www.fluentself.com/blog/biggification/

    Both resources could be helpful when facing a related pain point but could also be used to figure out the language around it, to clarify the question and to figure out where the pain really is.

    I also think that some of Hokai’s ideas about post-traditional buddhism could be useful here. It seems to jive well with the modern approach that many people use today.

    Eran.

  3. gzza says:

    This is all very worthwhile, but I also see an issue that has been elided. Your progression seems to presuppose that becoming a teacher is a natural part of the process for everyone. What qualifies a person to be a teacher? That someone else who is recognized as a “teacher” says they should be one? That has a ponzi scheme quality to it, in both theory and in practice. What sort of skill set can one reasonably expect a teacher to have? What expectations are unreasonable?

    Personally, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of people become “teachers” because they figure they’ve been hanging around the game long enough and that’s just what one does at some point. Yes, there is a big undersupply, but I have mixed feelings about whether or not this is helpful or harmful in the long run. Many people have been helped, many people have been harmed, in ways big and small.

    And this raises another larger issue, a fundamental issue, also not addressed: what is Buddhism for? Why might one practice Buddhism? I think it is a big mistake to make any implicit assumptions that everyone is on the same page there.

    Otherwise, I think you raise a number of important, little-addressed points.

  4. roni says:

    They do not look geeky at all, but many of my questions have been answered on these 2 forums (moderated by monastics and lay people from all over the world):

    http://dhammawheel.com/

    http://www.dharmawheel.net/

  5. Andrew says:

    Really helpful thinking process….Thank you..

    It’s good to piece apart the various stages along the way as student-teacher. Just laying it out the way you did would help beginning students to get a toehold in the tradition..

  6. Sabio Lantz says:

    Fantastic essay David- well said.

    But Buddhism is an inherently social activity. Your progress through Buddhism critically involves a series of types of relationships. These include your relationship with teachers, peers, students, and organizations. These are not as well mapped.

    Many self-described Western “Buddhists” may be night-stand Buddhists (they read Buddhist books only and identify with the philosophy) or solo-practitioners not tied to any sangha, practice on their own, may visit a sangha occasionally but never found a home.

    I would wager that number may be large. For them, the above statement would be odd. In Japan, China and Taiwan I found lots of folks that would not consider it social as much as ritual and tradition.

    When you have Shin, Vajrayana and Mindfulness Seminar groups all considered “Buddhists”, I don’t see any reason to exclude other contemplatives. Certain Sufis, for instance may have more in common with a given Buddhist than that Buddhist has with most other Buddhists. Drawing the line at Buddhist may be mistaken. Maybe meditation practices — this could bring in Yoga stuff and other contemplatives. For certainly, part of being Buddhist, is finding something important with the name — and I am not sure that should be the focus in the century ahead.

    Great thoughts — thanks David.

  7. Well, brainstorming is about throwing ideas around rather than working them, so in that spirit:

    – If there are ‘elder Buddhist teachers’ who want to provide support, and ‘Buddhism has a winner takes-all environment at the moment’ then fundamentally what these elders need to offer is their resources – centres, communication networks, and potentially money, to support new teachers. Do they do that / are they really willing to / can this happen cross-tradition in a non-sectarian way?

    – Flamewars on Buddish websites seem common. One thing the senior / most widely respected teachers could do is stamp on the damn things. Why don’t they? Traditionally in a manufacturing / shift work environment there are inter-shift rivalries. As a manager, the best way I’ve found to deal with them is to give them no tolerance. I find that the silent approach (which is what seems to happen with the aforementioned senior teachers) is taken by those involved in flamewars as tacet approval (even if it is intended as tacet disapproval)

    – I’ve never seen crowd-sourcing support the minority – I’ve only see it reinforce the majority. should there be positive discrimination to support minority teachers / traditions? Could the tech support this?

    – How do newbie teachers square the circle of raising awareness of their existance/role/style/availability without sounding like (or becoming) idiot-pioneers of the cult-of-me? Is that actually possible?

    – How can you write the ‘factors to consider when selecting a teacher/lineage’ in such as way as to not come up with a logical but unhelpful answer? Example – if you were to create a taxonomy of American Football, Rugby Union, Rugby League, Aussie Rules Football, and Gaelic Football they’d all look pretty similar. Also, how do you overcome the fact that actually people like all kinds of radically unexpected stuff. I have no idea why I like American Football, Bridge, Table Tennis, trashy science fiction novels, redheads, chickens, home brewing or smoked rashers of streaky bacon (not all at once you understand) how do you compensate for that? Could you have an anti-Amazon piece of software that says ‘People who liked X, definitely didn’t like Y at all – but screw it, why not give it a go – what have you got to lose?’

  8. @ Henry — “isn’t it meant to be part of the process to wrestle with these questions and decide for oneself instead of being given the answer?” — Sure; any meta-resource could only suggest places to look, not give answers.

    @ Eran — Thanks for the pointers! I very much like the direction Hokai is heading in: preserving the essence of Tantra while making it available in a Western context. I’m eagerly awaiting his next moves. I’ve taken a quick look at the biggification site; it looks interesting; I’ll go back and read more soon.

    @ gzza — Yes, most people shouldn’t be teachers, however long they have practiced. (I am a good example…) There are other important roles for those who want deep involvement.

    @ roni — Thanks for the links!

    @ Sabio — There was a lot of discussion at the conference about the extent to which electronic communication technologies could substitute for in-person sangha/teachers. Mostly, the feeling was that they are useful as supplements, but couldn’t really replace meatspace. (“The Internet is Not Your Teacher” was one presentation title.) Several teachers (including Hokai Sobol) are getting good results with Skype, however. On the other point: yes, there’s probably no reason to restrict meta-resources to Buddhism. One would need to look at specifics to see how broadly a particular meta-resource could extend.

    @ Namgyal — Many interesting ideas, thank you!

    On your first point: Jack Kornfield is apparently providing substantial support to young Pragmatic Dharma teachers, despite the fact that he is the de facto head of Consensus Buddhism, and the Pragmatic movement is partly a reaction against the Consensus. That speaks well for him. Another example was Ken McLeod’s substantial practical support for the Geeks conference.

    On the other hand, more than one young teacher, who Jack and other establishment figures were trying to help, expressed frustration about the process, saying that the older generation didn’t get it. Not much was said specifically about what was not “got.” The importance of electronic communication was mentioned, but it wasn’t clear to me how that was relevant.

    Recommendation algorithms (like Amazon’s) are designed to help them sell “long tail” products no one has heard of. So they specifically recommend things you might like that most other people wouldn’t. They have a tunable parameter for how “far out” to send you—the balance between things everyone likes (that you would probably like too) and idiosyncratic choices.

    Raising awareness without seeming egocentric: an excellent question. I’m not in a position to give advice, obviously; maybe other readers can make suggestions?

    One thought: “give stuff away for free on the internet” is a good strategy. Maybe you and Lama Shé-zér could put some videos on YouTube?

  9. Chris/Pedestrian says:

    Thanks for this — very useful and I see many of my own questions there. A thought taken from the subtitle above: wouldn’t literal matchmaking heuristics be much better than crowdsourcing for student/teacher connections? That is to say, dating sites might prove to be a better model than Yelp. (Yes, I know, insert student/teacher sex joke/outrage here.)

  10. That’s a very interesting point—I hadn’t thought of it!

    I didn’t know what algorithm(s) the dating sites used, so I’ve just done half an hour of research. The answer is, it’s essentially the same as Amazon’s, except that it’s two-way—in other words, a good match is one in which both parties are unusually desirable to the other.

    That suggests that teacher/organization preferences might be taken into account. Most would probably say that they are prepared to serve all comers—but perhaps that’s actually counter-productive. Maybe teachers could suggest characteristics of students that they are especially likely to be able to help, or especially unlikely.

  11. Sabio Lantz says:

    Namgyal (one of my favorite commenters — damn, that man should blog), said:

    Flamewars on Buddish websites seem common.

    He say, putting on his steel worker management cap, that the Buddhist blog managers should “stamp on the damn things”.

    I frequent many religious sites: Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist. The common poor manner I see there is ganging-up. Let’s say a Christian makes a good point on an atheist site — the Atheist jump all over the theist for whatever they can find. The blog writer, even if normally balanced does not jump in and mediate but instead passively watches the gang beating. There is more alliance to the tribe than the truth — this goes for everyone. And likewise I see it on Buddhist sites with all too human blog masters who, perhaps contrary to their self-image, can see “reality as it really is” nor are they un-attached and “in the present”.

    That said, David Chapman is by far the most skilled mediator of blogs that I have met — brilliantly so. That skill outstrips even his insights (which are most helpful). Maybe we need someone like David to offer blogging advice for Buddhist bloggers. David would lurk on their sites as a consultant and then Skype with them once a month or as needed to offer some advice — or perhaps send an e-mail. He would add yet a 7th website to his list: “Buddhist Blogging”. Or perhaps broaden it to “Contemplative Blogging”.

    David doesn’t seem to “stamp on things” to often but instead diffuses by acknowledging the commenter’s insights, wonder about his own failings, try to add something in the commentor’s terms. And I have seen Rindzin jump in and stamp out bad behavior among her Buddhist colleagues on his site. They are a good team that way. Maybe a good cop, bad cop pair is helpful on a blog.

    Either way, I find this blog to be exemplar of what Namgyal rightly points out as a need for better management. But this goes on all religious/philosophical blogs — for our blogging shows us that our lofty religious thinking may not be changing us as much as we’d like to imagine.

    So when are you guys going to start offering Skyping talks? I will sign up.

  12. So much here, but I will only address three points:

    You say that “Buddhist students need to choose a brand of Buddhism” – This is only so if the goal is to learn ABOUT Buddhism, to be a student of some particular aspects of Buddhist history, tradition, and canonized teachings. That may be some peoples’ idea of Buddhism, but it is not mine. To me, all those things may offer wonderful pointers/reflections, and are certainly worthy of study in their own right, but are not the core of Buddhist practice. This is something we must realize for ourselves by whatever means are available. Of course one can study AND practice, and they can be quite complimentary (but also can add beliefs/attachments), but to approach study AS practice misses the teachings.

    “Maps of the Buddhist path are typically individual… But Buddhism is an inherently social activity.” – This is a gross generalization promoting, perhaps inadvertently, separation and a limited view (and thus more amenable to marketing efforts). Maps of any sort are conceptual traps. “Path”, individual AND Sangha (Buddha/Dharma/Sangha – one path/practice), is not a tool to reinforce dogma, but an expression of living dharma.

    “You can’t learn from someone you don’t like and respect and understand.” Really? Then you have a LONG road ahead. Such a character can prove most helpful, if you look into your own thinking on this. “Like” and dislike offer direct insight on attachments and aversions, and thus the nature of delusion itself. “Respect” offers insight on attaching /valuing/maintaining stories about “my” beliefs about this or that. To develop “understanding” is why a teacher is sought. If it was already there in the relationship, the teacher would not be needed.

    The rest, I leave to those intent on treating Dharma like a commodity to be packaged and sold. Good luck with that. This is not the first generation working to create a more likeable, socially relevant, brand of Buddhism. You have 2500 years of such marketing experience to build on.

    Please note this is just a set of observations, not a judgement or counter position. I’m not anti-marketing per se, or against people endlessly reworking their approaches (which I simply see as Upaya 2.0). I’m just cautious when there is more focus on the marketing efforts. Evangelical Buddhism is an oxymoron for me.

    I was tempted to address the ‘Points of Pain’ individually, but let this suffice: Handing someone a pre-mapped, orderly, and agreeable path would be a great disservice to/disrespect of them.

  13. Kate Gowen says:

    K Grey: I’m not anti-marketing per se, or against people endlessly reworking their approaches (which I simply see as Upaya 2.0). I’m just cautious when there is more focus on the marketing efforts. Evangelical Buddhism is an oxymoron for me.

    I was tempted to address the ‘Points of Pain’ individually, but let this suffice: Handing someone a pre-mapped, orderly, and agreeable path would be a great disservice to/disrespect of them.

    Mr. Grey, those are excellent points– of the sort that often get lost in the enthusiastic scramble of the practitioner to share the wonderful discovery of ‘buddha-dharma-sangha’ as the practitioner sees it in the moment.

    My own teachers have made similar points in my hearing, and they have brought me up short in my own tendencies along those lines. Not short enough that I no longer ever make the error, but it has made me quicker to notice myself veering thataway.

  14. Dana Nourie says:

    Lots of great stuff here! I also want to give a shout out to Secular Buddhism, and the sanghas in Second Life, a virtual 3D platform, where you can meditate, join a sangha to meeting and talk about the brand of Buddhism that is right for you.

    You can find out more about Secular Buddhism here:

    http://thesecularbuddhist.wordpress.com/

    http://www.thesecularbuddhist.com/

    and in Second Life join the Group called Secular Buddhists
    As a fellow Geek and Buddhist practitioner, I look forward to meeting with you all!

  15. Mr Grey; I actually agree with David about choosing a branch of Buddhism, eventually. I like to think of the relationship to a path in the same mode as a relationship with a long-term partner. You can only jump around from one school (woman/man) to another before eventually realising that settling down for a longer period with the right woman/man/dog/alien (path/school) will bring greater depth and the kind of reward that only comes about through long-term committment. That is of course unless you want to follow in the steps of George Clooney and be along-term Buddhist bachelor. I consider it a question of maturity and it brings up core concepts of dedication and committment, and in tantric Buddhism, as I learnt fairly recently, faith and surrender.
    As for the points David raised. I left Buddhism for around ten years due to being very fed up with the organised forms of traditional Buddhism available in England. I started hating the Buddhist identity (no patience or wisdom I’m afraid at that time) and felt that a more direct relationship with the truth of Buddhism was missing.
    Why mention this? Well, in my opinion, and I’m not alone, pragmatic approaches to Buddhism are the cutting edge of the ‘emerging face of Buddhism’ and yet if you’re not plugged into the online reality of this fascinating movement in contemporary western Buddhist practice, you may end up missing out on it, being hypnotized by the old guard’s view of Buddhism and its practices through the sheer availability of their materials, or, likely find yourself in an NKT or Soko Gai centre, which tend to have a proselytizing and mass marketing approach to spreading Buddhism as a life style choice. They are also some of the most easily available forms of Buddhism and have great advertiseing. The problem with that is they both have the habit of claiming themselves to be the only authentic dharma :( and offer an extremey narrow view of what Buddhism is.
    I feel that the pragmatic dharma movement needs to make access easier. It’s a pretty darn new thing of course, so we need time for it to develop. On a basic level though I would suggest the creation of a generic pragmatic Buddhism site that brings together the protagonists of this new movement, and create through this a dedicated online team of teachers, bloggers and ‘followers’ to explore the themes above, and new themes in order to streamline the process of developing coherence and mutual comprehension in this developing arena. An ‘Open-Dharma’ Club perhaps.
    All thsi blogging is great, but I can’t help feel that so much of it is wasted as the actual numbers of people reading a blog liek thsi one, is relatively low. Perhaps a more combined effort, or at least a sexy portal that creates a clear link between those on this cutting edge would make acces easier?
    Online conferences between said figures through skype or similiar technology would be awesome too, especially if accessible to anyone. A monthly online meet up on a particular topic. Free online videos where different teachers are feeding this movement.The site could feature a meet up with a revolving cycle of different bloggers takign the reins to blog the conclusions and rpesent new questions…
    …oh dear, it’s hitting me. This would be the first step in the formation of a new structured, establishment pragmatic dharma movement that the next generation would have to get uppity about in ten years!?! Next there will be pragmatic dharma centres, online pragmatic teacher training, then finally the enthronment of a pragmatic Buddhist ‘Digital (Dalai) Lama’.
    No, but really, accessibility is important. If I hadn’t come across Buddhist Geeks, I’d still be meditating on my own and wouldn’t have a teacher or know anything about all this great emerging curiosity and development. Some coming together is required. Let’s organise a weekend, entirely online, Buddhist Geeks style conference, to discusss some of the above. I’m in!

  16. On another note. I’d like to add somethigng about the codification of language. Would it be possible to abandon all foriegn terminology, or is the term Buddhism so essential that it must be kept? Has this been discussed somewhere in a menaningful fashion? I am happy to call myself a Buddhist, but must confess to adding the word pragamtic to legitimize my choice as if it were nieve somehow to believe in an exotic eastern religion.

  17. Bob Holness says:

    The progression of the development of online meditation groups is a great idea and should be expanded. It ought to be coupled with online, interactive dharma talks. I know Ken Mcleod has been using this approach. Matthew’s idea of a pragmatic dharma base site where access to digital teachers would help those who are far from centres access Buddhist teachings in this new geeky apporach from anywhere int he world. We nedd an inclusive, open dharma space that anyone of any nationality can access.

  18. Matthew O'Connell says:

    Which software does Ken use? I use skype to work with my meditation teacher Hokai, but I don’t know if it’s possible to include multiple participants in free skype calls? Anyone know about this? Is this number limited?

  19. @ Dana Nourie — Thanks for the pointer; I don’t know how I can have missed this before! I have subscribed.

    @ Matthew O’Connell — Interesting to hear about your experience in Britain. Triratna is the other major UK Buddhist organization, and seems a bit more “pragmatic”, although also not pragmatic enough for some. Curious if you had any experience with that.

    “a generic pragmatic Buddhism site that brings together the protagonists of this new movement, and create through this a dedicated online team of teachers, bloggers and ‘followers’ to explore the themes above” — how about the Dharma Overground? I was vaguely aware of it before, but only actually looked at it for the first time two days ago. I was surprised and pleased to find a diversity of “pragmatic” teachers commenting there (e.g. Hokai). It also has a wiki and so forth. What is missing? Or does it need to be still more inclusive?

    “Online conferences between said figures through skype or similiar technology would be awesome too” — on the recommendation of Eran Globen, I’m currently listening to the “Hurricane Ranch Discussions” with Daniel Ingram, Hokai Sobol, Kenneth Folk, Vince Horn, and Tarin Greco. Monthly discussions like this would be great…

    Conference calling: Skype lets you include up to 25 people free. That’s audio-only; it supports up to nine people with video. Plenty for a meditation group.

  20. Hi,
    Nope, I don’t know anything about Triratna. Yep, I am familiar with Dharma Overground and Daniel Ingram etc.I hung around there for about six months. They’re good guys, but I think their tendency to proclaim having reached enlightenment can be off-putting to many and this can overshadow some of the great work and discussions that are going on there. They have quite a ‘clubby’ feel where people are almost all practicing firstly Mahasadi noting and then Actual Freedom (AF), which is kind of controversial and I’d be interested in your take on it if you explore it later. They’re pretty open and curious, and even hospitable chaps, but it’s a sort of hardcore, specialists’ club, so not quite what I was imagining.
    I listened to the Hurricane Ranch discussions some time back and they were interesting although Hokai has not been involved with those guys for quite some time and the audio resources there are very limited. They are certainly doing good work though. In fact I started off there after initially finding Buddhist Geeks. The problem with the aftermath of the Hurricane talks, again as far as I am aware, is that a splintering occurred and such talks have not taken place again between those guys since. But what was great about them was the interaction of different traditions with a view to pragmatism.
    Agreed it’s just the sort of thing I want to hear more of.
    I think it might be worth making a distinction between the Hardcore and Pragmatic Buddhists. As far as I know, Hardcore is really a term that Ingram started using along with that Zen chap Brad Warner with his book. Although in reality it seems that Warner’s approach is not particularly hardcore in any sense, at least that’s the impression I got from a book of his I read and interviews and talks.
    Ingram and co instead believe they are enlightened already and publicly express this, which Warner would likely never claim. They also encourage hardcore practice i.e. serious meditation regimes based on following primarily Theravada style maps of the stages of awakening. In this sense it is an essentially pragmatic approach and they’re group interactions on the site are very much about motivating each other and clarifying results and in particular getting to what they refer to as First Path; that is the first stage of enlightenment. They seem to be doing well at it and lots of people seem to be achieving First Path. Not that I can expertly comment on such things or validate any of this, but they are for sure results orientated and therefore pragmatic. The hardcore element then is that they are claiming they are getting to enlightenment.
    A more general sense of what I understand of the pragmatic Buddhist movement which is emerging in the west is a willingness to openly explore the validity of traditional Buddhist practices and world views in the light of western 21st century understanding of the complexities of the human condition in a post-modern society. There is a strong curiosity about what works, about how to progress and how to integrate practice with modern living without denying the wealth of understanding that has come out of, and is still coming out of, the western intellectual tradition and its contemporary manifestations including integration with technology and a willingness to challenge and review traditional identities and roles within the Buddhist sphere.
    Incidently Vincent Horn was heavily involved with Ingram & Co and Kenneth Folk who is also a self-proclaimed enlightened man i.e. a Buddha. The consequences of both his and Ingram’s claims are still seemingly marginalized by the Buddhist community at large, although I can’t help but think that their claims ought to be explored by the wider Buddhist establishment. If they are at least liberated, then this is great news and would have far-reaching consequences.
    Shinzen Young may be another First Path claimant (anyone know about this?). He’s the Buddhist Dude at present it seems. A great guy. He has a wealth of video material freely available and his approach is pragmatic, but this is not really what I was getting at with my idea and post.
    What I’d like to see is a monthly online coming together of different pragmatic teachers who discuss and explore the continuing questions that have emerged out of the two conferences within which the general Buddhist community, and others, can participate in and give feedback on in a single location. I’d like to see more of the type of work Vincent has been doing with the Geeks site, but in video format, with multiple personalities involved.
    As I said, it feels that so much of the great work going on is disparate and connecting the dots to increase understanding and sharing is till not something that is being done to a great degree.
    Thanks for the update on Skype. Without video, it’s not quite the same. I think having video goes one step further towards ‘meatspace.’ I’ll check out which software ken Mcleod is using.

  21. Marie Ramos says:

    Speaking of websites and resources, Ken’s site ( unfetteredmind.org ) has just been re-orged and is full of great material, which is now easier to find.

  22. Hi,

    I’ve only started to pay attention to the pragmatic movement very recently, and I haven’t got my head around it yet. Mostly their framework is Theravada, which makes no sense to me. That’s partly lack of knowledge of it, but probably also a matter of temperament. I sort of understand it intellectually, but at an emotional level I can’t understand why you’d want to do it.

    I’ve just finished the Hurricane discussions. Near the end, someone—I think it’s Kenneth Folk—says “On the other hand, you could skip all this complexity and hard work, and just turn consciousness on itself, which is more like the Dzogchen approach, and then that’s that.” Which is what I was thinking all though the discussion. Coming from a Dzogchen background, I can’t see the point of what they’re doing. Experientially, I mean.

    Intellectually, I can see that for people with a particular temperament, setting up a long series of artificial obstacles and then taking them down one by one would be useful. If you are highly goal-driven and technical, like say a medical school student (which Daniel Ingram was when he was doing this), then that might be what you’d need to do to stay motivated. It doesn’t seem like an approach that’s going to work for a lot of people; but then neither is Dzogchen.

    There’s something about their approach that I do like a lot, but I haven’t quite articulated what it is yet. “Pragmatic” is a word I like, as an engineer… That’s not all of it, though. There’s also things I don’t like, but I’m also not sure quite what.

    I’ve been excited to discover just in the last couple weeks how similar Hokai’s direction seems to be to mine. Probably that’s a combination of Vajrayana background and generational world-view and perhaps also temperament. I can’t think of anyone else thinking seriously about how Vajrayana can work in the future.

    One aspect of that is not holding onto tradition for the sake of tradition, not rejecting tradition because “tradition” automatically means “obsolete”, not insisting on modern ideology just because it is modern, not rejecting modern ideas because they aren’t traditional, and (most of all) exploring what Vajrayana could mean after modernism is relativized. That is what I see as a key part of the generational shift: seeing that traditional and modern aren’t the only alternatives, and that the action is in what comes after modernism.

    Who is counted as “pragmatic” apart from the folks who were in the Hurricane Ranch discussion?

  23. Sky Serpent says:

    @ David – “how about the Dharma Overground?”

    After I had begun to be interested in Buddhism, partially but not totally due to Daniel Ingram’s “Mastering the core Teachings of the Buddha”, I visited the Dharma Overground a lot (though I have not written anything to the forum). After the initial excitement I was left quite alienated. Dharma Overground has its very particular tone and attitude, and it appears to be very connected to a certain interpretation what “enlightenment” means – interpretation that I found somewhat lacking.

    I would more like that there would be a forum (or whatever) that would not be as connected to certain particular approach – like Ingram-style Theravada – but would still be about doing actual practice and having some results from it. However, certain problem remains regardless: how to avoid all that craziness that typical spiritually oriented conversation on the internet attracts?

  24. I agree Sky Serpent. I think a more interactive video format might avoid some of the ‘craziness’ especially if it was followed up by more established Buddhist bloggers.
    David. Other pragmatically orientated Buddhists:

    Ken Mcleod (Vajrayana/Mahayan). I think he actually coined the term.
    Shinzen Young
    The Secular Buddhists chaps
    Vincent Horn
    The Center for Pragmatic Buddhism

    Those are a few that come to mind.
    I do agree with your point about tradition. I guess there is a dynamic that needs to play out between openness, exploration and intelligent respect for what’s come before with a willingness to see what innovation can occur. I don’t feel pragmatism needs to somehow tear apart the old in favor of a new stream lined modern approach. I agree that it would be very ignorant to think this possible especially as far as the symbolically rich Vajrayana approach is concerned. I am certainly no expert on the subject however, but for sure the idea of updating Buddhist deities with modern versions would be off the wall: Beyonce as the Bodhisattva of rhythm?
    The sanity of approaching traditional Buddhism with a respectful and critical eye that is inclusive of our western history and intellectual heritage is certainly preferable to one that wants a form of mystical escapism. We are still in early days.

  25. Sky Serpent says:

    @Matthew O’Connell – “I think a more interactive video format might avoid some of the ‘craziness’ especially if it was followed up by more established Buddhist bloggers.”

    Interesting. That could be done with Google+ video Hangouts, for example.

  26. At the same time I was in this house. I came across a book in the house called Gypsy Gossip which was written by the son of Dudjom Rinpoche. Dudjom Rinpoche was the head lama of the Nyingma School before he passed away in around 1987. He was still alive at this stage and his oldest son was called Thinley Norbu who had spent time living in Nepal but also had travelled to the West. So I found and read this book by him called Gypsy Gossip. It was unlike anything I had ever read before. Unlike any Buddhist book written by a Tibetan lama because it generally dealt with issues that people don’t normally talk about. It was a very honest. Very inspiring to come across a book like that and to know there was a teacher around like that. Some weeks later there was a rumour around that Thinley Norbu was coming back to Kathmandu. People told me that usually when he does it is very hard to find him because there is also a lot of secrecy around where he is staying. Also you never know whether it is him or his students. Particularly in Nepal there were a lot of Bhutanese followers of Dudjom Rinpoche and Thinley Norbu. Thinley Norbu was married to a Bhutanese woman. He is also the father of Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu who made the movie ‘The Cup’ and ‘Travellers and Magicians’.

    So one day after being over there I came back to the house and walked up the steep wooden staircase to the second storey and there is this guy who looked Japanese sitting there in a jumpsuit. I said hello and he said “Hello, I’m Thinley Norbu”.

    Sometimes Thinley Norbu would walk into my room and ask if I would like any help. So it seemed kind of crazy that here I was and he was asking if he can help me rather than me going to ask for help. So in many ways it was a very spontaneous connection because normally if you hear of a teacher you have to go and seek them out and meet them. Like you are going out of your territory. But it happened in such a natural way that is was wonderful. He was very eccentric. He had spent a lot of time in the West. He spoke very good English. Not grammatically perfect but he had very good vocabulary. He was quite eccentric. One of the first things he told me was to show me some exercises on how to strengthen my legs and he told me to do some running. Normally Tibetans aren’t that tuned into the body. So he wore western clothes. He used to love wearing jumpsuits. Nepal was very dusty and he was very into cleanliness and washing hands and putting things down gently. So people always used to visit and bring offerings but he would never take things directly but always place them on his shrine. He always said it is better to offer to the Buddhas first and then you can just borrow them so you don’t become attached to the idea that they are yours. You are going to have to give them up anyway so there is no point being attached.

    http://www.odiyanacentre.org/?page_id=229

    Now his son Dungse Garab Rinpoche has started – the Young Buddhist Association of Bhutan for students above 18 years and below 34 years old. http://www.bhutanyoungbuddhist.org/about.php – Quite interesting to approach him I think – as he the blood line och Dudjom Rinpoche, Heart Son of Dungse Rinpoche and a Ngakpa as well.

  27. @ Sabio – actually I do blog –

    http://drala-jong.blogspot.com/ is a blog dedicated to raising awareness of and funds to establish a residential retreat centre in Britain, following direction from HH Dud’jom Rinpoche and HH Kyabjé Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche

    http://skyweaving.blogspot.com/ – is a nascent blog intended to provide background and development material regarding the practice of namkha (nam mKha’). Shé-zér & I are currently writing a book on the subject, partly in support of the Drala Jong projec

    Thanks for the opportunity to self-publicise though – much appreciated. Will send you the Jaffa Cakes later as a thank you!

  28. Hello, David Chapman… I realize this post of yours is a bit aged by now, but many of the points you raise will not be resolved for quite some time to come, so it’s still worth a fresh comment. I was sure glad to find this post regardless of its age, because I was beginning to think that there isn’t a single soul out there who has the vision to even ask these kinds of questions.

    Regarding your first couple of pain points in particular, sometimes lower-tech thinking could go a long way toward addressing the issues. Specifically, good old fashioned data repositories would help people considerably. I scanned rather than read the post responsive comments (many tangents therein), but did anyone make note of the fact that there are no decent American Buddhist resource directories out there? Many organizations keep their own lists, but most of them are five or ten years out of date, and they are largely limited to name, address, and phone number – nothing resembling informational synthesis or meta-analysis whatsoever. The foundational resources are simply not in place, and it will continue to be impossible for many people to connect with what they need when the set of all possible resources hasn’t even been articulated to start with.

    About two months ago I started trying to bridge a piece of that exact gap in my neck of the woods (upper Texas coast) simply by doing unglamorous elbow-grease blogging of the type that people can make practical use of in order to get hooked up with whatever local resources are best for their personalities, lifestyle constraints, and stage of development. I’m just now beginning to watch the first group of people methodically utilizing that groundwork to help them do what previously they would have had to tackle via random inquiry and sheer chance. Go to South Houston Sangha News and check out the “Temple Profiles” category if you’d like to get a feel for some of what I’ve got under development (as basic as it is).

    Over the past couple of months, I’ve been cruising around the internet trying to identify other bloggers and other content-creators who are attempting to provide similar resources in their own communities. It blows my mind to report that I have not yet found any. If any of you folks know of other resources similar in intent to what I’m trying to create, please comment here or contact me via South Houston Sangha News. I would like to have my site build upon the good work and good ideas of others (and vice versa), if only we could connect. Thank you!! :-)

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