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!


Lodro Rigdzin said...

Interesting. SL has been inaccessible to me as a visually impaired user until a few weeks ago, and I was wanting to go there for a long time. In real life I am a teacher in the nyingmapa tradition and a monastic and that is what my personage in SL is too. I was amazed at the range of buddhist groups in SL. I also think SL is an interesting example of the concept of voidness. There has been talk of empowerments in SL, but i'm hesitant about that. I've already met a good number of buddhists whose practice is remarkably deep.

AnAbdnStudent said...

Is Emptiness Hall still up and running? I had a quick look but couldn't find it.

Tenitachi said...

Yes, it is. It's in the 'Montara' region - If you hunt around enough you'll find it. The main area is restricted I think, but you will be able to walk someway up the path, as well as cam around. :)

AnAbdnStudent said...

Found it! Thank you Tenitachi :) What goes on inside? Who is Middling Bosatsu, is it somebody I might know? Is there a secret knock to get in? :D

Tenitachi (The blog author too lazy to sign in) said...

Middling is the owner of the place, I'm sure if you asked him nicely he'll let you in. The Buddhist Philosophy course is currently encouraging students to use SL to create a virtual learning object, so if you're from there then you'll definately know him (And me!).
It's essay and presentation season so I'm not on SL much at the moment, but add me if you like: Tenzing Ansar.

There's also a group for Abdn students. :)

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