How to miss the point of Second Life and the Dharma

Leaf Dharma aka SL LoserI found this blog post today. The author visited Kannonji, the Buddhist space in Second Life that I’ve discussed recently, and found it disturbing, titillating, and disgusting, seemingly in equal measures. While a few of the criticisms of Second Life are valid, they could be made of almost any online activity. Let’s face it, Second Life is basically a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORG) minus any focused game. It’s a distributed environment where people will build what they want and interact how they want but with user created content.

As we all know, people will generally use online tools for the banal and titillating. This should surprised no one and really doesn’t bear much comment. That’s the nature of a lot of human activity, online or not. The fact that the person is effectively criticizing SL for being a virtual environment (in other words, not being the physical world) completely misses the fact that this is both amazing obvious if you use it and that it is simply a tool for people to interact. It seems quite silly to criticize the environment for being like any other artificial construct and to ignore the fact that there are people repurposing it to spread the Dharma. Kannonji is making a real effort to track down Zen teachers, work with them to create a avatar and get oriented in SL, and to give them a venue to do Dharma talks and teach to a largely hungry and receptive audience. To criticize this with, effectively, “Go get a real life” just misses the point of things.

I’m quite excited by the chance to hear and interact verbally with interesting Buddhist teachers that I might not otherwise meet. I can’t see how this is in any way negative, despite the other uses that people make of Second Life.

It is even more ironic when the person doing so does it on a blog dedicated to pirating Buddhist materials anonymously and bans everyone who posts a criticism from their blog.

Update: It seems “Leaf Dharma” wasn’t happy with banning commenters that disagreed but decided to delete all of the comments. Probably for the best considering the rather nasty tone in them towards other people that disagreed with his/her take on Second Life and the name calling from him/her. I’m reposting the original post below before LD deletes the whole thing, just so I have permanent context here:

The following is a true story of my trip to a false world. Many of us spend far to much time on computers, a prime example of this is the world I am going to expose in this article. Let me tell you of the sad reality of Second Life. In case your not familiar with Second Life its a virtual world where über good looking people in tank tops and fishnet stockings run around having virtual sex, virtual lives and virtual Buddhism. In this virtual world there exists a few Buddhist Sanghas. This false reality must be experienced to truly understand what the hell I'm talking about. Yesterday I read the post on Wild Fox Zen about Dosho Mike Ports up coming trip to teach at this Sangha, so in order to wrap my head around this concept I decided to visit this world myself. I found my way to this Kannonji Temple in Second Life and was very helpfully told how to clothe my Avatar (That's the word for my false self in this game) and how to navigate this world. I voice chatted with with the resident monk (aka: Admin) about various Dharma subjects, mostly chit chat. Later I explored some of the non-Buddhist areas, which amounts to 99.9% of the reality and came away with the wisdom of never returning. On exiting I decided to return to Buddha Land and explore their private little space. I noticed several buildings that looked like houses and in fact they were. Private little dwellings decked out with ikea like furniture and every new age cliche accessory. In two of these dwellings were actual people. Meaning real people sitting in front of there computers. I knocked on one door for several minutes, noticing that someone was inside. Finally an androgynous hippie answered and let me explore his/her home. They did not feel like chatting, perhaps because they wanted their Avatar to have some peace and quiet. (I roll my eyes at the irony of that). I then noticed the other house had two people in it as well. I let myself into the house, some thing the real world does not allow, to find two Aryan like people embracing in what I could only imagine to be the beginning of some real world self loving. I was then informed that this was a private residence and I should leave. Their pet Albino tiger also seemed annoyed that I was there. I had my Avatar sit on their expensive ikea-like sofa to relax from a hard day of flying around Virtual Buddha Statues. I was then informed by the Matthew McConaughey Avatar to please leave "this is a private gathering and that his father had just died." Now when someone tells you in the "Real world" that their Father just died and they would like some privacy I usually leave. However in a world dominated by ones and zeros and cyber zen monks who manage the private orgies, I have a hard time being serious. So, flying up stairs (lol) to the beautiful King size virtual bed with a great view of the digital Buddha I decided to take a virtual nap. Unfortunately the cyber tiger was growling at me making it impossible and to make matters worse the head Zen dude showed up at the house and demanded I leave. I was then told I was banned from receiving anymore Dharma lessons in their uh, Sangha. No doubt because my Avatar looked to much like Ken Wilbur. Exiting Second Life I came back to my first life with this bit of wisdom: If your using Second Life as an excuse to avoid your first life, no amount of Virtual Buddhism is going to get you out. People in that world that come to that Cyber Sangha looking for a community to chat with or sit with have really got a screw loose and need Psychotherapy. I understand that various teachers have been using the "environment" of Second Life to give talks and that the medium allows several people to interact that would not be able to be there in person. It was even rationalized as a venue for people with disability's to join and be part of a Sangha. All valid points. My take on it is this. How many veils of Illusion do I need to pile up on reality in order to see it properly? Out your front door is a vast blue sky. Across the street are humans raking leaves. Talk to them, they are your Sangha. Engage yourself in real activities that don't involve computers. Smell real flowers. Walk in the cold air. Eat a real apple not in front of some distraction. Be present in this world. To the Internet Monks that selflessly moderate the Second Life Cyber Temple. Sitting for vast stretches in front of there computers waiting for lost souls to show up or trouble makers to ban, I leave these final words: As I left the Virtual world I stopped at another Buddhist Community in Second Life and came across some ironic wisdom written on a wall: Let me respectfully remind you Life and death are of supreme importance Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken… Awaken… Take heed, do not squander your life. Original (now deleted) comments on Leaf Dharma's post: Tao said... Wow they have rules and conduct. How Mu Zen. November 16, 2009 4:30 AM Leaf Dharma said... I wish I had a record of the trash talk you spouted during our conversation. All I heard from you was the scandals of "this Teacher" and how "that teacher" did such and such. It was like visiting Melrose Place. As for my "conduct" I make no excuses. I think someone needs to come into your twisted little world and shake the shit from your head. Metta. November 16, 2009 4:30 AM Caspian Inglewood said... Well you are obviously free to paint the events however it is you would like. Why did you carry yourself "differently" because you were in a "false environment" and act insensitive toward a man who had just lost his father? Is there a button one pushes whereupon they turn their personal ethics on and off, according to how they perceive the reality they are experiencing. "I think someone needs to come into your twisted little world and shake the shit from your head." While I am grateful for your aspiration, and do not doubt your motives, it never hurts to have some tact in one's approach. As for the gossip we engaged in earlier in the night, you certainly seemed a participating party. There were also a few teachers you mentioned. We were just discussing some common stuff that crops up frequently when looking at Buddhism in the West. Teacher/student relationships and the ethics involved in such matters. In fact, I recall you mentioning a few names, as well. At any rate, the things we discussed are all common knowledge really. But this is neither here nor there. I do have a question for you, however. Where is this separation you speak of between your conduct in "everyday life" with the blue sky outside of your door you speak of and the "everyday life" of sitting before your computer? Why would this specific act necessitate a shift in personal conduct and why would you admittedly act insensitive toward an individual you admit you would not have were it a so-called "real" encounter? November 16, 2009 4:48 AM Leaf Dharma said... I'm sorry I missed your point. Perhaps we need to enter the fake world so you can explain to me what "real" compassion is. Then our Avatars can hug and make it all better. As for me "Painting the events" if I had anything to hide your comments would not appear. I may make light of the events in my description but they all happened that way, or did they happen at all? Hmmmm, did that cyber turd I left in your Garden really manifest into compost? Did you perceive in your false reality the Karma I created? I think more than anything you like to talk. That's why spent 24/7 in front of your computer in that world, which is my point. Grab some reality dude. You can have the last word, because I know your type. November 16, 2009 5:12 AM Leaf Dharma said... Thats funny that that you respect people you dont even know Al. Another classic case of a lack of real world interaction. I'm afraid you wont find what your looking for here so you should just move along. The only confused person is you Adam (Real Name as he likes to pretend). I dont spend 18 hrs glued to computer. You can continue to justify your half existence as long as you want. November 16, 2009 11:40 AM Leaf Dharma said... PS: Your Banned from my world too.

Update 2: John Julian wrote to me with the following and gave permission to share it here to add another perspective on Leaf Dharma’s post and actions in Second Life:

Thank you for this blog. I am the person who ‘owns’ the cabin, and yes, my father did die last night. I was due in Second Life to catch up with friends so had just gone ‘on line’ and was sitting with a friend talking about my father. The person who wrote the blog in question came in. I explained to him my situation and asked him to leave. I have a full copy of the conversation and the very rude remarks he made about my friend. I am not sure what needs he was meeting, but I did not feel any compassion. He refused to leave and after three requests my friend called in the manager who rewound the script of the conversation and acted. SL, in parts, does have its seamier side. However, most of the top universities have islands in there and I also have a classroom in there to teach. The world’s largest businesses also have sites there. It is simply a new way of meeting. I also support the good works at Kannonji. I was introduced to SL after my real life partner was able to gain 24 our support from the cancer support group in Second Life when she had cancer. I am also quite happy to identify my real life identity – John Julian, Melbourne Australia – in order to ensure that any further harm by people like this is reduced. The notices about my fathers death will shortly appear in the newspapers.