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(Posted as Bodhisattva)
Posts: 145/202
(01-Sep-2004 at 10:07)

Virtual Reality: A buddhist perspective

Taken from Daisaku Ikeda's Peace Proposal. If you have a little time, this is a good read and an interesting perspective:

The disconnect of virtual reality

Rapidly evolving information technology is heir to the core values of modernization and uses the appeal of convenience and efficiency to both sate and stimulate desire. One result has been the weakening of the frameworks--family, community, workplace, school, state--from which society has conventionally been configured. Physical distances that separate people have lost meaning through the creation of global networks; events on the other side of the globe enter our lives instantaneously through the medium of computers and television. This has brought a vast and largely beneficial expansion of freedom of action and of choice relative to goods and services, hobbies and interests, employment and residence. Choice is increasingly being extended to family composition and even citizenship.

We must also be aware, however, of the pitfalls of the virtualization on which so much of this new freedom hinges.

The spread of the Internet has meant that the way in which information and wealth are generated, conveyed and experienced has become increasingly virtual. In a sense, of course, information is by its nature virtual. The original function of money, meanwhile, was as a token of exchange for goods and services produced by actual economic activities. To the extent, however, that it is detached from such activities and becomes the object of speculation, desires are amplified without limit and the resistance and stability that are the special qualities of reality are lost. The result is cycles of unbridled greed as the quest for money generates further desire. This is the addictive allure of virtual wealth.

The only effective counterbalance is to keep firmly in view the fact that virtual information and wealth, while they can supplement and enhance our experience of reality, cannot replace it. Computers and communications technologies can never be a substitute for the actual human contact of dialogue, the face-to-face interaction of meetings and classroom instruction, for example. And as the hero of Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe discovers on his uninhabited desert island, money is no substitute for goods or services, much less for human companionship.

Virtual reality is fundamentally incompatible with an uncomfortable, even painful--yet essential--aspect of human experience: the way our encounters with others force us to face and confront ourselves, and the inner struggle that this sparks. Buddhism speaks of the twin sufferings of being forced to part from those we love and to be in the company of those we hate. Efficiency and convenience are frequently interpreted to mean the avoidance of such struggles. There is a certain irony in the fact that these measures of ease actually render modern life an inhospitable environment for developing self-mastery and a concomitant interest in the public good.

Though contemporary society is heavily dependent on communications and information technology, it is nonetheless composed of and supported by the activities of people. The ideal of the age may be a network of "free individuals" who have broken the bonds of traditional ties and encumbrances. To be genuinely free, however, they must be self-standing, disciplined and grounded in reality; they must be able to render clear judgments without being carried away by the torrents of information that wash around them. But these are the hardest qualities to develop in a virtualized society that provides scant opportunity for the training and tempering of individuals. How can this dilemma be resolved?

The answer, I believe, lies close to home but requires that we take a different, perhaps counterintuitive approach. It is the raw sense of reality, the unmediated responsiveness to living and to pain, that can breathe new life into this stifling virtual world. If we could but learn, like Dewey's Wiltshire villagers, to feel the wound and shock of others' pain as our own...

I even believe that such awareness and sensitivity represents the single greatest deterrent to war.

Encountering reality

King Ashoka, known as the unifier of ancient India, began the inner drama that radically reoriented his life toward peace after witnessing the enormous horror and death wrought by war (Sadakata). This inner revolution, which transformed the remainder of his long reign, occurred because his life was receptive to the reality of the suffering his decision to invade a neighboring country had caused. I believe that each of us can, in our immediate surroundings and intimate relations, find similar opportunities to exercise and develop the possibilities of empathetic connection to the sufferings of others.

Unless there is sadness, there can be no joy. Unless there is suffering, there can be no happiness. On this point, the observations of Masahiro Morioka, professor of human sciences at Osaka Prefecture University, about the underlying pathology of contemporary civilization are of great interest. "The 'painless civilization,'" he writes, "is one permeated by structures and mechanisms designed to enable people to avoid suffering and pursue pleasure." Because this kind of civilization is so geared to the avoidance of suffering, he continues, it actually robs us of the possibility of experiencing the joys of life itself. "As a result, we end up living empty lives, surrounded by money and things but devoid of deep joy" ("Ron'en").

In such a society, it is awareness of and responsibility toward others that is lost. To quote Professor Morioka again: "Those who have most successfully anesthetized themselves against their own pain are least able to feel the pain of others. They are unable to hear the cries of others and will disregard them without even noticing they have done so" (Mutsu 33). He also writes: "When they find themselves in conflict with others, because they make no attempt to alter their own frame of reference, there is no genuine dialogue. They continue to assert themselves even if it means pushing others aside" (14).

To live this way is to live under the sway of what Buddhism refers to as the demonic impulse to use and bend others to one's will. Professor Morioka looks to the power of life itself, which can change people from within, for the source of energy to break this impasse. He calls for the rejuvenation of natural human vitality as the most urgent priority.

The issue that Professor Morioka defines is a central concern in Buddhism and is symbolized in the "four encounters" that are traditionally said to have motivated Shakyamuni to abandon earthly attachments and dedicate himself to seeking truth. As is well known, the man who would become known to the world as the Buddha was born as a prince of the Shakya clan in ancient India. He lived a life of comfort, lacking for nothing, until one day a great doubt arose within him:
While I was born wealthy and extremely gentle and kind, as you can see, [one day] the following thought occurred to me. In their foolishness, common mortals--even though they themselves will age and cannot avoid aging--when they see others aging and falling into decline, ponder it, are distressed by it, and feel shame and hate--all without ever thinking of it as their own problem. In their foolishness, common mortals--even though they themselves will fall ill and cannot avoid illness--when they see others who are ill, ponder it, are distressed by it, and feel shame and hate--all without ever thinking of it as their own problem. In their foolishness, common mortals--even though they themselves will die and cannot avoid dying--when they see others dying, ponder it, are distressed by it, and feel shame and hate-all without ever thinking of it as their own problem. (Nakamura 156-7)

Buddhist tradition holds that Shakyamuni's decision to seek the truth was motivated by his confrontation with the reality of human suffering--the "four sufferings" of birth, aging, sickness and death, which are intrinsic to human existence. For Shakyamuni this meant not only the direct impact of these sufferings on people's lives but, and perhaps even more fundamentally, the deep-rooted indifference, arrogance and discriminatory consciousness that prevent us from feeling others' pain as our own. This is what the repeated phrase, "all without ever thinking of it as their own problem," warns us against.

Thus the starting point for the Buddhist worldview is Shakyamuni's insistence that real happiness--joy that springs from the very depths of life--can be experienced only when we resist the impulse to turn away from the suffering of others and instead challenge it as our own. Such happiness lives and breathes only when we take suffering as an opportunity to forge and temper our inner life, and commit to the hard yet rewarding mission of working for the happiness of both ourselves and others.

Contemporary civilization, determined to avoid all pain, has tried to ignore death. Rather than facing the inevitable sufferings of life and death, we try to manage and control them with biotechnology and cutting-edge medical therapies. Such efforts, of great value in themselves, have often come at the expense of the even more crucial work of developing modes of human and social existence that will enable people to successfully confront these sufferings and to enjoy truly fulfilling lives.

In averting its eyes from death, our civilization attempts to externalize death, making it "someone else's problem," numbing people to the pain and suffering of others. I cannot help but feel that humanity's collective turning away from personal confrontation with death has fundamentally weakened restraints against violence. The result has been the mass slaughter of two world wars and countless regional conflicts that made the past century an era of "megadeath."

This is the deeper meaning of Josei Toda's call for the abolition of nuclear weapons and his determination to "de-claw" the forces lying behind their creation. Nuclear weapons are the most horrific manifestation of a civilization that treats death as someone else's problem. By damning them in the strongest possible terms, Toda was putting the knife to the darkest aspects of modern civilization in order to transform it.

Just as there can be no unhappiness that is strictly limited to others, happiness is not something that we can hoard or keep to ourselves. We are faced with the challenge and opportunity to overcome our narrow egotism, to recognize ourselves in others as we sense others within us, and to experience the highest fulfillment as we mutually illuminate each other with the inner brilliance of our lives. It is to this challenge that the members of the SGI, as practitioners of Buddhism, are determined to rise.

"One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds." -Gandhi
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