Rohan Gunatillake, in this presentation taken from the Buddhist Geeks Conference in 2011, explores how Buddhism can learn from the suffering of other established systems such as the music, publishing and journalism industries. Rohan outlines his presentation based on the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, explains how he used the concepts presented to launch an iPhone app, and challenges other entrepreneurs to join in the quest to bring these values to other business initiatives.
My name is Rohan, I write a blog and do other things. I thought it’d be provocative this morning, not for its own sake, but that’s good too, but because what I’m talking about is what is on my mind and how I’m spending my time. So my alternative title for this talk was more provocative. And what I want to talk today is about innovation and what that means, and why I think we’re not doing it right, and why how I think we could do it right and why we need to do it right.
So, we start it with a history, we all know we’ve heard many speakers already before, Diane this morning and Shinzen on Friday. We all know that the history of Buddhism is one of innovation and change and evolution as Diane talked about. And that’s the beautiful sort of narrative of Buddhism as it has gone all the way thru. But what do I mean by innovation in my context, I mean about like when stuff happens like the iMac. So when I talk about innovation, I’m not just talking about technology, but that’s a big part of it, but what I mean is, before 1998, if you can remember before then, computers were beige, ugly bricks that sat under your table and they were just very functional devices.
What happened in 1998 was that Apple shipped the iMac and suddenly the computer became a design item, a thing you wanted to have in your room and show off and suddenly, maintained its functionality, in fact they improved its functionality because obviously Macs and PCs have different ways of working and way different. This for me, that moment in sort of personal computer history, for me it symbolizes a moment in which there’s a radical change in how we perceive computer devices and the rest is history in that sense. I always say like, that was a big moment for the Apple Corporation how the design aesthetic became embedded into their work and that emphasis on design is really important reason where they are now.
OK, that’s Steve Jobs, 1998. Let’s go back to who, we always 2500 years ago, so let’s go back to that bit. So the Buddha, I love the Buddha not only because for all the obvious reasons, but also for ok, so Four Noble Truths, the Dharma, in [0:02:46][Inaudible], really lovely place to go and visit. The museum there is amazing in [Soma?] if you’ve not been. And for me, that moment not the awakening itself, but the first talk, the first sermon was what I call the start of the awakening industry. So Buddhism became – it turned from the realization of an individual into an industry of awakening where the five disciples suddenly those transmission, those understanding, those insight and suddenly a whole in the industry was born.
And that, I’m interested when an industry is born because that’s quite interesting. You’ll hear language about industry which you might not like. Oh, yes, yesterday we talked about conservers and adapters, conservers might not like my talk, adapters might not like my talk.
The Four Noble Truths started the awakening industry, but as well what I really like about that talk – well, lots of things I really like about, that sutta’s amazing, but as soon as Ken said that he’s a – was the managment consultant, I used to and sort of still do, and Shinzen spoke about the Buddha as the first proto-scientist, I just see the Buddhist, as the first proto management consultant because what he did in that sutta was the most extraordinary bit of codification you’ve ever seen.
And thru the next 45 years of his teaching mission, you saw a man codifying some of the most complex messaging and communication the planet’s ever seen in extraordinarily simple accessible ways. And that’s what management consultants do.
And so, the Four Noble Truths, let’s – so it’s a bit of a cliché in Dharma Circles, to sort of trot out the Four Noble Truths. What am I going to talk about today? I don’t know. What list can I go to for [inaudible], I’ll roll out my four noble truth talk. So I want to use the Four Noble Truths as a structure for my talk. For him, it was suffering, cause, freedom and path. For me, I’ll talk about problem, cause, vision and path with regards to..so what’s the problem and what are the problems I see right now.
I see a problem with popularity. We talked about Mc-mindfulness yesterday. I’m going to be serving up some mc-mindfulness with extra fries later on, so be ready. So, popularity is one of the – what Ethan talked about there’s that sort of probably a lot of these sort of these issues. And so with popularity comes the issue of maintaining authenticity. And that’s something that we’re all really passionate about. How do you maintain the integrity and the transformative vision of this practice and this work and authenticity of all the values that underpin the tradition so far in the mess of where we are, in our culture and the convergence of all the different elements. So that’s the problem.
I also personally feel that – I have a provocative statement. I say that the aesthetic of meditation is broken. And when I talk about that, I don’t – I’m talking less about to people in the room here. I’m talking to people who, like several times a week I will speak to just, am I allowed to say normal people? [Laughter]. Normal people who – invariably I’ll start talking about meditation or Buddhism if we meet in a social situation and they’ll say, “Oh, that sounds really interesting. I always wanted to do that. A friend of mine has always wanted to do it. But,” there’s always a “but”. There’s actually two main but’s that I come across, one is it takes too much time and the other is it’s too hippy. And those for me are aesthetic – they are sort of, the way that meditation is presented, I think one of my real takeaways from Jane’s talk yesterday was that it was really exciting to see that sense of how she found her experience of meditation to be an engaging one, but it doesn’t look like that on the packet.
And there’s something – the people I talk to are all, they live in sort of urban centers in England, Scotland and Europe and they’re digital, they’re relational, and something’s not landing for them. But the [inaudible] and the interest in this work that doesn’t go away, but the wrapping paper maybe needs some updating.
Another problem I see generally around is, so we talk about industries, Buddhism as an awakening industry. Other industries are collapsing right now. This is not news. Newspapers, publishing, music, film, content industries are collapsing, disrupted by technology, but more importantly disrupted by the behaviors which technology enable. And I work – in my day job, I work for some of the biggest arts organizations in the U.K.; actually the biggest arts organizations, the biggest arts festival on the planet, the Edinburgh Festivals. When I talk to them, I talk to them about how, “Just look around you.”
So in the performing arts, because the core experience of the performing arts is live experience, it’s theatre, it’s dances, opera and all that. And that live experience cannot be digitally replicated whereas the core material of the other industries, music and so on can be digitally replicated because mp3’s can be transferred and file shared. So people in the arts, when I start talking about collapse of industries, they say, “Oh, but are we safe?” And because it’s sort of a about the live and people come to see, still come to our events and our festivals, I say, “You’re safe in this first wave of collapse because you’re safe from that issue of replication. But, your industry is about attention in a sense of people – the leisure industry and the arts is all about selling attention and interesting experience.”
When Jane shared the slide of 800 million gamers around the world, that’s people’s attention and the arts should be a bit scared. And I’m telling like the directors of the world’s biggest festival saying, in ten years, you’re facing market collapse because everyone else is going to be gamers and won’t want to come to Edinburgh and see the best art on the planet, what are you going to do about it? So this is my provocation and challenge is that we have to learn from the other collapses that are going on and just try to be smart about it because none of the other industry like – [they think] oh it’s happened to them? Oh, yeah, of course it’s happened to music, but it won’t happen to us. I think we just have to be smarter about the stuff that’s going on in the context and recognize that something’s broken and there might be something’s breaking. So that’s the problem.
Let’s think of some causes. I don’t think – so my background again is mainly insight Vipassana and Theravada thing. And I don’t think we’re very resilient. And resilience is something that I sort of talk about in my work a lot around just stuff changes quickly, how can we deal with it? And again, the reason we like sort of Jane’s work is the idea sort of modeling different types of shock and like in a game environment.
But, are we resilient? And why are we not resilient? We emphasize free a lot. And I’m less interested in free. I’m more interested in sustainable, because the economics of free – I think it’s a false economics to think of it as free because someone always paid. Someone paid for a million people to walk to the sea in the Ghandi salt marshes, that was not free. There were people bankrolling that stuff. And likewise, the Buddha’s original mission, [Inaudible] massive patrons who [inaudible] famously, so teachings were given by teachers in the spirit of of generosity and openness and no transaction. But the infrastructure behind it was not free. I’m interested in sustainable and not free. So I think if we shift our mindset to be about sustainability, then that’s good.
Buildings, this is interesting. When you run a retreat center or an urban center, whatever, you spend most of your time, many of you might be doing this already, most of your time fundraising about build maintenance, rather than programs. And this is directly from my experience working with theatres and arts organizations. Arts organization’s main mission is to create cultural value, to excite and inspire, but the reality of the organization is that they’re spending all that time trying to raise money to keep the lights on.
And so there is a disconnect between the organizational aspect of, like all they want to do is put on art, well, all the artists want to do is put an art, but all the arts organizations want to do is make sure there’s toilet paper in the bathrooms. And that’s really expensive because the scale and the size of theatres and retreat centers is not insignificant. And so we’ve got heavy built infrastructure in the Buddhist scene and we’re serving a lot of that when – imagine if all the investment that went into wing maintenance and so on went in to developing new programs, we’ll come to that.
Leadership. This is sort of just the generation panel that was really interesting yesterday. I think we can’t ignore 800 million gamers. We can’t ignore. We might not like it. We might not like mc-mindfulness. We might not like the stuff that’s happening in our culture but I feel that we should either be aware of it and conscientiously object or engage with it in some way. IF we just ignore, I don’t think that’s cool so I just think there’s a hole where I’m not seeing – I’m speaking incredible generalizations there. Obviously you can all find examples of people who are doing some really interesting stuff, I think generally because again, I just go back to my day job and this might sound familiar where I spend most of my time between people and organizations who have power, central government, large organizations who want to engage in this – in my personal case, with sort of digital practice. And so over here you got the power and over here you’ve got the geeks with their Macbooks and their Twitter streams. And the power is saying, I really want to get it but I don’t know what to do. And the geeks are going, you don’t get me, you don’t get me. And so but the problem is the power is here typically. In arts organizations the power like, we’re talking about 40 to 60 roles, artists and directors, exec directors of the most powerful cultural organizations in Europe and but it’s a generation thing. Because of the speed of change of technology, because the speed of change happens so quickly, the literacy is not there. So then we need to create some ways of filling that hole of literacy in culture trends, potential digital and so on. So main, point, what’s the vision? That’s the bad news.
Obviously like, this is the great thing about the Four Noble Truth technique of clarification. Get the bad news out. But it’s actually all about the second, the last two, because it’s quite good I should say a brilliant marketer. Read the Sathipatthana Sutta thinking, where’s the marketing in this and you might find it interesting.
OK. So, innovation, the vision is my vision is of a systematic or an ecology of innovation within the Buddhist scene where we recognize all the various parts and understand the ecology. We live in this really vibrant ecology of traditions, organizations, practitioners, recognizing how those people and groups can connect to each other. So, the big retreat house of the big organizations, they hold the intellectual capital of a teaching depth, the quality. What are they doing to talk to the entrepreneurs, the people with the actual new ideas and how are they collaborating together? I’m not talking about making a better website. I’m talking about changing the way the computing is perceived like an iMac. I’m talking about the big changes. And the big changes don’t come from the industry. Say, recently, a couple of months ago, a music stream service launched in the U.K., a european product called Spotify which is completely – which is a live streaming music service. And the really radical ideas don’t come from the incumbent power. They come from the fringes but the incumbent power really wants to find the next big thing. So IBM are looking for what’s the next big consumer product thing but IBM will never do it. Zuckerberg does it, the fringe entrepreneurs do it because that’s where the energy and the vision and the – because real radical innovations comes from conversations like we’ve been having here today like meeting people with a similar viewpoint but with sufficient difference to spark something that whoa, that’s a really new idea. And that doesn’t come from power, that comes from the fringe. But the power leads toward the fringe because otherwise, the fringe is going to do it anyway. This is what I’m saying. The fringe is going to do it anyway, but in our case, we won’t care if the big four label record labels in the U.S. die, who cares right? And all power to the young Indie music entrepreneurs who are putting more money in the musician’s pockets and taking the middle guy out of the way. That’s great. But when people start disrupting our industry, if we don’t play, the quality is going to be shit because it will all be mc-mindfulness.
And the depth and the shallow, like the people who have the understanding, the teachers, the houses, the traditions, the lineages, must start innovating with the fringe. I love the mind-life sort of dharma image that [inaudible] had of the Dalai Lama and the psychology dude talking. I really like talking but I most prefer making. So my vision says, what’s next is Buddhist Geeks about? In my head, there’s a whole track where we build stuff, where we take the unplugged idea and actually stop flocking teams and thinking about actual real concepts and yes.
So just to contextualize the image, this is an image from Y-combinator which is another cliché. But Y-combinator is a project in San Francisco, probably around the bay area and not the city which is a six-month start up incubator for this guy Paul Graham and his colleagues, they pick up really high potential teams from all around the world and bring them to mountain view and over six months give them the most intense business boot camp, entrepreneur boot camp and out of it comes some products that you probably already use.
My vision is of spiritual startups, Buddhist startups. We need Buddhist startups. If you want to tweet something, let’s tweet that because [Laughter] like, Buddhist startups but with the proviso that the incumbent power and depth of Dharma understanding is part of the team because we will see, there is a marked opportunity in mindfulness and people will take advantage of that, so let’s play. If we don’t play, it will be rubbish and our industry will collapse, that’s it.
So how do we get there? Investment-we need money. I see – so I’ve worked a lot in what’s called social enterprise in England, social innovation and what we’ve seen – there’s a great scene here and in the U.S. as well, U.K. is probably the strongest in Europe. Social enterprise being organizations, businesses whose primary output, primary goal is social value, but they’re also commercial so they have a twin. But social value is number one. Here we’re talking about a evolution of that idea, of social enterprise into spiritual enterprise or Dharma enterprise where again the primary value should be spiritual value. But we’re talking about sustainable and not free so let’s make them robust enterprises. And to do that requires all the infrastructure that creates great start ups. So we need to as a community work out, let’s stop building new buildings and take a bit of that money into an investment fund which does R & D.
This is what we need. We need research and development of what the next wave of Buddhist innovation looks like and the people in the room here are the people I want to be working with to do that. And so, we need to have better conversations of – actually, this is a nice idea but where is the – there’s a need to just more structures because this stuff didn’t happen by accident. Great products do not happen by accident. We can buy all this sort of garage myths of Google and Apple and Facebook all started of an idea. And they sort of did but behind that is like venture capital, structure, boot camps, all that stuff. We need that.
And most importantly, we need making. I’m really passionate about this. I just think we need to like, we need to make stuff quickly and test it out. And it’ll be rubbish in the first generation in the way that new teachers are rubbish in their first couple of years but they’re brilliant in year five. And so we need to make stuff, make stuff, rapid prototyping, this is all very, very tested models from enterprises, not news to a lot of people in the room. And, this is not a plug. Well, this is something that I’m making because I was on retreat this New Year.
And around January the second, I said – I thought I’ve been thinking about this idea about mobile meditation for a while. And if someone else does it, if I don’t do it, someone else will do it, and it will be less good than the one that I do. So, I just made the commitment, I’m not going to go on retreat this year. I’m going to make a mobile app. And it will be – you might love it, you might hate it, but I just think it’s – the message is not that you can go to buddhify.com to find a lot about it, it launches this autumn or fall. But the main thing is that I’m making something and I really encourage, my invitation to the room is let’s make stuff because we’ve got the expertise, we’ve got the networks. We just need to corral that bit. And so Buddhify is just like one bit – Buddhify does not promise real-Buddhify is mc-mindfulness with extra cheese and all this other extra stuff. It’s very simple guided meditation but there’s also some cleverness built into it. Which I won’t bore you with because it’s not a pitch. But we need a whole family of these things. Buddhify is one. There’s a bunch of other things coming up but we need them supported directional which is important. A flock of birds is directional. That feels really important and it’s flexible. So I’m working on one bit of it. I really invite everyone else to start working on the rest. Thank you.