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What Is Real Anyway?

On Valentine's Day, Facebook asked me if I wanted to send my spouse "a real Facebook gift." What does that mean? I asked myself (and then my Facebook friends -- who are almost real world friends). Does a "real" Facebook gift exist offline, ie IRL? Or is it only "real" on Facebook?

What is real anyway?

Philosopher Nick Bostrum asked in a 2003 article: “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” He didn't give a definitive yes, but he logicked out that it could not be disproved.

What is real anyway?

Are we simply avatars manipulated by some future user? And if we are, what does that mean for our avatars?

What is real anyway?

This week, in the Fearless Mind class at the Interdependence Project, Ethan Nichtern talked about the mind-only school of Buddhism, which proposes that the mind is a projector and reality is the projected.

There are several directions that this post could go; most of them would end up in a hopeless muddle since these questions largely defy words for me. What got me started, in any case, was an article on Buddhism in Second Life, an online virtual world.

Buddhism, you see, is flourishing in virtual reality,

Jessica Falcone, a Kansas State University assistant professor of sociology, anthropology, and social work, studies South Asian cultures and religion. She's currently looking at Buddhism and Buddhist holy objects in Second Life. In Second Life, users develop an avatar and can participate in group events such as meditation sessions in virtual temples that replicate physical-world spaces.

"I want to understand why this is happening in a virtual space," Falcone said. "For some Buddhists, they may be living in an area without a Buddhist community and this may be the only place where they can practice their religion with other people. It is a way for them to come together and listen to teachings or to do group meditation sessions, even though it may not be possible in real life."

Other Buddhists, she says, may have communities -- called sangha -- that they practice with but may supplement that with a virtual sangha that's always accessible, on lunch breaks or evenings when their physical center is closed.

"It is interesting to me and fascinating as an anthropologist that we are replicating some of our cultures in these virtual spaces," Falcone said. "For the Buddhist groups in particular, it seems there is a real effort to replicate their real-life practices, rather than innovate them. There is not much interest in doing experimental practices or trying new things because it is a virtual world." 

There's a tension in contemporary Buddhism between preserving tradition and adapting to current culture. There's a tension between Buddhists who value eastern traditions and those who seek to strip the teachings down to bare-bones, removing the trappings of ancient societies.

It's interesting that a tradition that values direct experience and pure perception finds a home in virtual reality. But then, it's a tradition that says everything is empty -- even emptiness. Study and practice is a good thing, and all dharmas come together at one point, whatever reality you're in.

Ethan Nichtern gave a talk at the Buddhist Geeks conference called The Internet is Not Your Teacher. Talking about studying via the Internet, he said, "If you want to become a sane and decent human being ... that’s something you only learn from other human beings."

While there's nothing like a live sangha -- I treasure my weekly meditation group for the chance to rest in the energy we raise -- there are live people in the electronic ether. And connecting with them can be a tremendous support for your practice.

Want to connect with a group around daily meditation practice? Check out Daily Sit

For online study -- and a lively discussion forum with other students --- try IDP's next online course: Spiritual Wakening NOT Spiritual Bypassing.

And for a discussion of Nick Bostrum's article and whether it matters if we're avatars, go here. It's a sermon by Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek, which brought it to my consciousness.

And continue to read the IDP blog and comment. It's a great way to experience a variety of perspectives on a wide range of topics by writers at different places on their spiritual paths.

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