Buddhist Geeks 2011 - Day 1.5

I am in Los Angeles (technically, Rosemead but you know…) attending the Buddhist Geeks 2011 conference. This is the first ever Buddhist Geeks conference, in fact. For those that don’t know, Buddhist Geeks is a popular podcast dedicated to (wait for it…) Buddhism and geekery. It was started by Vincent Horn, Ryan Oelke, and Gwen Bell. After a while, it was just Vince and Ryan and, currently, it is being run by Vincent. The podcast has a history of interviewing interesting people within the Buddhist community and being a lot of fun. It has also gained quite a following on twitter and social media over the years, establishing a bit of a community.

This year, after Vincent and his wife, Emily, relocated to the Los Angeles Area, they decided to try to get a conference going. As a longtime fan of the podcast and a Californian, I quickly bought a ticket. They gathered a pretty good crowd of speakers for short presentations, people whose work I had followed in various ways, and we’ve had people come from as far away as Europe and Australia to be here.

I mark this as “day 1.5” because it is the end of the first full day, Saturday, but we had some short activities Friday afternoon. Today we opened with short presentations by three people: Kenneth Folk, Kelly McGonigal, and Ethan Nichtern. I had not heard of Kelly McGonigal before though I gather that she is quite well known through her work as a professor at Stanford and is a Zen teacher. Kenneth, I must freely admit, is someone with whom I’ve done some brief study and a person that I rather like, and Ethan is the well known head of the Interdependence Project in New York, which is going wonderful work in Urban Dharma (if there was a version of it in the Bay Area, I’d be there in a heart beat).

Kenneth Folk

Kenneth Folk presented “Enlightenment for the Rest of Us,” which gave Kenneth’s perspective of enlightenment that is something that is achievable by any human being (including his own experience of it). Kelly presented “What Science Can Teach Us About Practice,” which focused on some of the results of studies of the neuroscience of meditators and the implications for people. Ethan presented “The Internet Is Not Your Teacher” about the two-edged sword nature of the Internet as both a wonderful communication tool but also one that comes at some potential cost.

Kelly McGonigal

All three of these presentations were well done. I especially liked Ethan, as I’ve been a fan of both his writing and his work, because I had not heard his ideas articulated before. I’m familiar with Kenneth’s work and ideas and I have been following a bunch of the neuroscience work with meditation so those were both much more familiar.

Ethan Nichtern

This was followed by a panel, called “Generation Wise,” with Ethan Nichtern, Vincent Horn, Diana Winston (of UCLA and its mindfulness program), and chaired by Trudy Goodman of InsightLA. Jack Kornfield showed up as a surprise guest (though he had promised to let the younger folks do most of the talking). I’m not going to attempt to summarize the panel as it was pretty free form but I found it interesting. It largely focused on generational issues and the direction (or questions around it) of Buddhism in the West. My only complaint is that during Q&A, I got to ask a question about balancing the desire to create new Buddhist forms and traditions within our culture with the need to be aware of our 2,500+ year legacy and wanting to guarantee Buddhism is still being passed down successfully 100 or 200 years from now (not just being redesigned for today but for the ages). Jack Kornfield responded briefly but Trudy immediately cut in following him and moved on to take another question. No offense to Mr. Kornfield but I was more interested in hearing Ethan or Vincent’s responses to this and hearing some discussion. I know what Kornfield’s response to that as his institutional legacy is already clear.

Generation Wise Panel

After a bit of lunch, we were allowed to do hour long workshops or presentations with a variety of speakers there. I chose to attend that of Shinzen Young, a Buddhist teacher whose work I admire, especially with his teachings being up on Youtube quite extensively. Shinzen was presenting a practice focused session, “The Importance of Feeling: The Role of Emotions in the Spiritual Path.” This gave a hands on introduction to one of his meditation approaches or techniques to working with emotions and the body. I found it quite interesting though with the post-lunch fugue combined with a warm room, I did find it difficult to maintain focus. He’s made the 150+ page manual detailing the entire approach available to us as well, so we could go follow up on it later in much more depth. I appreciate this quite a bit.

Following this was “Buddhist Geeks Unplugged,” which was an “unconference” period where we, as attendees, could organize our own discussions groups in various areas. I attended one that focused on the Dharma and prison ministry. This is an interest of mine from having done (non-Buddhist) volunteer work in a state prison previously. I found that to be a quite heart felt discussion with a number of people and I think it was useful for the attendees. A number of them were currently training as chaplains here at the University of the West and were looking at prison work as part of their overall path.

Jane McGonigal

We finished the main part of the day with a presentation by game designer Jane McGonigal, twin sister of Kelly from morning session and well known author and TED presenter. She presented either “Awakening is an Epic Win” or “Awakening is an Epic Win?” depending on how you wanted to take her comments. This covered much of the ground of her recent book, “Reality is Broken,” which I’ve been fortunate to be reading recently. She outed herself as a Buddhist and asked a number of questions about whether her insights into gaming as a cultural outlet could also be applied to Buddhism at all. She didn’t have the answers to this (which she freely admitted) and I must admit to a certain degree of skepticism, but it was an entertaining and interesting talk. She also broke things up a bit and enlivened the audience with a game of massively multiplayer thumb wrestling (mmtw?). This involved the entire room doing a massive thumb wrestling game (both hands and with three persons/hands per “node”). This was highly amusing and fun, as well as a nice change after spending much of the day listening to people speak.


So far, Buddhist Geeks 2011 has definitely been worth attending and I’ve had a great time. I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with one of my Zen teachers, Paul Lynch, here and met up with a lot of people that I’ve either only known from twitter or whom I almost never see in person.

Buddhist Geeks!