Cyber Zen

Imagining Authentic Buddhist Identity, Community and Practice in the Virtual World of Second Life

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Gregory Price Grieve
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , December
     2016.
     254 pages.
     $44.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780415628730.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Is practicing Buddhism online the new “opium for the masses?” Is it a way of maintaining spiritual health in a digitalized society which is at the mercy of the effects of neoliberalism? Or is it a sign of renewed enthusiasm for a kind of virtual orientalism? Gregory Price Grieve concedes to critics of digital religion that all of the above may be true. However, he maintains that at the same time, virtual Buddhist communities and their practices are a largely-unexplored area of contemporary lived religion. Cyber Zen opens up this area with an ethnographic analysis of the Hoben Mountain Zen Retreat community—the largest of the five Buddhist communities in the virtual world of Second Life. The Hoben community has approximately one-thousand-five-hundred members, and aims to bring the Buddha Dharma into the virtual world, with silent online meditation as its main activity.

Grieve asks why the members of the Hoben community, and other Buddhist groups, went online? In studying the relationships and organizational forms within the Hoben community, the virtual constitution of this community’s residents and their virtual meeting places, as well as this group’s activities, this book identifies that practicing digital Zen creates a whole host of benefits. Second Life offers a social workaround which enables creative forms of modern spirituality. Under the label of “mindful media practice,” Grieve describes practitioners’ activities as techniques which enable them to experience the empty nature of all existence as well as the interconnectedness of all things. From the perspective of practitioners, this mitigates the suffering generated by modern society. As presented in the book, “mindful media practices” offer personal therapy and generate passion for others.

Grieve believes it is justifiable to subsume these media practices under the category of “religion”—as they communicate what the practitioners consider to be ultimate reality, and their experience of this ultimate reality influences their “moral economy,” by which the author means the practitioners’ attitudes and behaviour with regard to themselves and their fellow humans. The fact that these media practices are acted out in a virtual space does not reduce their influence on the practitioners’ real world, but actually strengthens it; awareness of the gulf between the virtual and the real world encourages contemplation of Buddhist cyber practice, and experiencing the virtuality of media practice enables an understanding of the emptiness of all things. Online activities, states the author, make practitioners mindful of the empty nature of everyday life, and promote awareness of their own desires.

In Cyber Zen, Grieve provides a thought-provoking insight into the effects of deeply entwined areas of religion and popular culture on practitioners’ real lives in modern society. The book also offers an introduction to all the terms and concepts connected to religion online and used in academic descriptions, such as “cyberspace,” “imagination,” “sandbox,” “fantasy,” “digital utopianism,” and last but not least, “cybernetics.” This book argues that the American concept of cybernetics is key to a contemporary understanding of Buddhism.

Cybernetics refers to control systems that are based upon information feedback systems, which a steersman can process and implement creatively. One sometimes suspects that Grieve’s affirmative stance toward the value of information and the power of the steersman is trying to overcome, at least verbally, the strong potential of the dark side of power—that is the power emanating from the system itself. As already referred to in the title, Grieve is arguing that the media practices of Buddhist converts should be seen as authentic. In view of the difficulties regarding the term authenticity, I wonder whether it would be sufficient to label these practices as “religious.. There is no doubt that the media practices are Buddhist; the category of “desire” as a fundamental concept of Buddhist teaching and a driving force behind neoliberal, consumer-oriented societies is extensively discussed by Grieve. Reading Cyber Zen, it becomes quite clear that the force of online, and offline, desires produced by modern society causes suffering. Grieve makes a convincing case for the fact that Buddhist media practices, while brought to life by the strength of desire, can serve as effective mindful strategies for managing these desires.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Inken Prohl is professor of religious studies at the University of Heidelberg.

Date of Review: 
June 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gregory Price Grieve is Professor and Head of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He researches and teaches at the intersection of digital media, Buddhism, and the theories and methods for the study of religion.

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