Augmenting the Dharma
Through the example of the 33rd Kalachakra Teachings, this post explores how the hypermediation of a contemporary Tibetan Buddhist ceremony blends offline and online religious elements.
In Buddhism, Dharma indicates teachings, both the material form of media and its conceptual meaning. In summer 2014, we three participated and observed how contemporary Tibetan Buddhists practiced the Dharma, at the Kalachakra ceremony, which was held in Leh, Ladakh, India between July 3. – 13. Kalachakra means “Wheel of Time,” and is used in contemporary Tibetan Buddhism to refer to a complex esoteric teaching. His Holiness the Dalai Lama spent hours each day instructing the people who had gathered about visualization, explaining difficult concepts, and sharing his personal insights.
While many of the practices can be found online or in books, an individual is not allowed to engage in empowerment unless he or she is under the guidance of a teacher—secrecy is a core part of the ceremony. One might assume as an esoteric teaching the Kalachakra would remain private, even secret, open only to a small group. In Ladakh, however, the Dalai Lama provided the teachings to an estimated 150,000 participants, which consisted of local Ladakhis, Tibetan refugees, Indian nationals, and international spectators. Moreover, and what incited our research, was that during the Kalachakra, the Dalai Lama also used the Internet to stream the ceremony to a global audience. Between ritual ceremonies, the Dalai Lama would give a series of teachings on Buddhist philosophy as well as emphasize Buddhism as a “mind science.” In doing so, he used online religious forums to portray Tibetan Buddhism not as a primarily ritualistic tradition, but a Buddhism that is scientifically and philosophically grounded. The online world thus provides a key venue for the Dalai Lama's efforts to both preserve "tradition" and to “modernize” Tibetan Buddhism.
So with face-to-face interaction, websites, streamed videos, and other social media, it became unclear what the actual ritual was, and what was its representation. Were those watching a live stream of the ritual, engaged in its practice, or were they merely watching a re-presentation of the teachings? What is evident is that participants were experiencing hypermediation, which indicates when a user is immersed in two or more media at the same time. For instance, when one has two windows open on a computer desktop or watching two television channels at the same time.
The Kalachakra was filled with examples of hypermediation, and it was not clear where the ritual stopped and its representation began. For instance, on the morning of July 8, 2014, the third day of the teachings, a middle-aged French woman had lined up beside the road to view His Holiness the Dalia Lama (HHDL). To her surprise, rather than arriving in his jeep, HHDL proceeded slowly on foot on the road in front of her. Quickly, she used her iPad to capture an image of the Dalia Lama. Without looking away from the screen, she checked to see whether the photograph had worked and became engrossed with the tablet. When she saw how well the picture had turned out, she loudly exclaimed, “Fantastic picture! Fantastic picture!” At that point security guards asked her to be quiet, because she was not aware that HHDL had stopped. He was holding hands with other pilgrims and talking to a group of people just a few feet away.
At the same time, in a hotel in Leh located about eight kilometers from the teaching site, there was a deeply devoted practitioner from Washington State. She had been lying in bed, exhausted, watching HHDL’s teachings live on her computer. She held her prayer beads and a book of teachings on the Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna’s Letter to King Satvhana that had been handed out during the first day of teachings. At the same time, she was online and supplementing the live teachings by searching material; looking up terms and concepts; and even posting information to her friends. She was deeply grateful that www.dalailama.com was webcasting the teachings live and that she had not missed any of the important events because of her exhaustion.
Because of the Kalachakra’s hypermediation, we found it difficult to classify the ceremony. For the most part Buddhism has no problem with virtual religious practices, and was a pioneer in the use of cyberspace for ceremonialy purposes. Yet, were the July 2014 teachings “online religion” or “religion online?” Religion online describes the use of the Internet by brick and mortar institutions, whose power stems from traditional forms of authority. “Online religion” describes religious practices that occur completely in cyberspace, and where people have a greater degree of agency and levels of interactivity.
What became clear to us over the twelve day ceremony was that we need a new category. The Kalachakra was neither online religion nor religion online, but something that was distinct but also combined elements of these earlier theoretical categories. We settled on theorizing the teachings as an “augmented ritual,” by which we mean religion that uses computer technology to superimpose digital communication onto the actual world, and provide a composite form of practice.
In hindsight, there is nothing surprising about the Kalachakra being augmented. As one of the oldest proselytizing religions, Buddhism has always had a predilection for utilizing the latest developments in new media. Buddhism’s adoption of new media developments, however, has not always gone smoothly. For example, in Cambodia, the use of printing presses for Buddhist books was prohibited until the 1920s out of the fear that mass production might diminish their sacred value. Buddhism has approached digital media in a similar way, and its reception has run the gamut from wary skeptics to enthusiastic evangelists.
On the ground during the teachings, augmentation of the Kalachakra had mixed reception. Several Geshes, or senior lamas, talked about the importance of the webcasts. First and foremost, most people never have the opportunity to take a three-week holiday to travel to Northern India to participate in an event like this. For the Tibetan diaspora community (and even Western practitioners), watching the event online is a powerful way of connecting with the tradition. Even if you are present on-site, with a crowd of 150,000 people you don’t really get to see much unless it is broadcast live on the big screens!
There were, however, detractors among the Lamas who complained about putting teachings and tantric material online. The first reason to actually attend the initiation in person is because of the element of secrecy. Empowerment is generally given over a 12-day period with eight days of preparation, after which the students are initiated and literally given permission (wong-khor) to become the deity. Although the teachings in Leh were webcast, the core concept of empowerment was not. You can notice, for instance, the gap in the webcasts between July 9 and July 13.
Others attending the Kalachakra in person emphasised bodily experience. For many, although one can go online and study the teachings, view some of the rituals, and learn a lot about the Kalachakra, bringing your intellect down onto the ground at the teaching site enables a unique blending of the mind, body, and spirit. A final reason given for actually being there, was to experience the Dali Lama’s charisma. Throughout the Kalachakra, there was an overwhelming desire among the crowd to push toward him. Attendees were lined up, pushing one another, and going into areas where seats were already taken. Police and security had to constantly hold people back and struggled to maintain order at the ritual site. All the different groups of people tried to capture the charisma in many ways, but the priority seemed to be on seeing the Dalai Lama in person and getting as physically close to him as possible.