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Let's Talk: Cybersanghas—Do They Work?

Dosho Port meets with some of his students online

Dosho Port meets with some of his students online

The Internet has transformed sanghas. Buddhists who have been geographically isolated with little access to teachers and senior practitioners for guidance now have teachers and entire communities at their fingertips. Information and opinions about dharma centers, teachers, and sanghas are also readily available to practitioners worldwide, effectively leveling the dharma field and deflating notions of specialness.

But does all that accessibility build dharma community and lead to insight? As someone who teaches dharma online, I’ve taken a particular interest in this question.

Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, my online project, like other online communities, offers Zen practice and the opportunity to work with a teacher without leaving home. This is especially meaningful for those with no zendo nearby or with mobility issues.

My students tell me that through their online interactions they have found a sense of connection, an affirmation that they are not alone in the difficult work of cultivating practice in daily life. This matters. However, an equally important “polishing stones” aspect of dharma community life, in which practice is a team sport and we learn by working together, is not fully present in online dharma communities and can be difficult to replicate in the virtual world—or, for that matter, outside of the monastic container.

Online or in a physical zendo, zazen remains the heart of the practice. Vine of Obstacles practitioners report that online sitting carries with it some of the same advantages of sitting with a group, such as accountability and continuity of practice. When the time comes for morning zazen, it is not as easy to roll over and punch the snooze button.

Learning to sit, however, can be quite difficult without close contact with a teacher or community. Given the limitations of video, it’s challenging for students to do precisely what someone else is doing on-screen; for teachers, physical adjustments aren’t an option. For both, it is impossible to get the somatic sense of sitting with another person.

We have tried to address these limitations by having a forum where practitioners can send pictures that I then mark with feedback. This approximates in-person work to an extent, yet there’s nothing like someone actually adjusting your floating-in-the-clouds head by gently tipping it forward or moving your torso—that you imagined to be vertically upright—six inches to the left. The power of embodied sitting with a group and a teacher cannot be fully replicated when only a couple of sense avenues, not including the body sense, are available.

In the lineage of my first teacher, Dainin Katigiri Roshi, dharma study is an important aspect of Zen. It is also one of the significant strengths of the cyber world. Online course work can be designed in a way that engages students in active learning and makes use of a wide range of resources. This is a major upgrade from the passive teaching style prevalent in most physical zendos, where the teacher talks and students nod. In addition, curricula can be per- sonalized, sequenced, and scaffolded to maximize learning, drawing on a modern understanding of what constitutes effective education.

Online teachers rely on Skype and other videoconferencing tools to maintain contact and communication with their students. It can be an effective mode of coming together, but because there are only a couple of sense channels working—visual and auditory—I’ve found that online meetings need to be much longer than traditional dokusan, which might last just a few minutes.

The Internet is not a perfect medium for dharma, but it clearly offers some tangible benefits. Still, an important question remains: Is waking up possible through purely virtual connections with a teacher and community? The answer may depend on what “waking up” means to you.

For those engaged in just-sitting Zen, which is so physical and relies strongly on group practice, the answer may be no. Waking up online—except in the sense that we’re all already awake—may not be possible. But I think the conversation changes when we turn to koan practice. Students I’ve worked with only online have realized kensho; the medium, for them, seems to be less limiting.

Distant though it may be from the monastic practice at the heart of this tradition, online dharma work can be authentic. And we have only begun to explore the shapes it might take. I envision a not-too-distant future in which more and more practitioners, even with close access to teachers and commu- nities, embrace a hybrid option, one that includes the intimacy of in-person work while exploring the possibilities and freedom of cyberdharma. To move beyond limitations in our practice—isn’t that the point?

Dosho Port is the founder and guiding teacher of Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training and the author of the blog Wild Fox Zen. Beginning in June, he will be the resident teacher at Great tides Zen, a new training center in Portland, Maine.

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Reader Comments (4)

Dear Dosho,

As I am one of the teachers at Treeleaf Sangha, a primarily online centered Sangha with several hundred members sitting and Practicing together from several continents, I believe that only a limit of imagination restricts the possibilities within an online Sangha. To say that the online medium is limiting is a bit like saying that a theatre building determines the quality of the drama which may be performed within it. It is the interaction and mutual support and level of participation of the members, the quality of the Teachers and the creativity of the instruction provided that is more important than whether one meets across distance or under a roof. Dosho, your words, while perhaps based on your experience in his Sangha, simply fail to think (and non-think) outside the box!

With a touch of ingenuity and creativity (plus the virtues of patience and perseverance), many of the defects and weaknesses inherent in its use for Buddhist practice can be transcended. Like the printing press, modern means of communication are overcoming various obstacles that have limited the teaching and dissemination of Buddhist practice since the Buddha’s time, especially to laypeople outside monastery walls and those in distant places.

During out 7 years online, I have been surprised at the rich, intimate, nurturing environment that can be established in a so-called “online” Zen community. Certainly, there are some things we miss, beginning with the simple ability to hug a member during a life emergency or adjust posture by touch. Yet, our structure offers benefits too, especially in comparison to many non-residential, once or twice weekly or monthly Zazen groups where people come to hear a short talk, then sit silently before heading home, with little chance for social interaction beyond a few minutes before and after. In contrast, our Treeleafers communicate any day, every day, as much as they wish, with fellow Zennies who become real friends over time. People share the twists and turns of their lives, support each other during the ups and downs. We often see people who are more inclined to reveal themselves and share their lives over the internet (given the relative anonymity it can provide), and to drop the masks and facades that sometimes people wear dealing “face to face”. People do open up, often about events in their lives that they have told no one else. We have various video opportunities to chat with each other (including two way video Dokusan), but much of our Sangha’s communication is by written word in our “Forum”. While intonation and body language are unseen, our very diverse, mature, literate, gentle, lovely members are generally superb communicators by writing, and the written format allows a richness of expression, taking of time, depth and thoughtfulness that can be missing from casual oral chat-chat. Our discussions on the Dharma, on Practice and all life are serious business. It is a bit like the story of the blind man who, deprived of his ability to use some senses, learns new paths to richly contact the world through his remaining senses in ways the sighted often ignore. Although “Leafers” are denied aspects of physical contact and communication, they laugh and cry together, support each other, give each other a kick in the pants when needed, are truly Sangha brothers and sisters. At least, as much as any lay Sangha I know.

We must be very creative to overcome. Sometimes, we have succeeded in transcending the barriers presented by our medium. Certain specialized online study groups, in subjects such as Kesa sewing, Buddhist text reading, Oryoki and the like, help build community, as will certain charitable and “engaged” social projects that members are encouraged to join. Our mentoring system, and our Teacher's Taigu's on sitting Zazen without the rigidity and fetishism sometimes found in several traditions, has freed our sitters from being prisoners merely to posture alone.

The world is virtual. A most basic Buddhist teaching is that our experience of the world and ‘self’ is a virtual recreation, or outright fiction, built from data passing through the senses into the “3-D Holodeck” of the human mind. In fact, at the heart of the practice of Zazen is the abandonment of judgments and divisions thus created, such as concepts of “here” “there” “now” “then”, distance and separation. All time and space, Buddhas and Ancestors in distant lands and ages past, are encountered in the most intimate terms as Zazen is sat. It is this very same dropping of “distance and separation” which can be taught through a “no near nor far” Sangha like ours. Folks learn to sit and breathe together side by side, intimacy felt without thought of miles. Thus, as I often say, “the world is virtual, our Sangha is real.”

Gassho, Jundo Cohen, Treeleaf Sangha

February 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJundo Cohen, Treeleaf Sangha

Dear Jundo,

You hit the nail on the head with your comment:

"To say that the online medium is limiting is a bit like saying that a theatre building determines the quality of the drama which may be performed within it."

Unfortunately you also hit your thumb. As an architect I can tell you that a theatre building with poor acoustics, poor lighting, bad sitelines and uncomfortable seating can definitely deterimine the quality of the drama performed within it. How about watching a play online. Do you think it would ever be equal to a play in a theatre? I applaud the use of online mediums to explore the dharma but like the written word, the online medium is limited.

Here's Dogen on the subject:

"... if dharma heritage can be attained through literature as you imply, do all those who reach understanding by reading sutras receive dharma from Shakyamuni Buddha? It is never so."

Gassho (online) :-)
Jack Sekkei Cram

February 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJack Sekkei Cram

Hi Jack,

Hah! It is interesting that Dogen, the master wordsmith of Zen, would criticize literature via his own literature ... a literature which is the medium by which he lives for us. And you are right (although running a bit too far with the analogy) that a play in a theatre is not a play on film, but then again the marvels of a great film can never be captured when reduced to the stage (could you imagine an epic such as ”Avatar” ... a story about the reality of virtual worlds, by the way ... translated to a Broadway show? On the other hand, both the stage and screen versions may be quite wondrous in the hands of gifted directors, even if very different in feel).

Recently, various members of our Sangha from around the world were able to follow a Sangha member right into the hospital room during a life threatening health crisis. Via modern media, we sat Zazen with our friend, and shared time together when there was need for mutual support, right from the hospital bed. At any time of the day or night, this person could reach his Sangha friends at the push of a switch, joining in a Zazenkai on the hardest days. He credited this as an important part of the healing process.

In his post, Dosho notes that adjusting posture is something nearly impossible online. Let me point out something here too: Our other teacher at Treeleaf, Taigu Turlur, is a strong advocated of a way of sitting which has come to be practiced by many Soto Zen teachers these days (Issho Fujita is one example) influenced by something known as the Alexander Method. To make a long story short, this way of sitting which avoids the rigidity and "one size fits all" militaristic nature of some Japanese approaches to the Lotus Posture, allows students to find their own balance and comfort in sitting, with greater fluidity. The students find their own balance and center point by how the body feels. By teaching this, in fact, our Sangha may be doing a BETTER job than many Japanese Lineage Sangha that, like posture police, try to force the bodies of sitters into positions to which they may not be suited. I think that, for this reason alone! Many many times our students, coming to us after struggling with their posture while sitting with other Sangha, report discovering a balance and freedom in sitting with us that they never experienced elsewhere.

I would not be so quick to judge. Both "online" and "in a room" Sangha have their beauties.

Gassho, Jundo Cohen

Please check us out:


February 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJundo Cohen, Treeleaf Sangha

I facilitate the online mindfulness group Practice Circle for the Secular Buddhist Association, and I began with much trepidation about how to overcome what I suspected would be great liabilities compared to in-room meetings. What I didn't anticipate, and what I've come to learn, is that many of those "liabilities" are, like all other dharma gates, invitations to practice in themselves. Online participation puts a premium on staying present and listening carefully. Often the pace of interactions can't be forced, like they can in face to face situations; we must have the patience to let them unfold as they will. And we have the chance to watch emotions like frustration and confusion arise, and meet them with compassionate good humor for ourselves and our fellow sangha members. And because these dharma gates don't have all the trappings of the meditation hall, it might help us learn that every experience we have is a call to practice, even without cushions and altars.

March 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark Knickelbine

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