By Johnathon Pendall
Welcome to the nerdiest column I’ve ever written.
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You can’t see me and you can’t hear me. I’m a text-being in your world, composed entirely of symbols. My body and mind aren’t in these words, they’re just expressions of my body and mind. It’s your body and mind that are in these words. You’re seeing them with your eyes, and giving meaning to them with your mind.
These facts make online Buddhism difficult or, according to some, impossible. I traveled to California last year to meet a Zen friend I know through social media. Our conversations gave me a decent sketch of her personality, but there’s a lot that words just can’t convey; her body language, the sound of her voice, her speech patterns and subtle gestures. All of these things are part of communication.
Let’s do some math—hooray! I polled a Buddhist social media group asking, “Is social networking a hindrance to practice?”
The irony of this doesn’t escape me. 54% said that it’s neither a hindrance nor not a hindrance. 25% said that it isn’t a hindrance, and 21% said that it is.
“RAWR! I’M PACMAN!”
The sample size wasn’t huge—only 28 participants. This means that I can be 95% confident that 32 – 68% of American Buddhists reflect these views. Confusing? Yes. I’d need 705 participants in a random sample to be 95% confident that 96 – 99% of American Buddhists feel this way; there’s no such thing as 100% probability in statistics. There was also a high percentage of Zen Buddhists in the sample, which makes the results even less generalize…able.
On a side tangent, I also got the numbers for male and female participants:
68% of participants were male and only 32% female. This means that 3 out of 10 American Buddhists are female. Yay, math! Boo, misogyny! Preferably, the male-female ratio should always reflect the national gender distribution—even in this small sample size. This means that 5 or 6 out of 10 American Buddhists should be female, but that’s a topic for another time.
I also asked participants to explain their answers. One said that social media is only a problem if we make it a problem. Another said that social media presents fantastic practice opportunities because of the excessive chatter and the temptation to be a jerk. Some participants noticed that there is often a lot of derision in Buddhist groups and that Dharma students don’t act this way in the “real world.”
Social networking has been a blessing and a curse for me along the way.
I live in the middle of nowhere, so without it, I might’ve never stuck with Buddhism. Social media has also been very distracting for me at times. It’s easy to forget the Path while completely engrossed in a text-based environment.
To this day, hardcore Theravadin monks swear off entertainment, music, dancing, and idle chatter when they enter the monastic life. I’d say there’s a good reason why these stipulations are in the Vinaya. It can be challenging to be mindful and entertained at the same time. The purpose of entertainment is to depart reality and enter into another world.
I often lose touch with what’s going on around me and within me while I’m chatting online. I get sucked into Social Media World and stop feeling the keys I’m typing on, I stop hearing the whirring fan next to me, I abandon my mantra in favor of intellectual debates and idle chit-chat. I also project a lot of things onto people that may not be native to them.
On social media we are text-beings—the tips of icebergs, shadows at dawn. I can project anything onto a text-being; any motive, any personality and any history.
I’m not interacting with people when I’m texting or typing, I’m interacting with symbols. Symbols are malleable, it’s as if a person gives me something they made out of soft clay. I can mentally bend it and shape it any way I want. When I show it to them, they can say, “That’s not what I meant,” and a wisp of animosity enters the conversation.
This can shift my focus from being clearly present to presenting myself clearly. Yet, for me social networking isn’t inherently a hindrance, just like the study participants said. It’s my responsibility to be mindful and aware of the here and now while I’m online, watching TV, listening to music or playing video games. I don’t need to avoid technology to practice Buddhism, I just have to make it a part of my discipline.
I need to feel my hands on the keys, my butt in the chair, my eyes scrolling across the words and images. I need to see the thoughts and feelings that rise up and fall away in response to stimuli. I need to be here and now while also being engaged in technology.
It’s a challenge, but challenges are the spice of life.
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”