By Daniel Scharpenburg
The internet is amazing.
We can use it to meet people, to go to college, to make investments and many other things. I don’t even have to call my dentist office to make an appointment anymore. I can do it online.
The internet is seeping into every aspect of our lives and showing no signs of slowing down. It has even become a part of Buddhism.
There were some early adopters of Buddhist training on the internet. The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun, The Five Mountain Zen Order, and the Treeleaf Sangha all came to this early. And they were each met with some resistance. (FMZO exists in both worlds, online and in person)
“You can’t do this online,” was a familiar comment in the first decade of the 21st century. But now these groups have been training and ordaining people for over 10 years, and now it’s really become mainstream. It’s funny how things change so fast.
The Kwan Um School of Zen, the San Francisco Zen Center and Shambhala have online versions of their training programs, including teacher training. These are big communities and that makes it seem like this is becoming more and more accepted, whether we like it or not.
Well known Buddhist teachers like Ethan Nichtern, Lodro Rinzler, Dosho Port, Jack Kornfield, Pema Khandro, and many many others are giving serious teachings online.
I saw a teacher training class by Jack Kornfield advertised on Facebook once. Don’t get excited, just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s not thousands of dollars. But someone could list “trained by Jack Kornfield” on their list of qualifications by training with him online.
The Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Community has been training ministers online for a while. They’re a sort of Reform Pure Land tradition, from what I can tell. The Dharma Winds Zen Sangha has been training and ordaining Zen Priests for a while too. (including me)
There are many groups I have missed, I’m sure, and is all way more common than I realized before I looked into it. You can now become a fully authorized Dharma Teacher without ever meeting another Buddhist in person.
What is an online Buddhist practice? Is it real? How can that even work? There are multiple questions to be asked and I think people often muddy the waters here.
Can someone learn about Buddhism online? Yes. Of course.
Can you study with a teacher online? Yes. And you can learn a lot from them.
Can someone become a Dharma Teacher online? That’s a much bigger question and I think people conflate these. I have to address what I think is the point of community first.
Buddhism consists of what we call, “the three jewels.” It’s said that we need all three of these things in order to have an effective practice. They are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Buddha is not only the historical figure who represents our example of the path, but also the innate potential for awakening within every one of us. The Dharma is the teachings. The Sangha is the community.
Buddhism teaches that we need a community.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. A majority of religions in the world advocate for having a community of like-minded people. The first thing the Buddha did when he attained enlightenment was grab some friends and start a community.
When I first started investigating Buddhism for myself I thought maybe I could do it without a community. This is not because I had some big idea that community wasn’t important. It was because I was nervous about meeting people. I didn’t want to become uncomfortable. It took me a while to come around but eventually I did.
Now, some people don’t get involved with communities because of distance. And some people don’t get involved with communities because their schedule or family situation makes it impossible. I do recognize these things. And there are people who have Buddhist Centers around and they go to them but they just don’t feel welcome or they don’t like what they see.
Buddhism isn’t like Christianity. There’s not always another temple around the corner if you have a bad experience at the one you went to.
These are unavoidable facts.
I think most people who don’t join Buddhist communities are like I was and just find the idea uncomfortable, rather than impossible. I don’t know that for certain. I’m making big assumptions here, but I think there may be a lot of people who are practicing Buddhism that don’t spend any time with other Buddhists, and not because they can’t.
I’m saying all of that to say this; do online communities exist to fill a need? Or to fill a preference?
I think that makes a big difference, really.
What’s the point of having a sangha? I think that’s a big question that we need to answer.
I think a sangha serves a few important functions.
1. Connections and Mentors: A connection to teachings and people with more experience. We can learn a lot of this stuff through really diligent study and practice. But if we don’t have someone to be a mentor in some way, then we have nowhere to go if we have questions. That’s important because if we practice long enough, sooner or later we will have questions. And also if we’re on our own we don’t have an example to look to.
2. Location: A place to go sit. You can meditate by yourself at home. You really totally can. There’s nothing stopping you at all. And I think you should. But a lot of people won’t. For many people meditating alone in their bedroom is really challenging because…when it’s just you excuses come really easily. But, “At this time, I go to this place with other people and meditate,” seems to serve a lot of people really well.
3. Teacher Training: I’ll be very clear here. Lots of Buddhist communities don’t give a clear path to how one becomes a teacher. This can feel exclusionary at times, seeming like people are handpicking the people they like. So we’ll probably put this one aside except to say that just declaring yourself a teacher based on nothing would be ill advised. I’ve done teacher training both ways. I think I learned more from my online training with the Dharma Winds Zen Sangha, but I think I’d feel like less of a teacher if I didn’t have in person experience to supplement that. I like Dharma Winds a lot more than I like the Rime Center but I’m certain the time I spent training at that place made me a better Dharma Teacher.
4. Vows: Vows are a big thing in most branches of Buddhism. It represents a sort of rite of passage. I believe something in us clicks when we take vows in an official way. While it’s true you can declare yourself as “taking refuge” on your own, I believe it means more to you if you’re doing it in some kind of ceremony with other people.
5. Spiritual Friendship: I think this is the most important. Being in a community gives you the opportunity to meet and interact with like-minded people. That can be a circle where we encourage each other to live more mindfully because we are working on ourselves in the same way. Developing relationships with other Buddhists makes us better Buddhists. I 100% believe that.
So, internet Buddhist communities.
I would like to argue that all of these have limitations, but most of all number five. We can spend a lot of time on the internet talking to Buddhists we’ve met online and that can feel very good and pleasant. But that’s not going to turn into Buddhist friends in real life (unless we move or something)
Community is what I’m afraid we’re missing out on the most. You can find people to talk about Buddhism with online. You can even sit together with a service like Zoom or Skype if you want. But your digital Buddhist friends can’t come to your kid’s birthday party, or help you change a tire, or go to a group dinner with you. Because of attending local Buddhist temples I’ve made Buddhist friends. Later this year I’m going to marry a woman I met at a Buddhist temple. If I just practiced online, I never would have met her.
Spending time with people that have the same goals as us helps us focus on our goals.
That being said…
I do think some of this is generational. I’m Generation X. I was born in 1979. The Internet appeared in my house when I was 15 years old. The generation before me, the Boomers, were adults already when the internet appeared. The generation after me, the Millenials, don’t really remember the time before the internet. And Generation Z isn’t even going to remember a time before YouTube, Facebook, and Snapchat.
So, there’s a chance when I say, “I’m not sure about this..” I’m sort of being an old man. I recognize that.
That’s where we are. I don’t have any conclusions, really. But I think online practice is here to stay and is expanding, whether we like it or not.
So maybe the question we should be asking is, “How do we make it better?”
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