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Open-Source Buddhism?

Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me at dhblogfeedback (at) gmail (dot) com.



Episode 20:

Open-Source Buddhism?

A few weeks ago I had a guest post on Tricycle's blog that looked at the curious situation of Western Buddhism -- a melting pot of Buddhist traditions that are coming to us from different cultures and geographies. I speculated that what might eventually emerge from this fusion of traditions is something unique and new: Open-Source Buddhism.

In that article, I wrote:

What we call Buddhism is a widely distributed network phenomenon designed to optimize the human experience. Like the Internet, it started out as someone's idea, but then spun out of control: no one person or group now owns it, and it is being modified and updated from day to day in millions of little increments, from every corner of the known world.

Where is “the Internet?” It seems to adhere somehow to the computers and networks that are part of it, but the Internet itself can't be found. Where is “Buddhism?” It seems to adhere to the people and networks that are practicing it, but the Buddhism itself can't be found. Yet both the Internet and Buddhism can be demonstrated, utilized, applied in countless ways.

If there is anything unique about “Western” Buddhism at this moment, perhaps it is that all of the world's Buddhist traditions—as culturally and doctrinally distinct from one another as a Southern Baptist is from a Russian Orthodox—have descended upon us at once. We are living now in a flux of pan-Buddhist dialogue taking place in a Western crucible, blending traditions that for two-and-a-half millennia have evolved in separate geographic and cultural regions. Buddhism's embrace of Internet technologies in the last two decades has speeded up this process enormously.

Riffing on that Tricycle piece, Buddhist critic and About.com blogger Barbara O'Brien noted that while differences and similarities can be observed between Buddhist traditions, people still often miss the key point:

In most religions, no one ever seems to think of going beyond the surface meanings of doctrines and explanations. If physics were like most religions, before long you'd have a Church of Light As Particles denouncing the Wave Believers as heretics. Just so, possibly the single biggest reason people misunderstand Buddhism is that they don't understand that the surface meaning of doctrines and explanations are just pointers to dharma, not dharma itself.

The Interdependence Project itself is an interesting case that suggests the overall trend towards Open-Source Buddhism. The group's roots and lineage influences span various distinct traditions -- Vajrayana, Zen and Theravada, among other threads. This multiplicity of influences may prove to be one of the group's enduring strengths, and one of the things that sets it apart from more traditional, sectarian sanghas.

What do you think? Are we evolving towards Open-Source Buddhism? Has your own personal path and practice been shaped by the fusion of influences from various Buddhist traditions? What's the upside, and what's the downside of this? 


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The term "Open-Source Buddhism" has occurred to me before as well, and I think it is a wonderful ideal. Although I agree with how you characterize what it might be, I think it is worth emphasizing also that a critical element is: how much easier it is to get reliable information than it once was.

Aside from the obvious benefits of this, I think (echoing somewhat what Barbara O'Brien said) that philosophical differences become more readily understandable when a more panoramic view is possible.

I think it also has a real potential to level out some of the hierarchies that have developed that really aren't helpful.


I'm not sure what you mean by "open source Buddhism" -- do you mean a blend of traditions rather than strictly following one tradition such as Zen (or one branch of Zen)?
if so, I'd say that an American Buddhism would pull from all traditions. I agree completely with the statement that all the traditions are techniques that help us understand the dharma, not the dharma itself -- the proverbial finger pointing at the moon.
and I like that.


Hi, Anonymous. My other article on Tricycle (linked in the first paragraph) goes deeper into exploring what "open-source Buddhism" might be. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Great question.

In my opinion, Buddhism is open source because every moment is a different present part of the path in one's many life times.  From each new present is a new perspective, constantly developing and being rewritten not just by us, but by all.

I also believe the opposite, because in the exploration of mind, there are truths which reside deep behind each new present.

I look forward to hearing what other people thing about this.  Great question.

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