#BGeeks11 – Monkeys in Mid-Swing

Day 3 of the Buddhist Geeks Conference 2011 started with an #openpractice with Ken McLeod. Ken guided us with an expansive/contractive awareness meditation technique. It was a good sit. If done correctly the technique will lead the practitioner to perceive the expansive and contractive flow of sensory experience. I’ve just added this awareness technique to my bag of #openpractice “tricks.” 

After the sitting practice, Diane “Musho” Hamilton took the stage to kick off the Buddhist Geeks Live presentation. Diane’s talk was about “Enlightenment Through an Evolutionary Lens.”  She walked us through the stages of psychological/cultural/spiritual development: egocentric, ethnocentric, worldcentric, kosmocentric. Diane was the torch-bearer of the integral approach among the presenters. And, as usual, she did a fine job of representing the integral perspective.

Then Ken McLeod followed up with his talk on “There is No Enemy.” He reminded the audience not to fall on either side of the extremes. But instead to embrace both black and white to get the whole spectrum of the rainbow. My favorite quote: “Obstacles aren’t obstacles. They are features of the landscape that need to be negotiated.” Upon hearing this, I wanted to raise my hand and ask him what he thinks about President Obama’s handling of the debt ceiling (pseudo-crisis) negotiations. But nah, no need to get political in the middle of a dharma talk. (Then again, if you’re reading this Ken, I’d really like to know your political analysis/opinion.)

And then this young guy from the U.K., Rohan Gunatillake, took the stage and blew everyone away. His talk was about “Disrupting the Awakening Industry” and “why the aesthetic of meditation is broken.” Basically, he issued a clarion call to all the geeky entrepreneurs to channel their “out of the box” thinking and passion on making the dharma available and palatable to as many people as possible. He said that ” the fringe is gonna do it anyway” so he better be ahead of the curve. And that’s why he’s working on Buddhify. Quotable quote: “We need Buddhist startups. Go ahead and tweet that.”

The afternoon panel discussion was led by Diane Hamilton, Ken McLeod, Shinzen Young, and Hokai Sobol (as chair). They riffed on “The Emerging Face of Buddhism.” Their discussion covered controversial topics such as economics of the dharma, power dynamics between teachers and students, cross-fertilization of the teachings (e.g. Shinzen describes his teachings as “Japano-Burmese fusion created by an American Jew”), professionalization of dharma teachers, depth of practice and “the dark sangha” (Those D.I.Y. types who practice by themselves without–or very minimal–interaction with a community. I just met one at the conference.)

[An aside: Before the start of the panel discussion Diane Hamilton announced that her Gmail account was hacked and she was having a hard time proving to Google tech support her real identity. So she challenged the geeky audience that if there’s someone out there who could help her, she will be forever beholden to Buddhist Geeks. And sure enough, there was a Googler in da house. Sorry Diane, all your souls from past, current, and future incarnations are belong to us.]

During the Q&A Willoughby Britton (see her TEDx talk) brought up the issue of accountability of teachers whenever a student has a psychological breakdown or whenever a teacher crosses the line of giving a medical advice which they are not qualified for. This opened a can of worms on whether dharma teachers should have a liability insurance. It’s good that Michael Zimmerman (Diane Hamilton’s husband and former justice of the Utah Supreme Court) was in the audience to offer his legal advice. Basically, (if I remember his legalese correctly) he said that, depending on the intention of the lawyer or the plaintiff, there could be grounds for legal action if it could be proven that the teacher has misrepresented him/herself as an expert. Now that was very interesting. You don’t hear that kind of discussion in mainstream dharma talks.

Then another important and powerful question was asked by a young Asian woman in the audience. She said that she belongs to one of the Asian Buddhist communities and that she’s really not that familiar with the teachers on stage. Her question was, how does “Emerging Face of Buddhism” include Asians and Asian-Americans? And she suggested that it’s more appropriate to call it “Emerging Face of Buddhisms.” Ken McLeod acknowledged her issue and very much agreed with her concerns. However, there really is no easy answer to this question. My own take on this is that there will be (or there always have been historically) multiple streams of Buddhist cross-fertilizations. The Asian Buddhist Communities have their own unique challenges depending on the language, cultural and political barriers. So I think the more accurate phrase is “Emerging Faces of Buddhisms” of which Buddhist Geeks is only one of the many.

Shinzen Young didn’t talk much (or as much as he should have) during the panel discussion but he requested to blabber his thoughts at the end. He riffed on Christianity and suggested that we learn from its history on how it spread far and wide. He said that the biggest factor (among other important factors) was language, specifically Koinonia Greek. Shinzen suggests that it has some interesting parallels with the language of technology we used today. (I might be wrong here, but I think Shinzen was alluding to the fact that the language of science of technology will do for Buddhism as Koinonia Greek did for Christianity.) Then Ken McLeod blurted out, “Shinzen, are you a closeted Christian?!”

During the Buddhist Geeks Unplugged session I attended the “Pragmatic Dharma” discussion with Vince Horn, Kenneth Folk, and Hokai Sobol. The discussion started with Kenneth’s assertion that once neuroscience maps the physiological correlates of “enlightenment” then it would be easy to replicate this experience to a vast number of people. But then the discussion digressed on the meaning of pragmatic, the definition of enlightenment, the ontology of the archetypal realms, and the value of various practices such as Tantra.

As a hardcore science-minded dharma practitioner myself, I’m with Kenneth on this one, but not without some reservations. Same as Kenneth, I think it’s plausible that future advances in neuroscience would bring more understanding of the human brain and how various experiences are correlated with brain functions. The keyword here is *correlate*. Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. But I do believe that once neuroscientists (preferably enlightened neuroscientists) have successfully mapped the physiological correlates of no-self, then it would be possible to stimulate these physiological correlates and consistently replicate the enlightenment experience (whether through biotech pharma or electromagnetic stimulation or what have you). Although I’m a proponent of this technological approach to awakening, I do recognize its potential dangers as well as its unintended consequences.For example, let’s assume that there is an enlightenment gadget or pill. A person using it will still have to interpret his “enlightenment” experience in terms of his psychological level of development. We all know of stories of teachers who are deeply enlightened yet still screw up. What more of people who are at the egocentric, ethnocentric level of development? It’s not hard to imagine that there will still be culture wars among enlightened people. And what about the role of the government who would most probably end up owning (or sequestering) this technology? I hope I’m wrong. But I’ll leave this issue for now and just work on my own awakening.

The closing keynote was presented by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. I swear this guy must’ve been a stand-up comic in one of his past lives. His opening remarks was “Why did you invite me — do you think I’m a geek?” And then he told a story on how he looked up the meaning of the word geek on Wikipedia. His talk was packed with humor but the depth was still there. His “Monkeys in Mid-swing” is a perfect metaphor for the conservative and progressive evolutionary tension of dharma. He said that, “We must be innovative, we must have vision of change in terms of technology, and we must bring the heart to many of these developments.” As he was saying this, I had this crazy picture in my head that Ponlop was channeling Steve Jobs. He also suggested that we take a little break from technology from time to time. But of course my fingers were so busy tapping wildly on my iPhone in the middle of a tweet to capture this technological serendipity.

Shinzen kicked off the conference with his happy thought on awakening singularity. Ponlop concluded with a reminder that technology should always have a “heart” and that the purpose of technology is to bring happiness to everyone.  Massive Awakening Through Science and Technology with a Heart, for me that’s the essence that was perfectly captured in this first ever Buddhist Geeks Conference. And I’m just so glad I was there. It was more fun than fun.

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