In a recent interview for the KGNU public radio program Sacred Lines, Buddhist Geeks Vincent Horn and Rohan Gunatillake have a discussion about what it means to be a modern Buddhist practitioner, how technology can complement Buddhist practice, and how geekery and meditation meld. They use the Buddhist Geeks project and buddhify mobile app as illustrations of how they’re experimenting with these various topics.
This is part one of a two part series.
Samira: I’m Samira Rajabi and you are listening to Sacred Lines, a collaboration between KGNU Boulder Radio and CU’s Center for Media, Religion and Culture. Today, we are speaking with Vincent Horn, founder of Buddhist Geeks, and Rohan Gunatillake, founder of the meditation web app Buddhify. Welcome gentleman. Thank you for being with us today.
Vincent: Thank you.
Rohan: Thank you. Do you mind if I just say it’s not a web app?
Samira: Yes. What is it?
Rohan: It’s a phone app.
Samira: A mobile app. Okay.
Samira: So first we wanted to talk to each of you about how you conceive of Buddhism, before we get into the different technology that you’ve created around Buddhism.
Vincent: Well Buddhism is interesting from my perspective cause it is conceived in many different ways. The way that I’ve approached it is as more as sort of an inner technology, a way of transforming the mind. Now that’s a very western and modern understanding of Buddhism. Of course, the roots in the tradition that point to that and yet practicing it in a way where its sort of a little bit removed from those some of the historical cultural pieces is a new thing in a lot of ways.
So I basically approach Buddhism as a model which supports one in transforming certain patterns of mind. So it’s fundamentally focused on the interior subjective experience of the individual. And there are some very important ethical pointers toward how does one live a meaningful life, how does one interact without causing harm to other beings, to other people. And then in a modern context, there’s all sorts of question around how does one interact with the environment, the world, the ecology, etc. And those are big questions as a modern Buddhist I ponder.
Rohan: I guess Buddhism is interesting as a religion in contrast to some other of the major religions around the world in that there’s always sort an open question. Is Buddhism a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, a practice? Whereas for Islam and Christianity, there’s never a debate whether it’s a religion because of what have been said. It has this focus of this inner work, inner practice which can be, doesn’t necessarily have to come with the more religious trappings but it can do as well. And so it has that flexibility which makes it, the other religion, traditions do that, but Buddhism is one of the most significant which has that flexibility. So it’s totally feasible to say that one is a Jew or Christian or an atheist and have a Buddhist practice of sort and that’s quite interesting.
Samira: Those definitions in mind and those conceptions of Buddhism and how to practice Buddhism, how would you define or would you define a modern day Buddhist practitioner?
Vincent: Well it’s difficult to define a modern day Buddhist practitioner in some ways because of how the modern context is so different depending on where you are. Like one modern context could be I’m an urban, I live in New York City, I lived an urban lifestyle, I work in an advertising agency. My life is really intense. I have a relationship, no kids, etc. And the way I relate to Buddhism in that context would be very different than someone who maybe lives in like a rural area. So it’s really difficult to define, like, this is what makes a modern Buddhist.
Rohan: I would say that sort of going back to the different question which is what is a Buddhist practitioner and then we can add the modern bit later. So a Buddhist practitioner is someone who takes what has come before with regards to tradition, the various traditions, and finds something within that or multiple things within that tradition, a set of traditions, which resonates for them and tries to make it work for them. And so that’s the history of Buddhism as its developed.
Add the modern bit in now we’ve got context and settings like the ad guy in Manhattan which is radically different to other context in which Buddhist practitioners have found themselves in. And that’s what makes the modern Buddhist practitioner that they don’t have a lot of history to fall back on or models to fall back on how to actually make this stuff work and sing in the urban relational digital modern life.
Samira: So given that basic understanding we now have of how you both conceive of Buddhism and people that practice Buddhism, Vincent, can you explain to us what Buddhist Geeks is in your words and why you created it?
Vincent: Sure. One way of describing Buddhist Geeks is its sort of like an NPR program for text savvy Buddhist. But it’s a little bit more than that in that people aren’t just listening to the content that we create for Buddhist Geeks. They are also gathering together more as like a practice community to get together, share ideas, figure out how to do this whole Buddhist thing in the modern world. And so in that sense there’s a very real community aspect to Buddhist Geeks.
Part of the reason I created it was actually just as a side project while I was finishing my undergraduate degree. And I looked out into the Buddhist media landscape at the time and I just didn’t see certain conversations happening, in particular conversations with younger practitioners or teachers. And I also noticed that there were some fringe voices or perspectives that I had encountered in the Buddhist world that also weren’t included in, let’s just put it nicely, to the boomer Buddhist media world.
So a friend and I started the podcast in order to have those conversations which we didn’t see happening. And we just decided at one point we have to do this because no one else is. And that’s really how it started and really how it took off. I guess there are other people that also were interested in these conversations.
Samira: Great. And Rohan, can you kind of give us an explanation as to what Buddhify is and does and why you created that?
Rohan: Sure. So Buddhify is a mobile app. And there are lots of meditation apps out there, but what’s sort of special to Buddhify is that it’s designed specifically for people to learn and practice meditation whilst on the go. So if you’re at the gym, if you’re traveling around town, if you’re walking around town, the meditations are designed specifically for those locations.
So what it does is what I call reverse engineer of how meditation is normally taught. So typically you’ll go to a class or course in a sort of stylized quiet environment with a teacher, say like a Tuesday night for six weeks sort of thing. And then once you’ve learned the basics of the practice, which will be mainly practicing sort of at home quietly on a cushion or a chair, that sort of thing, then the invitation to that student is to then try and apply what they’ve learned to the rest of life.
Buddhify just starts the other way around and teaches you meditation in the field. So it re-frames the city you live in as a meditation space, as a space by which you can develop the qualities that mindfulness meditations do allow. And so whilst the classes and courses are often very good, the reason I essentially made it was that there are lots of people who are interested in, and meditation has got a good PR department at the moment. Like there’s a lot of research and news and interest in that that’s growing and will continue to grow.
And so I was seeing and was talking to a lot of people around my age who were interested in meditation but there was always a “but”. So that was interesting to me as what is stopping that person to go to that class or course. And invariably was to do with time or to do with perception that the classes were quite hippy, let’s call it hippy or woo woo as you North Americans like to say. I like that phase.
So I took those two things of the woo woo-ness and the time issue and thought well given there’s been a long history of audio mediations and just look around to how people were listening to audio which is through their phones, walking around. Why not create meditation specifically for that? So that all I have to do is convinced you to listen to Buddhify rather than Justin Bieber, which is a much smaller behavior change to going to a class or course which you might not have time to do and which you might have the time to do but feel that its not your kind of place because the people there they don’t look like you or talk like you. And so that’s why I made Buddhify.
Samira: So does that lead to why you have the tagline on your website “a meditation app for hipsters, not hippies”?
Rohan: Yeah. I do like a sound bite. But that sort of does sum it up in that there’s a lot of cultural baggage that comes with Buddhism meditation the whole spiritual thing. And that’s more accident of history rather than intrinsic thing to the practice. Because of that generation of people that really touch that set of practices from Asia and brought them over and really resonate with them happened to be in the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s. And so, a lot of the western expressions of this stuff imbued with those elements, that esthetic. And as someone whose experience of meditation practice has been in a completely different context, of an urban sort of more, certainly more hipster than hippie. I know that meditation doesn’t have to be like that. And so there’s a demand and a clear interest in this stuff, but the supply doesn’t speak to the people who are looking for it. And so that problem needs to be solved and Buddhify is one offering into that.
Samira: That’s really great. And you’ve both kind of touched on our next question, which is who is this technology directed at and who cares about this site or this app, and you touched on the demographic and who you really target but…
Rohan: Can I just say one thing which is relevant. Which is Buddhify isn’t Buddhist. It is and it isn’t. It is in that the content is heavily inspired and based on meditation in the Buddhist tradition but there’s nothing explicitly dogmatic of Buddhist about it, which is a nice benefit of what we spoke about before of how Buddhism has this fluid flexible nature which you can take on and not have to name it as such.
And so people will ask me like well is Buddhify like sort a stealth way to get loads of Brooklyn hipsters to become Buddhist. And that’s really the last thing we want. So its interesting how, cause we’re seeing a lot of mindfulness meditation practice being popular, and where people are connecting with it are when it’s presented in a way that doesn’t have the religious stuff.
KGNU Producer: You said that Buddhify is, although it’s Buddhist inspired, that it’s not aiming to get or turn the Brooklyn hipsters into Buddhist. Do you think that this app, in addition to sites like Buddhist Geeks, do you think that it’s kind of a gateway into becoming Buddhist? Have you heard any positive…?
Rohan: Yeah. So one of the objectives of Buddhify is to what I call “widen the funnel.” So of a thousand people who have tried Buddhify and have enjoyed it, for many that might just be enough. For some of those who really like it, they make decision to go to, finally they feel I can go to that class or course cause I understand, I mean the activation barrier is now lower.
And for some people it might open up a whole new thing which is they have an initial experience of looking into their mind and seeing the contents and seeing that there is an inner life which can be cultivated and explored. And then they start pulling at that thread and that thread ends up in sort of a traditional Buddhist context, it might end up in a Christian contemplative context, all sort of context, so yeah, very much.
For me it’s all about this core idea of lowering the barrier to help explore their inner lives. I’m agnostic as to whether people then go on and I don’t recommend the next step. It’s not like Buddhify doesn’t say, the only next step it suggest is actually go and see someone, go to something face to face. If you like this go to and that will help you cause this stuff requires support and guidance. And an app is highly limited by what it can do in that. But it does open that first step up very much so. Yeah.
Samira: Can you speak to that same question of who you think this technology is geared at in your community?
Vincent: Yeah. It’s interesting because part of what Buddhist Geeks and I think Buddhify as well are geared at are folks that are interested in their inner worlds. And what’s so interesting, even with something called Buddhist Geeks, many of the folks who listen to our podcast and come to the conference that we do each year, they don’t self identify as Buddhist. In fact, they’re very skeptical of that label. I, myself, am very skeptical of any sort of identity that one can try to hold onto, which is one of the key premises in Buddhism anyway.
So it’s interesting. We’re really just throwing it out there. And I think people who are interested in it generally tend to be sort of text savvy, cause there’s a certain high barrier to entry. You have to know how to download a podcast and go on iTunes and stuff like that. In the case of Buddhify, you need to have an iPhone to be able to download an app or an android phone.
Rohan: Thankfully enough people know how to do that.
Vincent: Yeah. There are a lot of people that do, but it does tend to mean that the people who get interested in these sort of things tend to be younger than the folks who would get interested in some of the other forms of Buddhist practice.
Rohan: And that’s very much led by the fact of who we are and our own lives and our ages and context and background.
Vincent: Which is just normal.
Vincent: For almost any sort of offering.
Rohan: Yeah, exactly. But it’s not normal for Buddhism.
Vincent: It hasn’t been normal for Buddhism. So we’re sort of taking the torch and running with it.
Rohan: Yeah, which is inevitable like someone was going to do it, it just happens to be us. We’re two of the people who are doing it.
Samira: Are there people who don’t like what you’re doing? Is there any kind of push back?
Vincent: Of course, there’s always push back and always people who don’t like what you’re doing. In the case of Buddhist Geeks, it’s a fairly progressive approach to Buddhism. Some of the folks who are involved in Buddhist Geeks call it a post-modern Buddhism. And in that sense, people who are very wedded to a certain notion of how Buddhism has to look and how it has to be practiced and what sort of rituals are involved, what sort of relationships one has with the teacher or with the community you’re part of, those folks I suspect don’t maybe appreciate how we’re approaching things in a much more wide angle sort of way.
I wouldn’t say we got a lot of hate mails from those folks, they just do their thing. And then other folks that are more modern oriented, they may have a model or system they most preference, and yet they’re open to kind of hearing about and exploring other approaches. And for those people I think there’s often some tension when they hear of approaches or ways of looking at Buddhism that are a little bit tangential to their own practice and there’s definitely some push back, but I’d say it’s a healthy push back in the sense that their perspectives are being challenged. And its not that they’re sort of clinging to their idea and saying no other approach is right. They’re sort of just widening their kind of minds to include another way of looking at this. And so for those people, we get kind of a healthy push back. And it’s one that’s quite constructive.
Rohan: Well for Buddhify I might tell you a fun story in that I was giving a talk at the Buddhist Geeks conference last year and it was before the launch of Buddhify. I was talking about apps and Buddhism and technology, and I did mention Buddhify briefly. And a lady did come to talk to me afterwards. It clearly like pressed some button for her, this idea of contemporary technology and Buddhism has some sort of cognitive dissonance that was inherent to Buddhism.
And she had this idea clearly of what I was like because I was working in this way. And she was saying “do you ever go camping? Do you ever go out to like spend time in nature?” And I was like yeah I went like two weeks ago I was in Scotland doing some camping in the highlands. She was just really, she felt that it was almost like a caricature of the sort of hippy generation meeting the idea of actually, because there can be a subtle anti-digital-ness to certain generations and anti-modernness to certain generations. And again they’re tangling it up with their spiritual practice and seeing them as being connected. This was a really striking exchange. And then about six months later, I got an email and she said do you remember I met you in the conference and I download Buddhify and I’m loving it. She’s a very experienced practitioner, decades of practice, but the idea of urban meditation and practice in the city was new to her. Buddhify is not designed for people with really long experience. It’s much more of an introductory. But it bought some value to her.
And that sort of summarized a lot of this about any criticism that comes through or question tends to be in theory. But when you actually look at it, try the product, it’s actually, it is what it is and it has integrity and it has authenticity in it as well. So I think it’s like any, often like when there’s a sense of that something has been offended. So whether it’s an idea that technology and spiritual practice can’t get together has been offended, that often is just, if there’s an issue with that people rarely then go and actually try the thing. So that was an experience that was quite striking.
Vincent: And what’s so interesting to me about this experience Rohan’s describing and this tension that we’ve often talked about where it’s sort of an inter-generational tension of technology and spirituality not seeming compatible. The thing that I always get back to is if you look at the core Buddhist practice and what it’s focusing on, it’s all about transcending on helpful dichotomies or dualities as the sort of traditional Buddhist term for that. And any time there’s a duality, anytime there’s a sense of this verus that and they’re completely opposed, there’s automatically a struggle that ensues internally and collectively.
Rohan: Yeah. I summarized that if you draw a line you start a war.
Vincent: Exactly. So there’s a this and that and then there’s a war between them. So part of what we’re trying to do in some ways is to breakdown some of those dichotomies and dualities and say: actually it may or may not be the case that spirituality and technology are at odds. And if you look at the kind of the emergence of the personal computer evolution, a lot of it was driven by very spiritual people who were doing LSD and practicing meditation. Steve Jobs is famous for being a serious Zen practitioner.
Rohan: Before him there was the Kevin Kelly’s, yeah, the Stuart Brands. The relationship between hippy and hacker has been really significant in the story of the web. And so its nice to see this new emergence of, I think which we’re one part of, of the coming together of this conversation between spiritual practice and technology and how we can actually use this in support of each other. And they’re not intrinsically in conflict.
And also it is a generational thing and Buddhist Geeks and Buddhify aren’t meant to be for everyone. And so there will be people who don’t like it or it’s not relevant for them. Like for example people with long term Buddhist practice. They know way more than me, so they know way more than Buddhify content, so it’s fine that they don’t engage with it.
Samira: Do you think that in kind of interrupting these false dichotomies or interrupting these binaries that have been set up that you’re acting defensively kind of in anticipation of that push back of transcending that idea of spirituality and technology not being able to go hand in hand?
Vincent: I’d say sometimes I feel like it’s a defense. And then most of the time I feel like it’s an invitation, actually, for people to step outside of a way of engaging with these ideas where there is a feeling of being at odds, because in my own internal experience, it’s not at odds. And part of the reason it’s probably just because of our life situation, my life situation where I grew up using computers, using technology, and being exposed to contemplative practices and searching for ways to make sense of those two things together.
So yes sometimes I get defensive and sometimes it’s sort of like a personal thing. But most of the time it’s just like hey check it out. These aren’t things that have to be at odds and when they’re not at odds it feels really good.
Samira: So the next question I think that we’ve kind of addressed from the outside and it makes me chuckle the way that it’s going to be asked. But how do geekery and meditation work together?
Rohan: Pretty perfectly because geekery is sort of, think of it as almost like an obsessive relationship to things. So you can be an architecture geek or Apple products geek or whatever, a Mad Men geek. And for meditation and mindfulness practice to really sing, it requires an element of geekery, an element of dedication, interest, socialization. Cause geeks are by definition I think, so one of my favorite definitions of a geek is someone who socializes around objects. So someone who spends times around people with similar interest and that is totally essential for progressing and deepening in not just Buddhism but other spiritual practices.
Vincent: And in this case the object is sort of an inner object.
Vincent: It’s an object of one’s inner world.
Rohan: So for Buddhist Geeks the quest of their object I think, so the formal object I think is the podcast, but the actual real object is this question of what is it to be a contemplative practitioner in the 21st century. And that’s the question that convenes all the people. So for example like Vince said there’s a Buddhist Geeks conference and there’s quite a range of type of people there. People who are the sort of archetypal geek like the sort of tech savvy slightly socially awkward person but then they also have like…
Vincent: Including us.
Rohan: Including us, of a certain age. But they also have people of all sorts of backgrounds but they have the shared interest. Again it’s this question of like dualities. Like asking the question implies a duality. But if you don’t have for example this idea, for Buddhify the duality is, or the thing that people get caught about, is the side of urban meditation of like not just the technology but the fact of it being in the city. And if that is your experience of meditation, like as it is for me of someone who when I first started getting into meditation I was doing a very intense busy job in London. But that was my experience and so there was no duality between the two. People who would ask me about it were creating a duality. They’re bringing their own duality to it. But I was learning and exploring how to progress my practice in this stuff.
Vincent: The other interesting thing about the relationship between geekery and meditation is that geeks are often really interested in taking things apart and seeing how they work. And so that actually comes in incredibly handy when you’re being introduced to a meditation practice. Because once you understand the basic principles and practices, and this isn’t a traditional approach necessarily, but it’s very useful then to be able to take apart the meditation practice and look at how does this function, how does it work for me.
Because one of the kind of myth for meditation is it’s the same for everyone, and in fact it’s not the same for everyone. People relate to different techniques differently. They get certain kinds of results from certain things that other people wouldn’t. And so being able to kind of deconstruct and understand the mechanics of how things work and then to actually rebuild it in a way that optimizes its impact on the individual is an incredibly useful skill. And it may be one of the reasons, I think, that a modern approach to meditation may actually make meditation more effective for modern people. I could be wrong about that but I suspect it may be the case.
Rohan: And I think that is key around the geek thing. The difference between a fan and a geek, a fan of Harry Potter just buys all the books. A geek writes fan fiction. They make their own world and they make social groups around Harry Potter stuff. And it is this thing around making personalization, pulling apart, socializing which I think are really important in modern Buddhism.
Vincent: I wish you’d use a sexier analogy than Harry Potter to describe what we’re doing.
Rohan: What? Like Fifty Shades of Grey?