The Dharma of Second Life

Five Mountain Zendo - Interior

In the last week, I have spent a bit of time in Second Life. For those who have been blissfully unaware, Second Life is a virtual world simulator. Think World of Warcraft but not as shiny and polished and, for the most part, not based around the idea of a game. People do have game areas in it but it is largely a creative chat medium.

I looked around Second Life a few years ago, found the software to be a bit buggy and the servers to be unreliable, and quit bothering. It seemed like a big time sink (and it still can be) without a lot of “there” there to bring me back. Just recently, that has changed a bit. I’ve heard during the last few months of a few Buddhist teachers running meetings in second life, doing instruction, and generally talking to people there about the Dharma.

Earlier this week, I heard about Kannonji, a virtual temple there. They have a blog up and run meetings and meditation sessions at their temple in second life every day. A day or so later, I found out that my own teacher, Jiun Foster, was going to conduct a teaching there this Saturday. In the course of setting that up and meeting Rev. Jiun, the kind folks at Kannonji donated space on their virtual land (which only exists because someone is paying a monthly rent to keep it around) to the Five Mountain Order, our Zen organization. This allows us to have a virtual zendo there for group meetings and teachings as well as interviews with teachers. As a result, I made a new SL account and have spent a bit of time meeting the folks there.

I’m actually quite hopeful for it as tool for spreading the Dharma, especially amongst folks who aren’t near practitioners or are, perhaps, too shy to just show up to a Dharma center and ask questions. If tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people can play things like World of Warcraft, these same people have computers beefy enough to log into Second Life. I’ve heard at least one person ask me about the utility of Second Life when compared to a flesh and blood sangha but, in many ways, that’s apples and oranges. A flesh and blood meeting with people, embodied in the world, is not going to be the same as virtual meeting. That said, quite a few groups of people are meeting over group voice chat, skype, and other tools, in order to support each other in the Dharma. Second Life is an additional tool in that sort of direction.

One nice thing about SL is that it supports voice, gestures, and a certain level of embodiment. I’m doing koan work with two members of our organization now and we’ve been experimenting with ways to work on koans when two of us (a student and teacher) are not local to each other, which is the case for most people in our order. The phone works fairly well. Skype with video, I am told, also works quite well. Email can work though it isn’t as spontaneous. Rev. Jiun and I tried some koan work yesterday and found that SL worked reasonbly well, though I expect video might nudge it out. Since you can have private voice conversations in SL, gesture, and also type text, it feels very practical. Does it replace meeting in person? No, that is the gold standard, in a way, but we also live in an era of a very distributed Dharma and the Five Mountain Order supports this with our embrace of working with members who may not have a local sangha. The Five Mountain Buddhist Seminary, as a distance-based Mahayana seminary, is another attempt at this.

It will be interesting to see where this all goes. The dork factor is a bit high at times (and I did buy a flaming demon avatar shape and a lightsaber to go along with my official "looks vaguely like me" Zen priest avatar and clothes) but it is an interesting environment.

I encourage people to come visit Kannonji if they can install a Second Life player. (You can find the official one here and, Emerald, the one I use, here.)

I also encourage people to come to Kannonji at 4:00 PM PDT on October 17 (tomorrow) to listen to Rev. Jiun’s talk. I plan to attend and it ought to be interesting. He will be conducting interviews and talking to people afterwards as well.

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