Book Review: Buddhist Meditation and the Internet by Joanne Miller
I have to say that reading Buddhist Meditation and the Internet: Practices and Possibilities by Dr. Joanne Miller was at a very timely point after a recent chat with Diane Gregorio who is the Executive Director of Nalandabodhi US and Co-Director of their Sangha Community Building initiative. Diane had just returned from attending the 2012 Buddhist Geeks conference and we spoke a bit about the central question that was on many attendees minds in whether or not technology was helping or hindering the development of Buddhism in the world. We’re both digital natives so it was a meaty topic to discuss via Skype together, but I kept finding myself making reference this book and how it is so relevant it was to our discussion. My continued mention of the book actually made me realize that it is one of the very few that I’ve been able to use in reference when discussing the intersection of technology with Buddhism and it is for this reason that I believe it is essential reading for Buddhists engaging, studying and practicing online.
Dr. Miller is a Sociologist and Zen practitioner who takes on the central question around whether meditation can be pursued online in any meaningful way and builds a solid case around the failings, shortcomings and pitfalls of Buddhist meditation in cyberspace. She doesn’t completely knock the idea of community that comes from online practice and does have some positive things to say about the merits of applying technology to meditation, but for the most part, she’s not sold on the ability for online practice to bear fruit.
The book covers a lot of ground (and I mean a lot) and seeks to answer many questions in the investigation of what it means to practice Buddhist meditation online and whether any authentic engagement can come of this new format of meditation. Whether or not we can capture the same sense of the sacred in online experiences remains to be seen and the ability to be able to create sacred spaces and conduct rituals in the virtual world is deemed to be too early to be evaluated by Dr. Miller at this point.
The concept of authenticity is a core one within this book in the manner in which the teachings are transmitted, the teachers providing the teachings and the true meaningfulness of online experiences of meditation. While this isn’t much unlike the same questions posed in real life, the lack of a physical presence online is seen as a barrier to practice by the author and this “disembodiment” is hearkened to throughout the book as an obstacle for online practitioners. In a meditation center, we are able to have our posture checked, to meet with students and teachers and have face time to convey our thoughts and emotions that is sometimes distorted through online channels. It can be likened to whether one can learn to properly play the drums online without a teacher since the nuances of holding the drumsticks too tight can’t really be detected via a YouTube channel and best noticed when sitting in front of a drum teacher who can step in and correct this posture early in the lessons before the student has a chance to grow into a pattern.
The only criticism I have on this book is that it sometimes is repetitive in it’s treatment of the subject matter at hand but this is more out of how the chapters of the book have been assembled in that the analysis of each fashion of online meditation (Second Life and other virtual communities, online meditation classes and websites) are deconstructed based on the various topics Dr. Miller covers in the book and revisited based on each chapter, rather than covered as separate chapters on their own which may have eliminated this repetition for the reader. This is a minor criticism however and is offset by the value that this complete work brings to this emerging topic in Buddhist circles.
Buddhist Meditation and the Internet by Joanne Miller was a challenging, yet essential read for me as a big digital nerd and huge believer in the power of the internet to be a force for change in collaborating with others regardless of location. As a community manager by day, faithful Buddhablogger, devourer of podcasts and participant in many online study groups and courses (both Buddhist and non-Buddhist), I’d personally love to believe that almost everything can be aided by a little bit of pixel dust, however, I found myself surprisingly in agreement with many of Dr. Miller’s writings and am encouraged to ask more questions around both my participation in online meditation sessions as well as to self-evaluate my engagement and motivation online. This is still quite new territory for practitioners and will be interesting to see how things evolve as does the technological landscape which is changing at a faster rate than ever.