(The conversation) — Is it digital buddhismwhich includes computer-assisted practices such as listening to podcasts and using meditation apps, authentic?
Some scholars have argued that Digital Buddhism embodies Western appropriation and dilution of traditional Asian practices. Others like the Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek perceive it as embodying the spirit of late capitalism. Žižek argues that, like Karl Marx’s notion that religion is the opium of the people, meditation apps are a way for people to feel good, but do nothing to change the economic relationships that cause suffering.
My curiosity for the authenticity of digital Buddhism was sharpened during a recent turbulent flight. Most of the passengers seemed nervous. The person in front of me, however, was calm, even happy. Looking over their shoulder, I could see they were wearing headphones connected to an iPhone whose screen displayed a Buddhist-inspired meditation app. Could this be considered an authentic practice?
Like a specialist in digital religion and Buddhism, I argue that authenticity is not determined by its strict adherence to older forms. On the contrary, an authentic practice promotes happiness based on deeper meanings, while an inauthentic practice can only provide fleeting pleasure or temporary relief.
Arguments Against Digital Buddhism
Scholars who deem digital Buddhism inauthentic usually point to one of three reasons.
First, some scholars argue that online Buddhism differs from earlier forms – if not in the message, at least in the way it is conveyed.
Second, some dismiss digital Buddhism as merely grassroots consumerism that takes historically rich and complex traditions and selectively repackages them for monetary gain.
Finally, most often, they will say that digital Buddhism is often perceived as the most virulent form of Western popular culture’s appropriation of Asian traditions. As a scholar of religion Jane Iwamura says in his book “Virtual Orientalismthis obscures the voices of true Asian Buddhists.
The true nature of happiness
Ultimately, all of these concerns may be legitimate. Nevertheless, these scholars do not respond to the deep desire of many Western Buddhists for an intense spiritual experience. In my searchmany
Western Buddhists have often described their religious practice as a “search for authenticity”.
To understand what they mean by authenticity, you have to look at the Greek philosophical terms “hedonic” and “eudemonic.”
The hedonic concept dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristippus of Cyrenewho argued that the ultimate goal of life should be to maximize pleasure.
Current popular culture focuses on hedonic happiness, which values an outgoing, social, and joyful outlook on life. Consequently, a large part of Buddhist-inspired media currently found on meditation apps peddle moments of personal happiness, calm, and relaxation.
Most forms of Buddhism argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with pleasure, but it is not the key to happiness. For example, Buddhist texts such as the second century “Buddhacharitawhich describes the Buddha’s beginnings as a pampered prince, preaches the ultimate flaws of a hedonistic lifestyle. Legend has it that Siddhartha Gautama renounced his worldly lifestyle as meaningless, sought enlightenment, and finally awakened to become the Buddha.
On the other hand, eudemonic happiness adds meaning and purpose. Eudaimonia means the condition of “good spirit”, which is commonly translated as “human flourishing.” For Aristotleeudaimonia is the highest end, and all subordinate goals—health, wealth, and other similar resources—are sought because they promote good living. He insists that there are virtuous pleasures in addition to those of the senses and that the best pleasures are experienced by virtuous people who find happiness in deeper meanings.
In Buddhist texts such as the “Samanaphala Suttayou can find eudemonic descriptions of Buddhist practice. The British scholar of Buddhist ethics Damien Keown argues that there is a resonance between Buddhist ethics and Aristotelian virtue ethics.
He writes that Buddhist ethics are based on the cultivation of virtue for the purpose of enlightenment and that the English word “virtue” can be used as an umbrella term to embrace the many individual Buddhist virtues such as compassion, generosity and courage.
Keown points out that in Buddhism the cultivation of eudemonic happiness, if not sufficient, is necessary to sustain a good life and that it is concern for the welfare of others, human and non-human, that leads to a happy life worth living.
What is authentic practice?
It was not surprising to find someone using Digital Buddhism during a turbulent flight. Yet, I wondered, was this just a palliative to ease an uncomfortable situation, or a genuine practice?
However, as I show in my 2017 book, “Cyber Zen: imagining authentic Buddhist identity, community, and practices in the virtual world of Second Lifebehind the media’s exotic stereotypes of online practitioners, often uncritically perpetuated by some scholars, lies largely uncharted territory of popular forms of authentic religious practice. Although virtual and usually performed by middle-class white adherents, they are real people engaging in real spiritual practices that add eudaimonia to their lives.
Yet not all online Buddhist practices are the same. Above all, care must be taken to appropriate and dilute traditional Asian practices. Also, as I discovered in my research, some digital religious practices resonate with the good life, and some are just a hedonic treadmill that further tangles users in their desires.
If digital Buddhist practice approaches the good life as eudemonic – as leading to human flourishing based on the pursuit of deeper meaning – it can be deemed authentic. An inauthentic practice is a practice that only promotes hedonism by simply peddling happiness and relaxation.
(Gregory Grieve, Director and Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina – Greensboro. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)