Is Online Meditation Real?

February 06, 2017

Unpacking the presumption that virtual Buddhist rituals are less real than their offline counterparts

Online Silent Meditation (Photograph: G. P. Grieve)

Online Silent Meditation (Photograph: G. P. Grieve)

What makes religious practices real?  Why is online practice often assumed to be unreal? To answer these questions, my monograph,Cyber Zen (Routledge December 2016), ethnographically studies Zen Buddhist practice in a virtual world. The event that triggered my interest occurred at 9:30 p.m., on December 23, 2007, when I found myself sitting in full lotus position, meditating next to a bear by the name of BodhiDharma Rosebud. Obviously this event did not take place in real life but rather in Second Life. Launched June 23, 2003, it is a three-dimensional, immersive, interactive virtual world housed in cyberspace and accessed via the Internet.

During my research between 2007 and 2010, through on-screen avatars millions of Second Life residents explored the virtual world, communicating and socializing with one and other, as well as creating, selling, and purchasing virtual goods.  Unexpectedly, I found that religious practices, particularly Buddhism, had a significant presence in this virtual world. In hindsight, finding religion online is actually not surprising. What turned out to be interesting is how it was manifested. Often labeled Western, nightstand, or convert Buddhism, the popular practices present in Second Life focus on several facets of the Buddhist tradition: the therapeutic, the nonhierarchical, the nonviolent, the ecological, and most importantly, the meditative.

Cyber Zen: Imagining Authentic Buddhist Identity, Community and Religious Practice in the Virtual World of Second Life (Routledge December 2016).

Cyber Zen: Imagining Authentic Buddhist Identity, Community and Religious Practice in the Virtual World of Second Life (Routledge December 2016).

A Sandbox Encounter

I had met BodhiDharma Rosebud the day before at a sandbox, a region in the virtual world where residents can materializevirtual objects, unpack boxesfilled with purchases, and experiment creating their own “inworld” content. At the time I was only six days old, still just a struggling newbie concerned mostly with acquiring the basic skills needed to survive my second life. The virtual world was still new to me and dominated by a chaotic mix of perceptions, feelings, and wants. I had not sought him out and had no intention at that time to study Buddhism in Second Life. 

BodhiDharma had grabbed my attention because his avatar was not the typically young and beautiful, often highly sexualized, idealized individual common to the virtual world. Take for instance the avatars offered when one joins Second Life, which range from witches in short skirts, to broody looking vampires.  BodhiDharma was not in bear form but was fashioned as a hunched-over, elderly, solemn looking, bald-headed human wearing large, Gandhi-like spectacles, and dressed in full black Zen Buddhist robes.While there were some studies of Christian and Muslim groups, when I looked for analysis of online Buddhist practice, however, I found sources sadly lacking. Rather than approaching Second Life and convert Buddhism as a media practice that many adherents find intellectually pleasurable and spiritually satisfying, online spiritual practice seemed to exist in the mass media and academic imagination as a conundrum to be solved, as a phenomenon to be explained away as “unreal” rather than analyzed and understood. A 2007 Los Angeles Times article, “It’s Easter: Shall We Gather at the Desktops?” maintained that believers on Second Life should find more enriching ways to spend Easter Sunday than typing out commands to make their avatars pray.

The Reality of Digital Religious Practice

What does “unreal” signify in this situation? What rhetorical power does it have, and what cultural labor does an accusation of unreality do? On the surface, the question of reality seems to address physicality. Yet all religious media practices, except for small groups of cohabiting worshipers, and perhaps even these, are mediated. Even face-to-face interaction requires speech and bodily gestures that depend upon systems of communication that require material signs and humanly evolved semiotic code. Also, mediated religion is not simply a contemporary phenomenon, as it can be found in Early Christian use of epistles and in the Buddhist circulation of scripture and images. 

The charge of unreality, by both scholarly and popular critics, reduces online religion to simulacra, the mere representation of the real thing. The difficulty with declaring online religious practice unreal is that whether one likes it or not, people are using Second Life and other digital media for religious practice, religious communities do exist in virtual worlds, and residents do perceive the platform as an authentic place of worship. Telling online practitioners that what they practice is unreal is like telling a bumblebee that it cannot fly. Instead, under the guise of “reality,” what is being expressed is a moral objection to online religion, spiritual practices that are practiced primarily on digital media. The objection is not that these media practices do not exist, but that they should not be happening.  Part of the objection could stem from the fear of the declining number of people in pews. Yet this, I would argue, at its heart is a theological objection to the perceived disembodiment of digital spaces. A May 22, 2007, segment from NBC nightly News titled “Religion Online in Second Life,” in which Elian Heath, ordained minister, and professor of Southern Methodist University, states: “The Church cannot be the church without flesh and blood interactions.”

Gregory Grieve’s research Avatar Clint Clavenham at Convert Zen Buddhist Second Life Location (Photograph G.P. Grieve)

Gregory Grieve’s research Avatar Clint Clavenham at Convert Zen Buddhist Second Life Location (Photograph G.P. Grieve)

Empowering hyper-reality

Questioning the reality of online religious practice is a form of iconoclasm, the rejection or destruction of religious images as heretical. Popular spirituality has always been suspect, yet digital media accelerate cultural poaching because, unlike analog forms, their procession of simulacra affords endless copies. Screening differs from previous media practices because it does not merely represent the original source but rather displays copies that become a reality in their own right. Because they are substitutions that replace the original, these digital simulacra are “hyper-real,” to borrow a phrase from the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard. Like Aaron and the Golden Calf, photographs, and margarine, the moral danger is that the unwashed masses will come to prefer the humanly constructed imitation to the genuine original. Yet, there is no natural reason that the original ought to be more authentic than the copy.

Like a magician’s sleight of hand, the question of reality camouflages the iconoclast’s ethical doubt about the proper use of media for religious practice, behind an inquiry of physical presence.  Critics frequently assume that digital religion is inherently alienating because as a simulacrum it robs users of their humanity and connection to reality. As Cyber Zen illustrates, however, such alienation did not hold for most Second Life residents, who often found the creativity and alternative roles opened up by the virtual world to be liberating.  Rather than victims who are seduced by alienating media practices, many Second Life users found digital media to be empowering, and a central part of their spirituality.

Keyboardists, not caretakers

In short, rather than signifying any content, accusations of unreality are a way of explaining away virtual online religious practice that marginalizes and trivializes actions that are religiously significant to the people who actually adhere to them. Scholars of religion need not be caretakers of digital religion, but they should walk in the shoes or at least type on the keyboards of those who practice it.

Buddhist practitioners have long journeyed to a wide variety of what they perceived as spiritual destinations, and no one can doubt that some people believe themselves to be practicing Buddhism online.  Rather than a matter of fact, the question of “reality” asserts a value, or rather, a particular hierarchy of values. By proclaiming online practice as “unreal,” critics silence adherents without having to actually engage with them. The proclamation of something as unreal is a rhetorical strategy that protects critics’ own view of reality from the abnormal and threatening, which transgresses the cultural hierarchies that critics have a vested interest in maintaining.