When it comes to leveraging the technologies of our time, Lama Surya Das is one of the most active American Buddhists around. He blogs, tweets, skypes, hosts webinars, and participates in virtual retreats. And yet he acknowledges that if it were completely up to him, he’d be leading meditation retreats in-person and writing books.
We speak with Surya Das on why he has decided to engage these technologies, as opposed to treating them merely as distractions or as “necessary evils,” as so many teachers do. We explore both the upsides and downsides of what he refers to as, “beaming, streaming media.” As he points out during the interview, he feels he has two feet firmly planted in the old tradition, and two feet firmly planted in the new. What happens when someone is immersed in both?
This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Living in Buddha Standard Time.
- The Tao of Twitter: The Spirit in the Machine
- Dzogchen Center
- metaWisdom Dialogues w/ Lama Surya Das
Vincent: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m really excited today. I am joined by Lama Surya Das. Lama Surya Das thank you so much for taking the time to speak with the Buddhist Geeks. You are like one of the biggest geeks out there. So, it’s great to have you on.
Surya Das: Thank you.
Vincent: [Laughs] And just a little bit of introduction so people have a sense of your background and kind of what you’re bringing to the conversation. You are one of the foremost American Lamas in the Buddhist tradition and you’ve helped bring Buddhism to the West in a really big way. You along with several other elder teachers I really consider to be sort of the core elders of the Western Buddhism. Many people probably heard of your books, too. “Awakening the Buddha Within” was one of your bestsellers, and then your most recent one is “The Mind is Mightier than the Sword”, which is a pretty provocative title.
Surya Das: Thank you. I am glad that you appreciate that.
Vincent: You’re also the founder of the Dzogchen Center and Dzogchen Retreats. And I remember hearing an interview that you did with Ken Wilber, and I was shocked to hear that you did nearly three, 3-year retreats back to back to back. I just didn’t know that you had spent so much time on retreat as you were practicing with your first teacher.
Surya Das: Well, I guess I’m a slow learner. I was kind of recidivist.
Vincent: [Laughs] Nice.
Surya Das: It took me a while to get to the point but these days we have Twitter and the new media so we should get enlightened faster, don’t you think so?
Vincent: Yeah I think enlightenment in 140 characters or less, right.
Surya Das: How long does it take to awaken anyway?
Vincent: [Laughs] Good question.
Surya Das: That’s a real question.
Vincent: So, we wanted to talk today about new media. That’s not all but we want to talk about, basically, awakening and contemporary life. And part of that are things like Twitter, and Facebook, and you wrote an article last year called the “The Tao of Twitter”, and I wanted to read just a short little excerpt from it and then also jump in to questions about it.
You wrote that, “The Tao of Twitter is like a stand-up comedian’s good one liner, haiku poetry, and the old fashion singer telegram—rich with the magical power and incandescent immediacy of nowness, which is part and parcel of the power of Tao. This river of participatory being-in-touchiness helps an increasing number to experience being part of an ongoing dialogue. Side by side rather than top down, social network opportunities amplify and strengthen the possibility of virtual community and mass action today; whether for good or ill time will tell.”
So, this is a perspective I don’t really hear many spiritual teachers taking, that these emerging technologies may actually have deep spiritual and practical benefit to humans. That dare we even say they have a strong spiritual component to them. You even go on further in the article to say that, “I believe technology is pure spirit. It is not just a tool but can be a transformative force.” Could you say a little bit more about this perspective that technology isn’t necessarily or automatically a hindrance and a problem to our spiritual lives?
Surya Das: Sure, I’d be glad to. And you read some nice words. I guess I spent some time thinking about that and it came out well. But more off the cuff let’s just take a very prosaic example, Vincent, which everybody can understand and relate to. It’s not very sophisticated, technological, or anything like that. It’s the printing press. That’s basic technology.
Don’t we all agree that the universal literacy and the printing press and the advent of books and news and all…helped humanity develop and help bring about…bring us out of the Dark Ages, and the Reformation, and the Age of Reason, and democracy, that everybody can participate in it and so on. This is spiritual evolution at work.
And many of the things that I hear people saying about technology, they said about the priests with the Pharisees of the time, the status quo, the Catholic Church in Europe for example said they didn’t want the people to able to read. They wanted to have control over the knowledge, the mathematics, the astronomy, the science of economics, the ability to balance the books, the Bible, the truth about heaven and earth and so on.
And I think that that transformative technology was very crucial in bringing about a lot of evolution, worldly evolution and also spiritual evolution to humanity. And similarly, just in my lifetime, which goes back almost to the time before television, I remember I used to listen to Brooklyn Dodger games with my grandfather on the radio in the early 1950s when I was a baby. There was television but we didn’t have it yet. Then we got it. You know, people said, “Oh, television is going to be the end of books and reading,” and so on. It didn’t happen.
Now of course and as an author I am concerned about this but still I think this kind of learning is here to stay, and educational tools—television, film as an art, new media, telecommunications, telephone. In some ways, it’s brought us closer; in other ways, maybe keeps us apart. Nothing is perfect, nothing is either black or white. It depends on how we use these tools and technologies. We could talk about many other examples, but I think that’s a good example.
It’s a little known fact, but book lovers and scholars and historians definitely agree with this. It was not the books that made the printing press and printer successful 500 years ago. It was the ephemera, it was the one page, the short messages, the announcements that bread would be available on Saturday, that taxes would be collected, the indulgences that the Church sold on one pages. The things that printers printed in the thousands are what kept printers in business. Unlike Gutenberg who went out of business with his breakthrough Bible.
So, today, we have ephemera like the blogosphere, the Twittersphere, as I call it, which is not necessarily full of twits. Although twits are everywhere, and I’m a twit, too, at times. But the Twittersphere, these are ephemera. But, as one of my editors, who was very clever, once pointed out, “If you think that your books are going to be in the libraries forever and people are going to find them there, it may be that because of things like Google, that the ephemera and the digitized versions of your work—the blogs, the articles, the essays, the YouTubes—are going to be available and accessed much more in the coming generations by hyperlinking through people’s electronic devices.
So I was very surprised that this has a very interesting educational and consciousness raising, knowledge-based net. Indra’s net effect, everything is instantly connected. People might not be going to libraries. Libraries might not even exist. Who knows, to find my books or anthologies and my essays. Graduate students may not be doing that anymore. They may be Googling it or whatever it is, noodling it or boogling in the next generation. And they may be finding things digitized much quicker in using those things. So, I think there’s an opportunity here for us to use the medium, just as it was used as an educational tool, to use it as a spiritual education for true higher education. Of course, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, who taught me about media in the 60s, and all of us, the medium is also the message. So, this very short and quick means of communicating also has it effects.
So, a short message also can imply a short attention span. It could entrain short attention span. Somebody said we’re losing our IQ through all of this instant messaging and simultaneous multitasking and texting and emailing and cell phoning. I don’t know if that’s been researched and proven yet, but I can almost feel that, because I feel like it scatters my attention, and attention is the essence. So, I think, there’s the upside and the downside to this technology, just like anything else. Today, Buddhist teachers, Yoga teachers, the Jew’s [unintelligible] in Brooklyn have some of the most advanced spiritual websites, religious websites and have, for a decade or more, because they’re very missionary-izing, they’re very proselytizing. So, whether that’s good or bad, it is effective in their context.
So, in this way, I think the tower of Twitter shows us the great Tao flows on and it’s up to us whether we recognize that it’s flowing through us right now. Where we feel like it’s a foreign thing by God up in Heaven that we have to reach and get to later. The immediacy of nowness, the creativity, the juice, the enlivenment. This is the Tao of Twitter.
There are many things that are said that may actually fit in 140 words that have changed the world. Like “Love thy neighbor as thy self”, or some other, what we call pith-instructions in Buddhism. God is within everyone, all men…all people are created equal. So, I try to, especially, to meet the young people because that’s where young people live. Be a little bit on the Net, although my natural inclination is more with my meditations and retreats and workshops and person-to-person spiritual teaching and writing books and essays and doing in-depth interviews.
But still, as I learned when I had some bestsellers and I was in TV and radio quite a bit, you can say a lot in a 3-minute or 5-minute interview on TV. I was on Stephen Colbert Show twice, they do 6-minute author segments. I got to say what I wanted to say, and it was a whole different audience. I felt very good about that. So I think that like any tool, technology is a tool, the new media is a tool. How we use it, where we’re coming from, what our intention is makes all the difference. We can use it wisely or foolishly. We can become addicts or we can become adepts at it.
Vincent: And I noticed, just following you on Twitter, you’re starting to do some pretty innovative things, I’d say, with Twitter. You’ve got this whole “Ask the Lama” segment that you do, where people will tweet in questions and you’ll sort of answer them in a blog-type format. What else are you doing, and what kinds of things are you finding helpful, being a teacher of dharma online?
Surya Das: That’s a good question; I’m glad you appreciate that. When people ask me what I’m doing on the social network I usually say, “nothing,” because it’s my younger assistants and friends and students who are always asking me to do that, and sort of do it. But, I’m kind of like the content provider and a little bit of the idea man, so, as I get so many questions, I used to have an “Ask the Lama” column weekly and then monthly at Beliefnet.com, the spiritual portal.
Just recently, we realized that the social networking space is a good place for that, and to try to foment more public discussion, which is about things I think are important, whether it’s to just recommend a good book or movie or URL to go to, today, now, or to put out something provocative or informative or interesting to help seed public discussion and further reflection; kind of to help gather the community of spirits that I’d like to, myself, be part of; to connect the dots of all the similarly-seeking people out there. It’s a beautiful community. There’s a lot of people seeking in this way, out there.
So besides the Ask the Lama column, I’m sending out words of wisdom weekly to my Dzogchen Center; you can find it at my Dzogchen.org website. I’m trying to do YouTubes and streaming dharma teachings, webinars and podcasts. I do quite a few interviews with different teachers and celebrities. I mean, I used to interview people myself, but now people interview me like you’re interviewing me, so I just let that happen.
I have some other ideas but I don’t want to get into that right now, but I’m thinking that there should be a way that we can meditate together online, perhaps using Skype, perhaps in real time. You know? Like one day, some good advertising executive said, “Why do we have all these magazine ads for perfumes, but you can’t smell anything? Let’s make a scratch-and-sniff page!”
Surya Das: Well, I keep poking my technical committee, and also my nephew, who knows everything, according to him. Why don’t we have, like, not just gong sounds coming out of the iPod now, as an app, but why can’t we have, like, the smell of incense coming out, or some other sensory enhancements that help us be in the sacred space right now? And I think the immediacy and nowness of the online world could help us do that. I’m not very familiar with Second Life. I heard about it; my buddy Mitch Kapor keeps telling me I should be there. I know there’s a lot of porn action there, but there’s also a lot of other opportunities.
Surya Das: And I think, how can we get people together online to do something deeper than just exchange quips and 140-word bursts—140-character bursts, like on Twitter, or Facebook? MySpace is better for musicians, they tell me. I don’t know why that is. But I’m thinking about this; how can I get together with people who want to get together with somebody like me in the spirit, and have chanting, and smell, and feel something, and learn something, and grow deeper and more beautiful together? I think this is an opportunity here.
Vincent: Yeah, absolutely.
Surya Das: [inaudible] challenge. Like, I don’t really know if it’s good to get people more glued to their work site and their laptop. That’s a question I have.
Vincent: Yeah. That’s a great question, and, I guess, following up on that, I just sort of make the observation that as the internet’s evolved, it seems to be becoming more and more integrated with life—more and more lifelike, I guess I would say. You know, Skype video just burst onto the scene a couple years ago, and it’s amazing chatting with people. We were just chatting with each other a minute ago, and you’re in Massachusetts; I’m here in North Carolina. That’s so much more lifelike than the telephone would be, and I’m wondering: do you think that trend’s going to continue, where things are going to become, as you’re saying, more and more sensual, more and more sensory realism? And if so, does that mean that—I just want to put this in a provocative way—does that mean that, sort of, local sanghas, in a certain way, are dead?
Surya Das: No, no. Local is never dead. You know, it’s like, world trade doesn’t mean that local products, local food, or local festivals, or local life is dead. I doubt that virtual sex—I hate to talk about sex to a spiritual guy like you, Vincent…
Surya Das: But, you know, I doubt that sex is ever going to be replaced by virtual sex, and I’m not waiting for research to confirm that guess. What do you think?
Vincent: You know what? I’m going to wait and see. [Laughs]
Surya Das: OK. Well, as the Dalai Lama said, seriously—and I’m a guy who knows what the Dalai Lama says; I’m not saying I heard this on the internet and it may be not true. Somebody asked the Dalai Lama at a science conference if a person could be reborn as a computer, and he thought about it seriously. He’s a very science-minded person. He said, Why not? If a consciousness could attach to the body of a person or of an animal, which is made up of the basic elements of earth, water, air, wind, and fire, that’s what a computer is made up of, more or less, is his thinking, Buddhist thinking, so why not?
So, I think anything’s possible. I think that, yes, the virtual world, the virtual space is becoming more integrated with life. I think now it’s in its infancy, or young teen years, perhaps. Only hindsight would tell, in a few hundred years, you know, but it’s like the early days of TV, maybe, in the ’50s; first there was black-and-white, then there was color. You know, we’re just getting the different dimensions, like you mentioned Skyping. I love seeing my grandnephew who’s six months old in New York on Skype. This is a lot better than talk on the phone and having him say gah-gah. Right? He can’t talk on the phone, except make a few sounds. I can talk to him; I don’t know if he’s understanding. But now, with Skype, people are seeing their grandchildren—I’m just using that as an example; it could be whoever—or their pets when they travel on business. They’re tuning in across the globe, not just from me here in Massachusetts to New York, where my family of origin is, but people are seeing their family or other people or the gurus or whatever across the globe, and this is a beautiful thing. Of course, not going to replace face-to-face contact, I’m sure.
I do think that there’s an opportunity for drawing closer together, and on the other hand, we could blow it. You know, we could end up being like people who just stay in their cubicle or apartment all the time and live in virtual community, and have no personal friends or contact, order all their food delivered that way through the internet, and don’t really have much face time or human contact. There are some people like that, and they’re welcome to live like that. I’m just saying that that’s not how most of us want to, or are going to, live and flourish. So, this is an augmentation to our real life. This is part of real life. There’s no point in saying that media’s not real life.
When I talk to my mother on the phone it’s just like being with her and seeing her. That’s as real as it gets. I don’t have to be there in person. I see her and she sees me, even without the Skype, you know what I’m saying? So, there’s an opportunity here. That’s what I’m saying, for spiritual teachers, for wise elders, for activists, for intelligent leaders—I like what Barack Obama’s campaign did through the internet—fundraising, and connecting, and raising community activists and workers, volunteers, through the internet. There’s an opportunity here to use it for positive educational consciousness-raising purposes. If we could be mindful and reflective about it, not just always rushing for what’s new, but also trying to get better and more skillful with what we already have, that would be helpful. New is not necessarily better. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here for education. Think about the large number of population who are or are going to be, perhaps, more house-bound as the huge number of baby boomers—that huge number in the bell curve—I think it’s like 80,000,000 baby boomers going to old age, and how, without being able to travel as much, they can do a lot more through the internet.
Let’s just talk about my field, spiritually speaking. Beaming, streaming media, and so forth. Shut-ins. Teenagers, or 10, 12, or 15-year-olds who can’t go out at night to hear a lecture, the kind of lecture I give in cities, but they can maybe do it online. So I’m doing my Meta Wisdom calls free online now with my colleague Kevin Buck in California, and we do it virtually through Maestro Conference and so on. That’s available at metawisdom.com if you want to look us up. That’s another initiative; you asked about new initiatives, Vincent.
Surya Das: So people don’t always have to travel to a weekend workshop or a one-night lecture. People can do it without going anywhere— you know, all the virtues of telecommunications and the new technology. So, some of the most traditional Buddhist teachers I know—not just the American Buddhist teachers who are good at this, like Genpo Roshi or Eckhart Tolle, the Dalai Lama’s people, Mingyur Rinpoche—people are doing streaming media. Tricycle Magazine has online retreats they just started this year. We used to have online seminars; now they’re called online retreats, and they’re enhanced. I don’t know if it’s a real retreat, but it’s a good effort to bring people into the retreat space online. So things are evolving in this direction, and everything is improvisational. This is a new frontier. It’s just like Eastern thought and Buddhist dharma in the West. It’s sort of a new frontier, it’s improvisational. We have one foot firmly planted in the Old World in tradition, and one foot firmly planted in the new. In fact, I would say I feel like I’ve two feet firmly planted in the old tradition and world, and two feet firmly planted in the new, and this feels good, not schizoid, in any way.
There’s many people I never see anymore around the world who I’m in better contact with because of the new media—email and Twitter and cell phones, because I don’t get to Tibet or Nepal or China or Europe, as much as I used to. Some of the other gurus, some of the great gurus use cell phones, and this technology also. So, it’s not just some kind of bad habit or worldly indulgence or I don’t know what. You know, as we say in Buddhism, it’s not that money is the root of all evil, it’s not that sex or the others, women are the root of all evil. Ignorance, and not knowing what reality, that’s the root of all evil. And this is just part of modern reality. Technology is a tool, that’s probably the good definition of technology. Tools and the better tools.
Now, the question of it fracturing our attention in training, and ADD, an attention-deficit disorder kind of generation, that’s an interesting question and I think has to be entertained. Maybe we need to bring a little moderation or discipline into our online habits. Like my nephew, who’s 28 years old, in New York, a college graduate, a radio producer, he tells me proudly, “Uncle Surya, I never read a whole book.” I say, “Lonnie, is that good? How did you get through college?” He says, “Cliff notes and book flaps.” I said, “Holy crap!” “I was online 17 hours yesterday, I’m not missing anything. I get the news and sports and everything that way.” I said, “Holy Crap! Is that good? Seventeen hours online? It sounds like you’re kind of a nerd, glued to the boob tube of the laptop?” So, I don’t know, it’s a new era.
Vincent: Yeah. It’s an interesting question, too, because there seems to be, in some ways, these dichotomies that people often consider when they think of technology and maybe spiritual practice. Like, one dichotomy I’m thinking of is the recognition of timelessness, and the speeding up and acceleration of time in the technology world, like you’re mentioning. And then the other is attention, which you mentioned, there’s the unification of attention in the Buddhist tradition, and then there’s the fragmentation of attention that you’re mentioning. And it seems like, on the one hand, there are these dichotomies, but on the other hand, what I hear you pointing to is something that brings them together or, there’s some way in which those dichotomies aren’t completely real. It seems like a paradox, of sorts.
Surya Das: It is a paradox, and life is paradoxical. But, a wise man said, and it’s common knowledge, it might have been John Keats—it doesn’t matter—that if we want to open and enlarge our minds, we need to be able to embrace or hold two paradoxical ideas in the mind, at the same time. So, it’s clear to me, and it’s also part of Buddhist nondual mystical thinking, to recognize distinctions but also see the unity in it. Like yin and yang and then the wholeness of it, the sacred third, that is, the two together. Like two people make a sacred third that is the sacred couple, and so on.
So, we think so, dichotomously, Vincent, the mind, the bifurcating intellect likes to make two, and then it’s easier to decide this or that, things are good or bad. But as we know, if we think about it, if we’re grown up, if we’re intelligent, it’s very hard to say anything’s unequivocally good and bad. Life doesn’t take place in the black and white areas. There’s a whole specter in between, not just grace, a whole rainbow of colors and possibilities.
I think we have to start to see that technology and many things, including oneself, is neither good nor bad. There’s a lot to be learned here, and acceptance goes a long way towards the transformation. Radical acceptance has its own transformative magic. So, it’s not really important whether I think I’m good or bad, that’s just the level of concept. There’s a much deeper truth about beingness and isness that we can’t really catch by trying to decide if we’re good or bad. You know, is milk good or bad? If a baby falls into a pot of milk and drowns. Milk. Bad. Too much of a good thing could be bad. Is arsenic good or bad? Or nitroglycerin? I think these things are used as medicines for the heart and so on. Because things are not just what they seem to be. In the right context, things can be very different than we perceive them usually, so I think we can learn to open our minds a little. Like in Buddhist logic, things don’t just exist as they seem to. They’re not nonexistent, they’re not both existent and nonexistent, and they’re not neither. It’s not just that either everything exists or doesn’t exist. So when we start to open our mind to the both/and, like things can be both good and bad. Maybe I’m ambivalent, maybe things are ambiguous, maybe I have a love/hate relationship with somebody or something. A life can become much more rich.
So not trying to land on one side or the other can help us to explore much deeper, different levels, including intuitive levels and you know, more integrated levels, not just conceptual thinking level of reality. And for this, Eastern thought, meditation and yoga, samadhi, working on our attention… Spirituality is an inside job. Even if we talk about God, I’ll still say it’s an inside job. The godhead, the Buddha-ness, is within us. Then that’s the place to look. Not just within me: within everyone, within everything. Looking deeper.
I would say that although at first I resisted the technology, and sometimes I find it a distraction, if I’m not a little disciplined about the email habits, the amount of time on-line. I’m not such a big web surfer, but it’s like watching television. You can get a little lost there. It’s a good thing to watch on television, but you can get a little lost if you just stay on it and laze about too long, drifting and channel surfing indefinitely. You can dissipate your energy online also. But I think the online world has helped enhance my writing and communications. For me, writing and teaching is a seamless whole, and it’s leveraged the resource.
One can’t go around everywhere and meet everybody, but we can send out the invitation and let people know what’s available, and people can access it today a lot more equally and democratically. And also, let’s look at the free aspects. There’s a lot of people who can access this information free, who can’t maybe buy books. Perhaps they don’t have laptops, but they can get online in libraries if they’re poor, in certain places or countries. There’s a lot of opportunities today through this new media and new technology, and I hope the spiritual teachers will take more advantage of it, and not just avoid it as if it’s some kind of distraction.
All kinds of spiritual teachers and masters use technology, anyway. They use planes, and cars, and wristwatches, and the surgical tools, and electric toothbrushes. So why not? Why not whatever the next thing is, not just the blogosphere and the Twittersphere, and the cell phone, but whatever’s next, if it’s useful? Not everybody has to use it: if it’s useful to some. Some people have a techno-personality, or are communicators. That’s fine. Others are more contemplative. That’s fine.
The spiritual technologies are also technologies. Prayer and meditation and yoga—so many of these things are inner sciences, inner technologies, tried and true technologies, and spiritual traditions all use them. So maybe we could just think that some of these things we’re talking about are more like the new outer technologies. Technology has always been part of the spiritual traditions.