The Jewel of Sangha Part III: Online Sanghas

Besides this blog, I have a couple other websites, and I’ve had others in the past. I host websites and blogs, design them, set them up, etc. It’s something I’ve been doing for over a decade. So I like to think that I understand the internet to some extent.

Online sanghas are great, but I’m concerned that folks are inflating their importance and will come to rely on them too much.  I feel that an online sangha or practice is at best an auxiliary tool.

Cyber world is not a real world, it’s a surreal world. For every byte of truth you can get from the internet, there’s another two or three bytes worth of fantasy and delusion. Interaction online is often unreal. People can hide behind anonymity; mask their identities by creating false personas, and so on. These are just a few of the reasons why it’s called virtual. It’s almost real.

When filtered through a modem, it’s simulated reality. Plus, we’re distanced from actual reality. One step removed from the real world. It may sound hokey but I feel that sanghas should be about the kind of heart-to-heart connections that you can only have when you share the same physical space with someone.

I don’t remember where I read this,  but someone on another blog suggested that we should view what we do online as part of our practice. I agree. Many things are a part of our practice. Washing dishes, drinking tea. Yet, we also need to remember that those sort of activities are not the primary practice.

But if our online activity is to be part of our practice then we should start learning to behave better. The uncivil, nasty comments that I have read in some online forums is really disturbing. Most of these people would not think of behaving like that in an actual reality sangha situation (I hope), why do they think that online, civility can be suspended?

We should behave online as we would in real life. That’s not even a point of faith or dharma. That’s about treating people with respect, being polite. Buddhists should aspire to a higher standard of dialogue. We should be the standard.

I see stuff here and there about whatever is going on in the Treeleaf community. I don’t know much about it, nor do I particularly want to know, but it seems like just a lot of bickering to me. Apparently, someone was kicked out, prevented from making comments, or whatever. You’d think it was an excommunication or something even heavier. Makes you question the perspective there. After all, I think it’s just an online forum.

Some folks might have too much time on their hands and are spending most of it on their laptops and Blackberrys. I wonder if they have ever thought about going out to visit someone in their real sangha, if they belong to one. Or someone in another sangha, why not? The practice of “home visits” is another way to build human bridges and to build sanghas. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to thinking that “sangha-time” should be only the organized activities. Spending time with the members of our sangha, especially practicing together in-between the regular group sessions is a great way to cement the kind of camaraderie that aids everyone’s spiritual growth.

Lastly, for this post, I know that in rural areas it’s often a challenge to find Buddhist temples, centers or groups close by.  This can also be a problem in a large city like Los Angeles where everything is so spread out. I hope that when people find themselves in those situations they will still explore every avenue to find people to practice with.

If there are no places nearby, then why not try to find Buddhists who might also live in the area, regardless of what sect or group they are affiliated with, and reach out to them, try to practice together? Visit each other’s homes, or just meet for tea somewhere. The benefits of being together, sharing space, even doing casual things, let alone practicing with other people who on the same spiritual path are just too great to let to pass by.

I also like to see the future of Buddhism in the West including the creation of neighborhood sanghas, spiritual communities practicing together in their communities. Ideally, to me, these would be Buddhists from different stripes, crossing over sectarian lines to practice with one another where they live.

Somewhere I read a comment from a guy who said he had never actually met another Buddhist or spiritual seeker in his real life. Since I have no knowledge of his situation, there’s nothing to do but let the statement stand by itself.

I don’t believe that anyone absolutely has to belong to a sangha, but I do feel it is absolutely necessary to practice with others.

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3 thoughts on “The Jewel of Sangha Part III: Online Sanghas

  1. I hear you. The internet is not the real thing. And then again, we can see that duality and discrimination are illusory at best. To separate real Buddhism from almost real Buddhism is to separate. And Buddhism, after all, is just the words pointing to the stars. Not even the stuff from which stardust is made.

    But still, living in America I get a thrill to know that this country doesn’t have 2000 years of Buddhist tradition. Maybe 50-60 years tops, depending on how you reckon. Emptiness and the potential for growth and reinvention really fill my heart with energy. The empty landscape speaks to the explorer in me. I am proud to call myself a pioneer. To identify with the nascent sapling that is American Buddhism.

    Great post by the way. Thanks for the resistance. Compassionate criticism like this helps me to gather my beliefs, my truths, and to discard what I haven’t yet observed for myself.

    1. To tokenbearcub: Thank you. From the standpoint of the ultimate truth, to make a distinction between real sangha and virtual sangha is “to separate.” However, from the standpoint of the conventional truth, we still need to understand things for what they are.

      It’s refreshing to read someone express their enthusiasm for these “pioneer” days of American Buddhism. I don’t know if most people understand what a significant time this is. It’s as epic as when Indian Buddhism came to China, but we are more fortunate because we have access to a greater array of material. That’s why, just as we are the inheritors, we are also the shapers, and it is incumbent upon us to shape wisely.

  2. Excellent post. I definitely agree that face-to-face anything is much more profound and “real”. At times the internet can be freeing, but that freeing can (and usually does) go to far. Real life does force us to examine ourselves more deeply, especially considering the fact that many of us use the internet to escape. And the value of a real teacher is something I wish I had the opportunity to experience.

    On the other hand, the internet and online “sanghas” have brought the dharma to more people than ever before in the West, and has provided the lay practitioner with a ton of resources, sutras, and study material. Of course, this can be a bad thing as well!

    I think the online experience has to be used as a tool to aid one in their practice. For me right now it is only part of my practice, but a very valuable one. I am one of those that lives in an area where it is at least an hour drive one way to the closest dharma center, after that it’s 1.5-2 hours each way to the next nearest one. With job and family commitments, that isn’t realistic, practical, or beneficial for my family. Hopefully in the near future we’ll be moving, and wherever we land will be closer to a dharma center where I could enjoy the real life interaction of sangha. For now I will continue to use what’s available.

    Cheers.

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