BG 264: McLuhan and Buddhism: How is the Medium Changing the Message?

Episode Description:

What is the message of Buddhism today? Self-improvement? A fulfilling life? An understanding of the mysteries of the human condition? How does McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message” apply now that people are connecting with Buddhism in radically different ways?

In this episode, taken from the Buddhist Geeks Conference in 2012, Ken McLeod explores how McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message” might apply to Buddhism.

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Ken McLeod:    Very wonderful to be here. This is the second time I’ve been presenting at Buddhist Geeks. And Vince asked me to say before I start my own presentation to say a few words about the Buddhist Geeks conference and what I see is happening with it.  Last year after the Buddhist Geeks conference, I got a call from a reporter saying “Well that was nice, we got together, we had a nice time and everybody went home and so what’s the big deal?”

You know which is typically what happens at conferences. And I said you know that really wasn’t my experience. I saw this as a pivotal game changing moment in the development of Buddhism in the west. And the reason is at that conference in the Los Angeles I sensed that a conversation had begun about Buddhism in this country, but also in the west and even more broadly in the modern world.

A conversation which people had been seeking for at least 20 years but no venue had ever been created for that conversation to take place. And I think it is the genius in Buddhist Geeks starting with the podcast where they started interviewing teacher after teacher. Was it 250 teachers now or something Vince? So it’s like over five years one teacher a week that’s about 250 teachers. All of the different aspects what actually is happening in Buddhism. This is available on the web. It’s a huge resource.  And that has attracted a different kind of interest because it is free from the Asian structures, which had been extremely important and part of the transition but is something that has to evolve and change as Buddhism comes into the west.

And so we have here today the opportunity to have a conversation which is relatively free of the Asian structures particularly the seating arrangements. You know higher thrones and things like that. I am, arguably along with several of my colleagues here, a senior teacher in the Buddhist tradition but nobody is treating me like that here. I’m just one of everybody. So we’re completely free from the usual hierarchical stuff. And the third thing, the thing that’s really important is this is an inter-generational gathering. We have people from every generation. And that’s very unusual in America today. The only other time that you get inter-generational meetings is at weddings. (laughter)  And then it really shows up cause they all dance differently. (laughter)

So I had the pleasure of getting to know Vince and his wife Emily when they lived in Los Angeles for a year. And as I said to Vince yesterday I really miss my hiking buddy. Cause we would get up early and go for a like three or four hour hike in Topanga National Park just outside LA. And we’d have these long conversations about things. It was great. And the inter-generational differences were wonderful. As we are leaving I said now to get to this place you go here and here and here. And Vince turned to me in my car and said “How quaint Ken. You’re giving me directions.”  (laughter)

So I really want to take my hat off to Buddhist Geeks because I think what they’re making possible is something that really needs to happen. And I really hope that you engage this conference with this kind of spirit of participating in a conversation which I think is very important. Okay.  (applause)

And now for something completely different. Winter is coming. The summer of affluence is over. There are forces at work in the world which in my characteristically Eeyore pessimistic view, threaten the very foundations of western civilization.

I’m not talking just about climate change, environmental issues, although those are certainly very high on the agenda. But I’m also talking about the emergence of a global elite which is making a mistake, that elites have [made] historically, that they can get along without the rest of us. So, the upshot of this is that we are entering an age which is probably going to be different from the extraordinarily benign circumstances which I and my generation grew up in. Things are getting harsher. Resources are more limited.

The Club of Rome’s Limitations of Growth may have been a little bit premature in the 60s but we may actually be hitting some limits now. And when this happens, when things start to change as Blake said, or no Yeats I think, the centers fall apart. And people move to the left or the right. And how things evolve depends very significantly on that. Historically, when things fall apart, the preponderance of people move to the right because they are afraid. They are afraid based on exactly what we know in Buddhism, the three marks. They fear for their survival. They try to avoid the pain. And they struggle to hold on to their identity and who they think they are.

Unfortunately, you cannot build a society; you cannot build a civilization based on anger and fear. Anger and fear are simply the tools by which those who have power can manipulate the population. And I think we can see this in our world today not only in this country but elsewhere. A lot of what we’re doing here is talking about technology and people are looking to technology to mitigate or free us from this kind of evolution. So this morning what I want to do is to talk very seriously about a different way of thinking about technology and to a lesser extent innovation.

And if this is a little rough I have to ask for your indulgence. I had a talk plan. Yesterday I went for a walk with my friend Hokai who is here and he made a few comments on my ideas. They were very helpful. And though he wasn’t aware of this the result was I completely rewrote my talk an hour and a half ago. So thank you, Hokai. It is, well you will judge. Pardon?

Hokai:    I’ll never talk to you again. (laughter)

Ken:    It’s what friends are for. I actually am extremely grateful because it was very very helpful. So we tend to think of technology as this kind of things computers, electronic stuff. That’s certainly one way to think about it. But technology in its broader sense is a systematic way of doing things. And there are many different technologies. Chinese developed technologies from metallurgy 4000 years ago. Buddhism is extraordinary rich in spiritual technologies. One of the great inventions, I think it’s possibly the greatest invention of the 20th century, is the psychological technology for being able to stop the passing on of dysfunctional family patterns in one generation. If you refer to the Bible it says “..for the Lord thy God is a jealous god visiting with iniquity the sins of the father unto the children nigh unto the seventh generation.”

Which is a way of saying family disfunctions take seven generations to play themselves out. We now have the technology due to Virginia Satir and others to stop this in one generation. That’s extraordinary. And innovation people think of it as doing something new. That’s nonsense. Almost all innovations consist of taking something that already exists and applying it in an area that it hasn’t been applied before. Like the printing press which is one of the great technological innovations combined movable type which had been around for a long time but it didn’t become a printing press until it was combined with the wine press because that developed enough pressure to actually make it hit the paper. And if you look at other technology innovation it’s the same thing, old things in new situations.

So today, I’m borrowing from Marshall McLuhan, who is a Canadian English professor in the 60s, and he had some very interesting observations about technology. And out of his thinking I’m just going to use one of his principles that whenever a new technology or a new medium emerges, four things happen simultaneously. An ability is enhanced, that’s the first one: enhancement. Something is made obsolete. That’s the second. Third something is brought back from the past. You can call that retrieval. And fourth: it creates its own negation. You can call that reversal or negation. I call that negation.

So EORN: enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval, negation. Write those down cause I don’t have a slide up. We’re going to be using those all through this. Now what I want to do is to, with each of one of this, there’s just a couple of important points. Enhancement of an ability always leads to imbalance because when you’re enhanced in one way you pay less attention to other things. So how many of you are aware of your body when you’re at your computer. So that’s what I mean. And McLuhan’s term for this was auto anesthesia. Second, obsolescence doesn’t mean the thing disappear it means its position changes.

Things don’t just die out completely. It’s just their ranking, their importance, their influence shift but they’re still around usually. There are still people driving horse and buggy even though we have cars. But they’re for special events or special circumstances or special cultures. Retrieval always involves bringing an older technology or the principle of an older technology back. Facebook for instance brings back the principle of living in a small town. Everybody knows everything about you. In a small town you live everybody knows everything about you. On Facebook everybody knows everything about you. You can’t keep any secrets. And negation is from a [Taoist] point of view the way innovation balances itself. We all know about this. How many of you live in large cities? How many of you experience gridlock?

That’s the negation with the technology of the car. Just to give you an example of this. Online information technology: It increases the accessibility. Everything is available. So it enhances individual exploration. It makes obsolete the need to travel, the need to store information in libraries and so forth cause they’re all online and available to everybody. What does it retrieve? It retrieves the sense of an individual path because when things become standardized knowledge then you have to conform to those standards. But with this total wide open accessibility you’re once again free to find your own path in whatever subject matter you’re interested in. And its negation it becomes the tower of Babel. You don’t know what’s good and what’s bad. It’s very difficult to assess quality so you’re floundering in the sea of information of fragmented attention because there’s so much. That’s just one example of application.

Now I want to turn to Buddhism. Buddhism has successfully, some would say unsuccessfully coped with several changes in technology historically. The first one is development of money. Money developed in India around the beginning of the [Common Era] gave rise to a middle class. If you run through the enhancement, it enhances the ability to trade. It makes obsolete the need to bring your cattle and things to market. Creates a common currency so it makes obsolete fluctuating values. It retrieves from the past the sense of unlimited possibility because once you move into a trade economy the amount of wealth you can generate is not limited by the land. And so you have these infinite resources, which is how people, the first humans felt about life because there were very few of them so the resources were infinite.

And its negation is it creates banks which then control the economy and sap wealth out of it exactly the way that we’re experiencing now. Its effect on Buddhism is dramatic. It created a middle class that had sufficient affluence that they did not need to renounce life in order to practice. They had sufficient leisure through their wealth. This becomes codified or talked about in the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra where Vimalakīrti  is a layman who puts all of Buddha’s bodhisattvas and monks and the arhats and everybody to shame cause his realization is deeper. Extraordinary sutra. Saying top dog here is the layman not the monks, huge restructuring.

Arguably it gives rise to the Mahayana because the presence of money fundamentally changes the relationship between the laity and the monastics. And in the Theravadan tradition monks have to be served by lay people. And so they’re locked into a symbiotic relationship which provided tremendous stability. But if you allow monks to handle money and the Theravadans stayed with the original things and said no we’re not going to handle money, so they stayed in that symbiotic relationship. The Mahayana said we’ll handle money. So monasteries could become profit centers. And this changed their relationship. I got 5 minutes left, you’re kidding. (laughter) Thank you. It changed their relationship with the laity.

And you get Nalanda, these universities, you get the colleges and everything like that working in a very different way. So now I’m going to go like crazy.

Another technology that Buddhism encountered which led to significant changes was the printed word. The printed word xylograph, the woodblocks in Tibet and China and so forth allow for the standardization of knowledge. McLuhan argues that’s what makes democracy possible. Don’t count on it in all situations but it makes it possible. It makes slang, dialect, individual variation obsolete. Think of the L’Académie in French which was key in bringing the French language into creation. It retrieves the sense of a priesthood, an elite cast who control knowledge in terms of librarians and scholars and so forth.

And it negates itself by creating authoritarian structures and standardized paths which reduce the chance for individual exploration. And we can see this in Buddhism. You get the [lama] in text the genre in Tibetan Buddhism. It also leads to the divorce of mind and body. The whole idea of an intellectual understanding is possible because of this. And very significantly it froze the evolution of the sangha because they had written down the codes. And they had become legal codes and have never change and that has caused huge problems in today’s world.

What is happening now? Crafts are being turned into technologies. And one of the examples I want to give is MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. An appropriate analogy of this in my mind is aspirin. Aspirin was the first drug based on natural substances to be synthesized by German pharmaceutical companies. I’m not exactly sure of the date 1930s, 20th century.

What are the benefits of that? It’s scalable. It can be made in infinite quantities and help millions and millions of people. MBSR took the essential elements of meditation, reduced it to a very defined protocol, made it trainable in 4 to 6 weeks and has benefited hundreds of thousand if not millions of people now. When you isolate key components and make it like this we get the same kind of thing we’re talking about. It enhances access and benefit making it much more widely available. It makes obsolete traditional teachers such as me. Because it gives rise to people who specialize in this particular area and have much much deeper knowledge.

And so people like me, when I first started in LA people naturally came to me for meditation. Nobody comes to me for meditation anymore. They go to other places where everything is much simpler. They don’t have to deal with all the vagaries of tradition. It retrieves a sense of personal path. And the negation is everything becomes highly specialized. And so the holistic sense which you find in the original traditions is often lost.

Where are we going with all of this? Well, the challenge we have now is we have accessibility to so much information. And if we think of devices like iPhone and things like which engage, you know, the screen engages so much of our life. Sherry Turkle who is researcher at MIT says there are three very powerful fantasies that these technologies are now bringing to us.

One, that we will always be heard. Two, that we can choose whatever we pay attention. And three, we will never have to be alone. When the actual result of these technologies is that they destroy solitude but don’t necessarily create connection. The world created by Google, Facebook, etc. could move in the direction of people never leaving their own worlds because they’re being fed results that conform to their search interest and so forth. They only communicate with each other asynchronously through tweeting or text message or so forth. They have no solitude cause they’re constantly engaged but they don’t actually experience real connection and they lose their ability to have conversations.

This reflects our cosmology of isolated orbs in space, an infinite space which can only communicate if at all asynchronously because of the limitations of the speed of light. What do you do here? Joseph Campbell once said follow your bliss. I disagree. The way out of this is follow awe. Because the one thing that’s clear to me is that modern culture has systematically destroyed our relationship with awe. Awe is a very very important emotion. And through the presence of awe, it takes you out of your world into a sense of something that’s greater than you and to which you feel intimately connected, something greater than you to which you feel intimately connected. So if you want to keep a guiding principle which will steer you in this world of new technologies this is what I would suggest. Follow your awe.

Thank you.


Ken McLeod

Ken Mcleod is one of the more innovative teachers of Buddhism today. Known for his ability to explain difficult and subtle teachings, “he distills the nature and purpose of Buddhism to make it accessible for any newcomer without dumbing it down.” (Phil Catalfo, Yoga Journal, July 2001 in a review of Ken’s first book Wake up to Your Life).
Ken’s private practice model of one-on-one consultations roiled the Buddhist world in the ‘90s only to become an accepted way of working with students. In recent years, he has worked as a corporate consultant, advising executives from startups and Fortune 100 companies. With degrees in mathematics and years of experience in traditional Tibetan Buddhism, Ken is uniquely able to bridge the gap between contemporary life and traditional approaches to spiritual practice.

Website: Unfettered Mind