Welcome to Electric Buddhaland

Here’s something I read yesterday at the San Francisco Chronicle:

ZenPayroll, which gives small businesses a simple system for processing payrolls, is now processing more than $100 million a year, the company said last week. Also recently: Startup Zendrive, which plans to use smartphone sensors to “take back the joy of driving,” raised $1.5 million from high-profile investors, including Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin.

Elsewhere in startup-land, there’s Zendesk (customer support), Zenefits (payroll, benefits and human resources), and Zenfolio (video hosting). Also Zendorse, Zendeals, Zencoder, ZenCash and, perhaps the crassest appropriation of a religion that eschews written texts, Zen SEO.

Those are just tech companies. There are 657 live trademarks containing the word “Zen,” according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.”

There are a number of reasons that Zen is an attractive business name. Zen is very popular, probably the most “fashionable” form of Buddhism in the West. The word Zen is short, pithy, and starts with a Z. Both Z and Q are letters that intrigue consumers the way the color red does. Zen comes with a set of images: simplicity, nothingness, style. And, Zen teachers and writers have, inadvertently I think, made Zen into something that is perceived to be outside or separate from Buddhism itself. Zen is Buddhism, but then it’s not, it’s Zen. Zen has instant name recognition and I doubt you’ll find anyone naming their payroll system BuddhistPayroll.

The merging of Zen/Buddhism with business seems to be a growing trend. I recently saw mention of a Buddhist podcast titled, “Meditation to Get Ahead.” Not sure what is meant by “get ahead,” but I think I have a clue. A recent Buddhist conference offered sessions called “Eat Me If You Wish: The Dharma of Uncertainty in Business” and “The Transmission of Mind and the Passing of Lineage via the Web.” To be fair, there were some more traditional topics covered at the conference, but those two in particular stood out to me.

Like Instant Karma, Electric Buddha’s gonna get you.

There’s also a growing market for Buddhist apps. One, “Equanimity”, a meditation timer, might be useful. But I have doubts about an android app called “Buddhist Meditation Trainer” (“your personal trainer for relaxing and enlightening meditation”) and “buddhify”, a mobile mindfulness meditation app that “increases wellbeing by teaching you mindfulness & meditation on the go.” I also have reservations about concepts such as “Contemplative Technologies” and “ReWiring Meditation for the Digital Age,” and “online sanghas.”

Guess I’m just not geek enough for the brave new world, but then geekhood is nothing I thought any regular person would want to aspire to.

As I’ve noted previously, using Eastern philosophy as key to business strategy is not new. But as I see more of this focus on Buddhism and business, I feel increasingly uneasy about it. Technology, too. Now there is nothing wrong with mixing dharma with technology, however, it seems that some folks, and they are usually newer folks to Buddhism, seem to feel that Buddhism can be technology, or maybe it’s that technology can be Buddhism. But I don’t think dharma can be reduced to an app. Or that you can have a deep, meaningful Buddhist experience via the Web. I’m afraid it’s rather delusional.

And there is something absolutely wrong-headed about turning any sort of religion or spirituality into a purely business opportunity. Spiritual hucksterism is one of the oldest professions, and people of this ilk are a dime a dozen.

Here’s an example that has been bugging me since I first saw it in June. A Buddhist meditation teacher promoting a “one-day coaching intensive workshop for anyone interested in creating an online teaching business” to be held next week in Seattle and November in NYC. At this workshop, you can “learn to teach online from four experienced teachers.” This is a truly wonderful opportunity because “Most people are waiting for someone to model the best way to claim online territory as a teacher.”

And what will you learn?

In 12 hours, you will learn: How to package and brand your offering, How to construct your offering (Webinars? Newsletter? Classes? 5-Week course? Year-long immersion?), How to market your offering,  How to choose the right platform to deliver your content, How to process online payments smoothly and securely, How to build community methodically and consistently, How to deliver your offering in an authentic and powerful way, How to create additional sources of passive income, How to manage the entire process from inception to launch, Where to find additional resources like designers, developers and virtual assistants. You will leave with: An action plan, A realistic and dynamic budget, A network of new connections to rely on as you build your business”

What missing here? What about how to help others? That is really the only reason why someone should want to teach dharma or meditation, or anything else for that matter. People certainly need to earn a living, but to embark upon the path of teaching only to make money is a blueprint for disaster, not for the teacher so much, but for the students defrauded by these predators.

Here’s some other things missing from this workshop: How to inspire. How to say committed. How to uphold values and maintain an ethical standard. How to nurture and encourage diversity. How to create a climate of trust, encourage students to learn from their mistakes, how to stimulate critical thinking . . . I feel these are just a few of the things a teacher would need to  know whether he or she plans to teach Buddhism, secular meditation, or any other spiritual path.

Of course, few of these positive, substantive qualities can be transmitted in any meaningful way in a 12-hour course. Or via the Web. And when we start talking about the Passing of Lineage over the Web – yikes!

Aw, go buddhify yourself.
Aw, go buddhify yourself.

Is this the future? Are we going to nurture a generation of spiritual hucksters? Is the emerging face of Buddhism one that thinks dharma and lineage can be transmitted with an app, a podcast?

I don’t think it’s that bad. I hope not. But it could be.

If the future of Buddhism is hucksterism and dharma as impersonal technology, then I say gimme that ole time religion, it was good enough for Buddha, it’s good enough for me.

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Photos: Electric Buddha from the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India, photographer unknown; young monk, copyright AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh


19 thoughts on “Welcome to Electric Buddhaland

  1. Sadly, hucksters have been involved in religion and spiritual issues since the beginning of time, so it’s of little surprise that they plan to use technology to carry it to new levels.

    I see what you are saying about it appearing cheap and losing something deep and personal via the web or an app, but if used correctly then technology can enhance ( though maybe not replace) the tried and true methods practice. For me, where I currently live, there is no Zen center for over 100 miles and the internet proves to be a valuable resource.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that we must be careful with our use of technology and not let it replace human interaction.

    Dan @ Zen Presence – Ideas for Meaningful Living

    1. Dan, thanks for reminding me of a caveat that I often forget. In many areas where there are no nearby centers, these apps can be useful. I’m not dismissing them out of hand, so much as I am questioning some of the thinking behind them.

  2. If you haven’t already done it, I’d recommend spending a few hours digging deep into the website of Tutte-ji Wachtmeister. I assure you, it will be time well spent.

    As Tutte-ji recently said, “When you realize the Oneness of spirit and market, everything is pure bliss.”

    1. I followed the link. When I saw the word “Transintegral” I was ready to exit out. Then I noticed there was a post on Rev. Gene Scott. Then I was thinking, well, I gotta love a guy who loves Dr. Scott (which brings back fond memories of those Sunday afternoons before cable when there was absolutely nothing on TV and out of sheer boredom I’d watch Scott, who was actually pretty entertaining, chomp on his cigar and fill up his blackboard, and explain the Bible as only he could). So then I realized that this was a lot of dry humor and parody which I appreciate, and I was thinking it was actually pretty funny that the Head Geekster was trying to engage this guy in a serious discussion, or so it seemed to me, but then I began to realize that there was a level of seriousness to it and that evidently Tutte-ji was coming from a Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism point of view, which for me is kind of a turn off, as I view that philosophy as the nauseating ramblings of folks in love with their own minds. I don’t see how you can poke fun at some of this stuff, while taking SNB seriously. Personally I think nearly everyone connected with BG and with SNB are phonies, and I’d like to send them all off in a raft to some other shore, and believe me, I would destroy the raft once they got there to make sure they couldn’t come back. The Head Geekster, in particular, would love that since he used to claim he was an explorer on his website, although I suspect the only thing he has ever explored is cyberspace and perhaps his refrigerator.

      Now, this is just my first impression. When I have more time, I’ll go back and read some more from “The Ayn Rand of Consciousness” before I render my Final Judgment and, in the words of that great actor, Oscar Jaffe, “close the Iron Door” on him forever.

      1. For me, there was this interesting process where first I thought it was real and was horrified, and then I realized it was parody, and then I was shocked that I ever thought it was real, and then realized how spot-on some of the parody was, etc.

        I never really tied up the critique to the SNB stuff– I’ll have to think about that. I just know that every time I visit the Tutte-ji site, I find something that makes me smile.

        1. It does make you go through some changes. Maybe the SNB stuff is part of the joke, too. Hard to tell. A reference to x-buddhism and comments from one of the more Nascent of the Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhists, known as Der Unbuddhist, made the link for me.

          1. Hi there,

            The most interesting (and shocking) part for me, has been the number of people who doesn’t realize that my site is (or, rather, used to be) pure satire.

            Someone recently said it’s like reading The Onion and realizing “This is isn’t as bad as reality”. In a situation like this, there doesn’t seem to be much point doing parody, so I’ve come out as some kind of “speculative non buddhist”.It’s much less fun, I can assure you.

            If you wouldn’t mind, David, I’d like to hear more about what it is that makes you so furious about SNB. I don’t see myself as a representative of that “movement” (if it could be called such), but I’m puzzled by the kind of reactions you mention. What makes it appear phony, for example?

          2. Hey,

            I think one reason why people miss the parody is because it is such subtle, dry humor. I love that kind of humor and I still wasn’t quite sure if you were serious or not. That’s what makes it cool. Don’t stop.

            I’m not furious about SNB, maybe I was when I wrote the post, I don’t remember. First, the concept is stupid. If you don’t want to be a Buddhist, then don’t. Why make a crusade out of attacking x-buddhism? If you’ve got something better to offer, then offer that and leave Buddha-dharma behind. Secondly, their criticisms are valid, but only up to a point. Frankly, I think they are so infatuated with their own estimate of their own intelligence that they can’t stand anyone who writes or speaks simply without a lot of big words. Thirdly, they use a lot of big words. Who are they trying to impress? And what is the use of writing posts that are so convoluted no one can follow them? That’s a frequent gripe about those guys. If they are so smart, you’d think they’d know how to compose a coherent message.

            I probably shouldn’t have called them phonies. I don’t know if they are or not. But they are full of themselves. A lot of people these days are just too full of themselves. Me too, probably. We all need to empty ourselves of ourselves and realize, as Kerouac wrote, that “nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old . . .”

  3. Hi David,

    It _is_ funny how the deadpan presentation can fool people. I guess most of us don’t really read (and think) about what is being said these days, we simply look at the graphics and the catchphrases and base our judgement on that.

    I think something similar could be said about your response to the SNB project. If someone uses “big words” this is immediately interpreted as if s/he is trying to impress. If an argument is hard to follow, it is immediately dismissed.

    As for your question “Why bother with Buddhism if you don’t like it”, I can think of two responses:

    1. Some people (myself included) actually see some potential in what we call Buddhism, while at the same time reacting to the anti-intellectual, new agey bs that’s marketed and sold as “Buddhism” today.

    2. Buddhism is becoming part of the cultural mainstream, where it functions as an “opiate for the masses” (or, more specifically, the middle classes). Its influence is quite subtle, but quite a few people are also abused in the most horrible ways by Buddhist “teachers”, who are really just conmen in robes. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t criticize this.

    Anyway, thanks for your reply.

    1. Likewise, something presented in a simple way could be immediately dismissed as anti-intellectual. One of their posts that rankled me was the one that called Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings “comfort food.” It was unfair, as are many of the criticisms. TNH is trying to reach many people, so he used simple words that most folks can understand, but they are deceptively simple because he can be profound as hell sometimes. It’s also sort of the style of Zen and East Asian Buddhism to favor simplicity.

      I get your two points, yet I am not in full agreement. Sure there is some new agey bs out there, but SNB seems to condemn all Buddhism. The most recent post there says “What use is Buddhism today?” They are qualifying, specifying, they are painting with a very broad brush. Indeed, there are some horrible teachers and con men, I’ve met more than my fair share of them, but there are also a lot of good teachers and teachings.

      All the SNBers seem to be able to do is criticize. They offer nothing positive and nothing to replace what they condemn. I would argue that the mere pertinent question is what use is their approach?

      1. To dismiss something only because it is presented in a simple way would certainly be borth arrogant and stupid. But so is dumbing down your message in order to reach the masses. Even if TNH can be ”profound as hell”, what use is that if his best-selling books contain little else than fortune-cookie platitudes? And, speaking of simplicity in Zen and other forms of Mahayana Buddhism, don’t forget there is a background of highly complex thinking. (Even today, textual study is an important aspect of Japanese Zen monastic practice. Most Westerners don’t know about this, of course, and would dismiss intellectual work as ”not real Buddhism”.)

        There is no recent post with the title you mention, but it doesn’t really matter. In a way, SNB is indeed ”condemning” all forms of (contemporary, western) Buddhism. The strength of the project, as I see it, is that it doesn’t focus on the most obvious symtoms (e.g the sexual scandals that seem to erupt every six moths or so in North American communities, or the vulgar appropriation you mention in the post above), but rather more general and less obvious problems haunting western Buddhism.

        If you make the effort to actually read the essays on the SNB blogs (there are at least four now, not counting my own which is something quite different), you’ll find quite a lot of material outlining possible alternatives to dominant forms of Buddhist practice. Having said that, I still don’t understand why the lack of ”positive alternatives” would invalidate a critique.

        1. I guess we will just have to settle for different opinions on the profundity of TNH. There is dumbing down and there is plain speaking, not necessarily the same.

          I’ll make an effort to read your essay, but in general their posts are way too long and so disjointed I have trouble following them.

          All they do is critique. They’ve made their point, over and over and over . . . I guess they really don’t have much else to say.

  4. So you dismiss the SNB crew and their project, not despite but because you are unable to read and comprehend what they’re saying. I’m speechless; this latest comment is way beyond standard Buddhist anti-intellectualism.

    1. Yeah, well, I’m speechless, too. I thought we were having a friendly conversation. It is really amazing to me that people who spend so much time criticizing others can’t take a little criticism themselves.

      because – emphasized as if that was the ONLY problem I have with SNB. I cited several others. I’m sorry, but I’m not the only one who finds their long-winded, intelligence-flexing exercises in English composition difficult to read. If you are only interested in Buddhism that appeals to the mind, and not the mind and heart, then I say you are missing out on quite a lot.

  5. Some comments by the aforementioned troll were removed because as the owner of this blog, I don’t feel I have a responsibility to post remarks from people who just want to be argumentative and nasty.

  6. Nobody expects the intellectual inquisition. Are chief weapons are critique, critique and rationalism, rationalism and critique. Are two weapons are critique and rationalism and ruthless efficiency! Er, among our chief weapons are: rationalism, critique, ruthless efficiency, and near fanatical devotion to conceptual formation! Um, I’ll come in again…”

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