Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Encountering Buddhism in Second Life: Part 1

When I started this previous term I took the opportunity to begin a course entitled Encountering Buddhism. Not “Understanding” Buddhism or “Introduction” to Buddhism. Encountering. And this is exactly what the class ended up doing. We encountered everything, from rituals from around the world to complex philosophy. As a result a lot of people in my class told me that they felt like they hadn’t learnt anything at all, in fact they came out more confused than when they went in! But they said it fondly, and held a more matured view of Buddhism and Buddhists than when they went in.
This approach definitely affected me as well, and not more noticeably than in the Second Life project. A group of about 5-7 of us agreed to do our presentations in a different way to the rest, spending lots of extracurricular time engaging in the virtual reality project Second Life.
Luckily I was already familiar with Second Life, and didn’t have to make a new avatar for the class. Our HQ was Emptiness Hall, virtual Buddhist monastery and resource centre. The group was given time to explore SL, tasks to do, building instructions and were generally left to themselves for a while. Then, halfway through the term we took part in an ordination ceremony and completed our time around Second Life as a virtual monk/nun/nunk, before being un-ordained at the end of term.
I initially had some misgivings about this, as a practising Buddhist myself. Surely, there’s no real difference between me and my avatar? Don’t the vows apply to me in my “real life” too? I talked to my lecturer about it and realised I wasn’t the only one taking it so seriously, others in the class who were religious didn’t like the idea of ordaining in another religion. Though, the real world and Second Life are basically incompatible. It’s impossible to move physically between the two, and for all intents and purposes it is a “second life” in a world inaccessible physically by us humans. Instead, the idea of the human/avatar relationship is like the two headed terrapin - They both do different things, they have to do different things because their world is entirely different. Many ordination vows govern the body, and as such when an avatar takes the vows, it could only apply to them. I’m still not fully convinced that there can be such a clear distinction, and certainly for many SLers introducing myself as a nun made them question my first life with the assumption that if it was a purely SL thing then I was just pretending. But, my avatar Tenzing Ansar took the vows and was most definitely as close to a real nun in SL as you can get.
This wasn’t as easy as you’d think. We were given a few tasks, such as to try traditional begging for alms in popular places. That resulted in:

[2009/04/21 9:01] ****** Boyau: Hi, Iam on the ****** Staff, we do not alow any soliciting or begging here
[2009/04/21 9:02] ****** Boyau: could you please remove you red tag or leave the sim
[2009/04/21 9:02] ****** Boyau: thank you
[2009/04/21 9:02] Tenzing Ansar: Yes, of course. :)
-- Instant message logging enabled --
[9:02] ****** Boyau: thank you very much
[9:03] ****** Boyau: here is one of our behavior cards for you to review when you have a chance

Begging, regardless of your reasons, is a huge no-no in the libertarian capitalist paradise of Second Life.

This experience was an amazing one and taught me many things about Buddhism and the nature of social interaction in virtual communities, I even learnt how to build in Second Life to a more adequate degree. Even though the term has finished and the monastery is empty, I decided to stay on as a lay resident.. Perhaps even to help next years crop of students encountering Buddhism.

Part 2 coming soon: Ritual objects in Second Life!