Samsara Squared

Buddhism and Virtual RealityTracy Cochran

"I think the best way to view virtual reality, especially for people who are interested in Buddhism and their own spiritual development, is as a Jungian sandbox," says Thomas Zimmerman, who as a young MIT graduate invented the prototype for the DataGlove with a brown cotton workglove and $10 worth of parts. "You have to watch how people are using VR and see how what they do with it reflects what they're trying to achieve." Zimmerman co-founded VPL Research with Lanier and helped develop a perfected DataGlove II before signing the patent over to VPL Research and moving on to explore the integration of sound and music with dancers' movements.

Now thirty-five, Zimmerman, who has a strong interest in Buddhism, is torn between his understanding of the creativity and genuine scientific exploration that VR can make possible and his disillusionment with the way people have used this technology to date. "So far, it has been used mostly for exercising control and perpetrating violence."

BUDDHISM SUGGESTS that in order to realize emptiness, we must emerge from the small, dark world of our own egos into the big world of all other living beings seeking happiness. And even more is required.

"Cyber-Jobe" from The Lawnmower Man

Along with emptiness, according to Robert Aitken in an essay called "The Body of the Buddha," one must experience oneness and uniqueness—these three elements of Buddhahood are called the "Three Bodies of the Buddha": the Dharmakaya, the Sambhogakaya, and the Nirmanakaya. Complementary to the emptiness that is the natural law of things, writes Aitken, there is fullness or oneness, the sense that "the whole universe is a vast, multidimensional net, with each point of the net a jewel that perfectly reflects and in fact contains all other jewels."

And finally, we must also experience individual uniqueness: "The earthworm and the nettle are individual; no other being will ever appear like this particular earthworm, this particular nettle."

The Buddhist adepts say that we must practice in a way that engages and balances our body, mind, and emotions—our inner and outer worlds. And this threefold vision of reality can never be accomplished by the intellect alone.

"Without practice, philosophy is superstition," writes Aitken. He goes on to explain that Zen practice—and most other forms of Buddhist practice—involves "coordination of body, brain, and will, in directed meditation." If this is true, then emptiness in all its fullness and uniqueness—the Three Bodies of the Buddha—can never be glimpsed by strapping miniature TV sets over our eyes and pretending to blow away lime-green pterodactyls.

Recently, the Dalai Lama said that he would sum up the Buddhist understanding of the nature of reality in this essential line from the Heart Sutra: "Form is emptiness and emptiness form." Continuing, he explained that emptiness means interdependence, "and interdependence means emptiness of independent existence." The Dalai Lama stressed that "the correct understanding of the subtlest level of interdependence—that of the interdependence of things and conceptual constructions—has more to do with maintaining the balance of the outer and inner world, and with the purification of the inner world."

It's tempting to think that we can awaken to the nature of reality through electronic means. Picture an architect walking in a virtual room in a virtual building that he is planning. Suddenly, he remembers that he is in a computer simulation. Alarm bells go off in his head. "Everything I'm seeing is an illusion," he thinks. He walks a little farther on his computer-linked electronic treadmill, experiencing the sensation that he is walking down a long hall. "Come to think of it," he muses, "I'm always seeing mental constructs, mere illusions, and mistaking them for solid things." The real trick, however, is inspiring this clever architect to see that it is his attachment to these illusions that leads to suffering. In order to go deeper than a fleeting intellectual observation, he is going to have to acquire a taste for the stillness of meditation, for devotion, for surrender. Who knows exactly what it takes to awaken such feelings, such a sense of sacred importance, in a man or woman? Still, it's a safe bet that it's not going to happen while you're wearing a head-mounted display, because in VR, the medium is the real message, and the medium is overwhelmingly heady.

Still image from Angels, a virtual reality movie by Nicole Stenger

"It drives you up into your head," says Zimmerman. "There's a heavy emphasis on external stimuli, on visuals and sound. What it's doing is enhancing the dukkha, even though it is interactive. It appeals to the excited mind rather than to the contemplative mind."

Yet while you lose deep sensation and feeling in VR, you make up for it with the ability to do things in a computer-aided mental space that you could never do in the "real" world.

Soon you will be able to "telepresence" anywhere in the world. Picture a virtual sangha flying to Mount Kailas. We could walk around the mountain and spend the night meditating in Milarepa's cave. Only there would be no washed-out roads to contend with, no broken-down Tibetan bus, no cold feet and cold tsampa, no fights and fatigue. Consistent with the limitations of VR, there would be no sense of smell or taste on our trip, no sensation of our hearts beating or of our breath belabored by heights, no sight of darkness gathering. There would be no sense of the physical presence of the ancient mountain, no sense of its rootedness, no sense of the earth.

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