Buddhist wonks? No, Buddhist Geeks

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Vincent Horn opened his eyes after a moment of meditation, scanned the room and smiled. About 150 other people were emerging from their own states of dead-silent, self-induced tranquillity. They shuffled a bit in their seats.

“Hello, Buddhist geeks!” Horn said from his perch onstage. “This is the most geeks I’ve seen in one place, I think, ever.”

His statement brought to mind a moment in the documentary “Woodstock,” when folk singer Arlo Guthrie takes in the crowd of several hundred thousand young people and cackles, “Lotta freaks!” But this was a very different time and place.


Horn, a 28-year-old podcaster, blogger and meditation teacher, is a new kind of American Buddhist, young and U.S.-born, a convert to Buddhism as a teenager who has intertwined his religious practice with a certain 21st century techie sensibility. There are plenty more like him, as a spin through the Buddhist blogosphere will confirm — and as the first Buddhist Geeks Conference last weekend demonstrated.

The conference — organized by Horn, sponsored by the Santa Monica-based InsightLA organization and held at the Buddhist-affiliated University of the West in Rosemead — brought together bloggers, tweeters, scholars, teachers and just plain Buddhist practitioners for two and a half days of talk about such topics as “the science of enlightenment,” “the emerging face of Buddhism,” and “the Dharma and the Internet.”

The themes were characteristic of those Horn has discussed in his popular Buddhist Geek podcasts since the beginning of 2007 and reflect the concerns of at least one slice of young American Buddhists.

There was talk at the conference of the ways in which the digital revolution has helped spread the teachings of the Buddha, once accessible to Americans only through pilgrimages to Asia. There was talk about how science is being used to measure the effectiveness of Buddhist mindfulness practice (i.e., meditation), and how that practice has continued to spread, often along a secular path, to society as a whole.

There was talk, too, of a generation gap that has emerged between older and younger American Buddhists — between the “pioneer” generation of native-born Americans who turned to Buddhism in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and the Gen X and Y acolytes like Horn who bring slightly different values and worldviews to the sangha (a Buddhist community).

Besides Horn, the younger generation was represented by people such as computer game designer Jane McGonigal, who described herself as “23% Buddhist, 77% geek,” and compared Buddhist “awakening” to an “epic win” in a video game. The older generation was represented in part by Jack Kornfield, a teacher in Northern California who admitted being “in a little bit of a remove” from the digital world. “It’s not my language,” he said.

One issue, Horn said in an interview after the conference, is that the older generation came to Buddhism through the counterculture of the time, and many younger Buddhists see themselves as part of mainstream culture.


Less discussed at the conference was the gap between immigrant and non-immigrant Buddhists, or that between new converts and Asian Americans whose Buddhism is part of a family heritage.

Charles S. Prebish, a scholar whose books include “Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America,” said he sees Buddhist Geeks as part of a popular movement built around speakers “who are on what I’d call the pro tour of Buddhism,” not all of whom have serious scholarly credentials.

Still, Prebish, who did not attend the Buddhist Geeks conference, said he was impressed by the names of some speakers at the gathering and agreed that a generation gap exists among American Buddhists. He also spoke about the importance of technology to shape the future of the religion.

“I used to say I was a sangha of one, because there’s no Buddhist community here,” said Prebish, a professor emeritus at Penn State who lives in State College, Penn. Now, he said, “technology has enabled us to connect to other Buddhists; it’s enabled us to connect to Buddhist teaching online … and that changes everything.”