Category Archives: Digital Buddhism

Hungry Ghost Economy: Concluding Thoughts

As Spiritual Leadership enters its final weeks of the semester, it is time to invite everyone to provide feedback on this project.  Likewise, I will summarize and engage in critical reflection.

What is Spiritual Leadership?  The term connotes transcendence.  From the perspective of Liberation Theology, I would reject this definition.  Rather, I would argue that Spiritual Leadership is a reorientation to the potential to be realized in the immanent, in the mundane.  Thus, I chose to illustrate this point through the particular case of Snack Pack Pudding.

Looking deeply into Snack Pack Pudding, its non-pudding elements, and its connections revealed suffering including links to illness and oppression (viz. slavery)!  In cases when corporations and governments are jointly and severally responsible for suffering, extra-governmental organizations, such as the press and/or religious leaders are called to engage their asymmetrical agency, responsibility, and accountability to be spiritual leaders and organize the collective will of the oppressed.

Per Allan G. Johnson, Power, Privilege, and Difference, society channels people’s behaviors towards paths of least resistance.  These paths are not easy.  Deviation from these paths is harder, at least initially.  Yet, the essence of spiritual leadership is to deviate from these paths of least resistance in order to change society if we are to transform individual and collective experiences of suffering as pain and oppression into love and justice.

In consumer-driven society (i.e. the hungry ghost economy), people unwittingly and, often, inevitably, participate in the creation and perpetuation of suffering by engaging in mindless consumption represented by tens or hundreds of individual and seemingly trivial and innocuous transactions every day.  The sum of these decisions have tremendous impacts upon world suffering.

No one person can do everything.  Every person can do something.  Spiritual leadership is not about creating guilt and paralysis.  It is, at least from this perspective, about orienting people, promoting awareness, and facilitating contemplation and action.  It functions on the faith that each person, in his or her time, will gradually or suddenly achieve insight into an issue and take action to change it.

Orienting people to the mundane topic of Snack Pack Pudding has been an intentional statement that no topic should be particular to spiritual leadership.  Mindfulness practice is powerful in orienting people to the possibilities available for agency, responsibility, and accountability at every level.

The key lesson learned, the fundamental challenge in spiritual leadership, is identifying the media that will connect a particular issue with a particular constituency.

To date, Hungry Ghost Economy

generated 64 views on dharma dialogues

created a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/HungryGhostEconomy) with 13 Likes

created a petition on http://www.whitehouse.gov (http://wh.gov/eMAA) to ask the Obama Administration to ban the import, distribution, and/or sale of products produced using slave labor  with 6 signatures.

created a twitter account with several tweets.  It gained 0 retweets or replies and 1 follower (surprisingly, a local business)!

I value the opportunity to inform.  At times, the internet has demonstrated its power as a means to raise awareness and funds, and to create, organize, and sustain action; at times, it has helped initiate high levels of coordinated global activity.

Yet, research indicates people look to shift their attention within seconds, and shift topics or pages in 7 minutes or less.

It is a lot of effort to maintain an internet presence and create “fresh” content for a small audience.

As a result of this experience, I think the internet can be a place for the exchange of ideas and a resource where people can learn more, exchange ideas, and coordinate efforts.  However, I emerge with the belief that the spiritual leadership models of grassroots activism are still relevant and needed.

The right issue at the right time can begin in a congregation, sangha, temple, mosque, or meeting.  Spiritual leaders, engaged in common causes in solidarity with the oppressed, can promote awareness and action within their organizations.  Tens, hundreds, or thousands, still attend religious services and meetings of various types.  These groups can initiate movements that transcend religious differences.  I think there is an experience of solidarity when people are in the physical presence of one another that can be empowering.  There is something about physical presence that promotes different forms of relationships.  These empowering relationships can collectively engage in actions that serve as the impetus for movements that gain momentum and expand across space and time to effect change.

This assessment of the Hungry Ghost Economy project is a statement about fit between the issue, communication/presentation, media, culture/zeitgeist, and skillful means.

In June 2010, according to ConAgra, Snack Pack owned 84 percent of the $210 million category of shelf stable puddings and gel packs.  As discussed in earlier segments, ConAgra co-packs the pudding for all or almost all of its “competing” store brands.  So, Snack Pack pudding, one consumer packaged good selling at approximately 25 cents per pack, generates millions in advertising and promotion.

This is the landscape in which Spiritual Leadership, typically operating with $0.00 budget, must operate.  Spiritual Leadership is about overcoming these odds.  It is, as aforementioned, about the transcendent potential in the immanent and mundane.  It is a calling.  There is no promise that the work will save countless sentient beings.  There is only the individual and his or her vow to save countless sentient beings.

27 million slaves continue.  Old age, illness, and death continue.  Suffering created by Snack Pack Pudding, and other consumer packaged goods, continues.  So, too, therefore, have I vowed to continue.

I will tell the story and try and change the world, 1 person and 1 action at a time.  I can do no other.

I hope you, having read this testimony, will do likewise.

With bows.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: The Karma of Snack Pack Pudding (#3 in series)

Karma is intentional action connected to its context in space-time. In this chapter of Hungry Ghost Economy, we explore the karmic consequences of the consumer packaged goods production and consumption through the example of Snack Pack Pudding©

These are the listed ingredients in Snack Pack Pudding©.

Water, Nonfat Milk, Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Sunflower Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil), Cocoa (Processed with Alkali), Less than 2% of: Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Flavors, Color Added. CONTAINS: MILK

But what about the unlisted ingredients? Disease? Destruction of habitats? Slavery?

Here is the nutrition information for a 92g single-serving container:

Calories                                   120

Fat                                              25

Total Fat                                     3g          5%

Saturated Fat                          1.5g          8%

Sodium                                 130mg        5%

Potassium                            130mg        4%

Total Carb                                21g          7%

Sugars                                       14g         —

Dietary Fiber                             2g         0.8%

Protein                                        1g

Vit A                                                           0%

Vit C                                                           0%

Iron                                                            4%

Calcium                                                   30%

Based on a 2,000 calorie diet

ConAgra Foods, Inc. emphasizes “All Snack Pack products contain 30% DV calcium, with the exception of Bakery Shop Lemon Meringue Pie, Lemon Pudding, and Snack Pack Gels.” It emphasizes “CONTAINS MILK.”

Viewing the ingredients and nutrition information in isolation from advertising, would you describe Snack Pack Pudding© as”

“Nutritious?”

“Sensible?”

“Wholesome?”

Would you serve this to yourself or others “without the guilt?” The fact that ConAgra Foods, Inc. advertising tries to assuage feelings of guilt suggests an effort to overcome one’s innate sense that there is something wrong in consuming this manufactured product sold as food.

Is this all overly dramatic? Can’t one just eat Snack Pack Pudding© and consider it “empty calories?” No! Robert Lustig, M.D., a Researcher and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital, summarizes the position of metabolic disease researchers in debunking the “empty calories” myth. These calories are not “empty;” they are toxic. For more, click here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-lustig-md/sugar-toxic_b_2759564.html

The ingredients tell the story.

14 of 21 grams of Total Carbohydrates come from refined granulated white sugar. That’s 3.33 teaspoons. That’s 54 of the 120 total calories in one serving of Snack Pack Pudding©. Would you eat or feed your child 3.33 teaspoons of sugar?

The majority of the remaining 7 of 21 grams of Total Carbohydrates comes from modified corn starch. Carbohydrates are saccharides. Corn starch has two major components, amylose (a straight chain polymer of glucose) and amylopectin (a branched chain polymer of glucose).

Modified corn starch refers to corn starch that has been treated with acid(s) (e.g. sulphuric acid) to alter its viscosity.

In the body, simple carbohydrates like sugar and modified corn starch are converted to glucose. Spikes in glucose levels cause the pancreas to release insulin and the liver to convert glucose to triglycerides. Excess (unused) glucose is stored as fat.

The increase in consumption of these ingredients in Snack Pack Pudding© and other foods driven by consumer packaged goods companies has been linked to heart disease (the #1 cause of death in the United States), obesity, and metabolic diseases including diabetes (the #7 cause of death in the United States).

Obesity has increased from 13 to 34 percent in the last 50 years. For more on the economic costs of obesity, click here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/30/obesity-costs-dollars-cents_n_1463763.html

Snack Pack Pudding© also contains Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Sunflower Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil).

These fats, particularly in hydrogenated forms, are linked to cardiovascular disease.

Palm oil is the most widely used food oil in the world. It is valued for long shelf life and low cost. But, the low cost comes at a price. Palm oil monoculture is destroying the environment through deforestation. In other words, eating Snack Pack Pudding© is part of a causal chain that not only negatively impacts human well-being, but destroys entire ecologies including animals, plants, and minerals.

Per WWF Australia, approximately “300 football fields worth of forest are cleared EVERY HOUR to make way for palm oil production” (emphasis added). For more details, click here: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1750468/Explainer-What-is-palm-oil-and-why-the-controversy

Per the Rainforest Action Network, slave labor has been documented on palm oil plantations. Cargill is a supplier to ConAgra Foods, Inc. (the manufacturer of Snack Pack Pudding©) and a major supplier of palm oil. Cargill refused to ensure its supply chain was/is not purchasing SLAVE-LABOR produced palm oil. For more, click here: http://ran.org/palm-oil-controversy-escalating

In reducing the milk in Snack Pack Pudding© and increasing the water, nutrition is further compromised. Milk is a source of protein. It contains 18 amino acids. 9 are essential amino acids, six are semi-essential amino acids, and three are non-essential. Amino acids are proteins referred to as the “building blocks of life.” Water does not.

Then, there are those ingredients we are advised not to worry about because they only constitute 2% or less of the total volume.  These are:

Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Flavors, Color Added.

According to the Food Chemical Codex, 7th edition, Sodium-Stearoyl Lactylate (SSL), an extensively used food additive, is non-toxic. It continues by describing SSL as

a cream-colored powder or brittle solid. SSL is currently manufactured by the esterification of stearic acid with lactic acid and partially neutralized with either food-grade soda ash (sodium carbonate) or caustic soda (concentrated sodium hydroxide). Commercial grade SSL is a mixture of sodium salts of stearoyl lactylic acids and minor proportions of other sodium salts of related acids. The HLB for SSL is 10-12. SSL is slightly hygroscopic, soluble in ethanol and in hot oil or fat, and dispersible in warm water. These properties are the reason that SSL is an excellent emulsifier for fat-in-water emulsions and can also function as a humectant.[1]

In other words, this is not food. It is only legally rendered “food” through Government regulation because Consumer Packaged Goods companies and Food Scientists determined that when fed to rats, lambs, and people, there were no observed adverse effects at the indicated levels.

Non-toxic ≠ food.

Can you trust that artificial flavors are any better for you or the environment?

The ill effects of Snack Pack Pudding© extend beyond human consumption. In manufacturing Snack Pack Pudding©, frequent power outages, errors, and other deviations from manufacturing specifications result in tons of pudding not fit for human consumption. This pudding, including sugar free pudding, is either applied to farm land or fed to pigs. Pigs consuming Snack Pack Pudding© suffer the same health problems as humans and, in turn, are consumed by humans.

The manufacturing process creates waste and is part of a causal chain that contaminates and destroys the environment. The one-time use packaging destroys the environment in production and disposal.

“But it’s fortified with 30% of my DV for calcium?!”  That is a high price to pay for a calcium supplement!

Disease. Destruction. Slave-labor. This is not just a snack. This is karma.

This has been just part of the complex interdependent web connected to buying and eating consumer packaged goods. I encourage people to engage in mindfulness. Look past the advertising. Is the thing you are buying and eating food or “food?” What are the effects of your purchase and consumption? Look for the hungry ghosts and beware that you do not become one yourself.

Please spread the word and share your thoughts in the comments.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: 100,000 Signatures can help 27 million slaves

Please sign this petition at Whitehouse.gov: http://wh.gov/eMAA

we petition the obama administration to:

ban the import, distribution, and/or sale of products produced using slave labor.

There are more slaves today worldwide than in any other time in history, an estimated 27 million slaves.  Many of them are engaged in the production of raw materials and finished goods sold in the United States.  Domestic and international slave labor produce goods as part of the supply chains of companies doing business in the U.S., including U.S. companies.

This petition asks the United States Government to require all companies manufacturing, distributing, and/or selling products in the United States to verify via internal and third party supply chain audits that their goods are slavery-free.  In addition, it proposes that all raw, semi-finished, and finished goods found to contain ingredients produced by slavery be subject to seizure, along with fines and criminal prosecution.

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Building Extropia Together

How to Help1

In my previous posts at 3Ratna3Kaya and Dharma Dialogue, I have written a little bit about the concept of Extropia. Extropia, a non-Utopian/non-Dystopian future characterized by continual successful efforts to meet societal stretch-goals, probably sounds like a distant ideal. In actuality, I have a strong conviction that Extropia is not only our future, it is also being built brick by brick at this very moment.

Decade after decade, the technologies that enable the achievement of societal-stretch goals are developing at an accelerating rate. Consider for example, the ninety years that passed between the invention of the Light Bulb and the Moon Landing vs the mere nine years that passed between the invention of the World Wide Web and the Sequencing of the Human Genome. The best news about this current stage of progress is that we can all play a meaningful role in it.

When people think about most forms of charity, various obstacles arise: “I hardly have two nickels to rub together. How am I supposed to make a difference?” “I’d volunteer my time and labor, but I am swamped with academic and professional obligations.”

Luckily, there is a new way to practice philanthropy and help build a better future. The method I am speaking of is the relatively new phenomena known as “Online Crowdsourcing.” Within Online Crowdsourcing, there is a movement of “Citizen Scientists” that I find particularly impressive.

The advantages of online philanthropy is that you can help without “opening your wallet.” In terms of labor, you do not even leave your home, and  with regards to time investment, as little as five minutes can still produce valuable data for researchers.

Unfortunately, not nearly enough people know about Citizen Science, its successes, its value, and ease of participation. For this reason, I have decided to start a project to promote Citizen Science websites that collect data for bio-medical, psychological, and other scientific research.

My project is mainly built around my Pinterest Page: 3Ratna3Kaya. However, I will also try to garner interest by featuring teaser pins on my more established Word Press Blog: 3Ratna3Kaya and a couple relevant Facebook pages of which I am a member. For a full look at the content I have created for this project though, people will still have to access my Pinterest page.

My page features three boards and 12 total pins currently. These boards are as follows:

“Building Extropia Together” – The pins on this board are advertisements I have made to get viewers interested in current Citizen Science projects and the websites that host these projects.

“Call to Action”- This board looks at Transhumanist thinkers and frames their ideas through a Buddhist lens.

“Inspirational Case Studies”- The pins on this board highlight Buddhist spiritual leaders’ ideas on science and technology. Most of these pins feature quotes from those leaders.

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Dharma Dialogue Spins Off

Spin off Blogs by Dharma Dialogue contributors.

Spin off Blogs by Dharma Dialogue contributors.

It’s finals week here at University of the West and the contributors of Dharma Dialogue have been busy completing their final projects.  Please look for some of them to be adapted and appear on the blog over winter break.  Classmates are working on papers, infographics, story collecting, and even websites of their own.  In latter case, we have three exciting spin off blogs to announce.  It appears some of our contributors have enjoyed blogging so much, they’re going to attempt to take it up as a habit.  Please check out their wonderful blogs and continue to check back at Dharma Dialogue: Buddhism in the U.S. for ongoing posts.  Although the class is over, the contributors were unanimous in their desire to keep the blog alive.  Look for exciting contributions from other members of the UWest family in the months ahead.

Family Dharma is “Practicing in the midst of life” thanks to Joseph and Sarit Rogers.  Per the site:

Joseph Rogers is a group facilitator, trained under Noah Levine, with Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society.  He is also a Masters of Divinity in Buddhist Chaplaincy candidate at University of the West under the supervision of Reverend Danny Fisher.  He currently teaches meditation to at risk youth, and co-facilitates the weekly young people’s group at ATS Santa Monica.

And

Sarit is a photographer specializing in fine-art portraiture, creative commercial photography, and  lifestyle photography primarily made up of musicians, yogis and the occasional pinup. …Sarit writes for Visions Teen, covering a wide array of issues surrounding addiction, recovery, mental health, adolescence, and parenting. She also has a blog of her own dedicated to her photography. Some of her most inspired subjects is the integration of mindfulness, breath, yoga, and meditation into family and recovery.

Their blog will seek to explore 1) Buddhism in America as a minority religion, 2) Family in Buddhist practice, 3) Lay practice in American Buddhism, 4) Relationships out of context, and 5) Finding time for formal practice.  Also, read Joseph’s first post on Dharma Dialogue if you haven’t already.

Path of Pleasure is “Using the Jhanas on the Buddha’s path to awakening” with classmate Buddhakaruna.  He describes himself and the blog this way:

I practice the jhanas as taught by Ayya Khema and Leigh Brasington. These are often called the sutta jhanas to distinguish them from the Visuddhimagga jhanas, which may be an entirely different creature from what I practice (a form of cessation?).

I also may discuss my experience as a Master of Divinity student at the University of the West, an accredited Buddhist University in Los Angeles. This degree will allow me to be a professional interfaith chaplain.

My hope is that blog will help those interested in, or currently practicing the jhanas to awaken themselves. There are so few of us relative to the dry-Vipassana practitioners that it is often difficult to connect and share our experiences.

Recent posts discuss self-compassion and fear.  Also check out Buddhakaruna’s earlier discussion of jhanas on Dharma Dialogue.

The Monkey King is “Taming the monkey mind in the Dhukka jungle” from Dancing Yellow Monkey.  This is a collaborative blog and a place for story telling and experience sharing, so please join in the conversation.

Welcome to the digital hub for a new generation of young adult practitioners of the Dharma.

This is a place for young adult Buddhist practitioners and scholars to share their experience as a person of color in the U.S.  Writings about one’s personal practices, relationships, work, parenting, social action, or various topics related to Buddhism in the U.S. are greatly encouraged. I invite you to share your experience.

This is a site for you. Please share your personal essays, poems, screenplays, short stories, art, photography, and video. Let your voice be heard!

Also, please read Dancing Yellow Monkey’s first post about young people of color in American Buddhism on Dharma Dialogue.

Finally, I shall continue to help edit and contribute to the blog along with our fearless leader, Dr. Jane Iwamura, Chair of Religious Studies at University of the West.  You can read more about my adventures at Dharma Cowgirl.  We hope you will keep following Dharma Dialogue, commenting, and contributing to the growing conversation about Buddhism in the U.S.

Post by Monica Sanford.

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Another ‘Lonely’ White Chick With a (Buddhist) Blog

“Lord Buddha on TV in front of two monitors,” by Wonderlane via Flickr.com

Buddhism in the 20th and 21st Centuries has taken on a new medium, perhaps its first new medium since the introduction of television a century ago. That new medium is the internet, a connective web born from a U.S. Department of Defense research initiative in the 1960’s.  So one could say that digital Buddhism is, in a way, American Buddhism.

Of course, the internet is now no more American than the printing press is Chinese. Scott Mitchell, in his MA thesis for GTU, argues that the internet, by it’s nature, is a tool for 1) democratization and anti-authoritarianism and 2) commercialism and the growth of passion/greed, both of which are, in a sense, “anti-Buddhist.” A very interesting theory. Regardless, one could also argue it is a global tool which reflects the character of its users to at least some degree. It is that subject I wish to explore.

In that sense, although the internet is no longer uniquely American, it is rather dominated by the English language, which accounts for 57% of all websites.  What’s really interesting, though, is that English speaking users only account for 27% of the people on the internet.  The next largest user group is Chinese, at 24%, but only 5% of the internet is written (or spoken) in Chinese, according to W3Techs (W3 is the international consortium that standardizes web programming language, so they’re pretty reliable).  In fact, according to Internet World Stats, Asia accounts for 45% of all internet users, while North America comes in at a piddly 12%.

Given the language dominance, it’s no surprise then that we see a dominance of English-language Buddhist blogs.  In fact, when you translate the phrase “Buddhist blogs” into Asian languages (using Google Translate) and do a web search with the translation, the number search results in Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Hindi, and Tamil combined don’t even amount to half of the 79.6 million search results for the English-language phrase. (This is a highly unscientific study, which would get you a solid “F” in any academic paper, but I still think it’s interesting.)

The other factor which may be contributing to this market dominance is what we might call “market penetration.”  Internet use among North Americans was 79% in 2011, according to Internet World Stats.  So more than three out of four people you know (if you’re North American) are on the internet.  It is similarly high in Australia/Oceania at 66% and at 61% among Europeans.  In contrast, Asia is much closer to the world average (33%), with just 26% of all Asians having internet access.

So what does it mean for the character of “digital Buddhism” when the vast majority of practicing Buddhists aren’t contributing?

Every technological revolution in history has spread unevenly, with the most affluent societies leading the way – from the mastery of fire to the fires of industry – from the transportation revolution of the 20th Century to the telecommunications revolution of the 21st Century.  This uneven spread of technological revolution has a nasty history of cultural hegemony (word of the day!) and even outright war, colonialism, and enslavement.

But we’re Buddhists, so we should be better than that, right?

Well, the Angry Asian Buddhist doesn’t think so.  He points out in his blog that

…it’s common parlance among English speaking American Buddhists to use the term American Buddhist or Western Buddhist to refer to White people—or at the very least at the exclusion of American Buddhists of Asian heritage. I can certainly concede that the prototypical “American” in the media is a White American—but I hold the American Buddhist community to a higher standard. Especially since most American Buddhists are not White.

The rhetoric which has led to the normalization of the “American Buddhist” as a white convert has also led to the exclusion of Asian American Buddhist voices from the table, according to AAB.

They are angry when they hear people write about the history of Buddhism in America without reference to the hundreds of thousands of Buddhist Asian Americans who have been and who continue to be the greatest part of American Buddhism. Who will speak out for them when they’re ignored? Who will stand up to let them know they’re not alone?

That’s why I’m the Angry Asian Buddhist.

Does he have a point?  I think so.

A quick Google search of “Buddhist blog” will show what I mean in the top 10 search results.  Three are themselves lists of the “best Buddhist blogs,” but those which are personal blogs have a distinct flavor.  Only one is operated by a person(s) of Asian decent, while the other six are quite obviously white folks (four guys and two gals).  Results 11 through 20 are little better, a few personal blogs, a few group blogs (still dominated by white folks), and one Asian person’s blog. (Please note: This evidence is cursory and far from conclusive.  However, if that’s what I find in a cursory search, it’s what others will find in a cursory search. Consciously or unconsciously they may draw certain conclusions from the results.)

Does it matter?  Or am I just race-baiting here?

This is where it gets personal.  I have a blog dedicated to Buddhism.  And what am I? A white chick.  So am I contributing to the white digital Buddhism dominance?  Maybe.  That’s not why I started blogging, but you could say the two are related.

I started blogging as a way to reach out to other Buddhists.  As a white chick living in a very white part of the country, surrounded by Christians and hemmed in by cultural homogeneity, there simply weren’t very many other Buddhists for me to talk to.  Those I found were often as lost and clueless as I was, relying on books and the occasional retreat at a distant meditation center to try to build a sangha-less practice.  So I used the internet to reach out.  And I found that there were a lot of other lone Buddhists who were also reaching out – and most of them were like me.  Go figure.

In fact, there is actually research to show my anecdotal experience is not even remotely unique.  A study by Ostrowski in 2006 (in Contemporary Buddhism, volume 7) found that a third (33%) of people looking for Buddhism on the internet did so because they didn’t have the ability to become involved with teachers or sanghas in real life.  A further fifth (20%) turned to the internet simple because it’s convenient.  (Nor is this phenomenon unique to the United States.  Kim found similar behavior in 2005 among urban Koreans due to the fact that most Buddhist temples in Korea are located in rural areas.  However, Korea may be a unique case in Asia.)  Ostrowski found that people using the internet to learn about Buddhism were overwhelmingly white (72%) and over half (53%) had been raised as Christians. Yet despite their obvious interest, three-quarters (74%) were not members of a Buddhist center – just like me.

So why is that?  Is geography really so powerful?  What about white converts who live in big cities with lots of temples?

Even in large cities, where Buddhists can gather and build temples and centers, those of us who are converts  to Buddhism tend to continue living in our culture of origin.  So while we may be able to build a sangha, that sangha is spread out and geographically diluted.  Rarely are our sangha-mates also our physical neighbors, let alone family.  And we tend to build sanghas with those who have similar experiences to ourselves, people with whom we can relate.  This may explain not just some of the unfortunate racial segregation in American Buddhist sanghas, but some of the socioeconomic segregation as well.  It’s no wonder Buddhists of color, Buddhist women, and LGBTQ Buddhist retreats have become so popular.  Everyone wants that experience of mutual empathy only a shared background can bring.

In many ways, I think the Asian American sanghas have an advantage.  I live in a mixed Latino/Asian immigrant neighborhood.  The Vietnamese Buddhist temple three blocks from my house is supported and patronized by the Vietnamese families who live in my neighborhood.  In contrast, my fellow convert Buddhists frequently drive long distances to their centers.  The Chinese temple I sometimes visit on Sundays is patronized by the Chinese families who live in its surrounding neighborhood and practice Tai Chi and Qi Gong and tennis in the park next door.  When I see them, I always think how nice it must be to have fellow Buddhists all around you like that.  Perhaps if I had that feeling, I wouldn’t see the need to reach out to other lonely Buddhists on the internet. (Perhaps not.  I’m kinda a geek.)

Now, you might ask, “Why don’t you go to the Vietnamese temple? Or make friends with the people at the Chinese temple?”  It’s a fair question.  After two and a half years of living in such proximity to so many wonderful Buddhist resources, the more I learn about Asian culture, the more I come to appreciate how truly different they are from my own.

I’m becoming more and more aware that Asian American Buddhists look to their temples and sanghas differently than I do.  I come loaded with Protestant presuppositions about the role religion should play in one’s life, presuppositions which look very different from how Asian and Asian American Buddhists actually engage with Buddhism. (At least, according to Wendy Cadge and Carolyn Chen, as well as my own ignorant observations.)   When I left the United Methodist Church at the age of 15, I created a gap in my pscho-social life that I’ve been trying to fill, consciously or unconsciously, ever since.  So trying to engage with an Asian American sangha on my terms is unlikely to leave me feeling fulfilled.

I also worry that the presence of an outsider like me would not be entirely welcome.  That may just be my projection, but it creates a strong anxiety.  Finally, I don’t speak the language and that’s a huge barrier.  I appreciate different cultures, but I’m too intimidated to try to scale that wall just yet.  At least, not while I still have the internet.

In fact, the very notion that I could fill in the gaps in my relationships and connections by reaching out online may be a product of my upbringing. I have noticed a curious reluctance in my Asian classmates and coworkers to do business and communicate via the internet that may speak to deeper cultural biases, my own as much as theirs.  It may well be that white, middle-class Americans are simply more comfortable with the internet.  Just like my Asian friends are more comfortable with chopsticks.  (Stereotypical, I know.  Please forgive me and remember I looked stupid trying to use chopsticks for a very long time.)

In conclusion, my personal experience (backed by a modicum of research) leads me to believe that Asian and Asian-American Buddhist voices on the internet are not being intentionally excluded or ignored at any systematic level (although certain projects or sites may be in need of scrutiny).  The internet is rather brilliant in that it has a very low barrier to entry (Scott’s criticized democratization).  Literally anyone can get a blog (myself, case in point) with even the most limited of resources.  Of course, not being ignored is a far cry from being heard and an even greater distance from being heeded.

However, my experience attending an ecumenical Buddhist-founded school, where I am exposed to a plethora of Asian, Asian-American, and “American” (white, black, brown, and rainbow) Buddhist voices also leads me to conclude that “digital Buddhism” is not an accurate representation of Buddhism.  It’s skewed and biased, lacking broader perspectives and concerns which are valid and valuable.  With such a large demographic chunk of Buddhists under-represented, it must be.  I want to see more Buddhist bloggers of all backgrounds sharing their experience and teachings in the medium to which I typically go to find those teachings.  And I honestly think we’ll get there, but it’s going to take effort.  That’s why I’m so delighted that this blog will feature the voices of my fellow students, who are most assuredly not all white chicks like me.

Post by Monica Sanford

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Exploring the Digital Face of Buddhism

Buddhist Websites

While a great many studies, articles, and books have been published about Buddhism in America, both as a whole and from the perspective of specific Buddhist communities, scholarship on digital Buddhism is far behind the curve.  Charles Prebish has authored a few articles, the Buddhist Geeks podcast has covered the internet-based work of various teachers, and there are a few graduate theses and dissertations in recent years (see Bibliography).  But this is nothing compared to the in-depth monographs and quality anthologies about other aspects of American Buddhism.  Perhaps this is because Buddhism on the internet is a moving target, as with all things web-based.  Therefore, rather than summarize a batch of academic papers which were out of date within a month of printing, I would like to challenge my classmates and readers of the blog to help construct the digital face of Buddhism today.

It’s simple.  Below I have posted my five favorite Buddhist websites.  In the comments, please tell us about five other awesome Buddhist websites without duplicating what’s gone before.  I know that may be a hard task, so the sooner you comment, the easier it will be to find a Buddhist website or blog which hasn’t been listed yet.  If you feel like being an overachiever, you can even tell us why you like these sites and how you use them in your study and practice.  Otherwise, just list them.  Here are mine:

Monica’s Favorites

  • Buddhanet – Buddhanet was there for me when I was just a baby Buddhist blogger trolling the internet for things I didn’t even know how to pronounce.  They have a wonderful set of resources on both Theravada and Mahayana teachings as well as a global directory of Buddhist centers.
  • Access to Insight – This has lately become my go-to source for the Pali suttas and commentary from Theravada teachers.  In addition to a large portion of the Tripitaka available in English translation, it frequently provides multiple translations of a single sutta for comparison, as well as collections of sutta verses and/or discourses on various topics, such as stress (dukkha) or jnana (meditative absorption).  Most articles have been published elsewhere in print and are entirely suitable for citation in academic papers.
  • Dhamma Talks – A great collection of audio recordings from Metta Forrest Monastery, a Theravada center in an avocado grove just outside Escondido, California.  In addition to both long and short daily talks by the abbot, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the site also hosts beautiful recordings of Pali chants by the resident monks and their texts and translations.  I highly recommend the chants and guided meditations.
  • Wikipedia’s Buddhism Portal – The Buddhism Portal on Wikipedia is a handy place to get started when exploring any topic in Buddhism for the first time.  I find it pretty reliable.  Of course, it is Wikipedia, so read critically and always check the citations.
  • My Google Reader RSS Feed – I subscribe to a number of Buddhist blogs and news feeds using Google Reader, which delivers all their content to one spot.  This includes: American Buddhist Perspective, Angry Asian Buddhist, Buddhist Geeks, New Books in Buddhist Studies, Off the Cushion, Wildmind Buddhist Meditation, and more.  If you have a Gmail account, setting up a Google Reader feed is easy and convenient.  It’s a good way to keep up with your favorite Buddhist bloggers (like me?).  If not Gmail, their are a number of other RSS aggregaters out there to choose from.

(Yes, I know, that brings me to more than five.  What’s in your RSS feed? Tell us. We’d like to know.)

If you want to read more about the history of Buddhism online, you can check out some of the resources I unearthed listed below.

Bibliography

Connelly, Louise. Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation, and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs. Doctoral dissertation for the University of Edinburgh, 2011.

Fenn, Mavis. “Teaching Buddhism by Distance Education: Traditional and Web-Based Approaches.” Teaching Buddhism in the West. Hori, Victor Sogen, Hayes, Richard, and Shields, Mark J. eds. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2002.

Greider, Brett. “Academic Buddhology and the Cyber-Sangha: Research and Teaching Buddhism on the Web.” Teaching Buddhism in the West. Hori, Victor Sogen, Hayes, Richard, and Shields, Mark J. eds. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2002.

Hayes, Richard. “The Internet as a Window onto American Buddhism.” American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship. Williams, Duncan Ryuken and Queen, Christopher S. eds. Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon Press, 1999.

Mitchell, Scott A. Indra’s Cyber Net: The Impact of the Internet on the Development of American Buddhism. Master’s thesis for the Graduate Theological Union, Berkley California, October 2002.

Prebish, Charles. “The Cybersangha: Buddhism on the Internet.” In Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet.
Edited by Lorne Dawson and Douglas Cowan. New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 135-147.

Prebish, Charles. “Indra’s Net and the Internet,” Religious Studies News, 10, 1 (February, 1995), 14, 41. Co-authored with Wayne Husted and Damien Keown.

Post by Monica Sanford

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