Studying Buddhism in the Digital Age

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has called for 21st-century Buddhism, with the emphasis not on ritual, prayer and devotion, but rather on study, especially of the works of the seventeen great Nalanda masters. In keeping with Buddha’s skill in methods, study needs to fit the circumstances of the 21st century and be in accord with the communication methods of the Digital Age. For Buddhist education to remain effective, it needs to adapt to the present-day needs, as it has always done in the past. Especially for the great Nalanda tradition of Buddhist education to continue, it needs to adapt to the modern methods of education, so as to provide access to its wisdom for the younger generation. Let me give some historical background to demonstrate that adapting to the times accords with the Buddhist tradition.

Shakyamuni Buddha was a masterful teacher. According to the scriptures, what made him so effective was his omniscient mind, his enlightening speech and his skill in methods for leading others to liberation and enlightenment. This means he knew fully all the methods that would be the most effective to transmit his teachings to each being as the conditions of the times would change. In addition, because of the enlightening quality of Buddha’s speech, each listener would be able to understand his teachings in their own language no matter now often their language would change until the time of their enlightenment.

For language to become an effective means of communication, it needs a medium. Before Buddha’s teachings were written down, they were transmitted through oral transmission. Disciples learned the teachings through hearing someone repeating them. They studied them further by memorizing the words and periodically reciting them.

After several centuries, Buddha’s enlightening words were put down in writing to safeguard them for the future. The written word now became an additional medium for learning and studying the Buddha’s teachings. Over time, language evolved and different languages became more popular. This posed no obstacle for Buddha’s enlightening speech to be understood by its audience. After all, Buddha taught that cause and effect do not operate in a vacuum; they are affected by conditions and circumstances. Because of that fact of dependent arising, and because different portions of Buddha’s teachings were written down at different times, some of his enlightening words were recorded in Pali and some in Sanskrit. Because of this skillful means, people could read and understand Buddha’s words in the written languages of their times.

As Buddha’s teachings were propagated beyond the Indian subcontinent to further regions of Asia, they were translated and recorded in even more languages and scripts. These included a wide variety of Central and East Asian languages, most prominently Chinese and Tibetan. This transmission trend has continued over time, so that presently Buddha’s teachings are available in written form in most major modern languages and scripts. In this way, the great translators have furthered the enlightening activity of Buddha’s speech to communicate to people in each of their languages.

The written language, however, requires a medium for reaching its audience. Therefore, in keeping with conditions of time and place, Buddha’s words have been written on palm leaves or paper, and kept loose or bound together in books. The texts have been handwritten or printed from woodblocks or moveable type. All these developments have been in keeping with the principle of skillful means to better communicate Buddha’s enlightening words to those who would learn them.

The 21st century has seen the dawn of the Digital Age. An ever-increasing percentage of people receive their information in digital form, through the Internet. They read that information either on computers or, increasingly more, on cell phones or tablets. Their knowledge comes not only from websites, but to an ever-greater extent through social media. Further, the present trend, especially among the younger generation, is that people prefer receiving information in video form, rather than through written text. Many even favor animation over live presentation and, moreover, their information needs to be entertaining. This has spawned an even newer medium, called “infotainment,” a hybrid of information and entertainment.

In the field of higher education, many universities have started offering interactive Massive Open Online Courses, the so-called MOOC’s, where students pursue e-learning by watching and listening to online classroom lectures. But, the most popular online educational courses have adapted to the modern trend of Internet usage. Due to the fast pace of social media feeds and people’s shortened attention spans, the ideal length of educational videos has now become three minutes, not the ninety minutes of videotaped lectures that only the most devoted students watch to the end. Adapting to this trend, educational channels, such as Coursera and Lynda, offer courses through online series of three-minute video clips, some with live talks and others with animation. They have found this to be the optimal length and medium for people to learn, digest and remember complex material. This is the reality of the Digital Age.

Let me present the project I have been involved with as an example of one way to promote and further the Nalanda tradition in the present age. Anticipating the needs of the 21st century, I founded a German nonprofit organization, Berzin Archives, and we published the first version of its multimedia, educational website, berzinarchives.com, in December 2001. Having received a PhD from Harvard University in Far Eastern Languages and Sanskrit and Indian Studies, I had then spent 29 years in India. There, I studied with some of the greatest masters of the last century from all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his tutors, and translated for many of them. Over the years, I built up a large archive of translations of Tibetan and Sanskrit texts and transcripts of teachings I had translated from my teachers. Lecturing on Buddhist topics around the world, I had also built up a large store of transcripts of my own lectures and writings, transmitting further what I had been taught. I also had written many books and articles explaining these profound and extensive teachings. Through the Berzin Archives website, I made this vast treasure of knowledge available to the world, free of charge, and continued to add to it transcripts and audio and video recordings of my further lectures.

By 2015, the website had grown to over 1200 written English items, with many of them translated into 20 other European and Asian languages, including six from the Islamic world. It was reaching over 5000 users each day. But modern educational trends had been changing rapidly over those previous ten years and it was time for an upgrade.

Heeding His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s call for 21st-century Buddhism with an emphasis on study, we accepted the challenge. Although His Holiness advises studying the works of the seventeen Nalanda masters, these texts are beyond the scope of beginners. Newcomers to Buddhism need more basic teachings to gain access to the Dharma contained in those advanced texts. They need to be guided step-by-step and, in keeping with the developments of the Digital Age, this guidance needs to be provided first through the Internet, especially for young people, and then, when these students are prepared, through personal study with qualified teachers. Our task at Berzin Archives was to provide that access to the Nalanda tradition for the newcomers of the 21st century, in keeping with Buddha’s emphasis on using skillful means.

With an easier to navigate interface, a more user-friendly information architecture and a more modern, mobile-first design, we renamed the website studybuddhism.com so that newcomers and Google would identify more easily what it is. We launched the upgrade of our website in May 2016. Automatically adjusting in size to show properly on all digital devices, from the most expensive smartphone to the cheapest mobile, people everywhere can now access the site any time, any place. This is very important because more than half of Internet usage is now through mobile phones, and this percentage is increasing ever faster.

Making a modern website accessible on all devices, however, is not enough. People need to find the website. This is not easy. There are over a billion websites on the Internet, with over 150,000 being added each day, all competing for people’s time and attention. Therefore, to improve Google ranking so potential users can find us, we have employed the latest search engine optimization techniques, including making some of our written material media rich with photos, illustrations and audio and video clips.

Even if users can find your website, if the aim of the website is to educate users, it is necessary to engage your users and encourage them to come back. To meet this need, we have expanded our social media presence on Facebook, prepared new YouTube and Sound Cloud channels, and launched a monthly newsletter for our growing number of core users. We have also started a series of short video clips of a wide variety of Buddhist teachers, both Tibetan and Western from all four Tibetan traditions, answering the most frequently asked questions posed on Google. For the sustainable future of Buddhism, it is vital that teachers join efforts in projects such as our online interviews, to foster a non-sectarian face of Buddhism and attract a wide audience.

In addition, we have prepared our first online course of four three-minute videos, “An Introduction to Buddhism,” as a pilot project for developing a modern online educational program. As a further pilot project, we have also produced our first animated video, “How to Gain Peace of Mind.”

Studybuddhism is still in its developmental stage. We are still in the process of migrating all the language sections from the old to the new format. Once this is completed, we plan to add discussion forums for debate and other interactive features. We also plan to develop a full program of online video education courses, in the format of three-minute clips, which will include further animation material. Gradually we will make all these resources available in the current 21 languages of our website, and all will remain free of charge.

Our hope is that our efforts will inspire others to follow our example and develop it further. Many Buddhist teachers already have an online presence and so they have the vehicles for making full use of the latest online educational methods. For example, Geshe Jampa Dagpa in Moscow has started an online forum for Geshe Lharampas from all over the world to debate various topics that any member can suggest. This is an excellent usage of 21st-century technology to further the Nalanda tradition of Buddhist study through debate. But to train students to reach this level of Buddhist study requires reaching the younger generation.

The future of 21st-century Buddhism and the Nalanda tradition lies, in fact, in the hands of the younger generation. To provide a Buddhist education to this new generation and those that will follow requires skill in means, as it always has. In the Digital Age, this means using the full scope of modern online educational methods and always keeping up to date as new developments continue to emerge. In this way, we can follow Buddha’s example of always using skillful means that dependently arise in accord with the changing times. Thank you.

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