Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mediating Meditation: Buddhist Teachings Online

According to the Access to Insight website, “many of today’s popular spiritual teachings borrow liberally from the Buddha, though only rarely do they place the Buddha’s words in their true context.” With the increasing infiltration of Buddhist-inspired wisdom and meditations gaining popularity in the Western world, religious teachers have sought to promote greater textual awareness of the Tipikata, or Pali canon, which is believed by practitioners of Theravada Buddhisim to contain the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. As Westerners seek to understand these teachings, technology is able to provide a means by which to connect the modern world to such ancient texts.

As described in When Religion Meets New Media (Campbell, 2010), “looking at the history and tradition of a religious community becomes a vital starting point for understanding present engagement with media and possibly even helping to predict future appropriation or reactions” (p. 65). As referenced by Access to Insight, the Buddha himself warned of seeking truth in “fragmentary teachings of dubious accuracy,” when he talks to his stepmother of discerning which teachings are true in order to proclaim: “This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction” (from “Gotami Sutta: To Gotami”). To alleviate this difficulty, Access to Insight offers over 1,000 translations of suttas/sutras, the canonical texts of Theravada. More recently, as of January 2010, Access to Insight launched an iPhone application, which provides free access to all such texts, as well as bookmarking, search, and audio features. In Ostrowski’s 2006 study “Buddha Browsing: American Buddhism and the Internet,” most surveyed respondents reported that they enjoyed the “convenience of obtaining large amounts of information and having access to resources without the requirement of traveling a physical distance” (p. 98).

In many ways, the Internet’s mass distribution of such scriptures is in direct alignment with Buddhism’s emphasis upon personal study of the Tipitaka—not because it is considered flawless, as the Bible is regarded in many Christian traditions, but because the Buddha’s teachings are meant to be self-evaluated in terms of their application in one’s own life. As Access to Insight says, “the truest test of these teachings, of course, is whether they yield the promised results in the crucible of your own heart. The Buddha presents the challenge; the rest is up to you.” If a majority (52%) of surveyed Buddhist practitioners reported that they used the Internet to seek dharma teachings (Ostrowski, p. 98), then there is good reason to believe that all is happening much like the Buddha intended: individuals outside of cloistered monasteries are gaining access to these critical texts and testing them out for themselves by integrating such text-based meditation into their highly mobile lives through the use of such Internet and phone-based technologies.

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