Welcome to the Institute of Buddhist Studies Home

Thank you!

The Institute of Buddhist Studies would like to thank all the panelists, participants, and guests who made the 2010 Buddhism Without Borders Conference such a wonderful success!

Overview | Conference Schedule | Paper Abstracts | Film Screening |

Buddhism without Borders: Contemporary Developments of Buddhism in the West

at the Institute of Buddhist Studies
Berkeley, California
March 18 - 21, 2010

Panel I: Buddhist Experiences: Expressions and Subjectivities, 2:00 - 5:00 p.m.

"From Indra's Net to Internet: The Effects of Social Networking Websites on the Acculturation of Buddhism in North America"

Daniel Veidlinger, California State University, Chico

This paper will focus on the rapid spread of seminal Buddhist ideas in popular American culture through the Internet and will examine the possibility that the psychological impact of the vast network of instantaneously transmitted messages that constitute what is known as the Social Web is itself a prime factor in the upsurge of interest in Buddhism.

Some initial studies such as Charles Prebish’s chapter "The CyberSangha: Buddhism on the Internet" (Religion Online) have been carried out in recent years that chronicle the migration onto the Internet of many resources and discussion groups related to organized Buddhist communities. There is little doubt that like many religions, organized Buddhism as well as Buddhist scholarly resources have a bright future on the Internet, as heralded by the success of the exclusively online Journal of Buddhist Ethics and websites such as BuddhaNet which offer a wealth of information for both scholars and practitioners. However, my study will not focus on the transmission of Buddhist ideas through the provision of easy access to explicitly Buddhist documents. Rather, I will argue that the penetration of key Buddhist ideas such as radical interdependence and anātman into the ways that the online population at large construes the world can be attributed to the cognitive changes in the human mind that occur with the extensions of human senses offered by the unparalleled power of modern communication technologies.

It has been argued that the Internet and modern technology in general lead to social isolation and encourage individualism. However, this has not been borne out by recent studies of Internet behavior, most of which have shown that heavy Internet users have a very rich social life with extensive engagement with other people – albeit through the medium of the Internet rather than in face-to-face situations. People are sharing ideas, thoughts and feelings with each other through the Internet and in particular through socially-oriented websites such as MySpace, Facebook and others, more than they ever have before. Sites such as Twitter allow and encourage people to share and comment on every action they do and every idea they have as it arises. Humanity has never had the tools that allow for this kind of inclusion of others in one’s own experience no matter where they are located. I argue that the ability to break down the spacio-temporal barriers that bind embodied beings leads the Internet and associated electronic media that enable instant communication to shape the ideas and behavior of many people in Buddhism’s favor, and that this will only increase as the influence of the Internet is extended throughout every sphere of life.

The recent social features of the Web 2.0 open up a new avenue for research into this hypothesis. The population under study is constantly creating a large amount of textual content on social networks such as Myspace, as well as Blogs, YouTube, comment sections in online Newspapers, Wikipedia and a host of other sites. This “User Generated Content” represents an unprecedented corpus of information on how people across wide segments of society think about almost any issue imaginable. Religious views and ideas are a very common subject of these postings, and a lot can be learned about how religion is actually developing on the ground from analyzing this text. Computing has also developed to the point where pattern recognition algorithms can operate efficiently over inconceivably large amounts of data and recognize trends and constellations of ideas that would not be readily visible to a human researcher. Along with a team of software engineers, I have recently completed an analysis of three million random user profiles downloaded from a representative sample of popular Social Networks which can be used to tell us a lot about the direction in which religious ideas, mores and attitudes are moving in this population.

This study has revealed some very interesting data about the pervasiveness of Buddhism amongst people who are regular Internet users. If we exclude Asians from a traditional Buddhist background from the dataset, people in all age segments who are heavy users of social media on the Internet are ten times more likely to identify themselves as Buddhist than are people in the offline population as a whole. Comparisons with online believers in other religious traditions, such as Judaism and Catholicism, show that the numbers of adherents to these religions are much more in keeping with the overall proportions of the population who belong to these traditions.

Furthermore, Buddhism as a topic of discussion or as an interest features very prominently in the corpus of text that was examined for this study and generated several times more discussion threads and expressions of interest or agreement than any other religion including Christianity. Perhaps most telling, an analysis of the other interests held by those who tended to discuss Buddhism showed that there was a particularly high level of endorsement of Buddhist ideas amongst those who also were heavy users of media that caused them to engage in extensive and prolonged interaction with others such as Playing MultiUser Online games, using Twitter and sharing photos. Could it be that the form of the technology of the Internet itself, especially its social features, stimulate those who spend a significant amount of their time living within its infinite nexus of connections to accept Buddhist notions such as interdependence and fluid, decentered identities more readily than the rest of us?

next »