Open Source Buddhism?

Open Mind Zendo at Burning Man

With the move top, I’m changed the name and byline of the blog. The name is now, obviously, “Open Buddha,” and my byline is “Open Source Buddhism” for it.

That begs the obvious question: What the hell is open source Buddhism?

For some people, it seems like sticking the head of a horse on a cow or some other horrid metaphor. “Open Source” as a term is generally applied to software. Specifically, it is applied to the software that is defined in such a way that its source code (the computer source of the eventual program) is available to anyone and that people interested in it can contribute to the source code, improving it. Popular examples of this are the Linux operating system, the Apache web server (that operates the majority of web sites), and Firefox (which I work on for a living). Open Source software has licenses that enshrine its openness by explicitly requiring this access to source code and allowing people to take the code and fork it, creating an alternate version, if they so desire.

This is the more specific version of what open source is when it comes to software. It also, especially today, has connotations of “crowdsourcing” and open contributions in general through the “open content” movement. Look to the example of Wikipedia for a non-software example of open source principles. (Of note, as well, is that the software that Wikipedia runs upon is also an open source wiki program.)

How does this apply to Buddhism? In one sense, not directly at all. Buddhism is both an individual and group endeavor, especially for Mahayana Buddhists. While there is the group aspect of the Sangha, of fellow Buddhists, much of Buddhism is focused through the work of the individual to the end of the enlightenment of that individual and, eventually, of all sentient beings. For those of us who meditate, at the end of all things, we are sitting with ourselves (or lack of self) on the cushion.

How it does apply is when it comes to philosophies, texts, techniques, or approaches to Buddhism. We live in a potential Golden Age (or perhaps a Silver Age) of Buddhism. While much of the world cares even less about spiritual matters than at any point in history, for those of us who practice, there has never before been a time where it was easily possible for every form of Buddhism to encounter each other. In Buddhist history, the transmission of Buddhism to new cultures or societies has often passed through a few key individuals who had been exposed to only specific traditions of practice, techniques, or texts. When Saicho and Kukai came back to Japan from China, they brought Buddhist texts and objects with them, along with what they had learned during their training in China, for example. The Chinese, in term, had received kind of a grab bag of Buddhism over the years as Buddhist missionaries with texts arrived from India. Much of these came without overall organization, which forced various great Buddhist figures to make sense of what came to them (often very creative and inspired sense!).

As we exist now, we can see what of these traditions survives to this day in China, Tibet, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Burma, and other nations. We can also see the preserved texts and stories of earlier traditions that are no longer practiced. Never before has it been possible (or even common) for a Pure Land Buddhist, a Chan practitioner, a Tibetan Lama, and a Theravadan monk to be in the same room together or to be directly exposed to the teachings of these disparate traditions that each claim to be Buddhism.

When I think of “Open Source Buddhism,” I think of the potential for Buddhism and the overall goal of freeing people from suffering that this exposure represents. To this we can add what philosophies and science that have developed in the last few centuries. There are Zen Buddhists out there experimenting with Theravadan Vipassana techniques focusing on the Jhana states. There are people, like Shinzen Young, who are Vipassana teachers but who were trained as Shingon priests in Japan’s own version of Tantric Buddhism. While we should be extremely cautious and not simply throw everything in a blender, we have an opportunity to look at the entire body of Buddhist teachings and schools, compare and contrast them with one another, and potentially come up with newer forms of Buddhism. This is not a weakness as long as it is done responsibly. This is the potential of Open Source Buddhism. Rather than being confined to the strictures of only a single school with its specifically favored sutras and techniques, we have a rich trove to draw upon. All that it takes is for us to do it and to share what we find, discussing what works, what doesn’t work, what no longer makes sense, and what really does make sense in our quest to reduce suffering and free all sentient beings.

What could be a more exciting endeavor for a Buddhist? While some may wish to follow a tradition and school in a strict manner, specifically as it has been handed down within that school, there is a place for a potentially wider (if more difficult) scope of study and practice. This is a possibly controversial stance but one that reflects an implicit reality that already exists. I know Vajrayana practitioners that engage in Theravadan practices (and vice versa). People go from school to school, teacher to teacher, not simply because they are dilettantes but because they are trying to understand their path and the possibilities. I believe that this exploration, when done thoughtfully and carefully, should be encouraged and communicated. As fellow travelers in the sangha, we can help each other along the way by sharing what we have learned with each other, regardless of the school of origin of the knowledge. I believe that this embodies the principles of openness of the open source world.