Senior Shambhala teacher David Nichtern joins us to geek out about some of the potential consequences of our rapidly developing technologies on the Vajrayana tradition. We speak extensively about the ramifications of greater degrees of virtual reality, how our sense experiences (what in Buddhism are referred to as the ayatanas) are already virtual, and how visualization practice, in particular, could be impacted by these developments. We also speak about the importance of “authentic presence”–or what David’s son Ethan calls “Keepin’ in Real”–as Buddhism moves forward into future generations.
- Karma Choling
- The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil
- Tibetan Buddhism’s Insights Into Virtual Reality
Vincent: Hello Buddhist Geeks, this is Vincent Horn. And I’m joined today over Skype–we’re actually trying Skype video for the first time. We’ve tried it a couple of times before but sometimes it degrades. Today we’ll see how it works. But we’re joined today from New York with David Nichtern. David, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with the Buddhist Geeks.
David: It’s wonderful to be talking to Buddhist Geeks. I could do it all day.
Vincent: And I can tell from your glasses that you are yourself a Buddhist geek.
David: I am a Buddhist Geek, and then some.
Vincent: [laughs] And then some. Exactly.
And just a little bit of background information for those people that aren’t familiar with your work. You’re a senior Shambhala teacher, and you’re also a musician. And one of your interests I know because you’ve been involved with Chogyam Trungpa’s teachings and he was your first teacher I guess. And you’ve been involved with the Shambhala teachings for a long time now. And I know one of your interests is what’s the relevance of Buddhism today? What’s the relevance of these teachings in our time, our place?
And I want to just start off with a question for you about Buddhism taking root in the West. And it’s seem pretty clear that is taking root in a situation that’s very complex. One of the people we interviewed, a guy named Roger Walsh, he pointed out that this is the first time that Buddhism has crossed epochs, not just cultures, but it’s gone from an agricultural epoch to a post-industrial one. And I find that really fascinating. And I wondered if you could just say a little bit as a long time teacher and a student of American BuddhaDharma, how you’re making sense of Buddhism as it takes root here in the West?
David: Right. And the larger topic of that would be “What is the relevance of anything?”
Vincent: Of course in the West we’ve got ask that question too, right?
David: Then this would be a subset of that as far as I’m concerned.
David: But just to keep it personal for a minute we just at Karme Choling, which is our residential center up in Vermont for the Shambhala community, had our 40th anniversary. And I was there for the first one. So it marked for me personally 40 years of active involvement with that. And it also was a look back, a very natural time to look back, of course I was three years old at the time, just in case you wanted to now.
David: No, but seriously I was in my early 20s. And looking back over these last 40 years I sort of… I think developed some kind of perspective of what has happened because that was really close to the beginning of an onset of Buddhist teachings becoming much better known in the West. There are a number of teachers who came over then that were absolutely instrumental in terms of planting the seed, you know Johnny BuddhaSeed you could call it at that time. Suzuki Roshi from the Zen school and of course some Theravada teachers and Trungpa Rinpoche was a major teacher, but there were also others. So it’s a very interesting view to look back before you look forward.
Vincent: Definitely. Having looked back and forward now what kinds of things are you seeing?
David: Well, either way you look what I see is the importance of personal inspiration. And if you look at Trungpa Rinpoche for example, as… You can look at him in a wide variety of ways but one way you can look at him is he was tremendously personally inspired, even in the face of the adversity, challenge, uncertainty, those kinds of things. That is the main thing that magnetized students to him. The level of inspiration. And inspiration leads to a certain kind of a magnetic field of attraction. And when people have that it’s because they are really living very fully right in their own time. That’s what I think the issue is. And of course that’s what Buddhism says. People can say that without doing it as we all know.
Vincent: And have you found there are certain things now that you touch in to that are really inspiring for you that maybe you were different say even 40 years ago?
David: Yes. For one thing I don’t know exactly how old you are for example, but my son Ethan is very prominent in this whole dialogue that is going on, Ethan Nichtern.
Vincent: Yes, definitely.
David: So he is 32, and I’m very exposed to that crowd of people and they very much remind me of our crowd of people in a lot of ways, like I think including you right off the bat. And so that is a feeling of very positive configuration of what people are interested in, how they’re conducting themselves, what they’re willing to give up to learn new things. So that’s very inspiring to me, as frankly I like teaching, and I teach as you know on the Yoga studio in the Yoga world quite a lot and there’s a lot of people of that elk there too. And I feel very comfortable and home with that crowd. So I think just the energy and enthusiasm of people coming to it, and if I could sum it up in a couple of words it’s their desire to be genuine. That’s the most powerful force. As Ethan would say, “keeping it real.”
Vincent: Interesting. So genuineness or authenticity or something about keeping it real. Can you expound on that a little bit, because that’s really fascinating.
David: Yeah, and of course any of these things you can find corollaries in the Buddhist teachings. Like in the Shambhala teachings, there’s a term “authentic presence”, that great teachers have a lot of that and great people have a lot of that. It’s a sense of almost worn-in genuineness, where it becomes like good leather when you’ve kind of worn it in significantly, and you feel that coming from the person. You’re not going to shake them so easily from what they’re coming across with. It’s not a superficial presentation. They even say, in the Buddhist teachings, “wang dbang”–it’s a field, an empowerment field of authentic presence. So there’s a feeling that somebody who has that, like, who’s practiced quite a lot, or has lived quite deeply, that they have that, and that it’s very magnetizing to other people. It’s like a deeper version of charisma.
Vincent: So it’s not just the normal charisma of “this person seems like they’re glowing”. But it’s something far deeper, it sounds like.
David: Yeah. Authentic presence. I mean, it’s a quality of presence that comes from authenticity. And, frankly, as people come and that’s what they would like to explore and look into, then there’s tremendous ground for communicating and working with people.
Vincent: That’s interesting, and it sounds like that way in is maybe a different door than, for instance, the traditional one of exploring suffering. I mean, obviously those are connected…
Vincent: …but I wonder if you could say a little bit, because they sound like different doorways into Buddhism or into practice.
David: It would totally include suffering, because in terms of living authentically or keeping it real, there is obviously, if somebody is not relating to the quality of suffering and any confusion they might have, or any pain they might have, that right away limits, it’s like putting a limiter on what can be expressed, what can be talked about. You know it as well as I, it’s what Trungpa Rinpoche calls “spiritual materialism”. You don’t want to deal with that stuff. You want it to be nice and pretty and, you know, looking good.
Vincent: It’s like the fake version of keeping it real. [laughs]
David: [laughs] Yeah. Exactly. Keeping it unreal.
Vincent: [laughs]. Cool, and you know one thing that you brought up as we started this interview, before we launched in, is that you’ve been thinking a lot about and talking a lot about technology, virtual reality. I saw you wrote a post on the Huffington Post about virtual reality in Tibetan Buddhism, and I wanted to explore that with you a little, because that’s a really geeky topic and one that I think would be close to the minds and hearts of geeks everywhere.
David: Yeah. Well, again, from a purely Buddhist, traditional way of looking at something, and I’m sure you would have this in your tradition too, we have what’s called the six sense consciousnesses, right? So the first five of those are the sense perceptions. They’re called, in Sanskrit, ayatana, the ayatanas. So it would be the eye, the ear, nose, taste, and touch, right? And it would include… each one of us has three contacts. The sense organ itself is one. The object of the perception, so, in other words, if you’re talking about the eye consciousness, it would be the eyeball itself and the mechanism of that. Me looking at you right now, you would be the object of that sense field. And the third one is the consciousness that occurs between the object and the sensor. So that gives you at least 15 ayatanas to talk about. And then you would have mind, consciousness, which is the sixth one, which sort of, at least the way I studied it, functions as a kind of switchboard. It’s sort of interpolating between those sense perceptions.
Now the important thing is that in Vajrayana Buddhism, those sense fields have a very important role. They’re not looked at as a kind of troublesome situation at all. They’re looked at as, in fact, the Buddha fields themselves are the sense perceptions. So what you’re seeing is already sacred world. What you’re hearing is already sacred. It’s inherently so. And so we don’t try to shut those down and go to some other spiritual domain.
Vincent: How do you see that connecting with so-called “virtual reality”?
David: Well, this makes it very easy, because where is the input coming from? That’s all you really have to know. Now, right now, for example, you appear to be sitting in this room with me. On some level. And the reason is because two of my ayatanas are completely engaged with your location. One is my sight, I’m seeing you visually, and the other is I’m hearing your voice. So to a very considerable extent we have achieved 40 percent virtual reality in this very conversation.
David: It’s 40 percent virtual. I can’t smell you, I can’t taste you, I can’t touch you.
Vincent: Probably lucky on two of those counts.
David: And those are the earthier ones too.
Vincent: Yes, Yes.
David: Right so that’s where the whole earthiness comes into play–the grounded quality. But if you are able to as a lot of people are talking about simply bypass my sense organ and the visual input came directly into my brain as my eye output goes directly into my brain, then we’d be one step closer to what obviously traditionally is called virtual reality.
And there is no doubt in my mind that we are on the verge of that. And what I could bet on and would bet on within five years from now that the access to the Internet that you and I are sharing right now will be on board on the human being in some way, shape or form, either some kind of implant, or a headset that you can put on. And the way I thought of it yesterday is would be like having the TV on the background, which we almost always do now. You would just have the Internet in the background, you can bring it in the foreground as you want to access whatever information, communication you wanted. Now that’s once step sure to full-on virtual reality but that’s coming. Do you think so?
Vincent: Oh man, I was just thinking, I feel like it almost already here with my iPhone.
David: Yeah exactly. If you see the iPhone with the eye of the future you see it already, it’s already implied in it.
Vincent: Interesting and this brings up all sorts of questions about the ramifications of that development for the things we’ve been talking about, keeping it real, genuineness, the development of some of these qualities of the heart, and things that Buddhism has traditionally been aiming at. What are the ramifications of this? I mean one thing that comes to mind is we’re no longer limited to where we geographically live in terms of our study and practice of these things. Like are there other things that come to mind?
David: Oh, it goes… I think it goes well beyond that. I think one of the implications is a diorama opening up. There’s multi-dimensionality to communication, three or even four dimensions, so you’re talking to people remote in time and space, and you’re talking to more than one at a time. So it would be closer to vipassana than shamatha. If you look at it in Buddhist terms. Anybody who is practicing vipassana is not doing it one thing at a time already.
Vincent: Tuning into a lot of things.
David: Reading, you notice the thought. You notice an itch on your leg. You notice somebody sneezing across the room. You have a sense of the space in the meditation hall, the space outside the meditation hall. So vipassana to me is already a sense of panoramic awareness. And obviously the practices go beyond that to definitely being aware of let’s say different energetic aspects of what’s going on. So I think this is just in keeping with who we are, and I don’t think of it as a very big deal.
Vincent: One thing that when I think of as Ray Kurzweil calls it, full immersion virtual reality, when I think of that as a prospect, I think of normally I go to retreat centers like Spirit Rock or Insight Meditation Society. And I go and there is this amazing aesthetic, and there is this amazing feel of community, but it takes so much time and energy to get there. And for a lot of people that’s not a possibility. I was just imagining how easier it would be for practice communities to come together. For instance there’s a community in Second Life right now, it’s a little virtual zendo and…
David: You’re kidding. Wow.
Vincent: Yeah. It’s really fascinating to go in there and you have your little avatar. It’s much different than being really somewhere. But there’s something in it; the boundaries just feel like they’ve dropped away in some sense.
David: Well now here is the thing is that I would say that if you carry this through, if you read that article that I wrote in the Huffington Post about this. The total irony of the situation was that as I was reading that Kurzweil book on singularity I was on a bus with my wife Cindy and about 20 other dharma students wending our way down those roads, those famous roads in India that really don’t deserve the name, that were washed out by a monsoon that’s been extended for about a month mostly due to global warming we think. And really at any moment we were at risk of plummeting down the face… you could see buses down [laughs] off the cliff.
So in that context a) I’m reading Kurzweil’s book on the singularity, and then we’re stopping in on these Sikkimese and Bhutanese monasteries which are if anybody is familiar with Tibetan Buddhist art work it’s more than art work, it is a formal virtual reality already. They are representing reality in a particular way with the images that they use. And as you move in it’s not just a dualistic relationship between you and seeing a nice painting, or something like that. They’re conjuring up all kind of aspects of one’s own nature of one’s own mind, and creating an atmosphere in which those are amplified. They’re like amplifiers.
Vincent: Yeah. That’s interesting. Do you think there’d be a kind of 3-D virtual equivalent of those type of things?
David: Well, I’ve thought about this quite a lot, and I’ve started talking about it to some people because when you do certain types of Vajrayana practice, and probably in other schools, too, and other traditions, there’s a sense of visualizing a particular diorama, I’m going use Western words. It’s a three-dimensional scape in which the object of the visualization is clearly seen to be transparent or energetic rather than hardcore form. But it has tremendous detail to it, and it’s clearly, in its most literal aspect, otherworldly, even though in its metaphoric aspect it reflects very much kind of the energies and content of our experience right here in this human body. What I ended up saying is it’s already, from a Buddhist point of view, this is already virtual reality that we have.
Vincent: Yes, yes.
Vincent: And what’s so fascinating to me, like when I’ve read Ray Kurzweil’s work, for instance, is that what we seem to be approaching with our own technology is being able to first replicate this virtual reality and then to actually make it even more virtual in a sense. That once we’re able to kind of move things around, it’s a lot easier to create a virtual house, for instance, than it is to create a real house, because now we’re dealing with bits as opposed to actual, physical stuff.
David: Sure. Well, and that’s why mind is the best place to start when you’re planning something, right? If you rush in to build your house without using your mind first to visualize it and kind of think it through, you’ve wasted a very valuable resource there. For example, you and I were going talk today, so we both thought about it a little bit. You sent me some questions to contemplate. Our mind is always leading in that way, and then things become manifest from there. When they become manifest, it seems there’s this element that will be maybe harder to reproduce in a virtual environment, of consequences having a particular tangibleness to them. I could lose my mindfulness and trip over the doorstep here on the way out, and it’s going make it very, very tangible to me that I wasn’t paying attention.
Vincent: Yeah, totally.
David: So the earth element is something like, for example, my teacher really emphasized it strongly the earth element. He said in Shambhala people should be able to open their window and smell shit. I mean, in the form of cow manure, outside. You shouldn’t be so dainty that you can’t smell manure and understand that that’s what you need to grow food, and things like that. So the earth element in virtual reality is probably weak.
Vincent: That’s interesting. Sometimes I’ve wondered, with the whole Buddhist metaphysics, if what we’re heading to is something akin to a demi-god type of situation, or, the way that those things are conceived, in that something’s not pleasurable, how quick can we change it in a virtual setting?
David: That’s right. Yeah, we’re definitely creating the possibility of sort of god-realm. The deva-loka and the asura-loka, the god and the jealous god realms. Because if you get heavily, heavily into the pure mind realm without that grounded experience, you cut yourself off from the possibility of experiencing certain kinds of joy, certain kinds of suffering, and certain kinds of wisdom. No doubt about it. I agree with you.
Vincent: That’s cool. Thank you for sharing. That’s a topic that is very fascinating, but it’s not something that’s talked about so much in Buddhist circles yet, so it’s cool to have that conversation with you.