Buddhism, Distance Learning and Teaching the Dharma: Past and Present

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From the time of the First Buddhist Council, Buddhism has been concerned with both the preservation of the Buddha’s śāsana qua its preservation as well as its dissemination. The historical developments in the preservation and dissemination of the Buddha’s śāsana map neatly to Walter Ong’s models, as laid out in his 1982 thesis Orality and Literacy. Here, Ong draws up a typology of different modes of communication, from face-to-face primary orality in pre-literate societies; to chirographic literacy in societies with manual writing systems; to typographic literacy once writing becomes formalised in print. He goes further to discuss how the advent of broadcast media (radio, cinema and television) presented a secondary orality and a return to the dominance of the aural sensorium, in contrast to the visual sensorium stimulated by text. For Ong these developments in modes of communication involve a shift in the consciousness of their users, leading to a broader social impact.

Seminal scholars of digital technology such as Stephen O’Leary (1996) extended Ong’s thesis to apply it to the impact of the internet on communication and consciousness. The internet enables multiple sensoria to be stimulated simultaneously. Communication is often two-way (in contrast to broadcast media), and the words typed in synchronous text-based digital communication have an ephemeral quality closer to the spoken word than to pre-digital written communication. In Ong’s thesis there is the sense that each step away from primary orality is a step away from an authentic source; mediatisation leads to the diminution of the communication experience (2012; p172ff). This paper explores these ideas in relation to the preservation and spread of Buddhist teachings and developments in communication technology which have facilitated the study and teaching of the dharma (in contrast to academic Buddhist Studies) through distance learning, and the emic logic by which some Buddhist groups have appropriated this technology. The paper begins by briefly considering the impact of writing on the preservation of Buddhism, before separately discussing its impact on the dissemination of the śāsana. The impact of what Cantwell and Rashid label “the digital turn” (2015) on both preservation and dissemination is discussed in the second half of the paper. Buddhism and digital communication is a vast and ever-growing phenomenon, and in order to establish some boundaries the focus of the latter sections of this paper is largely on Buddhism in the UK, and Tibetan traditions in particular.

Although chirographic writing existed at the time of the Buddha, it was the preserve of the elite and the Buddha’s teachings were given – and preserved – orally (Cousins, 1983). The basic step-by-step discourse on dāna, śila and cosmology, and detachment from saṃsāra’s distracting pleasures (see, for example, Cousins, 1997; p394) was available to anybody who asked and who wished to listen, regardless of matters such as caste and gender. Furthermore the Buddha encouraged teaching in local vernacular languages (Vin. II.139). Access was made as inclusive as possible.

Eventually, in the 1st CBCE, in the Theravādin tradition of what is now Śri Lanka (i.e. in one tradition and in one geographical area), the canon of teachings began being committed to chirographic writing (Gombrich, 2006; p152). However, the purpose of this was to preserve the teachings during a time of local crisis, rather than to aid its dissemination to a broader audience. In any case, writing was the activity of a literate minority of scholars and bureaucrats and the mere existence of texts would not necessarily make the dhamma more accessible to the masses. Furthermore, as Pāli stabilised as the standard language of Theravāda (Gombrich, 2006; 153) the dhamma so committed was only really intelligible to members of the ordained saṅgha and not even the literate strata of Sinhalese society more broadly.

Chirographic writing was not just important to Theravādins in Sri Lanka; it was instrumental for preserving Mahāyāna ideas and enabling them to spread. Unlike the Pāli Canon, there is no evidence that Mahāyāna sūtras were preserved orally; from the outset they were written down (Gombrich, 1990; p21). Proof that the written word is viewed as an authentic medium of preservation for Mahāyāna sūtras appears in the story of Nāgārjuna receiving prajñāpāramitā teachings which the Nāgas had copied down and preserved (see, for example, Komito, 1988; p17).

It was in the Mahāyāna environment of first millennium China that typographic printing of Buddhist literature developed and flourished, reaching a landmark around 972-983 when in the Song dynasty the whole available Buddhist canon was printed for the first time (Dai, 2008; p309). Xiao states that the first stone sūtra printing blocks were carved in 605CE by Jin Wan at the Yunju Temple in Beijing out of fear of the persecution of Buddhism (2008; p77). This would constitute another example of a crisis precipitating the use of communication technology by Buddhists. However, Buddhism survived and grew and in the latter half of the 7th century printing technology was harnessed by the state to produce and distribute sūtras. However, these texts functioned as proxy relics rather than depositories of Buddhist learning (Barrett, 2001; pp7- 8). It was not so much for the soteriological wisdom of the words themselves, but for the meritorious aura of the texts–as-objects.

As mentioned, for Ong each shift between one form of communication and another comes with a ‘restructuring of consciousness’; the distance between the originator and receiver of the communication, and the shift of communication from a public to a private activity, fosters greater introspection (2012; p104). Furthermore, the static, lasting nature of the written word privileges linear thought processes over the dynamic and ephemeral content of the face-to-face telling of a story, where embellishments and tangents can be introduced in response to an audience’s mood. The transition of the Pāli suttas from oral to written challenges this idea; after all multiple versions exist of the same sutta content – scattered across the nikāyas (Cousins, 1983). To this extent Cousins argues that Pāli written literature is still in fact an oral literature (1983). Nevertheless, Gombrich identifies that a change did come about resulting from chirographic literacy in Sinhalese Buddhism. With the teachings being written in a dead language, unintelligible to the laity, monks take on a mediating role between text and laity: “…the transformation of monks, seeking their own salvation, into priests, making salvation available to others, was thus furthered by the sheer process of linguistic change” (2006; pp154-5).

In Pāli sources we find accounts of the Buddha as a pragmatic teacher (Harvey, 2013; pp. 29 ff). Although he has a systematic ‘one size fits all’ teaching in the form of the Four Noble Truths, this is held back for those who show some capacity for renouncing samsara (Cousins, 1997; p394). The general teaching style employs what might be described as ‘emotional intelligence’ (see for example Mayer, Diapolo & Salovey, 1990). The Buddha ‘reads’ his questioners and presents answers within their capacity to understand his teachings (Dixon, 2015; pp121-123). This is more or less stated explicitly in the Abhayarājākumāra Sutta:

In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. (M i 392. 6)

An example of this in action would be the story of Kisagotami (Thig. 10.1); simply telling her that her infant son cannot be brought back to life would not have benefitted her. Only by sending her to find a mustard seed from a house which has not experienced bereavement would she learn her lesson. Here we have the unmediated wisdom of the Buddha transmitted through primary orality.

With the exhortation for the community of 60 arhats to “Walk, monks, on tour for the blessing of the manyfolk… teach dhamma which is lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle and lovely at the ending.” (Vin. I 20-21), the mode of transmission remains as primary orality. Although it might not be the Buddha teaching ‘the manyfolk’ it would nevertheless be a qualified, enlightened, arhat able to speak with authority and, to complete the above quotation, “explain with the spirit and the letter the Brahma-faring completely fulfilled, wholly pure” (Vin. I 21; my emphasis).

With regards to Pāli sources, chirographic writing is used to record Theravādin teachings to prevent their loss, rather than to enable the transmission of the dhamma without the need for personal contact. However, in the 2nd century CE and in the Mahāyāna context, we find an example of a systematic Buddhist teaching mediated by written letter. In 123 stanzas, Nāgārjuna ’s Suhṛllekha or Letter to a Friend gives a summary of the Mahāyāna path to King Gautamīputra (see for example, Nāgārjuna , 2013). As with many things relating to Nāgārjuna we cannot be certain of the dates, historicity, or even the authorship of the Suhṛllekha (see Mabbet, 1998; p334), but given that this paper is exploring the emic logic of the appropriation of developments in communication technology, such details are not so important. More significant is that a letter is considered an acceptable medium through which to transmit ideas relating to the dharma.

However, this is not as simple as it might appear to an etic observer. In an interview with the Tibetan lama Dorje Denpa Rinpoche in 2015 he described Nāgārjuna and Gautamīputra as having a ‘samaya relationship’. By this he meant that the two shared a spiritual bond and had dharma-related obligations towards each other. As such, the teachings found in the Suhṛllekha could be thought of as recapping teachings previously transmitted via primary orality, and not ab initio teaching of the dharma via distance learning. The letter was to water seeds already planted rather than plant the seeds themselves.

Such a practice is found in other, more historically secure, Buddhist correspondence, notably Tsongkhapa’s Letter of Practical Advice on Sūtra and Tantra (lam-gyi rim-pa mdo-tsam-du bstan-pa), addressed to Kongchog Tshultrim. The content here becomes more esoteric, and it includes guidance on how to perform visualisations during deity yoga practices. In this work, Tsongkhapa addresses Kongchog Tshultrim as “dge ba’i bshes gnyen” (gsung ‘bum / tsong kha pa / vol 2, folio 594) the Tibetan equivalent of kalyāṇa-mitra, again indicating a spiritual bond between the two correspondents. Once more, the content is not ‘new’ for the reader; its purpose is to clarify.

Remaining in the Tibetan Buddhist context, in terms of typographic literacy the texts of the bka’ ‘gyur and bstan ‘gyur themselves are not studied without an accompanying oral transmission, or lung, typically accompanied with the formal explanation, or khrid bshad. By hearing the complete text from someone who themselves heard it from an authorised teacher, the student is granted authority to study the text and potentially bestow the lung for that text to a future student. This is true of both sūtra and tantra teachings, and depending on the nature of the tantra being taught there may be the additional requirements of dbang (‘empowerment’ to visualise oneself as the tantric deity) and rjas gnang (‘authorisation’ to recite the deity’s mantras). It is not unusual for a lung to be delivered at extremely high speed, especially if the text is long, but how intelligible the content is to the listener at that time is not as important as the connection the lung makes between the listener, the text and the lineage. Despite the fact that “a single manuscript in a monastery library, studied by no one, could be picked up and read, even translated, by a curious browser or visiting scholar” (Gombrich, 1990; p. 29), from an emic perspective the actual study of the text – and gaining benefits from it – still requires an oral component. The Buddhist consciousness is not fundamentally restructured with the advent of writing and printing.

However, this relates to the systematic study of the dharma, with a teacher, in order to make progress towards the goals of Buddhism. Since the 19th century, the volume of European language literature on Buddhism has exploded. These range from authoritative translations of original texts and commentaries through to material of questionable Buddhist credentials. From an online retailer these are just a click or two away, and readable – potentially devoid of context – by anyone with the money to buy them. The popularity of Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye (see Lopez, 1999; Ch. 3) is testament to one of the potential hazards of this information free-for-all; the exotic, the unrepresentative and the downright fallacious can make their way into the individual and public consciousness, sometimes with considerable traction. Entrenched misunderstandings, picked up early in our reading on Buddhism, can even affect the best of us (see Cantwell, 2010; p. 8). For the autodidact – or at least the uncritical autodidact – perhaps there is a danger of his or her introspective and solipsistic restructured consciousness processing a scrambled version of the dharma, if encountered primarily through typographic text.

The appearance of audio cassettes, VHS videos and then CDs, VCDs and DVDs enabled recorded Buddhist teachings to be available to a wider audience. The sources would either be recordings of public teachings (official or unofficial), or studio recordings – on a scale of production quality ranging from enthusiastic amateurism to polished professional output. Although the internet has supplanted these media in many regions of the world, the odd devoted individual still packs up a generator, television and VCR and takes a library of Buddhist films for the blessing of the manyfolk in the more remote regions of the offline world (as can be found in Outer Mongolia). Included in this output are audio and later video recordings of tantric material, including public tshe dbang (mass empowerments to bring about long life for the attendees) and of empowerments of lower tantric deities (see fig. 1). Listening to or viewing these recordings is seen to be beneficial in at least some sense (for example by receiving byin rlabs / adiṣṭhāna blessings), in ways that reading the text in isolation would not be. These media may represent an Ongian secondary orality, with the sensorium including sound and voice, image and gesture (O’Leary, 1996; p785), but it is orality none the less and consciousness requires little restructuring.

Fig 1. Digital Buddhisms: audio CD of the current head of the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, His Holiness the Sakya Trizin, giving a tshe dbang ‘Long Life Empowerment’ (above) and VCD of Nyingma lama Khenpo Pema Choephel giving teachings in Malaysia (below).

The internet is of course, vast, unwieldy and to quote Heidi Campbell “like a library with all of the books thrown on the floor” (cited in Cantwell & Rashid, 2015; p1). Fortunately, some frames of reference have emerged from scholarship on Digital Religion to help us make sense of the chaos. Among these are Campbell’s four ‘discourses’ identified in different religions’ uses of the internet (2005). These are namely 1) the internet as a form of sacred space in itself; 2) the internet as sacramental space in which efficacious rituals can be conducted; 3) the internet as a “tool to promote religion and religious practice” (2005; p12) and 4) religious social networking. For the purposes of this paper I would add a rather prosaic fifth discourse – the internet as storage space, with the rendering of religious texts into digital media constituting what Cantwell and Rashid describe as “…one of the most foundational, and by far the most common, methodological development[s] of the digital turn” (2015; p. 18). As might be expected not all traditions of Buddhism employ all of these discourses, and within a given tradition there are varying levels of enthusiasm for and engagement with the internet.

Regarding the preservation and transmission of Buddhist teachings, discourses 3 and 5 are most relevant. As stated in the introduction, throughout the history of Buddhism there appear to be two core concerns relating to the śāsana: 1) its preservation qua its preservation and 2) its transmission for the purposes of being put into action and transforming beings’ lives. As we have seen, regarding the first concern, developments in communication technology have been employed locally at times of perceived crisis in order to prevent the loss of a teaching or teachings. This trend continues in digital Buddhism, with both the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Centre (TBRC) and Asian Classics Input Programme (ACIP) – two major projects to digitise Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhist literature for online access – consistently citing the risk of losing texts as being part of their rationale. Phrases such as ‘race against time’ (ACIP, nd) and ‘in danger of being lost forever’ (TBRC digital library, nd) appear regularly on the home and ‘about’ pages of these sites. Both sites are primarily concerned with Tibetan Buddhism, and there have certainly been episodes in the past 50 years or so when Tibetan Buddhist texts and teachings have been under real threat, not least during the Cultural Revolution. However, online Pāli resources such as Pāli Canon Online and Access to Insight make no such claims; they simply state that they offer study and practice materials (PCO, nd; Access to Insight, 2008).

With regards to use of the internet as a tool for promoting religious practice, in the UK it is Tibetan Buddhist groups that make the most sophisticated use of the internet in terms of distance learning opportunities. A survey of websites of UK-based Buddhist groups is summarised in table 1. Criteria for inclusion in the survey were having a physical presence in the UK and a website or web pages specifically maintained for the UK. Some of the groups included are controversial and may not recognised by others in the table, and given the range and dynamism of Buddhist groups in the UK there may also be omissions. On the understanding that those groups publically offering online courses in Buddhism would have good visibility in search engines, I began by searching for the terms ‘online Buddh* courses’, ‘I want to do an online course in Buddhism’, ‘Buddh* distance learning’, ‘study Buddhism online’ and permutations thereof across a number of search engines, filtering the returns for those courses with a physical base in the UK. I then checked the websites of established UK Buddhist groups to see if the search had missed anything (it had – the Samatha Trust).

URLOnline ResourcesOnline Course
The Buddhist Societywww.thebuddhistsociety.orgYesYes
Birmingham Buddhist Viharawww.bbvt.org.ukNoNo
London Buddhist Viharawww.londonbuddhistvihara.orgNoNo
Samatha Trustwww.samatha.orgYesYes
Vipassana Fellowshipwww.vipassana.co.ukYesYes
Forest Sanghaforestsangha.orgYesNo
Society of the Three Jewelswww.thebuddhistcentre.comYesNo (but online
meditation group)
International Zen Association UKwww.izauk.orgYesNo
Order of Buddhist Contemplativesobcon.orgYesNo
StoneWater Zen Centrewww.stonewaterzen.orgYesNo
Western Chan Fellowshipwww.westernchanfellowship.orgYesNo
Wild Goose Sanghawildgoosesangha.org.ukNoNo
Community of Interbeingwww.coiuk.org.ukYesNo
New Kadampa Traditionwww.kadampa.orgYesNo
Soka Gakkai Internationalwww.sgi-uk.orgYesNo
Diamond Way Buddhismwww.diamondway-buddhism.orgYesNo
Awakened Heart Sanghawww.ahs.org.ukYesYes
Samye Ling / Dzongwww.calm-and-clear.euYesYes
Dzogchen Communitywww.dzogchencommunityuk.orgYesYes
Dechen Communitywww.dechen.orgYesNo
Sakya Thubten Lingwww.stl.org.ukNoNo
Rigparigpa.org.ukNoNo (not in UK)

Table 1. Overview of Buddhist groups with a UK presence; web resources and online courses.

Most of the organisations have web pages titled ‘resources’ or ‘media’ which have links to audio-visual material (either locally at that website or links out to YouTube) on a range of subjects related to Buddhist teachings and meditation. This range encompassed general, basic, introductory material through to highly specific material relating to the Buddhism as practiced by a particular group or under a particular teacher.

Although the focus of this paper now shifts to Tibetan groups, it should be noted that two Theravādin groups – the Samatha Trust and the Vipassana Fellowship – both offer online meditation courses. The Samatha Trust’s course is quite new, and the Vipassana Fellowship’s course has been running since 1997. Both make use of personal contact and mentoring in addition to private study of meditation materials.

Amongst Tibetan groups, the attitude to the internet as an appropriate medium through which to transmit teachings varies greatly. At one end of the scale, the Sakya Tradition does not even approve of emailing sādhana texts, in case they are accidentally sent to someone without the permission to read them (interview with Dorje Denpa Rinpoche). At the other end, the Dzogchen lama Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche is willing to offer a particular tantric empowerment via Skype (Dzogcen Community; nd). However, it should be noted that the empowerment in question is to enable the receiver to begin practicing gūrū yoga (one of the preliminary (Tib. ngon ‘gros) practices of Vajrayāna), rather than a higher tantric empowerment as such. In between these two poles, three Tibetan groups in particular offered systematic online courses. All offered interactive support, and features such as an online discussion community, mirroring face-to-face teaching. All involved the use of hard copy materials either as part of the course fee (in the case of Discovering the Heart of Buddhism) or as additional purchases. These courses are outlined below.

The Foundation of Buddhist Thought (2013)

This course is authored and delivered by Geshe Tashi Tsering and co-ordinated through the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahāyāna Tradition’s Jamyang Meditation Centre in London. It takes two years to complete the course’s six modules and study comprises of working through Geshe Tashi’s books, accompanied by audio files of the teachings, with learning consolidated through online discussion and assignments. The course content reflects the Gelugpa tradition’s orientation, with most of the modules having a philosophical grounding; for example the course begins with the Four Noble Truths. Nevertheless, daily meditation is an expectation in the course. There is no mention of personal mentoring in the course, and no mention of options to chat in person with a discussion moderator or with Geshe Tashi himself, but there is still an element of oral transmission in the form of the audio teachings. The course began in 1999 and fees are GBP740.

Samye Ling Tibetan Centre Home Study Dharma Course (Holmes, nd)

Samye Ling is a major Karma Kagyu presence in the UK (Bluck, 2008), and this course is co-ordinated by Samye Ling Monastery in Scotland and Dharmcarya Ken Holmes. It is a three year course, and materials are emailed in the form of monthly study packs. The first year is quite ‘mainstream’, with topics such as the Life of the Buddha, and study of some core philosophy. The second year is more distinctively Mahāyāna in orientation and the third year is clearly focused on Vajrayāna. Interaction is via an internet forum, and tutor input and interactions appears quite minimal. However, originally the course had a programme of (optional) weekend face-to-face events at Samye Ling, and audio recordings of the teachings are available. It is unclear how much of a role meditation plays in the course. The course first ran in 2008 and fees are GBP75 per year, with concessionary rates available.

Discovering the Heart of Buddhism (Sujvala, nd)

This course is authored by Lama Shenpen Hookam and Lama Rigdzin Shikpo and draws on the Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions of the Nyingma and Kagyu respectively. The course can be pursued over one year, or can take longer as the student wishes. There is a comprehensive pack of study materials, and a separate book and audio CD on meditation. Of the three Tibetan courses, this one is the most centred on meditation. In fact the first four weeks concern developing a meditation regime before moving on to studying the course books. The four course books cover Buddha nature, śūnyatā, citta, and orientation towards viewing the world in maṇḍalic terms. Note that these technical terms are not used in the books – Lama Shenpen freely uses English glosses such as ‘openness’ for ‘śūnyatā’, something which can take a moment for an academic to re-translate back to the original. It is very much a ‘start where you are’ approach, which does not get too involved with the history of Buddhism. Students on the course are very much encouraged to have personal (phone, Skype) contact with a mentor in the early stages of the course, and they are encouraged to have direct contact with Lama Shenpen at least once in the first year. The materials explicitly mention the role of adiṣṭhāna in the transmission of Buddhist teachings and the importance of personal contact for this. Faceto- face contact is also encouraged. Materials are supplemented by regular email teachings from Lama Shenpen, the subject matter of which is stimulated by questions students have been asking. There are also follow-up courses. The course has been running since 1998 and fees are GBP369.

The various elements of study in these programmes involve switching between different sensoria, visual and aural, when reading alone, when listening to audio material, when interacting personally. With regard to Ong’s thesis there is a certain restructuring of consciousness in those for whom digital communication is an important part of daily life. Ito describes the sense of “ambient virtual co-presence” felt by those who carry a mobile phone and for whom family and friends are always in their pocket (2006). Over a decade ago Wellman (2001) and Castells (2001; Ch.6) identified that digital technology facilitates our ability to pick and choose whom we interact with and enables us to live in a me-centred, networked society based on individual preference rather than physical proximity and obligation. For someone without a convenient local Buddhist community, participating in a virtual community is no great leap if one’s consciousness is so restructured, and the interactions – whether oral or literary – are no less ‘real’ than their face-to-face equivalents. This restructuring does not undermine the oral nature of the transmission of Buddhist teachings; it facilitates it.

Throughout the different developments in communication technology – oral to writing to type to digital – the paradigms of how the Buddha’s dharma are preserved and transmitted remain conceptually the same. Although texts may be preserved in print, or in ones and zeroes, rather than remembered in bhaṇaka fraternities/sororities, there is still an emphasis on their oral transmission. Ong writes that “writing makes possible the great introspective traditions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam” (2012; p. 104), but I argue that because of the oral nature of Buddhism and personal dimension to its transmission, Buddhism should not be included in his list. There is no evidence or reason to conclude that writing played a role in the Buddha’s introspection. Furthermore, the enduring orality of Buddhism means that consciousness is not fundamentally restructured with each development in communication technology, and the concomitant diminishing of authenticity which Ong proposes does not apply in the case of Buddhism. Sūtras still begin “thus have I heard” and there is no sign of that changing to “thus have I read” any time soon.


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