Dharma Dialogue

Jane Iwamura down at the University of the West has a class going on right now on Buddhism in the West, and her students are managing a blog called “Dharma Dialogue.” It’s an admirable project to give students the opportunity to share their experiences and what they’re learning, studying, and the issues with which they’re wrestling with the public at large. Especially given the vitriol one usually finds in the Buddhist blogs these days when the topics hit so close to home. I find the posts smart and the entire project bold. I’m a fan.

In a recent post, my name was mentioned. Specifically, my Masters thesis. Dear god. That thing’s still floating around out there? Rumor has it that the GTU library can’t find their copy of it, and my electronic file has been corrupted and is barely readable. Which is just as well. I defended my thesis in the summer of 2002, and did most of the research for it over the corse of the previous year. The Internet, in 2001-2002, was a much different animal. Things have changed. When I wrote my thesis, not only did “web 2.0” not yet exist, not only was there no Facebook or Twitter, but “blog” wasn’t really even a household word yet. That’s the problem with doing research on contemporary issues and especially the problem with the Internet. It’s the very definition of a moving target.

If I could do it all over again, I’d probably do it differently. Specifically, I’d be interested in the questions of community, identity formation, and the five skandhas. That is, of late, I’ve been thinking more and more about the importance of sangha (community) in one’s Buddhist practice, how community helps in the formation of identity, and (to put a Buddhist spin on all of it) the extent to which the five skandhas are actually present in one’s online life or if it’s just two or three (or four?) of them. I don’t have any firm answers here on any of these questions because, quite frankly, I’ve haven’t been doing any real research on these issues of late. I’ve been focused on other things. But I hope that as others, including the dedicated students down as U-West, dig more into this topic, they keep some of these issues in mind.

Now, where Monica is absolutely right, of course, is in her observation that digital Buddhism does not necessarily reflect real-world Buddhism. Her statistics about how many folks are online, what languages they speak, and where they live in the real world are worth a look.

However, I’d caution against using Google searches as any indication of anything. First is the problem that Google searches are powered by a proprietary search algorithm that changes rather frequently. How search results are ranked is a complete mystery. Secondly, and related to the first issue, even though a “casual” Google search might appear to be the same for a large number of people, it isn’t. As Google grows in sophistication, search results are actually custom tailored toward specific demographics, locations, and individuals. One person’s “causal” results might not be like the next person’s.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, Google searches are clearly not the only way that folks discover new content on the web. The Internet mirrors real-life, and it’s reasonable to assume that one discovers new Buddhist content through existing, self-selected networks. For example, I might follow Buddhist Blogger A, not only her blog but also on Twitter, largely because I agree with her point of view. i.e., the digital equivalent of self-segregation in the real world. If Buddhist Blogger A re-posts something or links to something or tweets some other blog, I’m likely to start following that as well. (It is, after all, how I found out about Dharma Dialogue.) And this has nothing to do with what Google might serve up or what the “mainstream” blogs or media assumes is important.

Simply put, we need more research on use patterns. We need more data about how individuals use the web, search out new content sources, and discover digital Buddhism(s).

I’ll end here, in part because I’m actually 39,000 feet above Nevada at the moment, on my way to Chicago. But I wanted to say that I appreciated this particular post, part of a much needed new blog in the mix of digital Buddhism. Great work!