BG 275: Buddhism, Technology, and Quarter-Pounders

Episode Description:

Buddhist Geeks Vincent Horn and Rohan Gunatillake conclude their interview for the KGNU public radio program Sacred Lines by further discussing the intersections between Buddhism and Technology.  From the efficacy of mindfulness apps to the ubiquitous question of duality, the Geeks explore what it means to be Buddhist in a technologically advanced world.

This is part two of a two part series.

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Samira:    What do you think that this kind of wired up, technical approach can bring not just to contemporary Buddhism but to spirituality in general?

Rohan:    Well technology is the new normal and so by combining the two, spirituality can reclaim its seat as a central part of people’s lives or an accessible part of people’s lives. For me, it’s like the only reason Buddhify is an app is because people use apps. The only reason it’s on the phone is because that’s how people listen to music and listen to audio. And so making it as normal, so rather than it being a thing which is special lives in the mountain top, the forest, the temple or whatever or you have to wear robes or that whole thing, it looking like every other type of thing that you engage with and love about.

So it has the same production quality as something like if you’re really obsessed around sports or other type of things, it has that same quality and experience and is delivered through the media and language and aesthetic which is comfortable for you and is just native and natural. Cause if like if someone is used to really slick US TV shows and certain type of lifestyle, but the spiritual stuff looks really rubbish then they’re either going to be embarrassed or hide it away.

If they engage with it, they’ll just compartmentalize it as part of their life which is the tragedy of spiritual practice that it does live in a special place. And so by expressing it through the technology that people use then it becomes just a thing that you do.

Vincent:    The other piece I’d add around this is the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, he talked about how each new technology makes one thing obsolete but then it also brings something back from the past. And one thing that I’ve been noticing and I’ve heard other people talking about is how social media in particular brings something back from the past. Like if you’re on Facebook you’d notice that it’s like living in a small town where everyone knows what everyone else is doing all the time. And there’s something really beneficial about that if you’re part of a spiritual community because the traditional way that people developed their spiritual capacities were in small communities where relationships were a central means of learning. And so part of what we have now is a new expression of that where people kind of know what’s going on with each other all the time in small communities except it’s virtual.

And that virtuality enables people to gather in this sort of virtual collective or virtual pods that are more specifically geared around particular styles of practice or particular ideas about what they’re doing like shared purpose or shared aim. And I found that when that happens people tend to do a lot better than if they’re isolated and trying to figure things out by themselves. So that’s one way that I see spirituality is already changing and one way that technology is kind of impacting it and overall seems like a really positive trend. Although, there’s a question about what the downsides are. And it may be too early to tell. I’m not really sure. Except that it’s different being virtually based than it is being in person. There’s something that clearly gets missed in that experience.

Rohan:    Yeah. And I think another thing on this issue is I think that modern spiritually can start to change how we understand technology as well, which is the other way around. So it’s definitely not a one way thing. So the problem up to now with technology has been, in any social media, is that it fragments attention and distract the mind. Again is that because of that’s how technology is or is it just how technology has been made? So the primary driver for technology, for social media, is selling ads basically. So that’s the core mission of media selling sort of ad revenue. But if we change the core mission to be well-being or self-awareness or compassion then popular technologies will look quite a lot different. And I think its part of the evolution of digital media which is still in its nappies, diapers.

Something I always look at is like the story of where startups emerge. So the classic startup home is San Francisco in the Bay. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen the central gravity of that start to move to east side of the US and also Europe, which are more traditionally creative cities actually, and cultural cities, because technology is just about sexy, gadgety, wizardry gizmos. The actually code-y stuff, it wasn’t enough. They needed an aesthetic. It needed a cultural anchor. So we start to see the Pinterests, the gaming companies with beautiful aesthetics and they tend to come out of the east coast in the States and Europe, and San Francisco. So maybe the next phase is bringing not just the sort of cultural creativity but the spirituality, the self investigation, the well-being into that.

And I think we’re going to start to see not just people like us but people who are interested in this general area of well-being of the mind. That can be psychologist, neuro-scientists, meditators, being involved in the design of technologies and that would be a new way of how we experience it and how we understand technologies. Which is important because it’s so cheap to make an app.  Obviously, I spent thousands of dollars on it, but that’s relatively cheap. So it just democratizes, cause manufacturing has become democratized. People have the expertise around the mind and well-being and spirituality now have the tools to make the difference. Like five years ago, I could never have made Buddhify.  But it’s just the circumstances are where I can make a product that can get to all of the English speaking world with a smart phone which is a significant number of people. And all from essentially from my small flat at London at the time or Glasgow now and that’s remarkable.

Samira:    On the Buddhist Geeks website you’re quoted as saying “I’ve spent more time speaking with people who don’t have an interest in Buddhism per se but who care about what it’s pointing to.”  I’d be interesting in both of your opinions of what is Buddhism pointing to.

Vincent:    It’s hard to say that it’s pointing to one thing, although, it’s easy to think that it is. My own experience is that the further I’ve gone with my own inner practice, that’s been very shaped by Buddhism, the more it’s revealed to me about that which I don’t know. And that seems to be one of the meta qualities for me is the sense of every time I think I’ve got it or I’ve got the answer, I’ve had some experience that sort of gives me a conclusion about how things are or some experience where my sense of internal strife or suffering goes down quite a bit, suddenly there’s something new. There’s some new subtle thing.

There’s some new subtle idea that I was holding onto or some new subtle experience of tension, or some new dichotomy like oh it’s just my practice that’s important and it’s not the people around me or somehow my relationships are important. That’s not so subtle. It’s pretty gross. But each time I encounter some new subtle thing, then it brings up this new wave of questioning and investigation and interest and really having to fundamentally die to some idea or some identity that was there. And then finding myself in a new open space again and that process continuing.

There was a Zen master in Japan named Dogen who brought Zen from China to Japan, one of the main people to bring it across.  And he had this formulation for what the purpose of Buddhism was or the purpose of Buddhist practice. And he said one is you want to raise the bodhi mind. And what raising the bodhi mind means is you want to raise this feeling. Bodhi means awake. Raise this sort of desire, this longing to awaken, to awaken to something new. And then he said the second phase is to seek and attain enlightenment. So once you’ve raised that interest in finding out something new you want actually go for it and discover what it is you’re seeking. And then the third thing which really struck me is then cast it away. Whatever enlightenment you’ve gained or some new thing that you’ve realized you actually just let it go and you cast it away and then you repeat.

Rohan:    Start again. Yeah.

Vincent:    Like rinse and repeat.

And so for me, Buddhism if it’s pointing to anything, it’s pointing to this ongoing process of investigating life and investigating the world and my relationship to the world and continuing to see through those things, those resistances and those ways I struggle with reality itself instead of actually being in harmony with the way things are, the way things are actually happening. Again that’s a poetic way of pointing to one aspect of things. There’s many other aspects. That’s the cool part. It’s like a multifaceted jewel. There are many ways into the center and each one illuminates something new about reality. Because reality is so vast, it’s so huge. There’s so much going on here. So Buddhism is one way of looking into reality. And by no means the only way.

Samira:    So in looking at apps like Buddhify and you said there‘s many other meditation apps out there. First off, how do you think the app, and how does it actually facilitate the meditation? I mean I’ve looked at the app. But for listeners who haven’t looked at the app. How does it facilitate the process of meditation?

Rohan:    So think of the many times of the day when we’re just doing stuff around town which we consider as dead time. We’re just moving between places. We’re sitting around, waiting. And the interesting thing with Buddhify says hey we can use that time if you’re interested in developing positive qualities of mind rather than just playing Angry Birds, why don’t we do something more productive than that. So it sort of helps convert some of that time and interest and energy into, it allows the pathway in which to develop the positive qualities that meditation enable in those times.

So yes the way the current version works is it asked you whether you’re at the gym or on the train. So you tell it where you are. And it will deliver you an audio guided meditation which is designed specifically for that environment. So helps use what’s happening around you. It’s a very honest style of meditation to sort of it completely recognizes that if you’re on the subway train or a train. It’s noisy. How can we use that noise and the vibration and the fact that there’s a slightly weird guy sitting opposite you to support clarity, to support concentration, to support compassion? So that’s what it does.

Samira:    On your website you also self described yourself as an average meditator. So when I’m talking to you about quantifying meditation, how do you evaluate how good of a meditator you are and how does Buddhify then facilitate that?

Rohan:    How one evaluates oneself is normally with a lot of self criticism  .I guess. Meditation joke. [laughter]

I think the average meditation thing, that’s more of a throwaway line in that if you look at my meditation CV I have an above average interest in meditation and practice and experience having trained in various places around the world and doing lots of it. But the key thing, the reason I say average is because I’m not a teacher and I don’t try to be. I’m not positioning myself as an expert. The content included in  Buddhify is not highly advanced practice but that’s not a criticism. It is what it is. It’s an introductory material but one that has been born in an urban environment. And so quantify it, when you quantify self meditation the first is knowing what you want, knowing what you want to achieve and maybe the qualities which you want to achieve and then using your own skills of assessment to monitor those and also using people around you that you trust to help monitor those as well.

Samira:    When looking at both the meditation apps and at Buddhist Geeks, do you think that most users self identify as Buddhist or not or does that even matter?

Rohan:    As long as they buy the app, I don’t care. [laughter]  Um, yeah, you spoke to that a bit I guess.

Again Buddhism has this sort of amorphous shape shifter thing. It can be really helpful to self identify as Buddhist. It can be really unhelpful as well. It’s how tightly you hold on to that. And like Vince said one of the core insights of Buddhism, or the Buddha really, is that the more you identify with stuff, the more trouble it will give you. And so the skill, not just with Buddhism but with all labels, is to hold it lightly rather than tightly. And so if calling yourself a Buddhist means it allows you to enter that room where you meet the 20 people in your city that you can actually have that conversation with, then that is the most skillful use of the term Buddhist.

If it means that it gets into really boring and un-winnable argument around the metaphysics of awakening or the deep nature of consciousness then that’s probably not that useful a time to hold it tightly. So it’s a constant sort of, so personally like if someone asks me whether I’m Buddhist I would say yes but I don’t advertise it. I don’t wear sort of team Buddhist on my t-shirt. Vince does though.

Vincent:    I don’t have it on today.  [laughter]

Rohan:    I think that’s the thing. It’s like there is this phrase in Buddhist circles called skillful means. It’s like does it work, does it help? And sort of secondary question does it really help? And if you’re asking those questions checking not just by yourself but with others, if someone’s like, if I read a blog post on something and [lay] into it. And then don’t see that I’m holding on to my Buddhist identity like I’ll hope that someone will go hey, Vince says you’re just being an idiot. And that sort of relaxes that and so yeah.

Vincent:    This is just an anecdotal story around this. Someone came up to my wife, who is a long time meditator as well, during an event and they asked her are you a Buddhist. And her initial response, which I really love, is you know that’s a trick question for a Buddhist right? And it is. It’s a trick question if you’re engaged with these approaches and practices I think if you’re really engaged with them. Because like Rohan said it brings up this question of am I holding onto or am I identifying with this idea?

Rohan:    And often it’s the idea in the person who is asking, his mind.

Vincent:    Right.

Rohan:    Oh you’re Buddhist. So then they might assume you’re a vegetarian, you don’t do this, you do do this–which is all just ideas in the mind.

Vincent:    And if they find out that you throw back quarter-pounders like I do, then suddenly they have an idea that I’m a bad Buddhist. And suddenly I went from not really being sure what I am to being a bad Buddhist. And that’s not fun.

The other thing, you know, we talked a lot about not holding things too tightly but then the opposite problem, which he sort of alluded to, is not having enough focus and enough determination and enough clarity to really stick with the model and the techniques and the approaches long enough to get any real results. And so that’s also a common problem for people especially, if they take up meditation, is they don’t really try the experiment. It’s not a sincere experiment. They don’t really give it a go. And so for some people like saying for a while I’m a Buddhist maybe helpful in maintaining that kind of laser like focus of doing the Buddhist experiment. And in that sense like it can be very useful and I’ve done that myself. And now I’m a recovering Buddhist.  [laughter]

Samira:    So it seems in what we’ve talked about that the connection between digital technology and Buddhism are largely a western phenomenon. Would you agree with that notion?

Rohan:    They’re a modern phenomenon.

Vincent:    Yeah. It’s definitely more of a global modern phenomenon. Cause we had one gentleman at our last conference from Singapore who’s a professor there. And he came up to us and said hey I’m really interested in bringing Buddhism back to Asia. And so we had a really interesting conversation about a modern approach to Buddhism or post-modern, whatever you want to call it. That there’s actually a hunger and interest in all parts of the world for that sort of thing especially in parts of the world like Asia where it used to be an important part of the culture. And there’s an interesting parallel because in the west Christianity is sort of in many ways the kind of religion that everyone is kind of distancing themselves from in a lot of ways.

And I think in Asia there’s something similar. But there’s real value in my mind in reclaiming the past, and reclaiming the wisdom of the past, while jettisoning the things that don’t work and don’t function.

Rohan:    And I think technology is a global thing and I think what’s different, so everywhere around the world you have Buddhist teachers using technology, mainly social media to get, whether you’re a monk in Thailand who blogs or a Vietnamese Zen guy who has a YouTube channel, that all exists all over the place as we’d expect.  I think what’s different in the conversation that we’re involved in is how do we re-imagine how stuff is presented not just broadcast better. Not just taking, so the existing model of a monk giving a sermon traditionally maybe you’d get 80 people, now you can get everyone with an internet connection. That’s actually still the same delivery model. It’s just a bigger scale.

So we’re more interested in what are the different models by which that can be developed and delivered. So I’m not seeing that elsewhere, but that’s also because I don’t speak Mandarin. So it might be happening. I’m just not [inaudible], so I think we have to be really careful okay. There’s this whole new cool western Buddhist thing. There is. But I would not be surprised if people in Korea, which is incredibly, probably the most technologically advanced place on the planet, which is a traditionally a Buddhist country who are doing committed Buddhist practitioners exploring Buddhism through technology. It would be really exciting to find them.

Vincent:    And if you do find them email me so I can interview them.  [laughter]

Samira:    And maybe email me too. [laughter]  So we’ve actually answered a lot of excellent questions here. Given that our focus at the CMRC and with this program here on KGNU is looking at the intersections between religion, spirituality, and technology. Is there anything pivotal or interesting that you would want us to takeaway from this discussion?

Rohan:    It’s a bit of an echo back to what we said before but this thing about dualities. So if someone listens to this has a question of actually how do they, before you talk about Buddhism and technology or whatever, really asking, inviting the inquiry of what view am I bringing to this topic. What am I assuming? Cause Vince gave a lovely description of what Buddhism points to. My sort of summary would be around Buddhism pointing right back at you and asking you how are you seeing the world and what does mean for how you experience the world?

That is sort of what Buddhism is about. So if putting on some company wearing these filters, if you were a different filter, how does that change experience and is there a more joy or freedom and compassion in that experience. And so when we’re looking at these topics and these intersection points like you say, what’s the baggage we’re bringing? What’s the view we’re bringing and how true is that?  I think that’s really interesting inquiry.

Vincent:    Yeah. It’s also interesting cause it’s not just a philosophical inquiry. It’s not like what ideas. It’s at all levels of ones experience. It’s at the emotional level. It’s at the bodily level. It’s the way that we engage with reality and the way that we respond to it as organisms. And so one of the things that’s really usefully is saying like there are different ways of approaching things. But we’re really conditioned. That’s the other part of the Buddhist wisdom tradition is that we’re really conditioned to see things and experience things in a certain way.

And so that’s why I think there’s so much interest in meditation now because it’s a tool or a means by which one reshapes one’s conditioning or at least starts to understand one’s conditioning better. So I would kind of want to emphasize that this is an approach that’s not just philosophical it’s actually practical. And so if you really want to get value from these ideas you actually have to put them into practice to some degree, otherwise, it’s really just sort of mental masturbation.

Rohan:    Yeah. The armchair Buddhist is common but can be not the most productive approach.

Samira:    Thank you. Again, I’m Samira Rajibi and you’ve been listening to Sacred Lines, a collaboration between KGNU and CU’s Center for Media, Religion and Culture. Today we’ve been speaking with Rohan Gunatillake, creator of mobile app Buddhify, and Vincent Horn founder of the website and podcast Buddhist Geeks. Thank you gentlemen so much for being with us today.

Vincent:    Thank you.

Rohan:    Thank you.


Rohan Gunatillake

Rohan Gunatillake is a restless meditator and occassional blogger at He is passionate about what happens when authentic spirituality meets 21stcentury urban life and so that is what he mostly writes about and perhaps spends a little too much time daydreaming new ways of expressing the Dhamma in the language and culture of our times. A reformed management consultant, he now tries to make a living helping creative organisations get better digitally and can most often be found in Glasgow or London or on trains between the two. Even though they do make him feel a bit seasick when they go too fast around corners.