In 2006, two Naropa University students, Vincent Horn and Ryan Oelke, sat in a coffee shop in Boulder, Colorado, brainstorming how they might combine their “geeky skills” with their passion for Buddhist practice. The answer, they decided, lay in a passion project that Horn and Oelke called Buddhist Geeks, an interview-format podcast that the friends launched the following year. On their podcast Horn and Oelke spoke with Buddhist teachers, scholars, and thinkers about technology, global culture, and contemporary Buddhist practice.
By 2008, the Buddhist Geeks podcasts had been downloaded more than one million times, and in 2010 Horn set up a micropatronage system to finance the company’s growth. The Buddhist geeks of the world responded with enthusiasm; the crowdfunding effort was a success, and later that year horn was able to begin full-time work on the project.
Now in its sixth year, Buddhist Geeks has grown beyond the original podcast format to include essays, virtual meditation retreats, and an annual 3-day Buddhist geeks conference in Boulder. As Buddhist geeks continues to grow and expand, the question—Horn calls it their “koan”—that drives the company remains the same: “How can we serve the convergence of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology and an increasingly global culture?”
In March, Horn spoke with Tricycle’s managing editor, Rachel Hiles, about video games, the future of Buddhist Geeks, and the potentials and pitfalls of the convergence of Buddhism and technology.
You’ve suggested that contemplation is becoming an information technology. What do you mean by that? I was at the South by Southwest Interactive Technology Conference last year, and I heard the technologist and inventor Ray Kurzweil point out that genetics became an information technology when the human genome was mapped and could then be understood in terms of digital information, mostly through the four base pairs of DNA. Since then, DNA has actually even become a digital storage medium; people are storing information in DNA. In the same way that we’ve been able to decipher the information that makes up our genetic code, perhaps as our understanding of contemplation improves through the collective inquiry of science, philosophy, and introspection, we might also begin to decipher some of the information underlying contemplation. The contemplative genome, if you will.
The reason this is so important is that once something becomes an information technology, it moves from the world of atoms to the world of bits, and bits evolve much differently than atoms; they can be reprogrammed, redesigned, optimized, and tweaked ad infinitum. And bits take advantage of the exponential doubling power of information technology. Atoms, on the other hand, aren’t on an exponential evolutionary curve. So what’s exciting to me about the prospect of contemplation becoming an information technology, no matter how far away that might be, is that if it were, we might begin to experience something like a Moore’s Law for the mind.
Last year you appeared in Wired UK’s article “The Smart List 2012: 50 people who will change the world.” The game designer Jane McGonigal, who nominated you for the list, said that one of the questions she’d most like to ask you is, “Can video games lead to enlightenment?” Do you have an answer to that question? Well, in theory, I think it’s possible, but there are two main challenges that might stand in the way. One is in understanding what enlightenment is or, more likely, understanding what different kinds of enlightenment there are. So many people have this notion that there’s only one enlightenment and then many paths to that enlightenment. But if you spent time speaking with advanced practitioners from different backgrounds, then you immediately start to hear very big differences in how they describe the results of their practice, both in terms of their interpretations and then also in terms of their inner experiences. So one hurdle I see is that if we’re going to build a game to help experience enlightenment, we need to know what kind of enlightenment we’re aiming for. And then the second hurdle is that in order for a video game to help lead to enlightenment, it has to be a kind of gradual enlightenment. So in every Buddhist tradition there are contemplative maps, which describe a kind of gradual unfolding of practice through time. Whether it’s the progress of insight and the stages of enlightenment of the Theravada tradition, the Tibetan five-path model, Tozan’s “Five Ranks” in Zen, each of these traditions recognizes that enlightenment can be understood in developmental terms. So if we could identify an enlightenment or enlightenments that are at least partially developmental, then I think video games could absolutely help in this development because video games are often built around the mechanics of introducing progressively more difficult stages. Once you master one you can then move on to the next. Meditation is often taught in the same way. So to me there’s an obvious way that these approaches could potentially complement one another.
Many of us are so enamored with technology that I think we run the risk of embracing it wholeheartedly, without discernment. How do we draw a line between exploring and embracing the advantages of technology and fetishizing technology? The line that I would draw around fetishizing technology has to do with how we adopt technologies. The technologist and author Kevin Kelly has a really simple and useful suggestion on how to adopt new technologies: he suggests that we selectively minimize our technology on an individual level while simultaneously maximizing the pool of technologies in the world at large. On an individual level, to “selectively minimize” means only using the technologies that we really need and getting rid of those that we don’t. Some questions that I ask myself are: Do I really need this technology? Does it actually significantly enhance something I’m already doing? Does it make it possible for me to do what I’m doing much better? If not, if we adopt it simply because it’s a new technology and “new is always better,” then I think we’re fetishizing technology. I think it’s also important to note that not everyone is going to be using the same technologies, because these questions are really individual. How we use technologies we adopt will be highly individual depending on what we’re doing in our lives, what we value. And therefore technologies that are genuinely helpful in moving things forward are the ones that we want to select.
Do you have concerns or fears about the intersection of Buddhism and technology? Do you think it’s possible to preserve the sacredness of a tradition as it’s being digitized and disseminated and shared so prolifically through the Internet? I don’t have any real concerns or fears, no. Either Buddhism will continue to be relevant in the Information Age or it won’t. And as one of my friends pointed out to me some time ago, the only things we can “preserve” are things that are already dead. Buddhism, in my experience, is a set of living practice traditions, and the moment those traditions stop mattering or are no longer alive in people’s experience is the moment that they become dead artifacts that need to be preserved. And in all likelihood a dead artifact will have a much easier time being archived in the annals of digital history than a living embodiment will. Jon Kabat-Zinn put it much more concisely: he said, “The dharma can take care of itself. It doesn’t need policing.”
We don’t necessarily think of writing and the printing press as technology, but really that was a technology that changed how Buddhism was disseminated. How is this digital revolution different from previous technological innovations that have impacted the spread of the Buddha’s teaching? The main difference that I see is that with previous revolutions, say with the printing press, we were figuring out how to disseminate the written word more widely. And with the Internet, communication has moved forward in several ways that, taken as a whole, completely change the game. We’ve expanded from the written word to include audio and video. So the media itself is much richer and contains more information. I mean, imagine if Shantideva or Dogen could’ve recorded their teachings on YouTube.
Another difference, perhaps the most important one, is that the information that’s being spread isn’t one-way. It’s not coming from “the one who knows” or the one who’s lucky enough to have access to a communication channel. Instead, it’s coming from all directions at once. So it’s no longer about the dissemination merely of dharmic wisdom, but it’s also about the collective inquiry into what this dharmic wisdom is, what it means, and how to develop it. The Internet has allowed us to engage in a more collective process of awakening by making it possible to instantly—meaning instantaneously, at the speed of light—engage, connect around, and challenge each other’s notions about what Buddhist practice is all about. We’re not just relying on the printing press and a few sacred texts. We now have thousands and tens of thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of sacred texts. And those sacred texts haven’t just been written in the distant past, by people we can no longer meet, but they are being written right now on Twitter and in the blogosphere. And they’re kind of all arising in this broader kind of process, broader space, where we’re all exploring it together.
So, essentially, the Internet has democratized the process, and, as a result, it makes the historical Buddha’s teachings less at the center of things. Some might consider that heretical, but I actually think it’s a really good thing.
Tell me about the Buddhist Geeks Life Retreats. The Life Retreat is a new kind of retreat model that we’re designing specifically with the 21st-century modern technological context in mind. The Life Retreat is a period of intensive practice for anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks that takes your current life situation as the starting point. It’s done completely online using weekly teacher video sessions and peer support, through video chat, to provide regular feedback to help people develop their practice. And unlike a traditional retreat, with the Life Retreat we’re not asking folks to leave their life, to leave their children, their relationships, or their jobs in order to make real progress on their path. That was the main reason we designed it; we felt like while we really loved and appreciated the time we’d spent on retreat, there was still a feeling that that model tended to compartmentalize things into our spiritual lives and our daily lives. We really realized that there was a problem with that compartmentalization, and we wanted to see if there was a different way of doing it. Not completely as an alternative, just as another way of doing it that could utilize some of these emerging technologies.
Buddhist Geeks has come a long way in the past five years. Where do you see the organization being five years from today? Our core question—we call it our “organizational koan”—is how can we serve the convergence of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology in an increasingly global culture? With that question in mind, one area we’re looking at pretty keenly is how we can collaborate with our Asian brothers and sisters in places like India, Singapore, China. Those areas of the world are modernizing really quickly, and they’re facing some of the same issues that we’ve been working with here in the West. If Buddhism is going to really grow up, we think that it’s going to have to move beyond this notion of being either a Western Buddhism or an Eastern Buddhism. We need to recognize that all forms of Buddhism now exist within this global context and increasingly have to understand themselves within this context.
Another area we’d really like to focus on is a new kind of engaged perspective, one that marries contemplative wisdom with compassionate action in the world, but one that’s appropriate to this day and age. What would an engaged, contemplative movement look like that’s not organized around 20th-century forms of activism and localized communities, but instead employs the incredible power of technology and the deep learning of the modern age in a way that has a global scope and impact? Those are the questions we’re asking. Not that we have the answers.