Buddhism and Virtual Reality
IN VIRTUAL REALITY, we will never be able to read what John Muir called "the inexhaustible pages of nature ... written over and over uncountable times, written in characters of every size and color, sentences composed of sentences, every part of a character a sentence." This is the contention of Bill McKibben in his book The Age of Missing Information (Random House, 1992). McKibben shows how TV has cut us off from an awareness of the cycles of nature, how it has coarsened our senses and blunted that more subtle ability to feel ourselves in context. McKibben claims that the ever-expanding capacities of virtual reality are efforts to compensate for what's missing. "They are attempts," he contends, "to overcome through more technology the frustrations of living in an electronic world."
More troubling, perhaps, is that technology itself now so thoroughly defines "life" that we no longer know why separation from nature matters so much.
But it is in nature and not in electronic reality—in the encounter with cycles and silences—that reaffirms that we are active and singular participants in a great oneness that is, in every aspect and every moment, unique.
"Smell of autumn/heart longs for the four-mat room." Could Basho have realized this moment under the cartoon stars?
"We have to communicate with reality: otherwise there is no reality," writes Chogyam Trungpa in Journey Without a Goal (Shambhala Publications, 1981). "Of course reality is real, but our contact with reality is through our sense perceptions, our body, and our emotions—the three mandalas. The three mandalas are what meet, or mate, with reality."
Although Trungpa is speaking of tantra, all forms of Buddhism teach that we must eventually make contact with our real bodies and our real emotions as well as our minds. That's why a computer-visualized deity could never pack the same psychological wallop. Something has to happen from the inside out.
"The goal in all tantric traditions," Trungpa explains, "is to bring together the lofty idea, the jnanasattva of humor and openness, with the samayasattva, which is the bodily or physical orientation of existence. The practice of visualization is connected with the practice of combining the jnanasattva and the samayasattva."
But some experts believe that VR is the harbinger of a time when the body can be dispensed with completely—when presence will be defined as an accumulation of data in a given mental space, having nothing to do with human warmth or understanding. Still, enthusiasts like Lanier insist that VR will break through the numbing tyranny of TV and usher in a new era of creativity and communication.
At a recent "Cyberarts" convention, Jason Lanier spun a dramatic scenario about life in the near future, when virtual reality "will turn into the next generation telephone." He predicted that glasses and a glove will produce virtual shelves lined with fish tanks. But "instead of fish, the tanks contain little people running around in various scenes." In each scene, Lanier explained, people will be playing football or shopping or looking at real estate. "These little people are all real people. Just like you, they're networked together, having group experiences from their homes. When you put your gloved hand into a tank, the tank gets very large and surrounds you, and you fly down into the scene and join the group."
But being present to one another is not an option. We're going to be brightly colored, generic cartoon characters, and will unplug whenever we get bored or scared or fearful or things get difficult. Any of the inevitable discomfort that surfaces in the face of intimacy, sex, and death—more than ever—can be subsumed by desire and the illusion of choice.
The consensus seems to be that the proper and ethical use of VR, from a human as well as a Buddhist standpoint, seems limited to a scientific instrument, as a means to extend human intelligence and consciousness. "Why do we need even more encompassing, more entrancing entertainments?" asks Zimmerman. "Why go even further away from the natural world precisely at the time when we need to draw closer to nature?" There are some even more chilling VR experiments actually in the works. For example, the Navy has developed the "Green Man," a tele-operated drone soldier that can move like a human being. Similarly, psychologist Nathaniel Durlach is trying to link specialized "slave robots" to human perception in order to increase our strength and knowledge to superhuman levels. By linking up with one microrobot, we could swim in our own bloodstream. By hooking up to another, we could experience what it's like to hear like a dog. The same technology could help a quadriplegic walk or make a firefighter invincible. Durlach's applications are all to the good, of course, but his research could also result in an army of specialized "Green Men" with X-ray vision that walk through concrete walls or swim in our bloodstreams. Clearly, motivation—right or wrong—will be the key.
Virtual reality is changing too quickly to predict its outcome. Some people, showing impressive amounts of time-honored American tent-show revivalist fervor, see VR as a miraculous vision machine, an electronic version of the caves at Lascaux, that can expand our consciousness and help us to live in a hyper-complex world. For others, it will be an immersive, interactive TV that can help bury us in our own selfish ignorance and aggression.
Lest we be too shortsighted and fearful, a forthcoming book called Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Science of Mind (Shambala Publications, 1992) includes these speculations by the Dalai Lama about whether or not computers can attain consciousness: "I can't totally rule out the possibility that, if all the external conditions and the karmic action(s) were there, a stream of consciousness might actually enter into a computer." He even considers it possible that a scientist "who is very involved his whole life" with computers might be reborn in a computer—"then this machine which is half human and half machine has been reincarnated."
One day, after many computer ages have passed, a great RoboBuddha may arise to help us. In the meantime, it seems wisest to see virtual reality as an empty mirror—an extraordinary tool, but just a tool—that magnifies what we already are: escapists, scientists, addicts, artists, and bodhisattvas too.
Tracy Cochran, a consulting editor to Tricycle, is a freelance writer living in New York.
Image 1: Enlightened Baby, by Nam June Paik, 1988
(c) Cal Kowal, courtesy Carl Solway Gallery.