The following interview comes from a chapter of the new book Disruption Revolution, written by my friend David Passiak. Disruption Revolution features 20+ leading innovators including Brian Solis, Chris Anderson, Robert Scoble, Sarah Lacy, Jerry Colonna, Jeremiah Owyang, Seth Godin, Erik Qualman, Steve Rubel, and myself. It’s the first comprehensive collection of perspectives on disruption, covering things like 3D printing, wearable technology, the evolution of social media and the new collaborative economy, all from the perspective of experts in these fields.
David Passiak: Let’s start with a pretty broad, open question. How do Buddhism and technology fit together?
Vincent Horn: They fit together in the way that everything fits with technology. It’s hard to escape. It’s a fact. What I’ve noticed is that most first-generation American and Western Buddhist teachers, especially in the 1970s—they were the big first generation—had a relationship with technology where they mostly rejected it as being antithetical to the aims of Buddhist contemplative practice.
Buddhist Geeks in some ways is a response to that—a different relationship between technology and Buddhism. We could actually see technology as potentially helpful in terms of putting dharma online and also utilizing some of these emerging technologies to completely change the way that we practice together and even think about those practices, change the way that we discourse, and change the way that we form communities—in short, basically changing most aspects of how Buddhism is practiced.
That is a different kind of narrative we’re trying to explore. It has its own dangers, especially the idealistic dangers of not seeing the downsides of how technology can change things. For example, my wife and I just recently started playing with unplugging from the Internet one day a week. I’ve unplugged a ton in the past, like during meditation retreats, but it’s different to unplug in the context of one’s daily life.
Part of what I’ve seen from just that short experiment is when we’re so immersed within technological frameworks, it’s really hard to see the ways in which they’re negatively impacting things. So that’s the other part of it. Yes, we can have a narrative that’s not anti-technology, but that doesn’t mean there’s not going to be huge downsides to how we do things that can only be seen once you step outside of it.
DP: In my own life, I have found that meditation slows down a reactionary form of behavior that allows me to make more informed decisions. Its benefits radiate out like spokes from a wheel. In the fast-paced, constantly changing landscape of technology, the practice seems to help me differentiate between what is a real trend in innovation vs. a passing fad.
How does having an ongoing meditation practice impact the way that you use technology?
VH: The main thing my meditation practice has done is given me a more sensitive awareness to the way my mind and body respond to the technologies I’m using. That seems to be the most important impact, as that real-time feedback gives me something to work with in regards to how I use technology. I’ve found that with a mind that’s more sensitively tuned in to the moment that it’s possible to see if a particular technology makes me sleepy, energized, clear, distracted, calm, contracted, expanded, or something else. Once I have this information, I can begin to engage differently, or even disengage, with whatever technology I’m using. If technology acts as an extension of our senses and cognition, it makes sense that we’d want to develop are awareness of those extended capabilities and who they interact with human body 1.0.
DP: Many people have this perception of Buddhism in terms of non-attachment and separate from the world, but in recent years there is a new movement of teachers like yourself embracing what has been termed pragmatic Buddhism. Can you tell us a bit about that?
VH: Some of my earliest meditation teachers were Gen-X rebels, who, just like the Boomer generation before them, went to places like Burma and Malaysia, did the same kinds of meditation practices, and were exposed to the same maps, models, and texts, but they had a decidedly different interpretation.
DP: Like Daniel Ingram?
VH: Yeah, exactly like Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk.
DP: Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha is one of my favorite books, and I discovered it listening to him on one of your podcasts.
VH: Daniel was actually one of my first guests. I found his e-book through one of his ex-college roommates. We knew each other. When I opened that book, and I said, “OK, this is what enlightenment is, this is how you get there, and this is how you know you’re moving in the right direction. I shouldn’t have to float through psychological fluffy New Age type stuff to see results.”
That kind of dead-simple, cookbook-style approach just made a lot of sense to me—it was pragmatic dharma, a straightforward, pragmatic method to attain enlightenment. In other ways, it also fit with my shadow side and blind spots—the hyper-ambitious, driven, goal-oriented personality. Now that being said, I believe it’s possible for people to experience real awakenings and enlightenments in the context of being goal-driven and ambitious. I know because I’ve gone through those experiences, and that was how I approached it.
The pragmatic part has always been to ask the question in terms of practice, “What works?” Daniel Ingram’s book was an example of him answering that question: “What worked for him?” The next level of pragmatism is asking the question, “What works for what?” It’s actually stepping back a level of abstraction and saying, “What is it that I’m actually aiming for and what is it that’s driving me? What are the questions I’m trying to answer on this path?”
Once I can actually answer those questions, then I can orient toward finding something that works to support me in going deeper in that direction. The pragmatic dharma movement continues to evolve in the direction of asking very pragmatic questions. It strips away the mysticism of the mystical path, if you will, by making it a very straightforward and practical way of being in the world.
DP: That’s a great lead in to another question I wanted to ask around the pragmatic use of technology. Technology connects early adopters and encourages innovation. I remember in listening to your podcast over the years, I felt a sense of connection to a community of people I don’t know and have never met. This encouraged me to continue and grow my meditation practice because I felt part of something greater than myself, this idea that there were Buddhist geeks like me basically everywhere.
DP: How did technology help you to foster dialogue and bring people together to really build a movement around mindfulness, technology, and Buddhist practice?
VH: Technological shifts in the mid-2000s, in particular things like blogging and podcasting, opened up the ability for pretty much anyone with a computer and access to the Internet to become a publisher.
When I started Buddhist Geeks, my partner and I were in our early twenties with no recognition within the Buddhist establishment or within any other establishment. Podcasting allowed us to start having conversations with different kinds of people who maybe didn’t get airtime on more traditional media. We immediately attracted a small following of people for whom the way we were approaching things resonated. Podcasting enabled that sort of one-to-many connection for people who didn’t have a lot of resources and who were just inspired and driven. That was a big shift, and we were part of it.
Physical events are nothing new, but they are one of the oldest ways we have of switching from the many-to-many interacting with each other, so we utilized them. I wouldn’t necessarily call them a technology. They do form a technology, but not a new technology. From there, part of what we realized was that we have this invisible network of Buddhist Geeks. Like you were saying, you felt like you were somehow connected with these other folks even though you may not know who they are. There is this sense of finding a group that has a shared mindset. So we realized after the first couple of conferences how clearly we needed to continue to work to make that invisible network visible to itself.
Now there are some technologies emerging that are really exciting, particularly things like Google+ and their Hangouts system—real-time video that’s finally gotten to the point where it actually works reliably. We utilize these new tools pretty heavily to build a sort of cloud-based Buddhist Geeks community. It’s a shift from the asynchronous text-based forum technologies that I think everyone was using for a long time toward a more synchronous real-time audiovisual-based community. Now we can actually meet up, hang out, and talk together whether or not we live in the same place. These technologies have the capability to change how we organize and experience being connected. It’s pretty amazing.
DP: From my perspective, The Buddha can be considered one of the greatest innovators in world history. Basically, through years of trial and error he quite literally discovered and mapped out a sophisticated method for mastering the interrelationship between the mind and body that has been practiced and taught for nearly 2500 years. Would you consider meditation and Buddhism a form of innovation? And how have Westerners innovated on Buddhism since it started to come over and spread?
VH: Definitely to me it’s an innovation. No question. And it’s interesting, too, because The Buddha was also innovating on top of all kinds of other earlier innovations with the Hindu tradition, particularly with the ability to traverse different strata of consciousness. He was sitting atop of all of that restless struggling at the cutting edge of where things were at the time, and then he had his own kind of breakthroughs contributing to the broader stream of inner contemplative practice.
DP: Which is why Buddhism is considered the middle path between the extremism on the one hand of the rituals of the Vedas, and on the other hand the asceticism of the mystics of the time.
VH: Yeah, he was running into these paradoxes and tensions. The practice of the middle way, as I understand it, is to hold two extremes simultaneously and to see what emerges from holding them. It seems like he did that with certain tensions and paradoxes of his time, and that led to these middle way breakthroughs. I think that has continued from his time onward clearly in that there were huge innovations in the Buddhist tradition with Nagarjuna, the whole Mahayana Movement, the innovations Zen and Dzogchen offered, and definitely Tibet, which was like this little isolated laboratory of innovation for a thousand years. The amount of innovation across all of these non-dualistic traditions that emerged after The Buddha is incredible.
The innovations I’ve seen happening since Buddhism hit the global world are all related to taking wisdom in other disciplines and seeing how they might apply to Buddhism and vice versa. Obviously, psychology was really big for the Boomer Buddhists. They worked a lot on integrating Western psychological notions of Eastern psychological notions, and they reframed Buddhism as a kind of psychology, which eventually led to things like mindfulness based stress reduction that is now taught in places like Harvard Medical School. Even the term enlightenment comes from a crushing together of ideas from the Western Enlightenment and rationality, and Eastern ideas of awakening.
DP: Buddhist Geeks has also evolved from being totally Buddhist and totally geeky to encompassing a range of overlapping interests with technology and global culture. You’ve also since been featured in a number of leading publications like Wired, The Guardian, Fast Company, and The Atlantic. So can you tell me a little more about how Buddhist Geeks has evolved and what your vision for it is in the future?
VH: Like you said, in the beginning, the emphasis was mostly on being Buddhist and geeky, but the more I’ve personally gotten into Buddhism—and I’ve seen this with a lot of other people—the more the question comes up: How is this relevant to the rest of my life? What is the meaning of this? How do I make sense of this?
This happens the more you get into different approaches, traditions, and maps, and working with people who are doing it themselves. This goes back to the earlier conversation about pragmatic Buddhism. It’s not like we’re Buddhist monks, in a fixed context. We’re practitioners who exist in many contexts all in one day: we’re in relationships, we’re entrepreneurs, we’re academics, we’re parents, and so on, and we have all these hobbies and side interests. We have all these things that we’re interested in, and then we throw Buddhism or meditation into the mix. So we ask, “What is this? How does it work?”
Those questions were huge for me, especially as I looked to the Boomers, and I saw so many things that seemed to be generational assumptions on their part. I saw all the ways they were interpreting Buddhism as a liberal political ideology. They took liberal political ideologies and mashed them up with Buddhism in a way that was unacknowledged. They said, “This is Buddhism.”
What they were really saying was “This is our understanding of Buddhism mashed up with all the other things that are important to us.” Our approach has been to acknowledge this tendency, instead of trying to have Buddhism be this pure thing that has this authority of tradition because it’s unchanged or because The Buddha said so. Why not own the fact that we’re changing it? Why not try to acknowledge the ways that we’re trying to innovate, and that not all our attempts at innovation are successful?
We take things we’re learning from different disciplines. For example, in business and technology things like user-centered design methodologies, lean startup methods, and agile software development. Let’s take the stuff we think is brilliant and see if there are really obvious ways that that could inform the conversation about what Buddhism is, what it means in a global context, and how we do it. So, our conversations are moving more in the direction of a mash-up or convergence of different perspectives.
I think the path we’ve been trying to take is the same path The Buddha describes: the middle way, holding the tension between various perspectives—conserving and adapting without assuming one is going to dominate the other or win out, but rather that they may have something fundamentally different to offer each other that would completely change our understanding of both. That has become the inquiry or koan that we’re holding and that is guiding what we choose to do, which is how this convergence of Buddhism, which has been around for 2500 years and has evolved and changed in all these different contexts and is just now converging in on itself, too. There is this increasingly global culture, which has been global for hundreds and hundreds of years with this crazy, out of control, evolving technology, this runaway, exponential burst of technology and innovation.
Having a question or a koan as a vision is different from having an idea where we’re going. That’s one thing we’ve struggled with. It fits in with some of the core principles of Buddhist practice anyway. The way we hold the question is in some ways more important than our vision for where we’re going because we start from there.
DP: We’re also entering an era where we’re living in a constant state of uncertainty, right?
VH: That’s right. Having a long-term vision, like the waterfall approach of software development, where you come up with this fixed idea of what it’s going to look like when you’re done and you just spend the rest of the time getting there, ignoring reality, and not changing, is not a responsible way to build things anymore. That’s the way to build something that’s destined to be irrelevant by the time it’s released. That’s something I definitely noticed from other industries and we try to incorporate that into how we do things with Buddhist Geeks.
DP: That’s a great lead in to another question I have. Disruptive innovations can allow us to see the world from a newfound place of openness, which in Buddhism is often referred to as a beginner’s mind, whereas innovations can also be a source of stress, leaving us trying to constantly keep up. How can we use innovations that we’re seeing in the tech world to open us up instead of closing us down?
VH: First, I would say carefully. Second, bringing a sense of care to the process of testing to see how does this technology changes what we’re doing.
I’ll give you a practical example. In the Buddhist Geeks community, we are playing a lot with spaces in which we sit (meditate) together in real time through the Google Hangout system. Had I not had the experience of sitting together with people in a room for a long time, I don’t think I would have the ability to really know how that works in terms of past experiences and what it has that’s completely novel and new. Like Marshall McLuhan would say, “Every new technology brings something back from the past, but then it also makes something irrelevant.” Sometimes it does things that are actually important. It’s like, “Oh, well actually there is a sense of being part of a group and sitting together.”
You get some of the same benefits that you get when you’re sitting in a room with other people. They can see you. They can hear you. There’s a sort of social pressure. You can’t just get up and leave, which you could have done with a telephone, actually. And at the same time, it’s very weird. There are some things already I can tell are missing and are weird. One is that you’re hearing sounds from multiple places at once. There isn’t a sense that you’re in a shared environment. It’s actually a sense that your environments are mashing up together in one environment.
I don’t know what that does to the meditation process at all, but it definitely changes the ambient environment. It’s also really difficult with the current technology. In a normal meditation session, after you’re done, you get to hangout and chat with people. It’s very hard to do that with our current technologies. You can’t just hang out and talk afterward because you’re all forced to be in this one space. You can’t break off into multiple spaces. You can’t turn one space into multiple spaces yet. There are all sorts of things that are downsides in terms of how communities are normally cultivated and relationships are created in a community space.
So for us, the approach we’ve taken is to try things out and then assess how they’re working. The other way to harness innovation is to use user-centered design processes in creating things so that you’re actually testing your design assumptions with the people you’re creating it for as you go because that puts into question a lot of the assumptions that are driving the creative process and helps more quickly hone in on something that might be workable. The Lean UX started out with a user-centered design and service design.
All of those things seemed brilliantly poised to be utilized to come up with innovations in terms of contemplative technology or to see how to use technology for contemplative ends.
DP: Meditation is in many ways being commodified and secularized. This allows us to innovate in the teaching of meditation. You can bring it into the workplace, sports, healthcare, and education, for example, yet, as a result of that, I often hear people say things like, “I would love to meditate, but I can’t afford to take classes.” The idea is that you can only learn something in this particular setting.
How has productivity and business impacted meditation, and how do we find a balance between that and these sort of deeper original intentions of the practice?
VH: That’s a really tough one. On the one hand, like you’re saying, the fact that meditation has entered into the commodities sector and the market, and is now playing by the current market’s rules, enables it to be spread, be relevant, and become integrated into the culture in a new way that might not otherwise have been possible.
For example, look at the monastic model of Theravada Buddhism. It’s been a complete and utter failure as a model to adapt to the West. If it were up to the conservative Thai forest monks, there would be no Buddhism in the West. There would be maybe 10 people doing it. It would be the people doing Theravada monastic Buddhism next to the 1700s Kentucky Flint Rifle enthusiasts, hanging out next to each other, preserving this ancient form of tradition.
Now, with the pragmatic Buddhism movement, and my own teaching and Buddhist Geeks, I haven’t been that concerned about charging money. There’s a huge taboo against that still in Western Buddhism, charging for the “dharma” based on the idea that money and Buddhism can’t or shouldn’t mix. On the one hand, it’s based on some historical misunderstandings.
There’s one project that I thought would be fun to do, which is to take the Business Model Canvas that breaks down the business into different elements, try to apply that to traditional Buddhism, like the monastic model, and describe the monastic situation as a business model because the fact is it was a model of financial sustainability involving monks and the community. We do have to find new models that work and sustain contemplative practices and teachings. They are some of humanity’s greatest assets.
On the other hand, changing the model changes the thing itself. You can’t change a financial model without changing the thing you’re trying to sustain. One thing that I’ve noticed that’s very challenging in a consumer situation is for people to form longstanding deep relationships with another. There’s a certain kind of relationship that just can’t be transactionally based. The most important relationships I’ve had with teachers have been those that weren’t based on transactions.
Maybe in the beginning, they started that way paying to attend classes, but it became more of an intimate relationship. I really don’t think you can charge for that. You can charge to be a meditation teacher or a therapist. You can have that kind of model where it’s like, “I’m serving you.” But the kind of relationships I’ve found most profound, more transformative, are the ones that even went beyond that, where there was a shared sense of humanity, a bilateral flow of information. And it wasn’t just about me. So I think there are some things we’ve got to be really aware of as meditation shifts into and becomes adopted in these markets.
DP: Building upon what you just said, what do you think Buddhism might have to offer in terms of leadership within organizations, which they’re currently not doing? I think you started to just touch on that with the relationship to teachers.
VH: What I see happening—and I think it’s across disciplines, not just in Buddhism—is people shifting away from a certain kind of top-down model of leadership: “I’m the leader. I embody all the qualities in the vision of what I’m trying to do. I get people to rally around my vision, and we then enact the vision. We bring it into fruition. We bring it to life. As the leader, I’m at the front of that movement, and I’m harnessing resources and energy. I’m the CEO. Or I’m the great guru-teacher.”
The shift that I’ve been noticing that I think is really profound is the leaders who are more interested in creating conditions for things to happen. This ties into what we were talking about before. Instead of taking an idea of what should happen and imposing it on reality, they are having a sense of something that is wanting to emerge, and then they create conditions for it to happen, knowing that they’re not the ones making it happen.
Instead of inspiring and encouraging, they design the environment in such a way that something can emerge from it that’s unexpected. First, there is the deep sense of not knowing, the deep sense of getting in touch with the reality that we actually don’t know what’s going to arise next. On a first-person subjective level, we don’t know. Also, in terms of the collective-social level, we don’t know.
That mindset of not knowing, but simultaneously not giving up or not getting fixed on some idea of what’s emerging, is actually the right mindset to bring to our current situation of uncertain, constant, disruptive innovation because we can actually open to what’s happening and relate to it directly instead of relating to our fixed ideas about it, which always seem to be wrong.
DP: You’re embracing a sense of uncertainty that’s just the nature of our existence, to some extent.
VH: Yes, Jack Kornfield calls it the wisdom of uncertainty. I think there’s something on a first-person level that when people are able to step into that not-knowing space—and you were talking about this earlier—it puts them in a position where they can respond to things differently. It’s a kind of dynamism. That not-knowing comes out of the Zen tradition. Zen is all about dynamic, spontaneous responding to the moment-ness.
DP: This has been really great. For some readers this interview might be their first encounter with the possibility of integrating Buddhism and technology into life and potentially leadership. Where should such a person start? What should he or she do?
VH: I think the first thing is to acknowledge if you’re in the business realm or any other corporate system like that, then you’ve probably been focusing on external things—cash flow, building businesses, and all these third-person objective systems. That perspective is obviously extremely profound, and it works, but the thing it doesn’t acknowledge is what Buddhism has so brilliantly to offer: The internal, subjective, first-person experience is also simultaneously wrapped into the stuff we do, all the businesses, and all the projects. It’s all happening within us as well.
If we only have tools and models to address the outside vs. the tools and models to address the inside, then trying to be an innovator really leaves us impoverished without the resources that we need and without an inherent, deep, personal meaning. What is the purpose of innovation aside from just putting something out into the world? Isn’t it also a personal journey of some sort? Isn’t there a transformative process that we’re going through as part of that?
I think the first thing is to recognize a need for those inner resources and tools to draw upon because they are an integral part of the process that we’re going through as innovators. We can’t ignore them. We can meditate and try to cope, but that’s different from fully utilizing the inner world as part of the process. Buddhism is one of many ways of approaching that. It has a lot to offer a culture that is still in reaction to its own religious heritage in the sense that it’s not so displeasing. That alone might be reason enough to check out Buddhist approaches. I think that’s where I would start.
DP: Going back to what I said earlier, what is our actual deeper motivation for why we are innovators? What is the thing that’s driving us?
VH: If we don’t have ways of examining these types of questions, through contemplative practice or even psychological practices, then a lot of what is motivating our projects could be these completely unexamined and immature things within us. That’s really painful—to be driving projects with those motivations. I think there’s something in finding tools that you can use to help you look at what’s driving you to begin with so that as you go you’re not being driven by these invisible forces that you have no conscious awareness of. I think it’s impossible to avoid completely, but Buddhist practice offers lots of tools for doing that.