How is the Medium Changing the Message?


closeup of tree branch shadows on asphalt road, cracks, snowAlthough we think of technology as a new influence, in fact, markets, technologies, and the teachings of the Buddha have shaped each other in complex reverberations since earliest times. At the conference on secular Buddhism held at BCBS one year ago this month, Ken McLeod led the assembled scholar-teachers through an exercise to examine Western Buddhism through the lens of Marshall McLuhan’s “four effects” from McLuhan’s Laws of Media. Insight Journal asked McLeod to expand on these ideas about how technology, especially forms of communication, have affected Buddhism. This starts with the growing market economy in the Buddha’s own time. Not long after, the technology of coinage affected the split between Theravadan monks and Mahayana monks over the handling of money, and the market-driven growth of the middle class increased the influence of lay followers who now had more time to practice. Later still, wood-block printing had profound effects on the evolution of Dharma texts. And on it goes, to the broad impact of the Internet today on teachings and teachers. McLuhan’s laws, in general, say that for each new technology, there are both gains and losses. More people may have access to the teachings, for example, while the role of individual teachers may be diminished or at least changed, since they are no longer the sole sources of teachings. The implications for today and tomorrow? We will need all our wisdom to nurture and improve access to wisdom teachings.


In Laws of Media, Marshall McLuhan proposed that any new technology has four effects that occur simultaneously: enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval and reversal. For instance, the car enhances the ability to move independently. It renders the horse and buggy obsolete. It brings back from the past the ability to go almost anywhere. And it creates traffic jams, which negate the enhancement of individual movement.

Buddhism in the modern world is a multi-faceted mosaic that is being shaped as much by technology as it is by Western ideas. To the rich heritage of classical texts, monastic institutions and traditional rituals that have been practiced for centuries, one must add the exploration of ways to teach and practice in the context of contemporary society, the re-interpretation of traditional texts for modern contexts with modern analytical tools, the questioning of traditional philosophical, institutional or ethical frameworks, social action inspired by Buddhist thought and practice, and pragmatic Buddhism, the application of Buddhist thought and practice to the problems and challenges of life. Other influences have also made themselves felt: a consumer mentality, utilitarianism, and the adaptation of Buddhist thinking and methods to psychological, medical, corporate and military agendas.

If these ideas and initiatives are likened to different kinds of fish swimming in the sea, the focus in this article is more on the sea rather than the fish, that is, the environment in which these developments take place and the way that environment shapes what does arise.

The effect of a technology is far reaching. In Understanding Media, McLuhan writes:

The availability of cheap writing materials affected power in the Mediterranean. The Romans depended on papyrus from Egypt. When the supply was cut off by the Muslims, they lost control of the Mediterranean. Parchment was too expensive and the influence of Byzantium was limited. Only when paper was imported from China did learning revive, and the result was the Renaissance and eventually printing.

In what follows, we look primarily at media technologies and how they shape and affect how Buddhism is evolving in today’s world.

closeup of broad tree trunk shadows on asphalt road, cracks, dirty snow

Effects of New Technologies

All new technologies create new forms of communication and new media. Language, writing, the phonetic alphabet, the printing press, the telegraph and telephone, film, radio, television, fax, email, cell phones, the internet in general and now social networks and robots, all make different forms of communication possible and have led, or are leading, to significant social, cultural and political changes.

As McLuhan pointed out, the medium does change the message. Consider presenting a story, e.g., the traditional account of Buddha Shakyamuni encountering old age, illness and death up to his awakening. Imagine this story presented as novel, as a short story, as a film, as an opera, as a television series, as a play, as a graphic novel, as a one-person monologue, as a graphic novel, as a YouTube video, as a tweet, etc. Each medium emphasizes certain elements of the story and downplays others, and the result is a different message in each case.

Each new medium has two significant effects. It creates a new form of interaction and it enables a new way of retaining the past.

Writing enabled personal and cultural histories to be retained without reliance on human memory. With the invention of paper, they could be retained indefinitely. With the invention of printing, they could be distributed widely and become part of the cultural heritage.

The new form of interaction often arises in unexpected and unforeseen ways, e.g., the immediate distribution of photos and videos through cell phones or the tracking of new trends by hashtags in Twitter. These new uses lead to different kinds of relationships and new forms of intimacy and solitude, as Sherry Turkle describes in Alone Together. They also lead to new social forms.

For instance, the telephone enables people to talk with each other even though they are physically separate. Communication is limited to voice. Body language and other nuances are eliminated by the medium. Thus, people who communicate by telephone may have a very different relationship compared to the relationships they might have in person. Email takes disembodied communication a step further. It also makes communication in widespread communities easy at the same time as it makes mass emails possible. And people write things in email that they would never say to a person face-to-face. Email and texting also change the way phones are used. One is now more likely to set up a phone meeting via email than call someone out of the blue.

As for the new ways in which the past is retained, more and more of the past is present in people’s lives, stored in museums, books, libraries, and now social networks, YouTube, email archives, and massive databases. The result is that we live more and more with the past, if not in the past. One effect of the ever-present past is the end of evolution. As Jared Lanier observes in You Are Not a Gadget, the evolution of music has changed in a fundamental way: up to the point that the internet became widespread, each decade had its own distinct music, Ragtime, Jazz, Swing, Rock and Roll, Disco, Hip-hop, Rap, etc., but the music of the last two decades has no clearly defining sound. Much of it consists of the reworking and recombining of music from earlier eras.

The magnification of the role of the past in modern society is in stark contrast to the role the past played in traditional societies. In traditional societies, the past was revered. The overarching view was that one realized one’s highest potential as a human being by emulating examples from the past, whether Christ, Mohammed, or Buddha. In today’s world, the past is to be transcended and one realizes one’s highest potential through exploration and individuation.

Each person’s past is now a scattered mass of fragments, an ever present but fractured mirror in which he or she is reflected. Few take the time to assemble the fragments into a narrative, and even if they do, the narrative itself depends on what is selected and emphasized, and that, again, is influenced by the medium in which the narrative is presented. Because the past is always present, a creative urge arises for a future that is open to new possibilities and free from the constraints of the past. Ironically, the extent to which the past endures in the present makes such transcendence more and more difficult. People grow up in a bubble of self-chosen interests, friends, news sources and music.

Technological innovations change the way people interact and the changes are not always welcome. Socrates, as Plato presents him in Phaedrus, expresses reservations about the technology of writing, saying that writing:

…is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Similar concerns have been voiced about the book, about newspapers, as well as the telephone, the computer and many other inventions.

McLuhan sees modern education, democracy and the nation state as products of evolution brought about by the development of two technologies: the phonetic alphabet and the printing press. The phonetic alphabet enabled large numbers of people to become literate. The printing press made possible large numbers of copies of books and other writings. The two together made it possible to standardize knowledge in large populations and create imagined communities of people who took in their information from common sources–newspapers, periodicals, journals and books.

Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities notes that the great religions (Buddhism, Christianity, etc.) began their decline in influence at exactly the same time that nationalism and the modern scientific paradigm began to gain influence. He also notes that books led to the standardization of knowledge and the creation of a world of the imagination in which people could live by themselves. These developments led to the formation of nation states, the concept of citizenship and equal rights, and the modern educational system.

William Bernstein in Masters of the World speculates about the interaction between new technologies and the interpretation of spiritual experience:

…the temporal and geographic connection between the alphabet and monotheism in Egypt-Palestine during the middle of the second millennium [before the Common Era] may be more than coincidence. What might tie them together? The notion of a disembodied, formless, all-seeing, and ever-present supreme being requires a far more abstract frame of mind than that needed for the older plethora of anthropomorphized beings who oversaw the heavenly bodies, the crops, fertility, and the seas. Alphabetic writing requires the same high degree of abstraction and may have provided a literate priestly caste with the intellectual tools necessary to imagine a belief system overseen by a single disembodied deity. Whatever the reason, Judaism and the West acquired their God and their Book.

Along these lines, it is possible to consider a relationship between the use of zero as a place holder in Indian mathematics and the emptiness of all experience as formulated in Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Such speculation raises the question of what political, cultural and social structures and, in particular, what religious forms might evolve from the ubiquitous, ever-present yet disembodied connections and simulations that have arisen from digital technologies.

closeup of dry garden flower in snow

McLuhan’s Tetrad

McLuhan’s tetrad–enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval and reversal–provides a way to explore the effects of new developments or new technologies. The changes that take place are complex, partly because all four effects take place simultaneously, partly because these developments interact with individuals, societies and environments in unpredictable ways. Cultural values, social norms and even geography all play a part. Gunpowder was invented in China, for instance, but, as Jared Diamond proposes in Guns, Germs and Steel, it was only in the highly competitive environment of Europe that it was put to widespread military use.

Enhancement is an extension of an ability–in time, space, strength, speed, agility or other quality. A telescope enhances the sense of vision through distance while a microscope enhances vision through size. Enhancement always leads to imbalance because as one sense or ability is enhanced, less attention goes to what is being perceived through the other senses. McLuhan’s term for this phenomenon was auto-anaesthesia. When you talk on a telephone, for instance, your attention is focused in the sense of hearing. You have no physical sense of the other person and you are less aware of your own body. When you read a book, attention is focused through the sense of sight and you also lose touch with your body. The book makes it possible to create an imagined world, a world of stories and ideas in which the body does not participate.

Obsolescence means that one way of relating or communicating is replaced by another. It does not mean the current way of doing things disappears completely. Its relative position, role or importance changes and, it usually becomes highly specialized. Some people still drive a horse and buggy even though most use a car. The horse and buggy are retained by particular communities or become specialized for purposes such as entertainment, e.g., racing or tourism. Film is still used by some photographers who are looking for particular effects, but the vast majority of photographs today are taken with cell phones.

Retrieval involves bringing back the experience of an older technology or an older way of relating or interacting. Facebook for instance brings back the experience of living in a small town: everybody knows everything about you. You cannot keep anything secret. Even as one moves forward with technology, the past returns in a different form.

Reversal is the principle that any development creates its own negation. As noted above, the car gives rise to gridlock. Email gives rise to miscommunication, especially if you write anything humorous. In the case of the car, it led to decades of experiments with freeways until it became clear that building freeways does not eliminate gridlock–traffic just increases to the point that the same degree of gridlock occurs. In many cases, reversal reveals the limits to which the new development can be utilized and the kinds of problems that can arise when its use is extended further.

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Buddhism and Technology

Buddhism has successfully evolved through several technological developments. The first, probably, was the development of money. David Graeber, in Debt: the first 5000 years, argues that all of the great religions, Buddhism included, were reactions to the destructive effects of market forces on both the individual and society:

All [the great religions] were so many attempts to provide a mirror image of market logic. Still, a mirror image is, ultimately, just that: the same thing, only backwards. Before long we end up with an endless maze of paired opposites–egoism versus altruism, profit versus charity, materialism versus idealism, calculation versus spontaneity–none of which could ever have been imagined except by someone starting out from pure, calculating, self-interested market transactions.

In India, a trade economy developed around the beginning of the Common Era. It gave rise to a middle class. The evolution of money made it possible to calculate favors precisely, and favors evolved into debts. Debt enhances the ability to trade as it provides a way to transact goods over distances. It makes obsolete the need to bring your cattle and wares to market and exchange them on the spot. It leads to the stabilization of prices. It retrieves from the past the sense of unlimited possibility. In an agricultural economy, wealth is limited by what can be produced from a piece of land. The wealth generated by a trade economy is not. The reversal associated with debt is that it creates bondage and slavery, negating the very freedom that it seems to make possible. For instance, college students in the USA now graduate with a heavy burden of debt, locking them into whatever jobs they can find and denying them the chance to explore the world before they embark on their careers. Corporations amass capital, taking the wealth of society out of circulation and depressing the economy. Buddhist monasteries in China in the 8th and 9th centuries similarly depressed the economy by amassing wealth through offerings and turning the currency into statues. Eventually, the emperor at the time had to close down the monasteries and melt down their statues to reissue currency.

In India, the effect of money was to split Buddhism into two distinct forms. It fundamentally changed the relationship between the laity and the monastics. In the Theravadan tradition monks were not allowed to prepare their own food and were served by the laity. This arrangement kept the monastic and lay communities in a symbiotic relationship in which they knew each other’s needs and ways of relating to the world. When some monks chose to handle money, monasteries soon became profit centers and generated their own revenue, making them independent of the laity. From there, it was a short step to large institutions of intellectual and specialized learning such as Nalanda. Indeed, in many cultures, monasteries were the basis for universities. Even today, they are regarded as ivory towers, separated and insulated from ordinary life.

Trade also created sufficient wealth that members of the middle class did not need to renounce life in order to have time to practice. Lay practitioners could attain levels of understanding and experience comparable to renunciates. The Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sutra is a case in point. Vimalakīrti, a layman fully engaged in the world, puts all of Buddha’s bodhisattvas, arhats and monks to shame because his understanding is deeper. The spiritual ideal of the awakened layman is very different from that of the forest hermit.

Another example is the simple wood block. Tibetan Buddhism relied heavily on xylography, wood block printing, that it imported along with paper from China. The carving of books onto blocks of wood meant that they could be faithfully reproduced in large numbers, and, just as important, could be reproduced centuries later. Xylography led to the standardization of the curricula of Buddhism in Tibet in a way that Indian Buddhism never attained. The Tibetan canon was codified and became the basis for all northern Asian Buddhism, with standard editions printed in both Lhasa and Beijing. A single text, Atisha’s A Lamp for the Path of Awakening (Tib. byang.chub.lam.sgron), could spawn a standard curriculum, the sequential path (Tib. lam.rim) that did not change substantially for a thousand years. The xylograph enhanced accessibility and stability. It made obsolete the palm leaf manuscript. It brought back a sense of timeless, unchanging truth. And it limited creativity and the exploration of new ideas.

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Buddhism and the Internet

Today, more or less all Buddhist teachings are now available online. As with xylography, accessibility is greatly enhanced. Everyone has access to the teachings of virtually every tradition of Buddhism, wherever they are, whenever they wish. Social networks, mass emailing, blogs and other tools make it easier to form and inform virtual and actual communities. Teachers are able to reach unprecedented numbers of people and students have access to an unprecedented number and variety of teachers. With the availability of podcasts and videos, students can be intimately familiar with a teacher’s methods, thinking and style of presentation without every meeting the teacher.

On the other hand, libraries, the need for physical travel, secrecy and hierarchy have all been rendered obsolete. Some libraries will survive, but they will be used for special kinds of research. People will still travel to meet with teachers and to attend retreats, but digital technology makes other forms of interaction possible. Many people are currently experimenting with these and what will evolve is unknown at this point.

No longer are meditation masters the sole or main source of meditation teaching. In that role they are already obsolete. No longer sources of wisdom and counsel in society, they are a relatively minor resource while academics and mental health professionals now provide the vast majority of basic meditation instruction. The authority and social status of teachers are also becoming obsolete. All voices are equal on the internet, and a comment posted by an eminent teacher is just another comment. Just as the printing press made sacred languages obsolete, so does the internet make secret teachings and their associated hierarchies obsolete. Sooner or later, all teachings will be posted online. Most of them are already.

Spiritual seekers are forging their own paths, putting together their own systems of practice from the plethora of material online and their ability to connect with a teacher of any tradition in which they are interested. Thus, the notion of a personal path is being recovered from the past as the seeker no longer has to rely on a single tradition or a set course of study or practice, whether for geographical, cultural or political reasons. As traditional structures break down and institutions adapt to a rapidly changing culture and wide range of interests, teachers, too, will have to find their own path and what it means to them to be a teacher. Monastic seniority in the Theravadan tradition, Dharma transmission in the Mahāyāna traditions and empowerment in the Vajrayāna traditions are all in danger of diminishing relevance.

With so much teaching available, a seeker has difficulty in finding what he or she wants or needs, ascertaining its quality or understanding it (since it is usually taken out of the original context that gave it meaning). Instead of a well-defined path and standard texts, seekers are faced with a veritable Tower of Babel. A teacher may encounter a seeker who misunderstood what he or she has read or has absorbed ideas and practices that are simply wrong. The teacher is faced with the task of having to wean the student away from those misunderstandings. Misleading or incorrect information, practices or translations can be widely disseminated and even become popular. Teachers themselves, exposed to teachings and practices outside of their training, may misunderstand them because they encounter these teachings out of their traditional context. They, in turn, spread those misunderstandings through their own teaching and, because of the reach and speed of propagation, those misunderstandings can and do become accepted as the “correct” understanding. The internet also tends to present all knowledge and understanding as equal, when there are levels of understanding that mature only with time and experience. In this way, the internet tends to negate the sense of path and personal development that is so critical for most people.

Another effect of the internet is that the individual is increasingly in some form of connection with others, usually asynchronous, but constantly available. Accessibility, again, is enhanced. Face-to-face, real-time communications are rendered obsolete. These forms of communication bring back the possibility of conducting one’s life in private, unknown to others around you. But the always-on devices also undermine the ability to have actual conversations and effectively eliminate solitude.

The world being created by Google, Facebook, Apple and other companies is a world of isolated selves living with a past that never goes away.

Each person has their own world, consisting of connections, of news, books, movies and consumer items in keeping with their previous interests and the interests of people similar to them. Algorithms feed them news, items to buy and connections based on the behavioral patterns of people with similar profiles. In other words, these companies are enclosing people in cocoons woven from the patterns of their own behavior and exploiting the operation of those patterns for commercial gain. As individuals, we end up isolated in worlds shaped by our histories. The world of shared knowledge and shared experience of the twentieth century is breaking up into smaller worlds, tribes that are brought together from common interests, world-views and values. Communities form around single issues and are able to exert great influence on the cultural and in politics, but single-issue campaigns are a death knell for democracy as we know it.

In addition, people’s pasts never go away. They are preserved forever, not in the minds and hearts of their neighbors, but in server farms dotted across the globe. The wildness and excess of youth that young people share with friends comes back to haunt them when they graduate and are looking for a job. At the same time, the permanence of the past makes it possible to hold politicians, leaders, teachers and others accountable in ways that were impossible in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In short, it becomes increasingly difficult to see or step out of one’s own world. In this sense, digital technologies are bringing back the kinds of connections and limitations that bound people together in small communities in which everyone knew everything about them and they could not escape their past.

closeup of heart shape drawn in snow

New Possibilities

Many of these enhancements resonate with what people are looking for today: freedom from explicitly religious and cultural influences, open access to information, opportunities for discussion and exploration, the ability to define and rely on one’s own sense of authority, the ability to question freely and define one’s own relationship with traditional interpretations, and a personal path that one creates for oneself.

The challenge is in how one deals with the reversals, e.g., the flattening of authority, the Tower of Babel, the elimination of solitude, the fragmentation of society based on behavioral history and the ever-present past, the retribalization of society based on personal preferences and like-minded thinking.

The sense of personal path creates new possibilities and important challenges to both the teaching and practice of Buddhism. In earlier societies, the socio-economic conditions limited people in how they saw themselves, whether as members of a flock to be tended by a shepherd or as empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge of those who had education and training. As information has become more and more accessible, first in print and now in digital form, the empty vessel model of learning is giving way to a model in which the student is seen as bursting with possibilities. Because the possibilities of a path are now virtually unlimited, the key question for both teacher and student is “What are you seeking?”

In this model, the teacher is less an expert imparting knowledge and more a gardener tending to the growth of the student. The teacher’s role is to create learning opportunities, learning environments and learning communities. Such an approach makes different demands on the student. Instead of receiving information, he or she is responsible for learning material and for practice, assimilating what has been studied and experienced and engaging actively with a teacher to receive feedback and further guidance. The challenge for the teacher is twofold: to create a space in which the student can grow and to provide a framework in which the student can make appropriate decisions about his or her path. The challenge for the student is also twofold: to balance his or her own sense of direction with the knowledge that he or she may not be aware of what is possible and to take an active role in finding and understanding the practice and supporting material he or she needs.

As in the world of music, in the world of Buddhism today, traditional teachings are presented alongside writings that have been influenced by physics, neuroscience, psychology or literature. Traditions are mixed and matched according to the interests and proclivities of student or teacher. A person today can study several different traditions, sequentially or concurrently–koan practice in Zen today, insight in Vipassana tomorrow, and deity practice in the Tibetan tradition the next. Yet effective learning still depends on deep training. How does that deep training take place? What does it look like? Without such deep training, it is all too easy to be lost in the multitude of different perspectives and practices that the modern world makes accessible.

For instance, the groundwork or foundational practices in the Tibetan traditions (sngon.’gro) were originally developed as a preparation for direct awareness (mahamudra) training. The practices are not well suited to life in the West, and the expectation to complete this set of practices became an obstacle for many. The response has generally been to reduce the numbers, to streamline the practice, making it less time-consuming and thus making the direct-awareness teachings more accessible. The reversal is that less demand is made on the student, the student does not necessarily clear out or learn how to deal with his or her own internal material and runs into more difficult problems in the practice of direct awareness. Teachers in the Tibetan tradition are, as a consequence, experimenting with different approaches.

Mass production

Modern culture influences the evolution of Buddhism in other ways, for instance, through he modification and distribution of traditional practices to large numbers of people. This development is analogous to the synthesis and distribution of natural remedies by German pharmaceutical companies at the beginning of the twentieth century. Aspirin was the first natural remedy to be successfully synthesized. Again, to apply McLuhan’s framework, what is enhanced is availability. Millions of people could now take a pill for headaches and other minor ailments and no longer needed access to a person trained in the preparation of herbal remedies and their administration. The cost of the remedy was lowered significantly, further increasing its availability. What was rendered obsolete was the preparer of herbs, steeped in the craft of extraction and concentration. What was brought back from the past was self-medication. The reversal is that people could become unhealthier because they used aspirin to relieve symptoms of a deeper problem or they used it for the wrong ailments or took too much.

MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) is similar. The program makes simple meditation instruction available on a scale that the world has never seen before. It renders obsolete traditional teachers, retreats and a whole host of associated practices, rituals, obligations and structures. It brings back the practice of daily silence and prayer, though outside the domain of any religious structure. The reversal it sets up is that widespread mindfulness practice requires that a simulacrum of mindfulness be developed and taught.

Mindfulness as practiced in its traditional role as a path of spiritual awakening leads people to see through their own projections. Because societies form from the collective projections of a group of people, widespread traditional mindfulness would lead to a breakdown of society. To prevent such a breakdown, a different kind of mindfulness is needed, one in which the collective projections are not challenged. Such a mindfulness would effectively inoculate people against traditional mindfulness practice. One sees this phenomenon at work at some Buddhist centers even today, where, for instance, liberal humanistic values, the authority of the teacher or certain world-views are accepted unquestioningly. Academic and research centers that are studying and teaching mindfulness are also likely to encounter this reversal.

Simulation, the name of the game

Increased productivity is another development that affects Buddhism. As William Baumol pointed out in the 1960’s, increase in productivity in some areas of the economy makes those areas in which productivity cannot be increased more expensive, to teach, to practice or to enjoy. One cannot play or enjoy a Mozart string quartet faster than one could 200 years ago, though one can print more copies of the music more cheaply. Increased productivity has the same effects as a new technology. It enhances life by making products widely available at a lower cost. It makes material poverty obsolete (at least in theory). It brings back the sense that everything you need is within your reach. And it leads to a decrease in the quality of life. As productivity in other areas of life increases, the relative cost of activities that deepen one’s experience of life inexorably rises. The cost of healthcare, education, the arts and spiritual practice becomes restrictively, if not prohibitively, expensive for most people.

The traditional ways of training teachers and students are fast becoming obsolete, if only because they are too expensive because they take so much time. They will persist, of course, but probably in smaller and more specialized contexts. One potential implication for Buddhism is that it may become heavily institutionalized as only large institutions have the resources to provide the material necessities of life and enable the study and reflection that teachers or guides of Buddhism need to engage.

According to Moore’s Law as it is popularly understood, computing power doubles every eighteen months. This rapid exponential growth has two important implications. The first is that every five to six years completely different spaces and completely different capabilities emerge. As a consequence, creative thinkers have limitless scope for their imagination. The second implication is that what was prohibitively expensive in one generation is virtually free in the next. Digital storage is now more or less free, as is face recognition, GPS positioning, etc. Together, these two conditions mean that new ideas, new ways of doing things and new possibilities emerge rapidly and unpredictably in one field after another.

When Moore’s Law is combined with Baumol’s observations, one understands why much digital technology is concerned with the simulation of life. Whatever can be digitized and simulated becomes cheaper and more available, from flight simulators to medical diagnosis, from sports to family life (e.g., The Sims). Any aspect of life that cannot be simulated through digitization will become more expensive, rarer and take more time. Increasingly, it is cheaper to simulate the aspects of life that give it meaning than it is to live them. A simulated life is easier to live than real life, because one does not have to live with messy, difficult and unpredictable situations. It is small wonder that virtual reality, virtual connections and virtual communication are replacing actual reality, connections and communication. Even such tasks as news reporting and song writing are being successfully digitized, at least for the mass market. Human interactions are also being digitized and automated through a combination of technologies such as neural networks, learning algorithms and pattern recognition. Programs now exist that can challenge and defeat any human being at the game rock-paper-scissors. Other programs provide effective psychotherapy. Robots are being developed to provide companionship for the elderly and for baby-sitting. These are all forms of simulated life. The world of The Matrix is being created step by step.

In Buddhism, Shinzen Young has actively explored the digitization of meditation instruction and the use of the telephone to hold retreats for widely dispersed groups of people. Many people are developing apps such as Buddhify, etc., that create a simulated experience of meditation. Buddhist theme parks in South Korea, Vietnam and other Asian countries offer tourists a simulation of monastic life and meditation practice. How beneficial, how harmful these various efforts will be is not known at this point. Although the simulation of life is not life, we can expect that significant amounts of spiritual instruction, particularly textual study and initial meditation instruction, will be digitized and automated in the not too distant future.

Another possibility is some Buddhist equivalent of MOOCs (massively open online courses), in which master teachers provide expert instruction to large numbers of people. These changes make it possible for respected and capable teachers and leaders to reach a thin and dispersed audience and for that audience to communicate with each other, but it is not clear to what extent these courses make genuine spiritual development more possible.

Again, in all these cases, the medium changes the message.

The New Religions

Four significant influences on Buddhism today are science, social action, psychotherapy and consumerism.

Asian teachers at the end of the nineteenth century were the first to present Buddhism as science. They sought to find a vocabulary with which to impress their colonial overlords. Even though Buddhism is definitely not a science–at least not in the modern sense of systematic formulation, testing and modification of hypotheses–the strategy was successful. Buddhism came to be respected on its own terms, but this distorted view of Buddhism as a science of mind is now widely accepted. This way of thinking has recently been reinforced by neuroscience and the scientific exploration of meditation and brain function.

One can argue that scientism is one of the forms of religion in today’s world. Teachers, students and mental health professionals now routinely use the language of science, particularly neuroscience, to validate Buddhist experience. It has led many to see Buddhism as offering a predictable path to a form of knowledge similar to that which science produces. People end up relying on scientific theory and expert opinion rather than on their own experience and knowing.

Social action can be seen as the secularization of the spiritual theme of compassion. In engaged Buddhism, for instance, practitioners give concrete expression to the ideals of loving kindness and compassion and seek to make a difference in this world, not the next. Yet there is a danger here, one that Drucker, in Post Capitalist Society, noted in the context of Protestant Christianity in the 20th century:

Very few strategies have ever been as successful as that of the American Protestant churches when around 1900 they focused their tremendous resources on the social needs of a rapidly industrializing urban society. The doctrine of “Social Christianity” was a major reason why the churches in America did not become marginal, as the churches in Europe did. Yet social action is not the mission of a Christian Church. That is to save souls. Because Social Christianity was so successful, the churches, especially since World War II, have dedicated themselves more and more wholeheartedly to social causes. Ultimately, liberal Protestantism used the trappings of Christianity to further social reform and to promote actual social legislation. Churches became social agencies. They became politicized–and as a result they rapidly lost cohesion, appeal, and members.

The application of psychotherapeutic perspectives to Buddhist practice has led to a more pragmatic, less poetic view of what is possible through spiritual practice. The teacher is understood to be a human being, not someone who has transcended the human condition. Spiritual insight, on its own, does not necessarily resolve such problems as addiction, codependence or depression. A potential downside is that many people now regard spiritual practice as a way to enhance one’s well being, to be more successful, to heal old wounds or to develop abilities that improve one’s situation in life. In other words, Buddhist teachings are now being widely used for purposes for which they were not originally intended. Because many Buddhist methods are able to stand on their own in a wide range of contexts, the benefits have been significant and far-reaching and include prisoners, mental health patients and professionals of all descriptions. Still, the embrace of Buddhist techniques and perspectives by the psychological community and the adoption of psychotherapeutic models and methods by the Buddhist community exacerbate confusion as to what is Buddhism and what is psychotherapy.

Western psychology has shaped the cultural environment in which modern Buddhism is practiced in ways that make it very different from the traditional Asian environment and from earlier Western societies. For instance, Freud’s theories of unconscious forces that control and determine human behavior have contributed to the consumer economy that is taken for granted today. After WWI, Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, applied his uncle’s science of mind to show American corporations how to make people want things they did not need. Bernays showed that people could be controlled by satisfying their internal selfish desires, making them happy and thus docile, primarily occupied with how they feel, rather than how they are. His methods gave rise to the modern advertising and public relations industries and citizens were transformed into consumers who were constantly encouraged to seek happiness in order to keep the economy going.

One aspect of the secularization of Buddhism is that people look to Buddhism to improve their situation in life. It has become, in the eyes of many, another form of self-help. Buddhism’s methods have been adopted by the human potential movement, the psychological and psychotherapeutic professions and by business schools and the military, all of which bring a consumer mentality to practice: what does this do for me? All these applications take a utilitarian approach to Buddhist methods. The priest, dressed in the lab coat of the contemporary scientist, now serves the prince.


In every age teachers and students experiment to find ways of dealing with challenges of spiritual practice in their own environments. When threatened by these challenges, the reactions of individuals and organizations are usually based on the three marks of existence: how to survive, how to avoid suffering or how to maintain an identity. They typically become rigid and defensive and lose their ability to adapt. Fundamentalism, in all its different forms, is a common reaction. If, instead, spiritual practitioners accept that the old world is gone and will never return, then they are more likely to embrace change, take joy in exploring new possibilities, and put their energy into forging new relationships and make use of the rich interdependence that creates so many new possibilities.

As Stephan Fuchs notes in Against Essentialism, a tradition begins when someone does something that is not traditional. If the innovation attracts followers (and the role of the first follower is as crucial as the role of the leader), a tradition begins. In the mosaic of contemporary Buddhism, people are experimenting with different teaching methods, vocabularies, rituals, ethical systems, approaches to translation and many other areas. What the traditions of modern Buddhism will be is hard to say, but the geographically and culturally inherited divisions into Zen, Tibetan Buddhism and Theravadan are breaking down and new streams are forming.

In addition to these large-scale influences, teachers and students are responding to the new developments and the environments they create in multitudinous ways. Some teachers have opted to dispense with forming their own centers or organizations and meet with students individually, drawing on private practice and consulting models from medicine and business.

Dale Cannon in his book Six Ways of Being Religious proposes six religious orientations: looking for a power that counteracts the feeling of helplessness when faced with a crisis that one cannot deal with; looking for an understanding or experience that goes beyond ordinary understanding; looking for a way of understanding life and the world; looking for rituals that express one’s relationship with life; looking for a way to know what actions are appropriate or not appropriate; and looking for something or someone to which one can trust one’s life.

Most people look to religion for a way to negotiate the vicissitudes of life, a higher power one can call upon in times of need, a supreme being or comparable notion in which one can trust, an ethical code to guide one in difficult decisions, and rituals to give meaning and substance to the unfolding of one’s life. The number of people who are concerned with a mystical quest or a way of understanding life and the world is substantially smaller.

The traditional teacher-student transmission requires a long training and a long apprenticeship. Even after a person has become a teacher, it takes time to master a new meditation method or a new body of knowledge. On the other hand, the contemporary medical model of transmission is “See one, do one, teach one”, that is, when you have watched a procedure once, you are qualified to perform it and when you have performed it once, you are qualified to teach it. One could apply McLuhan’s tetrad here, noting that the rapid spread of procedures through the medical community is enhanced, older procedures are quickly rendered obsolete and trust in the professional’s ability is brought back. The reversal is that the transmission may not be complete and the procedure is easily corrupted.

In the context of traditional Buddhism, “See one, do one, teach one” is all but unthinkable, but many centers are moving in that direction, if only for the economic reasons stemming from Baumol’s analysis.

Technology also has an effect on transmission. In Buddhism, the written code of the Vinaya froze the evolution of the sangha. It became a legal code that is highly resistant to change, as is evidenced by the difficulty encountered by those who have sought to re-establish a lineage of ordained female monastics. Without a written code, the monastic code would likely have responded more readily to changing conditions.

The organizational structures on which contemporary society depends are largely mediated by technology. As Chuang-Tzu said, when you interact with a machine, you become a machine. More and more, the machines and technologies on which we depend for communication are shaping our behavior. This began with language, continued with writing, with books and newspapers, the telegraph and telephone, computers and now cell phones and eventually implants, no doubt. We are becoming machines and, in the process, losing touch with our humanity, a concern that is the theme of various artists today. For instance, in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the central character struggles with how to retain her humanity in a society that exploits human beings for labor and entertainment.

The context in which Buddhist teachings and practices evolve into traditions today is largely utilitarian. Happiness, effectiveness, well-being and satisfaction are the criteria that are determining which innovations are rewarded with a following and patronage. Again, MBSR is a good example. Kabat-Zinn introduced a variation, combining Buddhist meditation methods with scientific protocols. He made use of the franchise model (borrowed from business) for dissemination. Its utilitarian effectiveness assured selection and it has now spawned a whole field of study (numerous academic institutions now have departments concerned with research on mindfulness and awareness), a whole industry and now its own magazine. MBSR and its Vipassana based approach is now widely spread in the academic and mental health communities.

SGI provides another example of heredity, in which ritual and social interaction play key roles. This model is so effective that SGI is easily the largest, most diverse Buddhist variation to emerge, even though it is largely ignored by the media and established Buddhist traditions.

Along with The New Kadampa, SGI applied the organizational and networking principles of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity in a Buddhist context to those who are seeking for a way to counteract feelings of helplessness, a way of negotiating life and something in which to trust.


Buddhism has always harbored idealism. On the one hand, the utopian idealism of the Mahāyāna in the West often takes the form of millennial thinking, the creation of a better society through intellectual, technological or artistic progress. Millennial thinking, in the end, is the secularization of the Christian myth of salvation in which the myth of salvation has been replaced by the myth of progress (cf. Straw Dogs, by John Gray). While utopian idealism has inspired many to devote their lives to the good of humanity, it has also served as the rationale for the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews from Spain, the French Revolution, Fascism, Communism, the ethnic cleansing of America in the nineteenth century and, today, the atrocities of radical fundamentalism, whether economic, political or religious.

On the other hand, the dystopian view that the human condition is hopeless and to be left behind takes expression as the path of renunciation and dissociation from the complexities of society. This form of idealism has also inspired many great masters, such as the poet-hermit Milarepa in Tibet. Politically, dystopian views lead to anarchism and the dissolution of social cohesion.

Ideas evolve and spread when they evoke and appeal to the higher emotions, namely, love, compassion, joy and equanimity. Institutions and movements can be built on the basis of love (e.g., healing communities, communities of faith and devotion), compassion (e.g., communities of service) and joy (e.g., communities of accomplishment), but equanimity is more of a challenge, as it requires people to be passionate about being dispassionate.

In order to see into the deeper nature of things, one has to hold a certain quality of equanimity, of balance, free from judgment of prejudice. Thus, equanimity is the emotion associated with insight. One of the great strengths of Buddhism is the quality of insight that practitioners develop, insight that enables them both to understand the different sides of a problem and see through the projections to the underlying unity of purpose from which most problems arise. (Most problems arise from differences in how to achieve an end rather than differences about the end itself.) Insight is a direct result of the equanimity one necessarily develops through the practice of mindfulness.

For instance, Lloyd Geering in New Zealand laid the foundation for a secular approach to Christianity in the 1960’s largely through his exploration of what such terms as god and resurrection meant in today’s world. His is essentially an insight approach, based in a deep reflection on the question “What do these words mean?” When asked why his ideas had attracted little interest, he replied that about half the population now had little interest in religion and the other half was primarily interested in the evangelical or fundamentalist forms of religion, forms whose emotional basis is devotion and loving kindness, not equanimity.

Currently, the first generation of Western teachers, who were deeply trained in one or more of the traditions of Buddhism, have been rendered obsolete. Yet because they are deeply trained and deeply respectful of the traditions in which they practiced, they are uniquely capable and qualified to question how these traditions might take shape in the West. How that depth of knowledge and experience will be transmitted to the next generation is not clear.

The complex interactions described by McLuhan’s tetrad make prediction of the future difficult. The difficulty is compounded by the rapid rate of innovation and change, in which whole new spaces of possibilities are opened long before the potential of present innovations has been understood, let alone realized. This is the sea in which Buddhism finds itself, an idea, a vision, or perhaps a dream whose threads now chart their own courses of evolution. What happens with Buddhism will be determined not by any single individual, institution or body of thought, but by the countless interactions of individuals with each other, all making their own contributions while being shaped by the contributions of others.