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Zen, the internet and me

Most of you who know me, either online or off, will already know that I’ve had a lot to do with computers for the Zen group over the past five years or so, when I took the original Liverpool Zen Group site and re-coded it with a design by Jim Yugen Lakey (now of Yokoji ZMC). We’ve developed from a site with a few static pages to a more dynamic, changing site that is contributed to by more than just one person. Now we’ve got audio, RSS feeds, a blog, events calendars, group pages, a PayPal button for donations (that no-one has used yet, by the way…!), etc etc. We’ve even branched out into social media with the Facebook group (anyone want to be the ‘official’ StoneWater Twitter/tweeter/whatever?!).

FacebookI’ve just realised this sounds like boasting…! What I’m trying to say that StoneWater online has grown beyond me now, that it’s taking on a life, and a community, of its own, which is fascinating to see… and I wonder where it will end up?

So that’s StoneWater online… but what about Zen online more widely?

Apart from my StoneWater online duties, I’m also a moderator on a discussion forum called Zen Forum International (ZFI), and being the online sort of creature that I am, I’ve also spent a while searching around some of the more obscure corners of the internet reading other people’s blogs and tracking down resources. I’ve probably spent far more time on this than I ought to!

On ZFI, people come and go, sometimes departing saying, “This isn’t real Zen, real Zen’s on the cushion, I’m outta here… you’re all just talking and not doing.” Now, apart from the obvious untruth (as many of the people at ZFI are clearly very dedicated practitioners, monks, teachers, etc), I do sometimes worry that they’ve got a point. Each moment that I’m in front of the keyboard, I’m not on the cushion… or washing dishes, or playing with Josh, or reading an academic article, or whatever my practice “looks like” in a given moment. But am I really wasting my time?

I think my time online splits up into three parts…

Firstly, there’s the part that is my service. Serving the sangha has, entirely unexpectedly, become a big part of what I do. It’s odd, I’m usually quite a selfish person…! But it’s an opportunity I’m really grateful for. It helps that I enjoy the activities that my service entails, for the most part, of course. Much of this is about maintaining the website, co-ordinating this blog, trying to find new ways for the website to help our community and so on. Offline, it’s equivalent to the jobs so many of us do to keep things running, for the most part, smoothly (thanks, everyone).

First printed book ever: The Diamon Sutra

The second part of my online Zen life is about study: about having access to some wonderful resources, and getting in contact with some remarkable people who are students and scholars of Zen and of Buddhism in general. This is precisely what Tim Berners-Lee expected the internet to be about (but perhaps with less high-energy physics and more Chinese Ch’an patriarchs!). I’m just looking through my “Zen” bookmarks folder, to see what has caught my imagination over the past few years. What a mess! A flavour…

Some of it is fairly light-hearted or non-essential, but actually I’ve learned an awful lot about Zen and Buddhism online, especially the cultural, historical and textual contexts, and all of this has significantly shaped my understanding of what it is I’m practicing, where in time and space my practice happens and so on. The offline equivalent is, of course, reading sutras and commentaries, etc… but the online sources are sometimes very different. I’ll accept that perhaps on occasion (!) the online material may be less authoritative, but often I find out things during the to-and-fro of an online debate in a forum, or a comments on a blog, or series of articles.

But of course, the third aspect for me is: sometimes I am just frittering my time away, following inconsequential threads of conversation, finding out what teacher X said about teacher Y, and so on.

What I don’t – can’t – do online is formal sitting practice (though at least one community has tried this too). At least, that is, if I think that Zen has to “look like” sitting still on a cushion.

I’m finding that for me, Zen practice often looks like sitting at a keyboard.