Buddha as Scientist, Entrepreneur & Self-Improvement Guru

The political satirist Tom Lehrer says that his genre became obsolete when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m afraid I had a similar reaction when I first heard of Buddhist Geeks, a conference organizer and “cloud-based sangha” designed to facilitate “conversations on the convergence of Buddhism, technology, and global culture.” In other words, the devotees of some of the most distracting, mindfulness-destroying, desire-driven innovations in the history of our culture were now plotting to disrupt Buddhism. Any commentary, honestly, seemed obsolete.

As a service to readers, though, I decided to withhold judgment and plunge into the most recent Buddhist Geeks annual conference, which was held in Boulder, Colorado last month—and, until last Sunday, stored in a virtual forum by the good folks over at Tricycle magazine. After watching talks about “mindful media,” “upgrading the mental operating system,” and the links between Spiderman and Buddhist teachers, among other topics, I can offer four general truths—none of them especially noble—about the emerging realm of Buddhist geekhood.

1) Buddhist geeks really are quite geeky. They make a lot of Star Trek references, and love to cite neuroscience research, most of it about the effects of meditation on the brain. Less superficially, they embody the geek’s dream that everything can be solved with hard work and intellect. Above all, the Buddhist Geeks talks I watched were deeply practical, with little emphasis on escaping the cycle of suffering and rebirth, and much more emphasis on using Buddhism to relax the mind and channel entrepreneurial energies.

2) Buddhist geekiness comes in a few distinct forms. This observation comes by way of Ann Gleig, a scholar of Buddhist geekiness brought in by the Buddhist Geeks Conference to talk to Buddhist Geeks about what it is that makes them Buddhist Geeks.

Gleig argues that some Buddhist Geeks see Buddhism as a technology. Illustrating this point, conference speaker Gary Weber argues that, for millennia, the human operating system had “very poor signal to noise ratio, high energy consumption, high bandwidth consumption—nothing much good about it. This is about 76,000 years old.” Then Eastern traditions came along and offered an upgrade.

Other Buddhist Geeks, according to Gleig, see Buddhism influencing our use of technology. This includes things like a more mindful approach to technology, or the “contemplative design” of websites that don’t do everything in their power to distract readers by, say, gratuitously using hyperlinks.

Still other Buddhist Geeks, says Gleig, want to apply Buddhist ideas to entrepreneurship and other geeky pursuits. In one talk, for example, venture capitalist Jerry Colonna tells a story about the legendary Buddhist figure Milarepa defeating a group of demons. “When I first read this story,” he explains, “it was obvious to me that this was about business. It was about leadership.” Later, Colonna, who works as a coach for entrepreneurs, recasts the Buddha as the ultimate coach for (you guessed it) entrepreneurs:

To me dharma teaches us to live in that gap of hope without attachment. To believe that you can take on an entrenched institution or power structure, knowing that 99.99% of the enterprises fail and you get up and you do it anyway.

In other words, Buddhist teachings of non-attachment can help you gain what you desire in the field of business.

3) None of this is new. Since the 19th century, Westerners enchanted with Buddhism, and Buddhists trying to justify their practices to the West, have been describing the Buddha as a kind of proto-scientist—someone who built a strictly empirical, rational, non-theological system to end suffering. This scientific precision might come as a surprise to the millions of people who have practiced Buddhism in agrarian societies, premodern cities, and syncretistic, deistic traditions over the past millennia. But it provides an appealingly pragmatic view of Buddhism; one that, apparently, is ripe for transfer to the digital age.      

4) Some of the material is inane. I don’t just mean that the stripping away of 2,500 years of context from a tradition should raise eyebrows (perhaps it should, but it is nevertheless admirable that people continue to look for calm, growth, and meaning in a wired world).

Buddhist Geeks seem fundamentally unwilling to consider that there might be dimensions to technology, besides that pesky distractingness, that should concern us. At times, this blend of self-improvement culture, Buddhism, and technology can lead to outrageous and unfounded optimism. In a talk on “Mindfulness and Media,” for example, media consultant Megan Miller suggests, without any irony, that technologies like Google Glass will make us more mindful of our technology use. I have no idea how the seamless integration of the internet into our field of vision will help us be more aware of its effects. Judging by the amount of support she gives to this claim, Miller doesn’t, either.

On the whole, though, the Buddhist Geeks seem like earnest people eager to play with ideas and make their mark on the world. Much as you might worry when you read about how Buddhist practice is being deployed as a self-help tool for the Google engineers who pry into our private lives, it’s hard (at least for this geeky writer) not to feel affection for a group of people whose role model seems to be a fusion of Siddhartha and Spock.