Thursday, January 15, 2015

Would Buddha buy a smartphone?

Buddha Smartphone Stand

(Image from Amazon)

Were Buddha alive today, would he buy or use a smartphone?  Would he engage with gadgets like laptops or iPads?  Stereotypes in the media of acetic monks who abstain from modern pleasures may suggest no, but these stereotypes create misunderstandings.

A common misunderstanding about Buddhism is that it preaches a Nihilistic worldview, a renunciation of everything in life, including fancy technologies.  In fact, Buddhism doesn’t renounce life or its technological wonders.  It does, however, remind us that those wonders are impermanent, so we should be wary of ‘grasping’ them.  Such grasping is usually labeled “attachment”’ (a translation of the Sanskrit word Upādāna), and it creates problems for us, because our possessions, our relationships, and our own selves are all temporary phenomena.   If we desperately grasp at them, then we’ll inevitably suffer loss.

Therefore, many Buddhists say, we shouldn’t feel ‘attached’ to worldly things if we want to avoid suffering.  But what does that really mean?  Shouldn’t I be attached to my wife, my family, my friends?  And if I feel no attachment to anything at all, then what meaning does my life have?

These questions, however, misunderstand Buddhist Dharma, which actually teaches ‘the Middle Way’ between the extremes of nihilistic indifference and absolute certainty.  In my opinion, the misunderstanding is linguistic.  

In the West, the word ‘attachment’ often has positive connotations.  It means I’m emotionally invested or engaged, as when I say, “I’m attached to my loved one.”  Many psychologists talk about “Attachment Theory” to explain the interpersonal bond between mother and child.

But in most forms of Buddhism, ‘attached’ means something more negative, such as ‘clingy’as we may say of annoying dates or failed romances.  The alternative would be ‘nonattachment’ to someone or something, which means relationships that aren’t characterized by clinging.

14th Dalai Lama
(Image from Amazon)

The 14th Dalai Lama, in his more detailed writings (e.g., his book From Here to Enlightenment), has recognized this linguistic nuance and has distinguished between negative and positive attachment:

If your engagement with others is tainted by strong attachment, craving, aversion, anger, and so forth, then that form of grasping is undesirable.  But on the other hand, when you are interacting with other living beings and become aware of their needs or suffering or pain, then you need to fully engage with that and be compassionate.  So there can be positive attachment in this sense of active engagement.

Buddhist masters have long used the term attachment to describe the quality of compassion for others.  For example, a verse from Haribhadra’s Clear Meaning Commentary refers to compassion that is attached to other living beings.  … Nagarjuna teaches that attachment for other living beings will arise spontaneously in the person who realizes emptiness.

So it’s sensible to be positively attached to things in the world in the sense of active engagement or compassionate commitment.  Yet we should avoid negative attachment to worldly things in the sense of clinging to them out of egoistic wants, narrow desires, or shortsighted goals.

This Buddhist teaching of attachment lends valuable insight to what's called the philosophy of technology—i.e., investigating the conflicts between our humanity and technology.  Simply put, avoid negative attachment to technology.  How do we become more positively attached (or engaged/committed) with technology?  By being mindful, as opposed to mindless.

What does it mean to be mindful?  Mindfulness basically means cultivating attention on the present moment, focusing consciousness on what our body and mind do as we (re)connect to the world.  While engaging with social media, for example, pay attention to how bodily emotions arise and how mental reactions emerge, especially before posting or replying to others online.  Mindfulness creates cognitive space to contemplate action.

By contemplating action, mindfulness encourages ethical conduct too.  Are our intentions pure when we blog about such-and-such or when we Tweet about so-and-so, or are we just intensifying idle talk or gossip?  Am I checking my Facebook and e-mail accounts for needed updates, or am I just checking these accounts chronically and impulsively like an Internet addict?  In short, what effects (or karma) do my online actions generate?

These are legit questions in the Digital Age, when speedy sound bites and trivial talking points can drown out substantial dialogue.  As Neil Postman would say, let’s make sure we’re solving problems and benefiting others instead of amusing ourselves to death!

Perhaps Buddha would buy a smartphone, but he'd use it mindfully, balancing objective, technological knowledge with conscious, artful application.

(Image from Wikipedia)


It's a truism that science provides us with technological conveniences such as satellites and cell phones, but it also gave us technologies of death and destruction like the atomic bomb.  In my opinion, blaming scientific knowledge for that death and destruction is inane.  But scientific knowledge without moral philosophy and spiritual growth is clearly precarious.

As Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace has said,

If our high-tech world doesn’t balance knowledge of the external, physical resources of our environment with knowledge of the internal, psychological, and spiritual resources of the human mind, then I fear human society will continue on its present course of self-destruction.

How's that for a mindful musing on media and technology?