Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Joanne Miller's "Buddhist Meditation and the Internet": Book Review

If you enter Second Life with an avatar for meditation in its Buddhist hall, are you meditating at home, too? Can you gain the authenticity of millennia of dharma transmission in Zen if you join Amazenji's online zendo? How can anyone charged with teaching meditation or verifying its success for a student figure this out if separated in time and space from the traditional face-to-face reliance?

Such questions occurred to Joanne Miller, a sociologist (I suspect she's Australian) and a practitioner. Her research, integrated smoothly (footnotes speckle the plain-spoken text, blessedly free of academic jargon), confirms her suspicion. However, she then takes us into an examination, graded from casual to more intense sites, of how the Net has evolved, or not evolved, to handle the demands some expect cyberspace to solve regarding online Buddhist community and the formation of what duplicates or expands what happens in more intimate settings of a zendo or meditation group. The book does tend to focus on Zen--which aligns with Dr. Miller's orientation, it seems--and I wondered how Tibetan or vipassana approaches might compare or especially contrast. That aside, this book succeeds in demonstrating the difficulty of transferring a physical experience.

Unlike other religions, the text or the ritual is not the stress for dharma; it's the embodied presence of the meditator and actor. Understandably, the former category gains more attention than the latter. However, Dr. Miller correctly notes how Western Buddhism pushes meditation as the be-all of Buddhism in some insistent corners, to the detriment of ethical activity, study, and application of what is inculcated on the cushion.

The "main performative action" of sitting, she relates, cannot be reproduced technologically. What a screen may generate as a visualization is not from within the mind, and similarly, what is presented via mediation cannot substitute for what may be produced and shared in intangible but present ways between those in a real-time sit or dokusan. Also, the authority of those in a dokusan cannot be backed up with an online teacher, and many such, she reckons, deny the need for such approval before setting themselves up online or in the world as instructors.

Lots of points raise reflection. Doubt can grow when one's precepts are exposed online, she tells us as an aside. Individualization accelerated by the curious seeker online may increase confusion. One is networked, true, but also adrift and dependent on guides who may not be able to provide the direction of personal ones in one's own life, one-on-one in person. This menju, this one-to-one interaction, Dr. Miller repeats, cannot suffice online. Words, dependent for our transmitting what is going on online (this may change if we can plug in more directly one day...), are also insufficient to give each other the dharma-value that menju does.

Yet, out of this same experimental situation, Buddhism may arguably evolve and test itself in an entirely new venue. Gregory Grieve is quoted as suggesting "a real and authentic 'virtual embodiment' can equate with offline embodiment." He defines this as "a sustained, immersed bodily performance in a virtual space constrained by physical norms." We'll see!

Erika Borsos has preceded me [on Amazon US where this appeared 10-23-12--I too was provided with a review copy] with a fine summation of Dr. Miller's argument. I added to her precis my own reflections. I recommend this study. In my own college course in Comparative Religions, and Technology, Culture and Society, I anticipate passing along insights gleaned within this valuable work. May research and progress continue in this field, as scholars and practitioners both will learn from Dr. Miller's survey-to-date of the past decade or so.

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