The Science of Awakening

Notes from the first Buddhist Geeks conferenceRichard Eskow

Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod called it a “historic moment.” But the first Buddhist Geeks conference, held at the University of the West near Los Angeles over three days last July, began with a more modest goal: discussing topics raised on the Buddhist Geeks website (buddhistgeeks.com) and in its podcasts.

Buddhist Geeks was created out of curiosity, cofounder Vincent Horn told the 200-plus participants on opening day. “We don’t have a mission statement, we have a question: How best can we serve the convergence of Buddhism, global culture, and emerging technology?

“Will this work? Will there be another conference after this?” he shrugged. “We don’t know.”

They were off to a good start. Even before the doors opened, a community was forming. Outside the college bookstore, strangers introduced themselves. We’re in an age of deep societal divisions— generational, technological, ethnic, cultural, economic, religious—that are as harsh as the midsummer California sun. But none of that was evident at the conference; differences melted in the mutual warmth that’s still best conveyed through physical presence.

In his opening keynote, Vipassana teacher Shinzen Young was the first to proclaim that the Buddhist was a scientist, while carefully noting his non-scientific qualities as well. Young envisioned “a collaboration between adepts and scientists,” leading to a “viral wave,” with hundreds of millions becoming enlightened. Displaying an fMRI image of the brain, he said, “We already have a scientific model of enlightenment. Is your gizmo or paradigm going to create hundreds of millions of stream-enterers in the next hundred years? If not, you don’t have it.”

The next panel featured more brain images. Meditation teacher and blogger Kenneth Folk discussed technologies for awakening. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist as well as a Buddhist teacher, noted that “the self is a suffering machine.” Author and Buddhist teacher Ethan Nichtern, who founded the Interdependence Project, integrating meditation, psychology, and activism for a young, urban audience, said, “The whole purpose of practice is to become saner and healthier human beings. You don’t really have 3,000 friends on Facebook. These connections are fine, but superficial.” I had worked with one of the other speakers but only online. Were we friends, I wondered?

I mentioned to McLeod, who’s deeply trained in the Tibetan tradition, that I’d already seen too many fMRIs. “Are we worshipping the graven image of our own neurochemistry?” I asked. He pulled out his cell phone and tweeted the question to his Twitter followers.

During her segment, Trudy Goodman, guiding teacher at InsightLA, called Shakyamuni Buddha “the original Buddhist geek, a scientist who wanted us to duplicate his results.” But artists want us to duplicate their results, too—to cry as they’ve cried, or become angry at injustice. Maybe I’m not a Buddhist geek, I thought. Then I noted the thought on my iPad.

Jack Kornfield, who helped introduce Vipassana to America, asked younger teachers what they saw as today’s needs. “More and better,” said Diane Musho Hamilton Roshi, who teachers Zen and Integral Spirituality. “More progressive, more equality for women.” Vincent Horn, true to form, followed up with questions. Will the future be like the Borg—the race of interconnected cyborgs in Star Trek? he wondered. “Like Shinzen, I think an enlightenment machine is plausible,” he said.

“Ours is a culture of exercise,” noted Ethan Nichtern. “That could be a great brand for Buddhism: a healthy mind. We pander too much to mass culture.”

All this prompted Kornfield to remark, “I have tremendous trust in this process. The dharma wants to give itself away.”

I introduced myself to Jane McGonigal, a world-renowned expert on computer games and society, who was there to speak about online games and awakening. We had collaborated on an online game but had never met in person. Friends or not? After a brief hesitation, we hugged. “Come meet my husband and sister,” she said.

Musho Hamilton demonstrated the “Big Mind” technique developed by her teacher, Dennis Genpo Merzel. It felt like a mash-up of group therapy and corporate team-building (“Ready to grow?” “I’d like to speak to the Cosmic-Centered Self”), although many participants have been enthusiastic. Describing the Buddha as “the first proto-management consultant,” Rohan Gunatillake, who complements his teaching with the 21Awake blog and consulting work, spoke of an “awakening industry” at the nexus of Buddhism and business. Hokai Sobol, a Shingon instructor in Croatia, led a panel that addressed controversial topics like paying for the dharma.

Seattle-based Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Tibetan master, gave concluding remarks that were warm, funny— and cautionary. ”Horrible news!” he said, laughing. “Airplanes now have wi-fi. There’s no escape!” More seriously, he warned, “This is a very dangerous age. Technology designed to bring happiness can create more suffering.” The teachings we’re trying to preserve go beyond culture and language, he pointed out. Don’t assume technology can convey them. “Skillful monkeys don’t let go of the branch they’re on until they’re sure they can grab the next one.”

As the parking lot emptied, I was already missing this impromptu community. Not that we’d always agreed. I’m uncomfortable with trendy terms like “branding.” I doubt Buddhism exists merely to “make healthier human beings,” as Ethan Nichtern proposed. And Shinzen Young’s “viral wave” of enlightenment might sound exciting—but what enlightenment exactly? Some “enlightened” priests supported Japan’s wars. An “e-Buddhism” might only turn a revolutionary spirituality into an engine of passivity, a tool for creating subservient workers and consumers. But then, I had doubted the authenticity of Internet friendships, too—yet I embraced my online friend when we met.

In Ken McLeod’s words, the conference was “the first time in the West that senior teachers, new Buddhists, and different generations met as equals to have remarkable conversations about important subjects like money, power, and leadership.”

Vincent Horn’s question about whether the conference would work has been answered: Buddhist Geeks has already announced next year’s event. It’s become a community, maybe even a sangha. And there’s no app for that.

Not yet, anyway.

Richard Eskow is a writer, consultant, and musician. He is a senior fellow with a public policy group and a Tricycle contributing editor. He contributes regularly to the Huffington Post and other media outlets.

Artwork by Gonkar Gyatso, Four Elements: Element 4, 2009, Private Collection, Hong Kong

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KRJOCTO's picture

What do you think of EPOC EEG product to have a mind- brain interface?

jjwalker7730's picture

Fall Awake!