History of the Digital Dharma


Shakyamuni Buddha first presented it as a departure from the prevailing Hindi culture informed by the Vedic scriptures and the more recent Upanishads. That period was marked by an agricultural culture buffeted by the territorial warfare that arose from competition for real estate. As a beneficiary of the highest level of privilege (the son of a king) he realized that there was a middle way between striving for more comfort and hedonic pleasures and asceticism.
    Each time the dharma moved to a different region, it took on a new dimension informed by the indigenous religion and expressed as a tweak of it. In Tibet, a land radically from India, population was sparse, the land was marginally arable, and climate was barely hospitable. It was easier to drop the few temptations for distraction available, and so was conducive to a deeply analytical study of the mind placed in total silence. Over the centuries, more and more distinct qualities were observed and handed down to the next generation, until the Tibetan tradition had deconstructed the mind into exquisitely tiny distinctions, revealing subtleties in the path to liberation, and precise tools to speed up the process.
    When the modern world closed in on Tibet in the 20th century, it literally squeezed this body of wisdom out of that isolated incubator and into the West, which has moved to an equally exquisite analysis and harnessing of the physical world. As the technological application of this knowledge exploded without a foundation in wisdom, since it had divorced itself from the ethics and morality of Western religion, entire world became driven by a misguided sense of progress of humanity through the domination of nature.
    As neurological science advanced around one side of the circle to meet the dharma on the other side, a convergence became inevitable, and was deliberately mediated by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who started an ongoing biennial conference on consciousness dealing with the two divergent ways of studying mind. Objective empiricism is meeting subjective empiricism and comparing notes.
    As this was developing, first among metaphysical organizations, and then among mainstream science, one of the teachers squeezed out of Tibet came to the West an immersed himself in the study of Western culture. With his grasp of the Western mindset, he moved to the United States, and began to develop a new approach to teaching, modifying the language and practices from the traditional methods, which were designed for monasticism, and only appealing to that small subset of Westerners who eschewed modernity, capitalism, and technology.
    Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche discarded his monastic status and disrobed from Tibetan form, adopting the modern business suit as a powerful way to thwart any attempt use exoticism to escape the world Americans lived in. Rather than presenting the conceptual elements of the view first, as traditional Tibetan teachers, as well as other Buddhist and Hindu teachers were doing, he radically switched to a centuries-old approach of letting practice inform the view rather than the view inform the practice.
    Out of this came his perception of what became known as the Shambhala Teachings, the practice of what he called warriorship in the world. Whereas many traditions began with behavioral rules and an outward renunciation of worldly activities, along with a conceptual framework for a path to enlightenment, he insisted that students begin with discovering the basis of the path experientially, pre-validating all of the concepts used to describe the dharmic view.
     In this way, he accomplished two things at once.  He allowed students to start by understanding and accepting where they were, both the  pre-existing wholeness and indestructible essence, and the kinks and delusions that were able to be seen clearly for what they were, both shockingly undeniable and accompanied by with  the relief of knowing that they were workable. Thus, people who were members of a society inexorably wedded to technology and the economic system they were enmeshed in were empowered with the confidence to work on their minds without leaving the world  of confusion that needed them to stay and infuse their wisdom.
    Shambhala students all over the world begin this path without having to start with all the academic Buddhist “lists” that used to be daunting prerequisites. Instead, the entire path is presented on experience-based principles that provide the basis for understanding and integrating those lists in a living way. For fifty years, the balance of slowing down and experiencing silence in the midst of the cultural norms resulting from technology was codified into a set of forms that facilitated being a warrior in the world, non-aggressively working with mind in a fast-paced, demanding society dominated by the pressures of working, maintaining households with expensive and complex machines, and the sense that time is money.
    Now, there is a shift in the magnitude of our technological connectedness, bigger than the shift to electrical lighting, and bigger than the invention of the analog telephone and telecommunications technologies. In a sense, what is happening now can be considered a refinement of that shift, but it is so much more powerful that it constitutes a discrete paradigm shift. 
    People who were alive before the shift are trying to use it as an extension of the existing structure, but people born as the shift was beginning have already integrated it into their primary view of the way it is, and cannot relate to their parents’ attempt to staple it to an outdated and superfluous operating system. Just as, at some point, Windows has to stop being an interface riding on top of MS-DOS, and had to replace the old operating system from the ground up, the existence of the internet and the transformation of telephones into internet access devices has made the original function of telephones a peripheral function.
    Prior to 1995, we were connected to those within earshot and line of sight, and occasionally connected remotely to one or a few people. Connection to information was also location-limited: the books and encyclopedias we had where we were, libraries we could travel to, and phone conversations we could make, one at a time. Phone books  and library reference books (like the Thomas Catalogue) and index files were the most sophisticated search engines available.
    Suddenly, the internet arrived, and from any computer connected to a phone line, it was possible to search for any information, or discover how to connect with people who could provide information and advance our personal endeavors. There was still a location limitation. The library just moved to our houses and offices. But, even when cable speeded up the process ten-fold, it was still only one order of magnitude beyond the Gutenberg revolution.
    Now, even more suddenly than the last shift, we have cell networks and wireless networks running off cable, and handheld and wearable devices as powerful as last year’s desktop computers. With the develop of application platforms harnessing the capability of location-free communication integrating all forms of interaction, from voice call to text messages using words, images, audio and video, to web page links and searches and purchases of deliverable products and services, to real-time monitoring of bodily functions, and remote house functions (the so-called internet of things), this is several orders of magnitude more powerful. And all of it is storable and transportable, anywhere, anytime.
    As speedy as our world has been, in lamentable ways as well as productive, both of these consequences have just hit warp-speed. And the shit itself has been warp-speed. The future-shock prophesied by Alvin Toffler in 1970 has been happening to the post-war and Boomer generations for decades now. It has morphed into present-shock, recently defined by Douglas Rushkoff.  Not only it is difficult to keep up with the changes as we engage in purposeful action towards future aims, we are like Alice in Wonderland, noticing we are running as fast as we can and staying in the same place. Everything is happening at once. Rushkoff calls it presentism. Hmm, isn’t the ability to be present an essential element of the Buddhist path out of delusion and into clear-seeing and liberation from the treadmill of cause and effect?
     The power of this current shift cannot be underestimated. It has the equal ability to solve all of the worlds problems of scarcity of knowledge, resources and delivery of same, and to create a catastrophe as the system collapses on itself due to the unhealthy concentration of power disconnected from wisdom it makes possible.
    To use an absurdly archaic but pertinent metaphor, the cart is leading the horse. We have no choice to use this technology to survive and thrive in the world, even as we are part of a large process that may well destroy itself as quickly as it becomes ubiquitous.  Obviously, we need to backup the system before it crashes.
    A small group of Irish monks saves civilization once, by copying every book they could find, even as they were being destroyed by the old guard, which at the time was the Roman church.  Today it is a worldwide plutocracy. What will we do when the power gets shut off, and the satellites are useless, and the networks go down. What will we still know? What knowledge will survive such a major collapse?
    What we must do as practitioners of the dharma is continue our practice connected to this network as it now exists and continues to develop. How we back it all up remains to be discussed. But we cannot assume our responsibility to humanity be disconnecting from it as it is happening now.  –Paul Felton, January 9, 2016