While mooks gawked the nether parts of starlets all weekend long at Adultcon downtown, another, radically different group of conventioneers gathered at the University of the West in Rosemead to lube up their third eyes and wax philosophic on the state of modern Buddhism.
Buddhist Geeks, are not as the name may suggest, cosplay devotees decked in Shaolin monk robes or Jedi garb…they are instead the Western face of an eons old religion. They are teachers, psychologists, professional bloggers, scientists, lawyers, et. al. trying to reconcile and integrate an ancient and contemplative practice with a contemporary culture that seemingly values neither.
The group started as the brainchild of Vincent Horn and Ryan Oelke — two Boulder, CO religious studies students — in 2007. They started with a podcast geared towards techie dharma devotees and it has since grown into a digital magazine and now this, their first ever conference. Their podcasts have reached millions of downloads and the gathering itself drew a few hundred attendees — including some that trekked from Europe and Asia. Oelke left the group a few years ago (though he was kind enough to come back for the conference and run sound).
The kick-off speaker, teacher and Buddhist innovator Shinzen Young, highlighted why the marriage of geekiness and Buddhism works — both science and Buddhism strive to elevate the human experience. Speaking in proper scientific geekese, he explained that the increase aggregate human happiness is a positive feedback loop that is resulting in an exponential growth curve. While we won't see the really cool effects in our lifetimes, we're getting there; he had the charts to prove it.
Like typical conferences, the weekend was filled with individual workshops, but with atypical themes like, “You are What You Download,” “The Internet is Not Your Teacher” and “What Science Can Teach Us About Practice,” among others.
For those of us who had college philosophy classes where the best discussions took place at smoke breaks, the conference featured “unconference” spaces to facilitate just those type of discussions. We (naturally) joined the bloggers in an unstructured but engaging session on Buddhist bloggery. As one might imagine, peace-loving Buddhist blogging is not without its trolls and flame wars. Surprisingly, Buddhism does lend itself perfectly to the short parables and shots of wisdom that fit into the 140 characters of a tweet. Unsurprisingly, a majority of Huffington Post's top Buddhist tweeters were on hand this weekend.
Game designer Jane McGonigal (a self-professed 23% Buddhist and 77% Geek) hosted the geekiest and liveliest session — one that culminated in a massive multiplayer thumb-wrestling match. Dr. McGonigal, whose specialty is socially conscious alternate reality games, anchored Saturday with a presentation titled “Awakening is an Epic Win.” Isn't Buddhism supposed to be all about suffering and confusing riddles? Thankfully, Dr. McGonigal missed that memo. She gave her best pitch (a pitch previously honed for her TED talk) for the positive power of gaming — including games like Fold It and Evoke. These are games that actually solve social and scientific problems — rather than just slingshotting birds at pigs. Oh, and the massive multiplayer thumb-wrestling match, while not record-setting, gave the crowd scientifically verifiable good vibes that would last for at least an hour.
Tibetan Buddhist scholar and teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche closed out the weekend. “Why did you invite me — do you think I'm a geek?” he said, thus proving that monks are not exclusively dour and pouty. He admitted that he looked up the word “geek” on Wikipedia and hoped that he was of the positive variety.
Dressed in traditional robes, but taking cues from his ipad, Rinpoche walked the crowd through the positives and negatives of technology. Since he was among geeks, he politely asked permission to rip on the tech gadgets they hold dear. To his and the crowd's delight, a computer glitch halted the presentation screen behind him as he began his denunciation.
After noting the alienating nature of contemporary gadgetry, he exhorted the audience to bring some heart into their tech habits and to take some time to unplug. To move forward “We must be innovative, we must have vision of change in terms of technology, and we must bring the heart to many of these developments,” he said, and “from time to time take a little break.” Pretty simple right?
At the height of early American Buddhism in the 1950s, pop-Buddhist and OG hipster Jack Kerouac wrote of a future where “zen lunatics” indigently wandered the countryside with rucksacks — instead we've got a monk with an ipad, thumbwrestling bodhisattvas, and a healthy marriage between the dharma and neuroscience. Make no mistake, today's dharma nerds are no bums; they are tech savvy, plugged in, and tackling social problems in innovative ways.
All told, the conference was hardly a Tony Robbins-esque, “I'm Okay, You're Okay” touchy-feelie kind of event — these Buddhist Geeks are epically smart, truly engaged professionals who are genuinely concerned about the future of compassion, awareness and enlightenment. Since most Americans (and stereotypical geeks, for that matter) look more like the Buddha (well, the fat one anyway) than behave like him, it seems the Geeks and their associates have their work cut out for them. We wish them the best of luck and can't wait to see what they've got planned for next year.
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