From the last issue of our Bearing Witness Newsletter on Socially Engaged Buddhism:
by Laura Busch
Socially engaged Buddhism has gone online. Or rather, we have gone online as socially engaged Buddhists. Yet, there are those who may cringe at the idea. One can easily find on the Internet rampant materialism, and new methods of communicating human anger and ignorance such as cyberbullying, flaming and spamming. So is the Internet truly a beneficial technology for promoting social justice and activism? And if so, how do we use this technology to benefit sentient beings?
Iran: Internet democracy or repression?
Scholars studying social activism and the Internet have offered many answers to these types of questions. While the Internet can be effectively used for social justice, it can equally be a tool of surveillance and censorship. This duality was apparent during the 2009 election in Iran, where angry citizen used Twitter to organize protests against the government. Protester cell phones captured and posted videos of these events, which eventually made their way to news agencies like BBC and CNN. At the same time, the Iranian government used the very same technology to seek out, arrest, and torture protesters. As we can see, the Internet can be as much of a liberating technology as a technology of control.
The Digital Divide
Furthermore, other factors can inhibit the Internet’s effectiveness as a tool for alleviating suffering. One of these factors is the “digital divide”: a disparity of internet access within and between countries. These disparities are generally based upon differences in geography, income, age and education, often resulting in a lack of internet access amongst impoverished populations. This lack of access can also result in perpetuating social inequality.
Yet, despite these important issues, the Internet does appear to have greater potential as an effective tool for activism than previous communication technologies like television. The Internet is a unique in that it allows people to instantly connect to other like-minded individuals, find information, and make their voices heard. It can be a platform where local marginalized voices, that have previously been silenced, can reach the global public and express their needs.
Constructing Global Cybersanga
So how can we effectively use this technology to educate and promote social justice in an increasingly connected global world? First, we must not view ourselves as solitary web users, but as members of an online community of concerned Buddhist practitioners. Therefore, I posit the following, seemingly simplistic statement: messages matter. The stories we tell online about belonging to a global socially engaged Buddhist community, are a central first step to creating and sustaining positive, real world, social changes. These stories provide our individual lives with a sense of shared community concerns and goals and we can use Web sites, discussion forums, and social networking sites like Facebook as spaces where these stories can flourish and develop.
One powerful story of online global Buddhist community is the cybersangha. Cybersanghas appear in many forms: from Web sites like Buddhanet and the Buddhist Channel, to discussion forums like E-sangha. These sites, and many others, share a vision of a global, socially engaged Buddhist community: a community of spiritual friends that share certain systems of belief, practices and religious stories with the purpose of benefitting all sentient beings.
Cybersangha Mobilizes for Burma
Cybersanghas can have far-reaching, real world implications in terms of helping sentient beings. When we see ourselves as a part of a global sangha, we identify with others in our sangha, their hopes, dreams, trials, and tribulations. We care when members of our global sangha are suffering and we become motivated to act when our community demands action. This power of community stories was evident during the 2007 protests in Burma. In one global Buddhist discussion forum, many members identified the monks as spiritual brothers in the community. While there were some debates about whether monks should be protesting, the majority of forum members shared online news and expressed their support and desire to help, often saying to one another, “I need to do something. What can I do?”
And it is this crucial moment, when we see ourselves as part of a community and see our community’s values as necessitating certain forms of social engagement that we become motivated to act. When members of the message board asked, “What can I do”, others responded with links to online petitions, Web sites that supported democracy in Burma, and lists of rallies, protests and vigils taking place around the world. The Internet provided a space where these opportunities could be shared and discussed: where the community mobilized others to act. And those online who were concerned with Burma, mobilized quickly, collaborated with other groups, and events in Burma were known around the world.
While messages and technology go hand in hand to produce effective social engagement, we must also use the Internet to form partnerships with those outside of our community. Our actions are most effective when we collaborate with other religious communities, non-profits, universities and any other organization or community that shares the same goals. This is also what makes the internet a powerful tool for successful engagement: we can quickly find and contact others who align with our values and ideals. We can use the Web to build partnerships, and through these partnerships, the results of our compassionate actions are amplified.
Despite the digital divide and government attempts to control the Internet, digital technologies are becoming more accessible in the world and with it, greater opportunities are available to connect and collaborate with other socially engaged Buddhists. The internet has become central to how we connect our local concerns to the global world. Yet, it is important to remember that in the end, it is the people who use the Internet that must move from thinking of oneself as a socially engaged Buddhist, to acting upon the opportunities we encounter online to be socially engaged: to use the Internet with compassion rather than indifference.