When Inquiring Mind asked my digital penpal Vincent Horn (one of the most generous, down-to-earth, big-hearted dharma teachers I know) to put down some thoughts on what the future might bring to the dharma, he ultimately submitted an eye- and brain-opening primer outlining the impending technological interface between humans and the dharma.
Being one of the twenty-first century’s slowest adopters (case in point: check out my ancient Honda’s cassette deck, still grinding away), I admit to a fascination with the EEG-enhanced experience Vincent describes. At the same time, I feel fortunate to participate in a small and contemporaneous expansion of the dharma that is remarkably low-tech. While I see Vincent’s digital technology taking off vertically like a rocket, I have also seen a lateral expansion of the Buddha’s teaching among populations that may never be able to afford engaging with the prospective hard- and software of consciousness expansion.
As neuroscience consistently proves that the Buddha’s thinking was light-years ahead of its time, it’s definitely back to the future in terms of popular interest in compassionate psychology, mindfulness and small-yet-powerful sanghas appearing in places where people hadn’t previously heard much about the dharma. I have seen an unbundling that involves moving Western practice beyond the realm of privilege and higher education, and encourages a blossoming in new soil.
For instance, the sangha I attend meets in the basement of a timeworn Disabled American Veterans building in one of the roughest parts of my hometown, Denver. The parking lot out back is a popular spot for cruising prostitutes; across the street is a topless/bottomless dance club. The sangha itself is made up of locals as well as refugees recently arrived from hot zones around the globe. The grandson of Italian immigrants who a couple of generations ago weren’t even considered “white,” I’m regularly the palest one in the room.
Members of the group are appropriately skeptical with regard to what they’re supposed to get out of an hour of sitting meditation. That said, attendees are typically eager to learn. They share stories, poems and hardships. They speak out about what’s going on in the world and their desire for global and personal change. It’s an incredibly human assembly.
On Friday nights a wide-eyed fifteen-year-old Nepalese refugee sits next to me, stirring up trouble like Atisha’s Bengali tea boy. (Atisha, the tenth-century Indian master who carried the Buddha’s teachings from India into Tibet, chose to bring along on his journey a strong-willed and bad-tempered tea boy from Bengal because he wanted someone to keep him “awake” while visiting the kindly and mellow Tibetans.) As the youngster blurts and fidgets in the way teen boys are prone to, he is a gift before, during and after meditation. Case in point: the other night he cocked back his thumb, aimed his index finger, and began taking imaginary potshots at our group leader during the dharma talk. The kid’s infectious grin and conspiratorial wink made me want to join in. Instead I shot him a glance and shook my head, and my mind staggered on its way back to watching the breath. I keep telling myself: what a fine teacher, what a fine teacher.
At the end of each gathering, members hug, and the group’s leader, a longtime friend of mine, always pulls me in for a big squeeze. The healing and peace I witness in the sangha is the result of human contact that, in my view, no amount of technodelics could replace. Most nights the group sizzles with vulnerability, drenched in the heat and aromas of human proximity. The atmosphere bears the rich texture of a roomful of bodhisattvas in the making, and for the time being it’s irrevocably and beautifully analog.
James Schnebly edited Inquiring Mind’s Books and Bodhi department from 2011 to 2015.
From the Spring 2015 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 31, No. 2)
© 2015 James Schnebly