Scholar’s Top 5: Gregory Price Grieve on Buddism in Virtual Worlds

My book Digital Zen: Buddhism, Virtual Worlds and the New Economy will be published by Routledge in 2013. The impetus for the book was when I first logged on to Second Life in October 2007 and found myself sitting in full lotus position, meditating next to a bear. The “bear,” like me, was currently logged onto Second Life, a 3D interactive world of over 20 million residents in which users interact with one another through animated avatars. He might have been in same room, or on another continent. Along with twenty-one other practitioners, I—or really my avatar—was sitting at the Upaya Mountain Zen Retreat (UZMR), a community whose members describe themselves as an “owned and operated Buddhist practice center in the virtual universe of Second Life.” To say the least, I was perplexed. What did these people hope to gain by sitting at their keyboards, while their avatars remained silent and motionless? What relationship did silent online meditation have to physical Buddhist practices, which are often characterized as leading to direct bodily experiences?

Virtual Buddhist Communities, such as the UMZR, tend to stand under the weight of three suspicions. First, because they are virtual, online religious communities are often dismissed as unreal, or at best just play. Second, because they are part of popular culture they are perceived as not really serious. Finally, because they are Western forms of an Eastern religion they are frequently rejected as inauthentic, or even virtual postcolonial forms of orientalism. However, the three years of ethnographic study (2007-2010) conducted by my research group, the Cardean Virtual Research Team, displays that these Second Life residents had very real, authentic and serious reasons for practicing Zen Buddhism in virtual worlds. They were not fools. For some it was pragmatic. Digital religious practice on Second Life affords isolated and solitary practitioners a Buddhist community, if only a virtual one. As the bear, whose user in real life lived in a small Alaskan fishing village said to me, “we log on so we can sit [meditating] together” (personal communication, October 2008). For a sizable minority of residents it was spiritual. Many of the practitioners maintain that online practice has an ethical or spiritual element because by pointing out the constructed nature of reality virtual worlds lead to “awakening,” an Non-heritage Buddhist term which corresponds to the Sanskrit word “bodhi,” and points to the knowledge possessed by a Buddha about the nature of reality. For practitioners of digital Buddhism, awakening typically means to be mindful of desire. As a Second Life notecard, given to me by the Resident Mystic Moon, read, “ . . .in the addictive culture of capitalism, remember the hungry ghost who desires more and more of what can never satisfy ” (personal communication, November 2009).

Digital Zen argues that these pragmatic and spiritual reasons indicate that Buddhist practice in the virtual world of Second Life is both a product of, and a response to the New Economy. On the surface, understanding religion on Second Life is significant because of the increasing dominance of digital media not only in daily life but also in the practice of religion. As Lorne Dawson and Douglas Cowan write, “[t]he Internet is changing the face of religion worldwide” (2004: 1). As the Pew Internet and American Life Project (2009) “CyberFaith: How Americans Pursue Religion Online,” demonstrates every month twenty-five percent of Americans search for information about religion online. On a deeper level, the religion being practiced online, reflects the changes in religion caused by the New Economy that are occurring more generally across contemporary culture. As Charles Ess suggests, as everyday life in contemporary society is increasingly lived in an online-offline connection, religion “impacts and is impacted by these transformations.” In other words, analyzing Buddhist practice at UMZR is important not just for comprehending religious practice on virtual worlds, or even digital religion more generally, but it is key for understanding the “religious imaginary” of the New Economy, the way average people see religion and use religion to make sense of, and organize, the world around them.

For those interested in the study of non-Heritage North American Buddhism, ethnography, New Economy, and virtual worlds I suggest five books:

Bartle, Richard. Designing Virtual Worlds. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2004.

Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity. New York: Polity, 2000.

Dibble, Julian. My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. New York: An Owl Book, 1998.

Prebish, Charles. Luminous Passage: The Practice of and Study of Buddhism in America. Berkley: University of California Press, 1999.