“There’s nothing lonelier than a Buddhist in Alabama” is the kind of comment I hear from many Buddhists who live in outlying regions of North America where their sangha is small or nonexistent and information about Buddhist practice and philosophy is scarce. By tapping into computer networks, however, geographic isolation can be overcome. This rapidly expanding “cybersangha” provides support and community for Buddhists around the world. From your home, you can now send a message to anyone (who has a computer, a modem, and a telephone line) within seconds, and usually at the cost of a local phone call.
Computer users can communicate with others privately, via e-mail (electronic mail that is sent to personal computer “mailboxes”), or openly, by means of public forums covering a variety of topics. E-mail takes two basic forms. Local e-mail on a particular BBS (bulletin board system) or online service travels only to other users on that system. By contrast, there is e-mail on the Internet, which is a collection of myriad computers and networks of computers run by different organizations and individuals. Internet email travels outside the host system to computers and networks around the world.
In addition to the ability to engage in conversations or exchange letters, Buddhist literature and art are also available electronically. Texts such as the Sixth Patriarch Sutra, dharma discourses by the Dalai Lama, photographs of well-known teachers, and resource guides that list Buddhist practice centers throughout the world can be “downloaded,” or copied from an online resource and stored in your computer’s memory.
Electronic Buddhist resources can be separated into two main categories: those that are connected to the Internet and those that aren’t.
Resources on the Net
Internet resources require you to have an Internet account, either from a local university or a commercial Internet provider. (An example of a provider is The Well in California, which has its own conferences but also provides an entry ramp onto the Internet.) Once you have an account, you can access Buddhist communications on the Internet, which take the form of Usenet newsgroups and listservs. The Usenet carries newsgroups (discussion forums) such as “soc.religion.eastern” (Eastern religions) and “talk. politics. tibet” (a discussion of Tibet) to Internet sites around the world, allowing for shared communications among thousands of computer users with common interests. Usenets are open forums and can often be chaotic; nevertheless, they are easy to use and often interesting.These are not real-time chats; most sites keep records of the conferences for at least a week, which means that you can log in and see what has been said on a certain topic for a week or more and add to it, if you like.
Listservs, or mailing lists, are similar to Usenets but are moderated by a host who leads the discussion; the content of listservs is usually of a high caliber. While Usenet is available to the Internet masses, listservs are populated by students, professors, and other knowledgeable individuals who are serious about highly specified topics. Listservs are an ideal resource if you have a particular interest to explore, but often these discussions can be confusing to the novice. I’ve found that it’s best to approach a listserv with a question in mind, such as “How strongly was
Dogen’s Zen influenced by Tendai teachings?” or “What is the best translation of Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation?” Buddhist Listservs include BUDDHA-L, which is strictly Buddhologists; BUDDHIST, a forum for all practitioners; ZEN, for Zen Buddhist practiceoriented discussions; and TIBET-L, for discussions of Tibetan culture and politics. Unlike the Usenet, listservs are sent directly to your Internet mailbox (like e-mail). It’s as if everyone on the listserv got carbon copies of every letter.
The places on the Internet where you can pick up files of prepackaged information that are available for free distribution (such as texts and images) are called FTP (file transfer protocol) or GOPHER sites. You can contact these sites through the Internet, download files from them, and place the files in your computer’s memory for easy reading. These diverse materials range from dharma talks by Buddhist teachers to collections of Buddhist literature, such as the Blue Cliff Record. The best examples of Buddhist content FTP sites are the COOMBS archives in Australia and the DharmaNet site in California. DharmaNet is practice-oriented, while the COOMBS archive is geared to both practitioners and scholars. One invaluable resource available in the COOMBS archive is the Buddhist Electronic Resource Directory, the ultimate guide to Buddhism on the Net, compiled by Australian professor T. Matthew Ciolek. This free directory documents many Buddhist materials on and off the net, including off-line electronic text projects by Buddhologists around the world.
Resources off the Net
These resources tend to be significantly more limited in what they offer but are easy to use and require little knowledge of programming language. For example, those who subscribe to a bulletin board usually have e-mail but do not have the ability to download from FTP sites.
A growing number of commercial services provide Buddhist materials, including CompuServe, America Online, and The Well. These services boast hundreds of thousands of members, with a multitude of special-interest groups (SIGs), including Buddhist discussion forums, hosted by knowledgeable moderators. However, most Internet services are limited to e-mail, meaning you don’t have the specialized Internet forums when discussing particular topics. These services can be expensive and may lack depth, since their resources are limited to what their members bring to the service.
General interest bulletin board systems (BBS) number in the tens of thousands, and are quickly becoming indistinguishable from commercial online services. BBSs are like local clubs and are as diverse as the hobbyists who run them. Because of this diversity, it’s often hard to find comprehensive discussions. For example, if a BBS has only five hundred members, how many are likely to be interested in Buddhist topics? BBS system operators (sysops) have solved this problem by creating echo mail networks—discussion forums shared among member systems. The five-hundred-member BBS network can swap mail with a multitude of BBSs around the world, allowing for discussion on specific topics similar to the Usenet system on the Internet. The mail is passed along “bucket brigade” style—the way people put out a fire, passing buckets of water from one person to the next. This means that there is a time delay, and people on different systems will not receive the mail at the same time, but all of the mail will eventually be distributed. Buddhist echomail networks are fairly small (up to sixty systems), and include diverse users such as BodhiNet, which has the only Bon (the shamanistic religion of Tibet) conference anywhere in the world, and DharmaNet, whose focus is on Theravada teachings and current events. They share conferences with systems throughout the world on such diverse issues as women and Buddhism and Amnesty International’s work in Tibet. Contact either of these networks for a member BBS near you.
Buddhist bulletin boards also contain Buddhist Internet materials and materials not found on the Internet. Non-Internet materials comprise the majority of online resources, such as DharmaNet’s transcription project of Theravadin texts, the electronic journal GASSHO, the Tiger Team Buddhist Information Network collection of scanned Buddhist artwork, and the ACIP (Asian Classics Input Project) collection.
Although many systems participate in Buddhist echomail networks, bulletin boards that specialize in Buddhist materials are rare: examples include Access to Insight in Barre, Massachusetts, BuddhaNet in Australia, and the Tiger Team Buddhist Information Network, in Berkeley, California. These resources are dial-up systems—meaning you must dial their local phone number for online access—so unless you happen to live in the neighborhood, it’s a long-distance call. These smaller online services have the advantage of specialization without fear of financial failure or of upsetting their non-Buddhist members with esoteric materials. BBSs also tend toward fierce democracy and egalitarianism, unlike the elitist “ivory tower” approach that you may encounter on the Internet. By and large, bulletin boards are started by hobbyists who are eager to expand their list of contacts, while Internet groups are composed of specialists in the field who have had privileged access to and control over the information and who have little patience with the elementary questions and comments interjected by beginners.
Some BBSs also fit into the new category of hybrid systems. Hybrids are BBSs that have all the advantages of the regular bulletin boards but also include Internet resources, similar to the commercial services. For example, Tiger Team and Access to Insight have Internet e-mail, Usenets, and listservs available to their users, as well as many or all of the Buddhist files from the Internet.
The easiest way to get started is through commercial online services, such as CompuServe or America Online. Although costly, these systems are easy to navigate and offer the broadest cross-section of information. Next, branch out and call BBS systems to get a feel for what is available from hobbyist resources (local computer newspapers are good sources for BBS lists). While it may be slightly more difficult to navigate a Buddhist BBS, you may find that what you really want is available through a BBS whose members or operators collect relevant information for you at no charge or at a low fee. BBS systems are also an excellent way to learn the basic concepts of communications, such as e-mail and downloading files. The most advanced stage, and the most time-intensive, is to get an Internet account, learn some basic commands, and “cruise the Internet” searching for every imaginable resource. (Mosaic, a fairly friendly software package for using the Internet, is available online.) As an infomaniac, I can strongly recommend all three of these approaches. Not since the great Silk Road through Central Asia has such a rich variety of Buddhists interacted.
Electronic Buddhist Resources:
Colorado Supernet: 303-273- 3471
America Online: 800-827-6364
Contains dozens of small special interest groups and a medium-size Buddhist file library.
Has few interest groups but a large community of online Buddhists. CompuServe’s Buddhist file library is very small.
The Well: 415-332-4335
The Well has the largest collection of Buddhist special interest groups and by far the largest community of online Buddhists among the commercial services.
Buddhist Electronic Resource Directory (BERD):
FTP to COOMBS.ANU.EDU.AU
(directory:coombspapers/otherar chives/electronic-buddhistarchives) or on Tiger Team as BERDOI94.ZIP
Comprehensive resource directory to on- and off-line resources.
Buddhist Bulletin Boards:
Access to Insight:
A small system with wonderful resources on Buddhist practice centers and Theravadin Buddhism. Access to Insight also has a medium-size Buddhist file library.
BuddhaNet contains a large file library and is the only Buddhist BBS which is a member of both BodhiNet andDharmaNet, making it one of the best sources for Buddhist special-interest groups.
Tiger Team Buddhist Information Network:
Tiger Team is the largest Buddhist BBS with the largest Buddhist file library and all of the Buddhist Internet conferences. Tiger Team specializes in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism.
Buddhist Echomail Networks:
Interested parties can contact these projects through the Internet.
AAR Electronic Publications Committee
EBTI—Electronic Buddhist Text Initiative (research group)
E-mail to Dr. Lewis Lancaster: email@example.com
Asian Classics Input Project
(materials available online Tiger Team and the Coombs FTP site)
Dr. Robert Taylor: acip@Well.sf.ca.us
Buddhist Iconography Database
Dr. John C. Huntington: firstname.lastname@example.org
International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism (research group)
Dr. Urs App: D54683@sakura.kudpc.kyotou.ac.Jp
Offline Input Projects:
The Thai Buddhist Canon Project
CD-ROM project with Siam edition of the Pali Canon (in Pali) Mahidol University, Thailand
Dr. T. Supachal: (602) 245-5410
Over a dozen input projects are at earlier stages of development in Burma, Thailand, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, and the United States. Contact the expert in this area, Dr. Urs App (e-mail address above) for more information.
Buddhist Internet Relay Chat:
IRC is available through most online services that provide Internet access. These multiuser, real-time, text-based conversations collapse time and space. Channels on the Buddhist electropolis include: #zen, #tibet, #dharamsala, #madyamaka, #buddhist, and #technozen.