Open Source Buddhism, Technology, and Geekery
Bay Area, California
The moniker, “Open Source Buddhism,” has been used on this site for quite a while. What this actually means is easily open to question and it seems worthy of a longer discussion.
“Open Source” is something that is generally applied to software. As Wikipedia states, “A main principle and practice of open source software development is peer production by bartering and collaboration, with the end-product (and source-material) available at no cost to the public.” The key idea is that the source code, the programming, is available to everyone, as well as the end result. This means that anyone is free and able to take the this source code and work on a project, create a variant of it for their own purposes, or otherwise be directly involved in the creative process of the project. This is contrasted with closed source software, where the code is not available but held behind copyrights, and people are only allowed to be end users, consumers, of the result. Open source oriented towards empowering individuals and encouraging them to contribute while closed source is really about creating consumers and protecting intellectual property. This latter has been the normal mode for software business for quite some time but there are more and more companies organized around open source projects, such as the Mozilla Project’s Firefox web browser.
A key component of open source is peer production. This is a form of joint collaboration by groups of individuals. It relies on self-organizing communities of individuals who come together to produce a shared outcome, result, or product.
This same style of organization, as well as the philosophy behind it, can be applied to Buddhism as well. We are living in an era where we have access to extant forms of Buddhism and the records and documents of many forms that do not survive in a living form today. For those of us who are converts to Buddhism, we do not have a vested national or cultural reason to embrace a specific form of Buddhism over another. If one is Thai, for example, it would make sense that the Thai form of Theravadan Buddhism would be embraced and followed as a practitioner. Thai Buddhism is well established in Thai culture, fulfills a variety of social functions, and is deeply integrated in Thai society in a way that only various forms of Christianity generally are in the Western nations. As an European American, it does not necessarily make sense to embrace a very culturally entrenched form of Buddhism. People do this and, for example, take Tibetan names, wear Tibetan clothes, and generally embrace a culturally specific form of Buddhism. This is definitely one possible path. An alternative to this is to look at the various forms of Buddhism, evaluate the teachings and practices of them, and to work with those aspects that make the most sense within a non-Buddhist culture without the history and relationship to Buddhism that other nations and peoples already have. The risk in doing this is shallowness and dilettantism but these can be fought against by deeply engaging with the material and working with Buddhist teachers from these traditions in a wholehearted manner.
This is not a call to abandon traditional forms of Buddhism but is, rather, a decision to not necessarily be limited by boundaries or practices simply because the form of Buddhism practiced in a specific region or period had these limitations. While open source is an amazingly democratic or even consensus driven process, this is also not a call to abandon all hierarchy or leadership as an open source Buddhism is developed. It is always recognized that there are individuals with a breadth and depth of experience, knowledge, and ability that place them in a position to teach others and lead them further along the path.
Ideally, an open source Buddhism will have access to the teaching, insights, and practical techniques of all forms of Buddhism. From these, the most applicable, the best, or the most useful will be embraced, followed, and taught to others. I envision this happening in conjunction with working within one or more of the existing Buddhist traditions in the form of teaching and practiced passed from mouth to ear by living teachers to students. This allows us to draw from the best of both worlds, having the unbroken wisdom of over 2,500 years of a living Buddhist lineage available but also being empowered to draw upon other aspects of Buddhism that are not a part of this (or possibly any other) living tradition. This allows practitioners, for example, from a Japanese Soto Zen to work with Zen teachings and practitioners from Korean schools while also studying traditions coming from as far afield as Thailand or Tibet. Historically, this would not have often occurred but we live in a potentially golden age for Buddhism. We have access to resources unavailable to almost anyone in earlier eras when travel and communication were so difficult. We should take advantage of the full range of Buddhism in order to fulfill the overall goal of enlightenment for all beings.
As a part of this, we should also endeavor to establish practice groups, sanghas, and organizations that embrace the principles of open involvement and peer production. While we do not need to democratically elect our monks or abbots, we should embrace equal participation while recognizing the role of expert and experienced teachers as spiritual friends, especially when they have often taken vows to dedicate their lives to this end. There is no need to reproduce historical authoritarian structures of top down rulership in this environment. It is possible to balance the role of experts and leaders with the strength and diversity of our fellow practitioners.
To this overall end of creating an open source Buddhism, I’ve begun adding materials to the Open Buddha website in order to make it more than just my personal blog. Eventually, if there is interest, I would like to add documents and resources from many parties and a forum, if there is interest. This will take many parties to participate to be truly successful but I do believe that this is the direction of Buddhism in the West is heading, whether it is explicitly recognized or not.