In his youth, the fourteenth Dalai Lama-Tenzin Gyatso was supposedly quite fond of guns. According to professor of Buddhism Robert A. F. Thurman, the Nobel Prize laureate was (perhaps is still?) captivated by the technology and mechanics of firearms. Incongruent as it may seem, we are all familiar with the NRA mantra: “guns don’t kill people—people kill people.” Similarly, Buddhist philosophy does not attribute any intrinsic killing properties to a “gun” in of itself. Guns—and technology as whole—are void of being intrinsically either good or bad. It is what we might call the emptiness of technology and it is particularly evident in Tibetan Mind Science today.
In 1994 Erik Davis authored an article for Wired Magazine entitled “Digital Dharma.” India at that time had just begun to take step towards becoming the outsourcing repository it is today. Most Indians—let alone cloistered monastics—had little to no contact with digital technology. Yet, amidst the cornfields of Southern India, Davis located a small band of Tibetan monks who were fast digitizatizing the Buddhist canon. “[I]f Buddhist philosophy is to survive and thrive in the 21st century,” Davis wrote, “the dharma must be reformatted for the future.” According to the then ACIP (The Asian Classics Input Project) director Michael Roach, that means not just digitalization, but creating powerful interfaces. “[T]he future of authorship in this tradition will rest with those who design the roadways through huge databases. If you have a hundred thousand pages online, it becomes overwhelming. What do you do with it? You need an interactive system.” To that end ACIP has launched an ambitious hypertexting project and is partnering in a joint multimedia venture called the Tibetan Knowledge Consortium.
The digitization of texts has most famously and ambitiously been taken up by Google—a full ten years after ACIP launched its initiatives. The announcement of their contract to scan the university libraries of Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, and Michigan, and the subsequent launch of Google Book has led to heated debates about copyright infringement (see Battle Over Books and Steven Johnson’s subsequent analysis), and pessimism about the future of printed matter (see “Science in the web age: The real death of print” in this week’s Nature).
The diversity and plethora of digital resources for Buddhist enthusiasts is astounding. On-line dictionaries(see THDL Collaborative Dictionaries), geographical maps(see THDL Geography Collection), rare artwork(see Himalayan Art Resources), web radio (see Lamrim radio), ancient manuscripts (see Gene Smith & TBRC), and more. The platforms are multifarious and are pushing the very limit of what is possible on the web today. In turn, or perhaps as a consequence of, Buddhist thought and culture is prospering in the West. In Tibet, however, technology seems to be having an opposite affect on indigenous Buddhist practice and culture.
According to a recent article in the Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun (a subsidiary of The International Herald Tribune), increased availability of modern technology has jeopardized traditional Buddhist culture and religion. “In the midst of this rush to modernize,” says Kazuto Tsukamoto, “Tibetan Buddhism stands at a crossroads.” According the Tsukamoto, the number of senior Tibetan monks with a “geshe” degree (what might be considered a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy) is dropping below the already low post Cultural Revolution numbers. Informants in Tibet told Tsukamoto that finding a geshe in Tibet is as “difficult as finding a star in the daytime.” Conversely, the Tibetan exile community boasts literally thousands of monks studying for their Geshe degree at numerous monasteries all over the Indian subcontinent. In fact a handful of Westerners have recently graduated from the rigorous 15 year program and are currently teaching in the United States.
Despite Tibetan enthusiasm for increased availability of solar energy and novel services such as cellular text messaging in Tibetan, these technologies, the Dalai Lama says (see Charlie Rose interview) are intentionally being used to disempower Buddhist culture and assimilate Tibetans into China’s Han population. In short: technology doesn’t kill Buddhism—people kill Buddhism.ༀ