Lately, I’ve been asking the question: What is Buddhist Geeks?
Like every good question, each time I ask the answer changes. In the beginning the answer was, “It’s a podcast where we interview geeky Buddhists about things we don’t see being talked about anywhere else.” Recently, one of my close friends answered the question by saying, “It’s a conversation that became a podcast, that become a website, that became a conference, that became a community.” At a more recent point the answer was that Buddhist Geeks exists to serve a question. The question being: “How can we serve the convergence of the time-tested practices and models of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology and a global culture?” Put another way: “How can we help bring Buddhism into the 21st century?”
Now, to be honest, I’m not really a typical Buddhist, so it’s strange to be asking this question. I’ve found the teachings and techniques in various Buddhist traditions extremely helpful, personally. I’ve studied them extensively, both in theoretical and practical terms, and in the process have found them to be radically lacking in many respects. Just as with other religious traditions there are a lot of out-moded philosophies, unnecessarily esoteric translations, and myopic views about the meaning of life.
One of the reasons for this, I suppose, is that every domain of human knowledge thinks–sometimes subtly and sometimes more unabashedly–that it has the most important piece of the puzzle. The contemplative domain, of which Buddhism is a part, is no different. We often think, as Buddhists, that what’s really missing in the world is awakened awareness, or a mindful approach to life, or deeper compassion towards oneself and all beings. Likewise, artists think that what’s missing is more beauty in the world, more opportunity for creative expression, etc. Scientists think that we need a deeper understanding into the fundamental operations of the universe, of biology, physics, and so on. Technologists think we need smarter technologies which can solve the world’s problems–or at least the end users problems. Politicians… well, I’m not sure what politicians think anymore. 😉
My point being, nearly everyone seems to think that their domain of expertise or interest is what the world sorely needs the most. But why is that? Part of the reason, I suspect, is because they’re half-right. The world does need more people with deeper mindfulness and compassion, does need a world with more beauty, smarter technology, etc. Without these things our world would probably fly apart at the seams. But is our particular focus really the key? I don’t think so anymore. I think it’s actually pretty arrogant and also self-referential to think that our specialization is the one that will make everything better. But, as many of you well know, a self-referential view is part of the human condition, and understanding the human condition is part of what brings greater wisdom into how to work with it. So, how could we work with this particular kind of arrogance?
My own impulse has to been to expand my interests beyond my favorite domain(s). In doing so I’ve met many interesting people who are doing the same, but from within different domains. What would happen, if instead of thinking we had the missing piece, we started to get curious about what other missing pieces were out there, and how we might interface with them? Well, the first thing that happens, at least for me, is overwhelm! There are so many different domains, so many experts, so many points of view, that it rattles one’s mind to try and take it all in. But it also does something really important, which is to loosen our identifications. We start to ease up on thinking that we are doing the most important work in the world. And that actually creates a sense of humility, humor, and spaciousness that allows for something wholly unpredictable to emerge.
Now back to the question: What is Buddhist Geeks?
Ever since seeing that Buddhism isn’t the end-all-be-all (not even in a subtle way), I’ve felt a deeper calling to respond to what the world actually wants and needs. I’ve spent more time speaking with people who don’t have an interest in Buddhism per say, but who care about what it’s pointing to. The shift, in short, has been to try and understand what is actually happening, instead of projecting my ideas about what should be happening onto life and having it conform. Sound familiar?
Earlier this year, while at SXSW–a large music, film, and technology conference in Austin, TX–I spoke at length with a young woman who works at Google. When she found out that I worked on a project called “Buddhist Geeks” she immediately acknowledged, “Oh, I love meditation!” It turns out she had tried meditation and has found it incredibly useful. Seeing an opening here I asked her about her feelings toward Buddhism. She responded that, “It seems cool, but I haven’t been that interested because it also seems like a really complex system that would take a long time to learn.” Now, she clearly could learn it, if she really wanted to (Google doesn’t tend to hire inept folks), but because it was so complex, and likely a time-consuming endeavor, she didn’t have the interest in doing so. And who can blame her? When confronted with a choice between learning a complex and foreign system or learning a practical tool that could lead to immediate benefits, she choose the path of least resistance. During that same conference, I spoke with many other folks, asking them similar questions. The response was across-the-board the same. Many people have a hunger for some sort of inner practice, but not an interest in Buddhism. At least not as they understand it.
Now what makes me feel that there’s something that Buddhist Geeks still has to offer–despite being “Buddhist”–is that one way of understanding what Buddhism is pointing to, is to see that attachment to any idea, point of view, or identity is going to cause an unnecessary impedance to the flow of reality. In Buddhist parlance, the result is often called suffering. The thing is, reality doesn’t give a shit about our identities. It keeps changing anyway. And from this point of view a Buddhist identity is just as problematic as any other identity. As Jon Kabat-Zinn has pointed out, seeing this is what makes you a real Buddhist.
But hey, lets be real, most people interested in Buddhism are latching onto it as a new identity. I did for years. It’s safe and it gives one solid answers–even if those answers have to do with noticing a lack of solidity. It gives one something to wrap one’s mind around. When done in this way Buddhist practice is a way to explore, but a fairly limited one. One assimilates the models and beliefs of the systems, and through that assimilation narrows the field of what can be investigated, what can be realized from that investigation, and how it can put it into words. That’s the awful side of institutionalization–it often crushes the spirit of exploration and innovation. And Buddhism, when practiced as an “ism”, does that as well.
Part of what has kept me working on Buddhist Geeks is that as a community we’re asking some of these tough questions, we’re peeking behind the curtain, and we’re doing it together. We’re seeing that perhaps Buddhism is “going to have to die to be reborn in the West”–this is the sub-title from one of the most recent keynotes at the Buddhist Geeks Conference. And many of you us are open to it radically changing, so that it can become more relevant and accessible. That’s what separates this conversation from so many others happening in the religious world (and frankly the world-at-large). This is why I continue to ask the question, “What is Buddhist Geeks?” There’s something here–though perhaps it’s not the secret ingredient that’s going to change the world–but that without would leave things tasting awfully dull.