So let’s address the elephant in the room - why am I doing all of this online? I live in a city with a wonderful, thriving community of Soto Zen practitioners at Austin Zen Center. I’ve taken classes there and I sit with them on occasion. So why am I not doing this “for real”? I would argue that it is “for real”, or just as “real” as anything in this life, but I’ll still attempt some explanation.
It’s a complicated question, but for me, there are several important factors.
- A global sangha - I value the importance of perspectives outside those within my own community or near my geographic location.
- Around-the-clock access - I can sit zazen at 10 o’clock at night and share that meditation time with a sangha mate from Germany or Russia. I can drop what I’m doing and plug into my practice whenever I want, which means I can do so much more often than if I had to go to a physical location to practice.
- A complement to my already rich online life - I live my life online. I work online. I’m connected from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep. I know some are uneasy about this level of connectedness, but I embrace it and it’s important to me. Why would my spiritual life be missing from that sphere?
- The transcending of time and space - I value an approach that isn’t limited to physical time or space, and I think this progressive method is more truly in line with Dogen’s teachings than some traditional teachers would like to admit.
- Records, history, and authenticity - When we practice online, there is a record of interactions that persists starting from day 1. You can see and hear every dharma talk, read every forum post, and watch every ceremony Treeleaf has ever held. For all the concern about authenticity online, this salient point is often overlooked. Confusion and shadows show up when people communicate face to face without any witnesses or records to hold them accountable for their actions.
Some common concerns expressed by other Buddhists about online sanghas:
- “Without face to face interaction with a teacher, the teacher-student relationship isn’t authentic” - I really don’t understand this one. I speak to my teachers face to face on G+ and Skype. Unless you feel there’s some need for physical contact between you and your teacher (which sounds kinda inappropriate to me), I don’t understand why this is at all important.
- “The commitment of making time to travel to a physical practice place is an important part of the practice” - if this were true, I think the idea of pilgrimage would be much more important that it is in Buddhist practice. Zazen is a practice place in itself. All physical places are just mutually agreed upon meanings. When sanghamates practice together online, a physical practice place is created.
- “If anyone can be ordained online, doesn’t that make it meaningless?” - The bad news about this is that anyone can be ordained in person, too. In Japan, Zen “ordinations” are often either a posthumous show of respect during a funeral, or a glorified career training program for sons of temple owners who want to take over the business from their fathers. Anyone can be ordained. I think we all have to judge for ourselves whether a priest embodies the Way.
- “People can represent themselves as anything online; you can’t be sure they’re really practicing” - If I show up to a brick and mortar Zen center for 45 minutes of zazen a few times a month, does that mean I’m really practicing? What does it mean to truly practice? Is the physical practice place what’s important, or is it the dedication of the student?
These are my honest thoughts about these issues. There is no easy answer, and I don’t mean any of these points to denigrate the practice of all the insightful, devoted Zen practitioners who practice at brick and mortar centers. I simply feel that for me, looking at my early passion for online culture, my devotion to it both in my career and my personal life, an online sangha and teacher-student relationship makes sense.