Sydney -- The challenge that
Buddhism faces today is not with the dharma itself, the Buddha's teaching - as the
timeless message embedded in the Four Noble Truths maintains its validity - but how to
present this ancient teaching as a meaningful alternative to the young who have been
shaped by the values of the consumer society.
- E-learning Buddhism on the Internet
by Venerable Pannyavaro
- Webmaster of
Buddhanet.net, President of the Buddha Dharma Education Association and Vice-President of
the Buddhist Federation of Australia
There is a new
era of technological innovation sweeping the world, which has spawned a new medium - the
Internet's world wide web, a very powerful communications network and learning
environment. The Internet should not be seen as just a new way to disseminating or
repackage the Buddha's teachings but potentially as a base for an innovative online dharma
community - a Cyber Sangha, that offers alternative social and spiritual values.
On what grounds
can we realisitcally predict the future of the Internet? Well we can get some idea from
the trend in the online growth. At present about 6% of the world's population uses the
Internet. Almost one billion people, or 15 per cent of the world's population, are
predicted to be using the Internet by 2005. Last year, the US accounted for 34 per cent of
Intenret users, Europe 29 per cent and Japan 10 per cent. By 2005, web use in Europe and
Asia will outpace that of the US. And according to reports, the spread of mobile phones
and other devices that link users to the Internet will add to this increase.
nations, the reality is that, most people lack access or cannot afford the Internet or
modem communications. Overall, about 400 million of the world's six billion use the
Internet daily. Those growing up on the Internet will one day make up the bulk of the
population and there will be very few non-users down the road.
When you look at
online religion - it can be expected to boom. Eight per cent of adults and 12 per cent of
teenagers in the US use the Internet for religious or spiritual experiences, and the
number is likely to grow rapidly, according to a study. So in spite of the drop in
interest in mainstream religions and increasing secularization, which is the view that
one's life can or should be carried out without a religious element, the age-old search
for meaning has found the new medium - the net.
together of the world's population in the globalised economy is undermining the
individual's ability to function as a cooperative, responsible member of their society.
This happens because the ultimate effect of corporate culture is to reduce the person to a
mere consumer, on the assumption that happiness can be achieved through acquisitiveness
and the enjoyment of goods.
within it a social dimension that can address global problems, a way to "heal the
wounds of the world". This way is the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. The practice of
which while personal, requiring individual effort has consequences that are deeply social.
So there is a need now for the socially engaged side of Buddhism to be combined with
personal growth and the path of liberation as the answer to the individual's alienation.
It will require
radical changes before we can see any alternative to current values and attitudes. Yet the
Internet could bring about such a social revolution in values, as the corporate world, try
as it might has not yet succeeded in dominating it.
If we creatively
use the technology, the net can cater for the religious or spiritual side of human nature
and the means of offering care and compassion in this digital world.
Buddhism with its
ancient teaching and cultures must seize the opportunity and adapt itself so that it can
make a meaningful contribution to the social and spiritual needs of the inhabitants of
this blue planet via this new medium.
While Buddhism is
not a religion that proselytes, that is, seeking to win over or convert, it certainly has
a sense of its own mission in spreading its message. In the past the Buddha's Teachings
spread slowly, not only due to the limitations of ancient communications, but because it
needed to make a local adaptation to each new culture it encountered.
For example, it
took the Buddha's Dharma about 500 years to go from India to china. It is not only the
time factor, but also the need to transform itself into "Chinese Buddhism". That
is, it had to accommodate itself to the indigenous religions and philosophies. Taoism and
Confucianism, before it was acceptable locally. But in the process of accommodating itself
to the local culture the Teaching is transformed and can be very different from the
The different in
a Globalised World is that the acceptance of the Buddha's teachings does not depend on
whether it can accommodate itself to a particular culture or religion but the appeal of
its core insights. In fact the cultural accretion has to be differentiated from the core
understandings before it can be seen to resonate with universal truths. So, in an
increasingly secular and globalised world where technology and scientific appraisal is all
pervasive, the Dharma or Truth itself stands alone.
The challenge now
is can the Sangha, that is, committed communities of Buddhists, use the tools and acquire
the skills of the Digital Age? And further, can we find new ways and means of presenting
the Buddha's teachings that are relevant to the digital world rather than the traditional
methods of sermons and ritual that has little or no appeal to the technocratic generation.
It's not just
technical skills that are needed but the motivation of selfless service and compassion -
core values of the Buddha Dharma as expressed in the ancient Bodhisattva ideal. It is
becoming increasingly self-evident that we have to move from the limitation of individual
and national boundaries to a worldview of a shared planet.
If such a notion
as a Cyber Sangha is to come into being - and realistically it will probably take a
generational change - it will either come about when young monks in the scholarly
tradition in Buddhist countries go online or more likely, as is happening now, the new
generation of Western Buddhists, who are not on the whole conditioned by a particular
Buddhist culture, produce more appealing e-Dharma content for its own.
traditionalists - hankering for the past - there can be no going back, as it would be
foolish to think that one can create some sort of "Virtual Temple" based on
ritual and ceremony. Or that one can recreate the particular cultural customs of Buddhism
on the net, which unfortunately the pure Buddha's teachings have become so embedded in.
The role of an
online Sangha is to offer a spiritual alternative while dissemination the Dhamma through
E-learning (electronic Dharma). This would need to go hand in hand with the servicing of
the needs of people who are experiencing negative aspects of the globalised economy - the
pressures and stresses it creates.
and the Internet
In a rapidly
changing digital world, where many are stretched and stressed, we need to come to terms
with the effects of such stress and pressure on the human psyche. I'm not suggesting that
we create some 'virtual utopia' as the Dharma tells us that there is no certainty and that
things are inherently unstable and insecure. The experiential knowing of this insight
allows us to let go and be free of clinging to the known to blocking the flow. This
acceptance of change and the ability to work with it is in the words of Alan Watts the
"Wisdom of Insecurity".
gives us many opportunities to promote Buddhist values, understandings and insights on a
global scale. Buddhism has survived materially until now because of the practice of
"Dana", which is a culture of sharing and service, as opposed to the greed
culture based on monetary values. This leads to misuse of the technology, as the
motivation is merely to make a dollar, as we have seen in the recent collapse of the
dotcoms, which views the internet as a market place it can exploit. In contrast to this we
have the example to the earlier BBS (Bulletin Board System), which had a culture based on
a genuine sharing and learning community offering a largely free service operated by
volunteers. This is the way an online dharma community will ideally operate - as a focal
point, a hub for community sharing and support.
In the spiritual
vacuum called the modern world - with its preoccupation with having it all, there is a
need to make known the contribution that Buddhist mental culture can offer. The techniques
of meditation, for example, can be explained and illustrated very well on the net through
streaming audio and video, with the student being guided by an online teacher. The
characteristic of the internet is its interconnectivity - global interdependence. This is
a core Buddhist understanding ,a universal truth. Its appreciation leads to the maturity
that moves from an ego-self preoccupation to an interconnectivity that empathizes with all
There will be a
new emphasis on lifelong learning, on training and retraining, of development and
innovation. This era of all- encompassing change will need to be accompanied by an ability
to cope with the pressures caused by the new technologies, without becoming overextended
and stressed. So we will need to have the skills to manage our own mental health through
the healing practices and insights that the dharma can give us.
We are seeing
that the psychological and healing side of Buddhism is being utilized by modern
Psychotherapy. That there has been a shift from what was predominantly the ritual needs of
lay people to a search for help and support in an increasingly alienated world. So
counselling services in the form of interactive multimedia via the net is the way of the
future, as is demonstrated by the popular "chat culture" on the net.
It is to be hoped
that a Cyber Sangha would be supported by, or be an extension of the locally based
Buddhist establishments, as it evolves into a network of likeminded people - lay and
ordained - who come together as an online community - followers of the Buddha - living out
the insight of the dharma and communicating the Buddha's message of intelligence and
compassion in this new Digital World.
Electronic Buddhist learning can become a tool for spiritual as well as social
development, when access is improved and learning techniques are refined. The reality is
that it can never altogether replace face-to-face teachings but has added a new delivery
medium that allows for skill-enhancement and easy accessible training. The worldwide
Buddhist community will need to develop its own e-learning content with the traditions
coming together and pooling their knowledge and skills and researching new ways of
presenting the Buddha's Teachings out of compassion for this suffering world.
It has never been
consider that the Buddha's teachings are to be found only in the text, actually in the
past the dharma was transmitted as much through oral teachings. There is a temptation to
merely dump data (facts) online rather than exploit the new ways of presenting information
that the technology provides Data and information do not necessarily translate into
approach in teaching the dharma is through sermons with the teacher or the content being
unchallenged. The new way is through group learning via discussion. On the net its chat
groups where the teacher or moderator acts as a facilitator for an ongoing debate or
The benefit of
internet learning is that you have access to information, and you also have access to
other people, students or experts. It's the combination of the two that provides an extra
dimension than most other technologies. In fact what is happening now is that students are
looking for resources themselves and then interacting with them.
animated characters that act as virtual teachers, could be the future of online learning.
Experts predict that successful electronic learning computer programs will become more
sensitive to human nuances and motivation - software that initiate human interaction.
exaggerated publicity or hype in the news media about the internet was common, but with
the collapse of the dotcoms we can take a more sober view of the situation. The reality
was and is more of a digital divide, which is a term for the difficulties some groups in
society face in even getting access to computers and the internet.
applies to the economically disadvantaged Buddhist countries in the Theravada tradition.
Cambodia, Myanmar and here in Sri Lanka. Online technology is unequally distributed
because access to and use of computers and the Internet mirror the socioeconomic divide
between rich and poor individuals and nations. Another factor is that the English language
dominates cyberspace so students and other with little or no understanding of English are
often denied access to online learning. Although this is changing as the net is becoming
Teaching or not?
that we will have to face is how can we know that what is posted on the internet is an
authentic Buddhist Teaching or not? The way to judge this is to match what is posted with
the Four Noble Truths as all Buddhist traditions accept the Four Noble Truths as the
structure for their practice in one form or another. But there have been individuals who
make extravagant even bizarre claims to some special knowledge or enlightenment. I can
suggest at least one way to judge this. The transmission of knowledge in Buddhism is
essentially based on lineage, which is the verification of the students understanding by a
lineage teacher or master. While there is a purely text based teachings, the scholarly
tradition, the practice of mental culture is based on experiential learning which can be
checked by a lineage holder. So whether the postings on the internet claiming to be the
Buddha's Dharma is authentic Buddhist Teaching or not, or whether it is just the
concoction of a cult - could be checked through its lineage, or lack of it.
What of The
While for some it
may seen rather futuristic, broadband and interactive technology promises an enormous
expansion of the potential of the worldwide web to create a true online community and
enhance online learning. On the other hand, we have to work with the current limitations
until the interactive technology matures. And especially we will have to come to terms
with the realities in Buddhist countries that are being left behind in the information
One way to
address this problem is the use of hybrid technology. To this end we are developing ways
to deliver e-learning content via the text-based material on the web or through intranets
using CD-ROM. For example, BuddhaNet has produced a CD-ROM on "Buddhist Studies for
primary and secondary students" that can be use on an intranet in schools or dharma
centres. The CDs is actually a web page (HTML files) that includes Adobe PDF (Portable
Document Files) documents of all of the material,which when printed can then be
photocopied. Also we have produced a multimedia CD that interfaces with our web site, and
includes over sixty Buddhist e-books.
temples and bricks and mortar centres will continue to service people needs for the
dharma, yet this can be expanded and enhance, and may I say possibly made more relevant,
if the evolving Cyber Sangha, who need resources, is supported in its aim to develop the
dharma online using the latest technology that is available.
teaching is ancient that doesn't mean that it cannot sit comfortably with the new
technology. If the Buddha were alive today, he would surely be at ease in the digital
world. There is a new generation growing up with the Internet's technology, who regard it
as the natural place to find information, for online learning and for spiritual and
emotional support. Can we hope that it will be a place that one goes to have a meaningful
experience of the Buddha's dharma as well - it's the future!