Vincent Horn is a co-founder and director of the innovative media project Buddhist Geeks. In this talk, originally given at the Pacific Asia Art Museum, he explores the interdisciplinary insights to be gained by combining geek culture’s radical experimentation, facility with external technologies, and forward-thinking with Buddhism’s wisdom of the human condition, mind-training systems, and familiarity with the inner world.
Vincent: I wanted to talk today about Buddhist Geeks, and particularly about what it means to unite technology with wisdom, or at lest to bring up some questions about what that might mean.
I sort of have an operating assumption, which is that technology can actually help deepen our wisdom, can help deepen our sense of personal wisdom, inner wisdom. And that wisdom has a lot to offer and has a lot to inform the world of technology. So my operating assumption is that both have something to offer to each other and that they’re both important.
And I probably feel that way because I was conditioned in such a way. For as long as I can remember even when I was very young being interested in both spiritual stuff and technology. I remember flipping through the Encyclopedia Britannica–do you remember back when all of knowledge could be found on 25 books? Or 26 I guess cause you’d have the Zs. I remember flipping at a very young age to the B section and looking up Buddhism. And I don’t know what compelled me to do that but I was just sort of interested. What is this Buddhism thing? And I looked and the first thing I read was the four noble truths and the first one, of course, life is suffering. I immediately closed the book, put it back and didn’t get interested, really interested in Buddhism for another 10 years. And then I also grew up in the time of course in the early-to-mid 80s where the personal computer revolution was some sort of full stride. It was becoming ubiquitous. And so I grew up on a computer, but was sort of part that generation, the gap generation. I knew what analog life was like. I did play outside growing up a little and I also played inside. So I was part of that strange generation where we were sort of straddling analog and digital. But I always had a very keen interest in the digital side, maybe more than a lot of my peers.
With that I went and decided to become a computer engineer. So my first degree, which I ended up dropping out of was computer engineering. I dropped out to become sort of a full time meditator. I looked back and go “Shit I wish I hadn’t done that in some ways.” In other ways I’m really glad I did it. But I ended up transferring to a school called Naropa University and I finished my undergraduate studies in religion. We called Naropa the Harvard of Buddhism. Of course, it’s only one of three Buddhist-inspired universities so it’s bond to be one of the ivy leagues. But it was actually a really cool place to study. I met some great teachers, learned a lot about the different contemplative traditions and found it to be very valuable.
But at a certain point I realize I needed to bring the technology stuff back in. So I founded a project in 2006 called Buddhist Geeks. And it was basically a friend and I interviewing different Buddhist teachers and thinkers who we liked and asking them the kind of questions we felt weren’t being asked so much. And we had enough technology skills to throw together a podcast and then it actually to our vast surprise became quite popular. Within a month, we had thousands of subscribers and we were sort of the top of the iTunes list and it has stayed there since. So we realized once we started seeing that the show was being downloaded tens sometimes hundreds of thousands of times a month that we should probably continue doing it. So we did.
We not only do a podcast but now we sort of expanded. We do a sort of annual conference in what we called Meat Space. M-E-A-T. So we kind sort of marinade together in person instead of all being virtual and the last one we did was actually here in Los Angeles. And it was a very fun time getting a bunch of normally disembodied geeks in person to meet each other in the flesh.
So that’s sort of just a little background on my history and interest in these two areas that I’m going to talk about Buddhism, spirituality on the one side, technology and geek culture on the other. And to talk about both and talk about why they’re important together I kind of have to give a little overview of each.
So, of course when we start with Buddhism we got to start with this fellow Sid, Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha. And as many of you know he was an extraordinary human being in that he had some very deep, profound insights into the nature of human experience, into the nature of human suffering and its attenuation, alleviation, and also into the nature of human identity. Who are we really? Who are we at the deepest level? And he found a way, after discovering some of these answers to these questions at very deep levels, to actually communicate it to other people in a way that they were replicating his results. So he was able to systematize kind of in retrospect what he had done in order to realize these things and he came up with all these models and teaching and practices to help other people discover what he discovered. And after Sid passed away, after 40 years of teaching, there were enough people around who had really plumbed the depths of what he was trying to do that they continued to share what they had been taught. They continued to innovate and change what they had been taught, although sometimes more slowly and keeping it more to the original form but over generation it can’t help but change.
And hundred of years after the Buddha died, in this slide here if you can see, this is a map of the spread of Buddhism. So Buddhism actually spread in multiple directions from India from northern India. It moved up into Central Asia and then across the silk road, the silk route, which was the major commerce route of the time in Asia. And it went into China and from there went to Korea, into Vietnam, into Japan. In Japan it became known as Zen and now we have Zen and the art of everything. That’s where it started. It also went over the Himalayas into the high plateau of Tibet where it sort of mixed with the shamanistic cultures of Tibet, and became what we now know of as Tibetan Buddhism. Interesting side note that form of Buddhism which is sometimes called Vajrayana Buddhism also made its way into Japan. It’s a very not well known sect of Buddhism called Shingon. One of my close friends is a Shingon teacher and I’ve learned a ton from him about the way that Vajrayana is different in these different countries. So the cultures really do change Buddhism as they move. And then finally and this is the form that’s practice most often here at InsightLA it moved down into Sri Lanka to the island in the south and then eventually into Southeast Asia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Cambodia, etc. And there it became what we know of now as Theravada Buddhism.
And it’s interesting in each case wherever Buddhism moved it developed in relative isolation–relative to what we now have, there’s very few places in the world that are truly isolated. But in relative isolation for generations it would be practiced among people in certain areas and villages and cities. Really the different forms of Buddhism were quite different. The other thing is that it sort of merged with, or complemented, the local cultures at the time. So Buddhism, one of its sort of key strength you could say or its engines of growth is this very radical flexibility and adaptability. It’s able to change depending on where it’s at and adapt to its culture, in much the same way that Christianity has.
The other sort of engine of growth is what I mentioned before is that inner technology that the Buddha helped pioneer of inner transformation. So Buddhism really has those two I would say most powerful engines of growth, why it’s still around 2,500 years later, is it’s radical adaptability and also its powerful practices and models for inner transformation.
So that’s in some ways an overview of the history of Buddhism. And then of course as we know the most recent thing that’s happened is all these separate Buddhisms have started converging, starting in the 1900s, in the globalized West and also have been converging in the globalized East. So all these Buddhism have become one sort of mixing pot, melting pot of different Buddhisms. They’re interacting. They’re sharing technologies. They’re arguing. They’re doing all the things that we would expect different systems to do. Sometimes they complement each other beautifully. Sometimes there’s huge sectarian divides and people arguing about which Buddhism is better. Both of those happen. At a subtle level everyone sort of thinks they’re doing the slightly better Buddhism. [Laughs] If you’re not one of those people then good for you. Personally though I know where it’s at.
So that’s a little history of the Buddhism side and then technology or geek culture I want to start with this fellow who’s a scientist named Neils Bohr. And I’m sure all of you heard of Niels Bohr probably in high school, in college. He was one of the key figures in discovering the atomic structure, how things are structure at the atomic level. And he also made some really important observations that contributed to this field called quantum mechanics or quantum physics. And along with some other scientists at the time, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Born, there was a group of scientists who are developing this sort of quantum mechanics or quantum theory. That theory and the predictions and the understanding that came from it fueled the development of technology as we know it, fueled the development of the personal computer, which then when you connect them all together becomes the internet.
And I’ll start with the personal computer because the computer and the internet are really at the kind of foundation of what we now think of as the information age, which is of course where geeks hang out. So starting with the personal computer, our friend the Apple Macintosh. This is the 1984 Apple Macintosh. In the late 70s, the components that make this computer up became small enough that we could start to fit them in a single box that was portable enough that we could have one eventually in every household. Actually now we have multiple in every household. So this developed in the late 70s. That’s when it became small enough but then it took a little while to become adopted on a mass level. It wasn’t until the early 90s that computers became sort of mass adopted, which if you think about it is actually pretty quick from the development in the late 70s to early 90s just more than a decade computing became ubiquitous, at least in the developed countries.
And what happened then is that we started wanting to connect these computers with each other. We wanted to start sharing the information. We started sharing our little hello painting with other people so check out my hello painting. Or we want to email instead of using letters. You know instead of writing these things out and putting them in an envelop and putting a stamp on them and then bringing it down to the mailbox and then waiting–you know there’s a process. There’s some beauty to it of course. And people still write letters because of that. But for a lot of communications the computer and linking them together simplified a ton of stuff. When we linked them together we really got the sort of rise of what we now called the Internet. And it’s no accident that the internet came online at the same time that there was a mass adoption of personal computers in the early 90s.
It’s a little hard to see this slide but it’s a visualization of all of these nodes that these computers sort of connected. So it looks like this amazing honeycomb of interweaving lines and nodes. And in some ways that’s exactly what the internet is. It’s a connection between these different computers sharing information. It’s interesting now information doesn’t live in one place. It lives in multiple places at once. It has many copies. It’s nearly free to send information. Bits cost almost nothing to replicate whereas atoms still cost quite a bit to replicate. So this digital world, this internet and personal computer world, operates on very different principles.
Since the early 90s, since the internet began to really become used in the widespread way things have changed even more. We’re living at a time that you can think of as the mobile computer revolution. Some people called it the internet of things. In 2008, we actually passed an interesting threshold. There were more devices connected to the internet than there were humans. And in 2020, they’re expected to be 50 billion devices connected to the internet.
The other thing that’s interesting is that underlying all of these technologies is a type of growth which is kind of startling. And that is exponential growth. So here is a slide of calculating the exponential growth of calculations per second per $1,000 of computing power. And what we see is this scale is actually not linear. It’s a logarithmic scale, which means that every leap up on the vertical axis is 10x the stage below it. So when you’re going up in a linear way on a logarithmic scale that’s actually exponential growth. And there are a lot of ways in the digital world that things are growing exponentially, that is they’re doubling. We have Moore’s Law which is the doubling of number of transistors on an integrated circuit. We have Kryder’s Law. Both of these held up for decades. You could say that Moore’s law actually held up before the transistors because we had vacuum tubes. It’s actually held up across multiple paradigm of computing. Kryder’s law is similar. It’s the same thing of doubling of hard drive space on a certain space of hard disk. And then also the internet traffic has doubled. This is a startling figure actually. By the end of 2011, the end of this year, 20 typical household would generate more internet traffic than the entire internet did in 2008. So 20 households downloading, uploading, watching videos, watching YouTube clips, sending emails, surfing the web, will generate as much traffic as the entire internet did in 2008. So there’s also doubling of internet traffic and that trend is expected to continue.
And in each case information technology, this digital revolution, is driven by an engine of growth which is exponential. It is growing by leaps and bounds. It’s doubling over certain periods of time.
So that’s a little history of both the Buddhist side and then the geek side and I want to talk then about some examples of ways that these two fields are actually already contributing to one another, ways that they’re already cross fertilizing. And I want to start with two examples from the geek world. And the first one all of you will probably be familiar with this person. This is former CEO of Apple Computers who recently passed away, Steve Jobs. This is him sitting with an early Apple computer. And you might be able to tell just looking at this that he’s sitting in a kind of unique posture. He’s sitting in the Zen posture of full lotus. Here’s a monk, Zen monk sitting in the same posture. It turns out that Steve Jobs was actually highly influenced by Zen Buddhism. He studied with a Zen teacher named Kobun Chino Roshi. A little bit of background, Trudy Goodman whose the guiding teacher here also studied with Kobun Chino.
But Steve was very impacted by his experience of Zen practice and also by the eastern aesthetic. It turned out that he studied calligraphy in college and that style of eastern calligraphy in the simplicity and the contrast of it really informed the design and development of Apple computers. So this is one example of one of the biggest and most influential computing companies being very influenced indirectly by Zen Buddhism in particular.
It is also interesting, I was thinking the other day if you ever watched the iTunes visualizer that sort of trippy visualizer while you’re listening to music and it looks like black hole running into each other and the universe being burn and dying right there on your screen. I was thinking about how Steve Jobs also did a ton of hallucinogens, LSD. And I suspect that also influence a lot of the developments of the computer.
Another example from the tech world I want to give. Again this is hard to see but there’s a woman giving a talk at TED her name is Jane McGonigal. Jane is a Silicon Valley game designer anddeveloper. In this talk this was one of the ten most popular talks ever given at TED. It was entitled “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” And her interest is in harnessing the 800 million hours spent every year gaming online to try to just take a sliver of that and use that processing power basically of all of us playing games and intelligence to solve real world problems.
So she’s actually developed games that are designed to help with peak oil, designed to help with environmental issues. She’s also rumored to be working on a game with the Dalai Lama that’s designed to develop compassion. The reason I bring her up is because she’s also a Buddhist practitioner. She gave a talk at the recent Buddhist Geeks conference. It was titled Awakening is an Epic Win. And she talked in that talk about how we can compare the process of awakening with winning a really hard game. At the end of the game when you it’s that feeling of epic, like it was an epic win. And in the same way awakening can be seen as a kind of epic win. She described herself as 23% Buddhist, 77% geek. So she’s more on the geek side of this equation. But she’s doing some really interesting things to bring some of the important qualities that Buddhism is interested in developing into the world of gaming, which could have a broad impact on society.
And then I also want to give two examples from the Buddhist world of how technology is impacting how Buddhism is taught and practice, because of course as everything changes around us, we’re going to change how we do this.
The first one I want to talk about is a mobile app that came out a few weeks ago it’s called Buddhify. Good name. This was developed by a close friend of mine, his name is Rohan Gunatillake. He’s based in Scotland and he’s a long time insight meditation practitioner. And he developed this application using his own money on iPhone and Android platforms and it’s designed to teach people how to meditate on the go. His tagline is modern meditation on the go. And he did this because he would walk around and speak with different friends and colleagues, especially those living in London and he would ask them, especially when they mentioned that they had an interest in meditation, “Well what’s keeping you from pursuing that interest?” There are few common objections or a few things that kept them from meditating. One is, and I’m sure you’ve all heard this before even from yourselves, I don’t have enough time. So, one issue is a lack of time. The other issue he ran across and you have to keep in mind these are probably younger urban dwellers, people in their 20s, 30s, 40s. They also found that they didn’t like the esthetic of meditation when they encountered it. They felt it was a little too hippie. They didn’t like the sort of patchouli, lotus flower aesthetic that had become associated with Buddhism in the 70s. So that kind of turned them off.
So he designed this application to meet those challenges from a design perspective. So how it teaches meditation is it teaches people to meditate while they’re doing something, as opposed to coming and learning it while you’re sitting. So, there’s sort of options in Buddhify where you can do meditation while you’re commuting to work, while you’re at the gym for instance. And there’s actually guided tracks for doing those things and learning meditation while you’re in certain activity that you’re normally in. So that deals with the time issue. You have no excuse because you’re doing those things anyway. And then the other thing that it does is it changes the aesthetic. As you can see this is a very modern aesthetic. If you play around with the app you’ll see it’s very much a web 2.0 style. It doesn’t have any of the sort of normal Buddhist imagery. The word Buddhify is really the only overt Buddhist thing you’re going to see in there and yet it’s very informed by Buddhist practice and theory.
So, this is I think an interesting example of using technology and using design principles to create something new. We don’t know how it’s going to work. It’s only been out for three weeks. Rohan’s hope I can tell you is that this is an entry way rather than a final solution, that by learning how to meditate on the go they would then sort of get hooked into deeper forms like coming to communities like this and learning something in a little bit more depth. But it is an interesting sort of way in.
Another example and this one is hyper geeky. This is meditation teacher Shinzen Young. Shinzen, for those of you who haven’t heard of him, he’s a very highly trained meditator. He practiced in what we called the three sort of major Buddhist practice traditions. He studied Zen. He studied Vajrayana Buddhism, he studied the Shingon Buddhism that I mentioned earlier and he also studied the mindfulness techniques from Theravada Buddhism. So he was very high trained in all of these different forms, and also because he realized that western science and technology were really important and they were going to become even more important. He’s sort of the original Buddhist Geek in the sense, because he was saying this in the early 70s. He decided he needed self teach himself at sort of like PhD level, mathematics and science. That way he can speak the language with both world and help with their coming together.
So one thing that he’s done, which is so interesting since immersing himself in both worlds is he has developed a form of meditation that he calls algorithmic meditation. Very simply an algorithm loops and branches. It’s a way of going through particular instructions where you’re looping that is you’re coming back around and you’re branching that is new possibilities open up. Sometimes you branch. Sometimes you loop, depending on the algorithm and what it’s trying to do. In his case, he’s got an algorithm which is designed to help people get enlightened. And he’s developed that over decades of actually teaching people meditation, giving them particular instructions and having them flow through this, what he called an algorithm. And he found that with this algorithm it sort of increase the efficiency of the enlightenment process, on average.
He realized at a certain point as he was looking at the sort of algorithmic meditation he designed that he could actually automate this. He could actually turn it in to an artificial intelligence program. So out of this algorithm he’s actually been working on what he calls “Virtual Shinzen” that is type of artificial intelligence program which does this for you, that is you get on the phone or you get on the internet and it actually guides you through this process without any human needing to be on the other side. So this is a really interesting application of using artificial intelligence programming to take this beautiful meditation technology and actually automate it in a way where you don’t need tons of qualified meditation teachers to help people learn meditation.
I suspect that when he’s done developing this that it’s going to look something like this. There’s virtual Shinzen straight out of the Matrix. Actually when I interviewed him on Buddhist Geeks he told me something which I found really interesting. He said that his programmer, the guy that was working on this, says that he’s going to be the first dharma teacher in Buddhist history that instead of appointing a successor actually builds it. [Laughs] Anyway we’ll see, still in development, still on beta.
So given these different examples of ways that Buddhism is already cross fertilizing with technology and technology is already cross fertilizing with Buddhism, I also wanted to talk a little bit more about why this unification, why this coming together, is so important.
So one of the reasons it’s important and this is something that Shinzen Young sometimes talks about is that Buddhism or these inner contemplative traditions they’re really interested in developing a certain type of happiness, and that happiness is one that’s not so dependent on the conditions of our lives. In some ways you could say it’s independent of conditions. It doesn’t change based on what kind of day we’re having. We have good days and bad days, but this happiness that’s developed through is actually independent of ups and downs, the vicissitudes of life.
Whereas technology is in a certain way developing the opposite. It’s developing a type of conditional happiness that gets better with time in a certain way. So some of the early technologies, like in medicine have doubled our lifespan in the last couple of hundred years. So we have that extra life. We can actually sort of enjoy ourselves, learn things like this, spend time growing. You could say that time has freed up a possibility of developing a kind of human potential. So in that way technology helps us gain a certain type of happiness that’s tied to the conditional world. As soon as that technology leaves then we would no longer have it. But while it’s there it definitely improves our life in certain ways. Of course it adds things that we could say are not improving our lives. We get distracted with technology, etc. But overall we could say it led to a certain type of increase of happiness.
So the coming together of these two is the coming together of these two types of happiness. Can we have a happiness that is both connected to the conditions of our lives and improving with time, and a happiness that’s independent of that so that we have a certain type of inner happiness which isn’t dependent on things changing or doubling or getting better?
The other thing is that the Buddhist practice is in some ways an internal type of technology. That is it’s a technology that was developed to explore the mind to train attention, to see clearly from a subjective point of view what’s happening here. The geek culture and external technology is just that. It’s an external technology. It’s an out there objective in the world thing that we built. So in that sense we have these two types of technologies, these external and internal technologies. What happens when we bring both of those together?
Sometimes we have tendency if we’re really into external technologies of not paying attention to what’s happening inside. We don’t notice the mind with which we build these technologies, and then we end up using technologies in horrific ways, as happened a lot in the 20th century. On the other hand sometimes we get so caught and interested in our own inner wisdom and inner development that we sort of in a certain way renounce the world a little too much and we become sort of a modern hermits and sort of avoid how external technology really is changing a lot, and is changing how we live and who we are.
So what would happen then if we can bring those two together? We could start to harness our own inner wisdom to apply to external technologies and use external technologies to support our lives with the type of happiness that’s depending on conditions. And even use things like Buddhify to help with our mediation practice. It’s possible that in the next 5 or 10 years there’ll be some applications of technology that would be very good at helping people learn to meditate or deepen in meditation or least connect with other people who are doing that.
And in a certain way you could say that we’re much better at the external technology piece. I mean that seems pretty obvious. Our culture, our world is a lot better in general with that piece. And what I would like to propose, and how I’d like to close, is just to say that what would it be like to develop a kind of doubling or exponential growth of internal wisdom. How would that be possible? Could we use technology to help us do that? And if we don’t do it, where are we going to be with this continually developing, advancing external technology. Will we be able to utilize it in a way that doesn’t destroy us or at least damage humanity in a pretty serious way?
I’m kind of optimist at heart. I think there’s a difference between optimism and idealism. But I think we’re up for the task and that we also as a human species have a very fundamental type of goodness and humanity which when we give it the space to come out we can do pretty incredible things.