Net Worth

Helen Tworkov

One story retold from the life of the Buddha concerns a mother who loses her child. Distraught, the woman wanders aimlessly, clutching her dead infant to her breast. When she hears that the great sage Shakyamuni is expounding the dharma nearby, she goes to him and asks, "Why has this happened to me?"

In response, the Buddha sends her on a mission: to collect one mustard seed from each household in the village that has never known death. Only when the woman returns empty-handed, does she begin to find solace.

Two thousand and five hundred years after this legendary event, the information superhighway (see this issue's special section) is being heralded as the great revolution of our age, an unparalleled breakthrough that will generate radical changes in our daily lives. Nothing, however, suggests that these changes will have any effect on a mother who loses a child.

Everything from our own behavior to that of our dharma friends, to Tibetan monks fighting over the new Karmapa (see "In the News") to Bosnia and Rwanda seems to suggest that greed, anger, and ignorance are inevitable. While Kate Wheeler's account of misbehaving monks in this issue is offset by humor, Rudolph Wurlitzer's pilgrimage takes us through parts of Buddhist Asia that have been savaged by corrupt leadership. If the longevity of Buddhist teachings attests to their efficacy, their relevance for today's world attests as well to the human ego's fixation on its own needs.

Virtual reality and other dimensions of cyberspace have the potential to help humanity recognize the illusory nature of those boundaries which create false separations and hold us in bondage to our own smallmindedness. The new technology may afford opportunities to experiment with dislocations of relative spatial dimensions, to "virtually" transform our human shapes into birds, or to extend our participation in network communities. But still we are subject to old age, sickness, and death. Perhaps, however, we are not doomed to forever ask "Why is this happening to me?"

The Bodhisattva Vow (see "Dharma Discourse") creates possibilities for moving beyond this ego-cherishing question. The first vow of the bodhisattva is, to conflate various translations, "Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them." The utter absurdity of such a statement is precisely what gives it meaning. To apply any literal interpretation courts discouragement and despair. Yet Buddhism is all about possibility. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says, "In taking the Bodhisattva Vow, we acknowledge that the world around us is workable."

What makes the world "workable" is a state of mind unfettered by self-preoccupation. Because the superhighway does not exist outside the human imagination, the challenge it poses is whether it will become a vehicle for a tyrannical Brave New World, or whether it can be used as a force for political and spiritual liberation.

Both minds and the machines they create are subject to intention. Putting Buddhist teachings online—a process well underway—is intended to preserve texts and disseminate dharma. The stated intention of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (see the Mitchell Kapor interview) is to decentralize authority, increase democracy, and lobby for privacy on the superhighway.

So now we have the same possibility for enlightenment, the same ego-mind, and a promising new technology. To cyber-oriented Buddhists, that promise includes the possibility of an interconnected supermind in which human consciousness can be hard-wired in cyberspace, thereby concretizing, in an ephemeral fashion, the truth of Hua-yen Buddhism. Hua-yen emphasizes the interconnectedness of all creation, which is visualized as The Net of Indra, a net which encompasses the whole of life, all phenomena throughout space and time. This is the vast view of an indivisible reality. Yet neither the intellectual perception of Indra's Net or the Internet of cyberspace can alleviate the mother's suffering.

There is no body of knowledge, no technology or political system that renders the Buddha's teachings on the nature of mind out of date. One does not have to be a Buddhist to perceive that most of us are wandering around clutching some form of immense suffering to our breasts. What does consistently define the Buddhist teachings is the alleviation of suffering. Whether this intention is brought to bear in the form of moral guidelines, vows, political systems, or technology, we have the capacity to both create and dissolve suffering for ourselves and others. The choice, as it always has been, is up to us.

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