BG 155: The Dharma of Second Life

Episode Description:

This week we’re joined by Zen teacher Jiun Foster, who is actively involved in teaching dharma in the virtual world of Second Life. We speak with him about what it’s like being a participant in Second Life, and what the limitations and strengths of Second Life are, compared to other social media technologies.

Finally, we patch in Adam Tebbe, the wizard behind the curtain, to share some details of the organization he helped start, that is responsible for getting so many good dharma teachers onto Second Life.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vince Horn, and I’m joined today over Skype, in the Interwebs, with Jiun Foster. Jiun, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Jiun: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Vince: Yeah. It’s a rare treat too, because you just told me that you’ve been, actually listening to Buddhist Geeks since, I think, like, episode three. So, one of the few. [laughs]

Jiun: Yeah. It’s been a pleasure listening to your program evolve. And, now, of course, you guys have all of the new ventures lining up. So, I’m excited about those things; waiting for the digital magazine.

Vince: Cool. Cool. Thank you. So, we wanted to speak with you today about a topic we’ve been, really, interested at doing at some point, but, just, the stars didn’t line up properly until today. And so we wanted to speak with you about Second Life and dharma. And, I think, this is going to be really interesting, because you’re one of the, kind of, pioneers who have been teaching dharma in the Second Life virtual world. And we’ll get into that more.

But, just a little background. So, you are the dharma holder of the Five Mountain Zen order and you’re also the abbot of a newly forming group in Cincinnati. What are the web sites for the Cincinnati group, just so people can go check it out if they’re in the area?

Jiun: Sure, actually, it pretty simple. It’s So it’s all strung together like one word.

Vince: Nice. And, there’s also going to be information on there for the stuff you do in Second Life, which would apply to, pretty much, everyone.

Jiun: Right. Absolutely. A whole page dedicated to that.

Vince: Perfect. Perfect. So. Yeah. Jumping right into Second Life. So you’ve been, recently, and for a while, I guess, offering talks and leading group meditations and even doing one-on-one interviews with people in Second Life, which is, basically, a kind of virtual online world, where people walk around, kind of, with avatars, their virtual selves. You, actually, have a dedicated space there, that you’ve been teaching at, called the Second Life Zendo. And, I was wondering if we could start there, just by exploring, maybe, what it’s like just being a participant who comes onto Second Life to practice with you. What’s that experience like?

Jiun: Well, I’m, sort of, speculating since I’ve only been on my end. But, if what they experience is anything like what I experienced when I started off, you know, it’s a little weird at first. There are a lot of video gameishness aspects to this, and it takes some getting used to. There’s, kind of, a technical learning curve there.

I was fortunate enough to have somebody hold my hand at the very beginning, even to the point of creating a skin, an avatar that looks like me, and saying, here, you go login as this and we’ll take you to your place. So that was great. Without that, I think, well, it can be strange. People seem to warm up to it though, fairly quickly. I’ve had a number of people check it out for the first time, a number of our local students and some of our seminary students have logged in to check it out. We’re planning on doing some of our coursework in Second Life, as well, now. But the experiences have been positive, so far.

Vince: Nice. And, it’s, kind of, interesting, the Zendo, actually, in Second Life, sort of looks like a real Zendo.

Jiun: Yeah. It took us some time. There are a number of Buddhist themed temples and Zendos in our general area. There’s a Nichiren Yu temple, which looks like a traditional Japanese temple. It’s gorgeous. Yeah, I mean, even down to the landscaping outside. Boundless Way Zen, James Ford’s group, has a Zendo there which is this just this sort of lovely open air structure. It’s on an island in the middle of an ocean. So, you’ve got waves crashing around. It’s very dramatic. Our Zendo is a little tame compared to both of those. But, it’s still really very nice. It’s one of the really cool things about Second Life. You’re really only limited by your imagination. A lot of Zendos here in North America turn out to be rehabbed houses that people have re-purposed for a Zendo. Whereas, in Second Life, you know, we’ve got this amazing two story structure. Something that we would love to be able to build, physically. Whereas, there, it just took talking with somebody who knew what they were doing and, kind of, describing what we wanted, and fifteen minutes later, there’s a building.

Vince: Wow. That’s cool. And people actually sit on digital zafus and zabutons, right?

Jiun: They do. Yeah. You walk in, you know, it’s set up to be as simple as possible. It’s, kind of, a one click process. In Second Life, everybody can do full lotus. You know, that’s, kind of, cool.

Vince: Nice.

Jiun: You know, I’ve often wondered, at times, if during our meditation periods, people kind of click to sit down and then mute their microphone and get up and go watch TV or vacuum or whatever it is they have to do.

Now, honestly, I think people, people really enjoy this. You know, there are a lot of people who are interested in the Dharma that want to practice, that want access to teachers and to a Sangha. And usually for reasons of geography, they just don’t have that. But now, if they have access to the Internet, they can log in and not only can they interact with a supportive Sangha, but they can have access to Korean Zen teachers, Japanese Sotos Zen teachers, Japanese Nichiren teachers, Tibetan, Theravada, you know all of this stuff. And as more and more guest teachers come into speak, some kind of big name people that you might otherwise only be able to read their book in Barnes & Noble or something, but now you can sit down and receive live Dharma talks, do interviews. It’s amazing what this technology has opened up as far as possibilities.

Vince: And how would you compare, because I’m sure you’ve used some of these other virtual technologies like email and video chatting and social networking and all these sorts of things, how would you compare kind of the advantages and disadvantages of Second Life as a unique medium to these other types of mediums online?

Jiun: I think it has mostly advantages which is why we’re really focusing on it now. The biggest disadvantage, I think, is just the initial learning curve and getting off of Noob Island.

Vince: Yes.

Jiun: Beyond that though, it’s pretty straight forward, especially if you can connect with somebody right away that says, “Here you go. Do this.” and spends, maybe, 15 minutes with you getting the basics down. We’ve tried Skype video calling before which is great for one on one, you know, especially for interviews and things like that where you can see the person directly. We’ve tried to email. Then, our seminary has an online moodle site, you know, for a lot of our course interactions.

But the biggest advantage that I found with Second Life is that it gives you the audio communication with a large group of people and the visual component, I think, I really underestimated it at first when I agreed to do my first talk. People really identify not only with their own avatars, but with the other people around them. You know, when we have a class or a Dharma talk and there’s the instructor or the Dharma teacher or whatever sitting up in front, and here the people are sitting over here, the interaction, after a few minutes even for first time users, it almost becomes second nature. You know you really are sitting there interacting with these other people. You know, it’s very immersive. And I think, for something like this, the more we can take away that level of artificiality of that, I’m sitting here at my keyboard starring at a computer screen, and the more we can encourage that direct communication between the teacher, the student, the other students to each other, the better. And Second Life is really surprisingly good at doing that. I was really impressed the moment I logged in and had somebody spend that first 15 minutes with me saying, “This is how you move,” you know. I still bump into things every now and then, but, you know, that’s alright.

Vince: [laughs] Nice, not unlike real life, right?:

Jiun: Yep, exactly. Yeah.

Vince: Nice. Now, one thing I thought would be interesting to ask is now having been familiar for a while with Second Life, even though you’re still bumping into things a little, would you ever consider doing like a longer retreat, like a weekend Sesshin or weeklong Sesshin or something more intensive on there?

Jiun: You know, that would be tricky. I think there’s an aspect to all retreats that you really can’t replicate in an online environment. And that’s sort of the pressure cooker effect of being in sort of this closed environment, mostly silent, interacting with these other people, getting up early. You know, there are parts of it you can do, and I’m sure it’s possible. But, it certainly wouldn’t be the same. Whereas like a Dharma talk, that, I would almost say, there’s a close one to one comparison: interviews, not quite as good as being right there with somebody. There are some limitations. For a longer retreat, it would take some coordinating. And, honestly, I hadn’t really considered it until you asked me the question. And now, now you’ve got my mind turning. And I’m thinking, “You know, maybe, we could.”

Vince: [laughs]

Jiun: I know Jundo Cohen has done some similar things…

Vince: Uh huh.

Jiun: …with his group. And I’m not sure what technology they use. In fact, he’s been in Second Life. He did a Dharma talk in Second Life not too long ago. You know, I think it could be done. Now that you’ve got me thinking about it, yea, I’m considering it.

Vince: Very cool, very cool, well we’ll have to get you back on if you do end up trying something like that to see how the experiment goes, if you do it.

Jiun: Yea, I’ve actually, I’ve had a number of people talk to me about doing ceremonies online, I guess Jundo Collin did the first ever online Jukai precept ceremony, and I believe they did that with a number of like Skype and U-Stream, a number of video calling technologies, so I’m thinking about talking to him about what he thinks of coordinating something like that in Second Life. Because, ultimately I don’t think, especially with a Mahayana based precept ceremony, where you know, you’re looking at the bodhisattva precepts, I don’t think there would be any real problem with that. That’s something that we’re kind of thinking about doing.

Vince: Very cool, thank you. It’s interesting to hear about all the things happening in Second Life. It’s definitely exciting me because I want to go in there and finally get off new Noob Island and check it out!

Cool, so moving forward, we wanted to actually conference in another person, Adam Tebbe, who is the person kind of behind all of these different Zen teachers, including you getting on Second Life. He’s the one who kind of helped you out like you mentioned. So we’re going to patch him in, here in a moment and him about his organization Kannonji.

Jiun: Ok.

Vince: Adam, are you there?

Adam: Hello! Thank you Vince.

Vince: Hey, absolutely! Glad we could patch you in, and wanted to ask you a quick question. This is Adam Tebbe, by the way, he’s the person that kind of put together this organization called Kannonji, and he’s the one who’s been kind of helping different Zen teachers get online. You’ve got your own island in Second Life, is that right?

Adam: Yes, that’s correct.

Vince: Ok cool, so you’re the kind of evil wizard behind this whole thing?

Adam: Yes, I wave my wand and something manifests right before me, it’s really fun.

Vince: Nice, nice.

Jiun: Yeah, when I had mentioned the somebody coming in, and fifteen minutes later there’s a building, Adam is that somebody.

Vince: Nice, the wizard. Cool, so I was wondering if you could tell me then a little bit about Kannonji, how did it start, and what is kind of your main vision behind it?

Adam: Sure, we started October of last year, and it was originally just a place for people who were, because I noticed there were a lot of people in Second Life that were interested in Buddhism. So we started it as just a place for people to come, and yes virtually meditate, but hopefully also taking the time to meditate at home as well. At the same time, you know there’s no way to check that. And I went for a good eight months doing that, and I got really tired of it. Because actually it was just me running the place. And we went ahead and switched recently to get it group owned, and now there’s like twenty different group owners, and all kinds of people that volunteer to run these meditation times, so it runs much smoother. But I took time off from Second Life, because I didn’t see the point really. And I started the website,, and it was through there that I was interviewing different Zen teachers, and I realized, “Hey you know, maybe I could start inviting these people to come to Second Life and give some talks to people.” Because there were always people in Second Life who were representing themselves as a Buddhist teacher, but you know that they were full of crap. So that was a big problem. And so I wanted, since there were people that were looking for that, I wanted to give them the opportunity to meet people that actually were who they say they are. So that’s the idea behind it all, and we’re just looking to carry it through with teachers from all different traditions. Theravadan, Tibetan traditions, Zen traditions obviously, so we don’t want to be sectarian in the way we do this.

Vince: Very cool, and for people who want to find out more about it, I know you have a schedule of the different things happening in Second Life on your website, what is the website for Kannonji?


Vince: Ok, and it’s K-A-N-N-O-N-J-I?

Adam: Correct, yes.

Vince: Ok, great. Ok, cool so, go check it out. And go listen to Jiun Foster give a Dharma talk in Second Life, and check out his very life-like Avatar.

Jiun: Absolutely, looks just like me… twenty years ago.

Vince: Cool, and thank you Adam for join us, I really appreciate you sharing a little bit.

Thanks for inviting me.


Jiun Foster