The following video took place at the Buddhist Geeks Conference in 2011, and was part of a series of live talks, each 20 minutes in length.
Talk Description: In this talk Ethan Nichtern explores the limitations of online dharma.
Ethan Nichtern: So the title of my talk is “The Internet Is Not Your Teacher” and there’s two iPads on the podium right now, which is kind of awesome. So, the first thing I’d like to say is obviously this entire gathering is a product of the internet and that’s great. On the way in here met six or seven people who I have previously only known through the Twitter, Facebook universe and I’m reading my notes off an iPad 2 so I can’t dislike the internet that much. In fact, I don’t dislike it at all. What I wanted to really say is that I think we’re at a very interesting time and a very empowering time in terms of the psychological and spiritual teachings moving further into our society through science, through community, through art, through politics. It’s also a really dangerous time. And my tradition which is a Vajrayana or Tantric tradition has this great framework for determining whether something is harmful or helpful which is called co-emergence which means when you want to figure out if something is destructive or empowering or enlightening or samsaric. It’s both. It’s always both and the internet is especially both. Like more both than anything has ever been.
So let’s talk about the samsaric side as it relates to people wanting to study and practice genuine teachings of awakening. I think there are two aspects that are important here. The first is the cheapening of knowledge and wisdom. Where in the ancient world to even learn how to follow your breath was quite a journey over mountains or requesting teachings for a long period of time. And because it was quite a journey, you took the instructions that you received as important. And that’s not so from a respect standpoint of course it’d be great if we were all respectful of teachers, etc. But the main thing is how the process of learning happens and when you think what you’re receiving is important you tend to take more time to absorb and integrate it into your experience which is the whole point of how these teachings work. This isn’t ultimately a philosophy. As my teacher has been talking about recently the point of this is reworking how a human being experiences themselves not how they talk about themselves. Although if you change the way a human being experiences themselves I think the person should also be able to talk about themselves in a more engaging and interesting manner. True. But that’s secondary.
So you can Wikipedia pretty much any Buddhist teachings you want. So I had this laughable experience where a lot of the Vajrayana teachings in the Shambhala tradition are said to be secret. There’s not a single Vajrayana teaching that I’ve ever received an empowerment for that you couldn’t Wikipedia right now. You could Wikipedia the surface of it, I mean, which is actually quite good. But if you’re doing seven other things at once and just want to find out what the word Mahamudra or Shikantaza means, and then have a conversation over Skype over what that means, or Twitter something about Mahamudra. Sorry tweet something about Mahamudra. It’s interesting. Let’s put it that way.
Here’s the second thing which I think is even more co-emerging and didn’t really exist to the extent, in my understanding, in the ancient Asian cultures where these teachings came from. Our entire society, in the words of Generation X, has become very DIY. Do-it-yourself. The interesting thing about this term is that it started as an anti-consumerist phrase but it actually means you get to consume in the way you want. So there seems to be a strand of dharma, a huge strand of dharma, where we all want to become spiritual libertarians. We want to do the teachings in the way we do them. My teacher a lot of times says if you’re going to ask a teacher for advice you should actually do what they say. Chances are they’re going to tell you to do something you didn’t want to do in some small way. That’s what doing something good for you is, right? You have to do something that’s outside of the framework of your habitual apparatus, which means it doesn’t feel immediately good.
So I always think of this conundrum of our DIY consumerist culture, especially in the United States of America which is possibly the most libertarian society on Earth today in terms of freedom is that we all really proclaim our individual freedoms. And the way we express this freedom is by doing whatever everyone else is doing. So we don’t really want to submit ourselves to a community, which is the sangha, or a teacher, which is the Buddha principle, that’s beyond our ability to control what feels good in the present moment. And this is one of the big dangers of the superficiality. And I don’t mean superficiality in a bad way. I mean in the surface way of internet dharma, of podcast dharma, and Wikipedia dharma.
So here’s what I want to say, and there’s many different interpretations. We already heard from my friend Kenneth one model of enlightenment. There are many different interpretations of what the purpose of Buddhism is about. We heard from Kelly the purpose is to end suffering. In my tradition what we are increasingly saying is the purpose is to create a society that is awake, that encourages people to be awake. I don’t think anybody would say that it’s about attaining a certain state of meditative absorption or jhana or Samadhi, although those are fun and those can be a tool or a method to awakening. But I think a lot of people think it is about that. Yeah, I know it’s not really about meditation but if I actually could do that that’s what it’s about. The word enlightenment is really tricky. I find that people usually just define enlightenment as whatever I’m not experiencing now, and good luck trying to attain something that you have linguistically and psychologically defined for yourself as whatever I’m not experiencing now. I would like to propose that from my point of view Buddhism is about neither of those things. It’s not about enlightenment. I like to translate the term bodhi, awake, enlightened, as just sane. The whole purpose of all of these practices is to become a more sane and decent human being. And try to do whatever we can in a world that’s pretty quickly going away from sanity to spread sanity, to model behaviors to other people and communities to other people where they can feel sanity as well.
If you want to become a sane and decent human being, this is my only point, that’s something you only learn from other human beings. Do you guys agree with that? I don’t know. I’m making a strong point. Now, you can learn that over Skype. Kenneth I think you work with students via Skype and so do I. That’s great. But you have to actually be taking the perspective that you are interested in other human beings. And so when we look at the dharma which is what everybody wants which is the truth, which is the teachings, which is the exalted understanding of how to end suffering, how to be compassionate, how to enjoy your life. That’s another way of saying these teachings are about. A lot of teachers now are just talking about happiness. When we look at that, the dharma has always been taught as interdependent with two other things. It actually doesn’t exist separately. There’s actually no such thing as internet dharma.
The teachings of this tradition relate to the dharma as one of a triad. It’s actually just one aspect of three. The others are sangha, which nobody wants to remember is actually one of them. Why the sangha is one of them is because that’s how we receive the modeling of both decent and neurotic human behavior. That’s what it was invented for. The co-emergence of this is how you’re decent, this is how you’re compassionate, this is how you’re creative, and oh that’s how you’re a little insert your adjective here from your own sangha experience.
And then there’s the Buddha, which is that we have to believe that somebody, you don’t have to believe they’re completely enlightened, and I like Kenneth’s model of being at the tipping point but not at the point of no room for improvement. But you have to believe that they know something in our DIY culture that maybe you don’t know yet or haven’t integrated fully into your experience. So this is kind of my conundrum because this year I was empowered as a senior teacher and lineage holder so I have to be a little bit more fire and brimstone. And I also have the experience of getting a lot of emails because the interdependence project has a podcast. I think it’s not quite as popular as the Buddhist Geeks podcast. But you know it’s all right. We’re less geeky. We’re the cool the kids. We’re less popular now. There’s been a switch. And then the next thing people say is, how do I study further? You know how do I find a teacher I’m in Wisconsin? How do I find the sangha? And it’s hard because we’re still at a phase where the interest is greatly outstripping I think the number of teachers who are actually saying I would like to work with people, the number of sangha that people can actually find. But the thing that we have to understand about this is what is the difference between surface dharma and depth dharma.
I love surface dharma. I am a peddler of surface dharma. All of the social networking things. Social networking is great. The fact that we can do that is amazing. I mean you don’t actually have 3,000 friends. That might be…If you actually did, you’d probably go nuts, right? So there’s a little falsehood there but the fact that you can actually experience that you’re connected to 3,000 other people that’s wonderful. The fact that you can send messages to them, the fact that people can receive in their inbox little just ‘be compassionate today’. And then people say, oh yeah, I got that quote from Sharon Salzberg in my inbox and I remembered to be compassionate when I was in traffic. That’s great. But we should understand that it’s surface. And the thing that our DIY cheap commodified information culture has a tendency to do is make the surface all there is. Because when we dwell on the surface what starts happening is you start to be a scatter-brain. And in terms of attention, depth requires you to actually not be a scatter-brain. That’s almost the definition of depth. That you would actually be able to stay with something to penetrate it and to go deeper.
So deep dharma is the three jewels which means teachers, like finding them, seeking them out, working with them, arguing with them, which is something since my tradition derives from Tibetan Buddhism that I think our DIY culture can bring to the table that was missing in Asia. Like you can actually debate your teacher. You should. What are you talking about Rinpoche? That would be good. I’m also a college professor so I know this. So there’s a lot of room for that.
And then sangha, sangha is really the key to the societal aspect of these teachings. And I think if we’re going to actually have something to say to the world, and especially a world that’s in the midst of profound loss in the sense of community, which is really odd that a profound loss of a sense of community is happening the same time that social networking is taking off. It’s a really weird co-emergent time. We have to participate in human sangha. We have to actually go and encourage other people to say turn off your computer for a little while, you can turn it back on later, go find other people to meditate with. Go find other people to then hang out with. When the interdependence project started developing a real group was the moment that we started taking our practice, and this is just a very simple thing, after class we would say does anybody want to go and get dinner. That’s human connection. It’s not Second Life dinner you know. You have to eat actual dinner. There’s falafel out there people until the cyborgs take over, which my father is obsessed with Ray Kurzweil so maybe they will, we have to get dinner ourselves. And that’s the key deeply understanding these teachings and making human connections with other.
So anyway I think that’s all in my ironic slightly hypocritical iPad 2 owning sense that I’d like to say. But thank you all for having me. It’s great to be amongst all the geeks. So thank you.