Buddhist meditation and the Internet is an academic study into the validity and authority, specifically of Western Buddhist teachings conducted over the internet. Dr. Joanne Miller, a Professor of Sociology as well as a Zen practitioner, explores these topics with the keen eye of an academic.
Dr. Miller begins her argument by giving the reader a brief history of Western Buddhism which was influenced greatly by Asian immigrants who brought their Buddhist traditions with them. That’s why you can find a Tibetan Gompa in the same city as a Japanese Zen Temple. It is a diverse tradition, having absorbed so many different perspectives during this immigration period.
Western Buddhism has no traditional hierarchical structure and no central leader. In other words, Western Buddhism has no Dalai Lama. However, I would like to point out that many other Eastern sects do not have a specific leader, either. There are highly respected teachers, but no “pope” if you will.
Dr. Miller states that Western Buddhism is more democratic in design and therefore there is no authority as to how to conduct specific practices. (pg 41) Because of this amalgamation, Dr. Miller, states that Western Buddhism, by its very nature, may not be considered a valid form of Buddhism at all, since it has been corrupted by new age thought, or that having a diverse number of sects and traditions intermixing with it, creates “cafeteria” Buddhists who pick and choose which teachings they prefer and which they do not.
Dr. Miller states that not being fully present and participating face to face with teacher and students is a barrier to spiritual growth. I disagree with this assessment. Although being able attend a temple or gompa service in person is optimal, I can state from personal experience that it isn’t necessary. I have been studying with my root guru for nearly 8 years now. I get my lessons via Skype and email. I phone him, get any assignments or ask questions to clarify certain points in the sadhana I am using, and I follow his instructions. And in case of a disaster, I am able to phone him and talk to him. Yes, if I lived in LA and could attend his classes personally, I’m sure the benefit would be greater, but living in a poor all-Christian and isolated area of Texas makes studying face to face with my lama impossible. So I have to go where the teachings are, and the teachings are online.
Kechara House, based in Malaysia, is another example. It is a flourishing temple with numerous departments each run by a board of directors under the auspices of His Eminence Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, who has recently retired to the United States. Although his Malaysian students miss him, he still is very active in keeping track of their needs as well as offering teachings and advice via phone and social media.
Another topic Miller mentions covers whether or not someone in the internet is qualified to teach or is just perpetuating a fraud (pg 43). That’s a very good question which I can quickly answer by paraphrasing the Kalmia Sutta, or the Sutta of the Kalima’s Delimma: Once, the Buddha walked to a town that belonged to the Kalima people. As he approached the outskirts of the town, the village elders stopped him. They told him that every fortnight a guru of some repute would come to town, conduct teachings, tell them that his way was the only true way and then leave. Many gurus have done this and the Kalimas were now confused, who, they asked the Buddha, is correct? The Buddha replied that one could not rely on qualifications or logic or belief or faith. The only thing that the Kalimas (or anyone else for that matter) can rely on is his or her personal experience.
The best thing, my teacher Lama Jigme Gyatso told me on my very first day of class, is to suspend judgment, practice the teachings twice a day for seven days. On the seventh day evaluate what you have learned and accomplished. If you get crap results then find another teacher. If you get good results, continue getting teachings. In my own personal experience I have found this to be quite true and the best way to authenticate the qualifications of a teacher. After all, we’ve all had that one teacher either in college or in high school who was an expert in their subject but sucked at relating it to their students. Having qualifications does not necessarily make one a great teacher.
I do recommend Dr. Millers book for its interesting discussion on the validity and authenticity of Buddhism on the web. Her scholarship is solid, and it is a much needed study in the growth and evolution of Buddhism. It’s an academic work, so it tends to be a bit on the dry side, but engaging and interesting nonetheless. It weighs the pros and cons of the use of the Internet for Buddhist teachings, and by the end of the book I felt that Dr. Miller tipped more toward the con side of her argument than the pro. However, given the choice between going online and riding 1500 miles on the back of a yak to receive face to face transmissions from my lama, I find it much more convenient to simply Skype him during the scheduled class time.
~reviewed by Patricia Snodgrass
Author: Joanne Miller
Typhoon Media, no copyright
151 pages $11.95