Home 💀 About 💀 Reflections 💀 Dharma
a banner of lotus flowers

Dharma Study in the Age of Information

Thanks to the internet, humankind has never been more interconnected. On a whim, we can communicate with people from all over the world. The internet has also revolutionized the relationship between humans and information. Many of us have access to devices and connections which enable us to summon information from all across space and time. I have access to a wealth of knowledge the scale of which couldn't have been dreamt of by Nalanda's librarians.

In the context of Buddhist studies, the benefits of this should be obvious: I have ready access to English translations of the suttas, and can cross-reference them with English translations of the Chinese Agamas. I can read about manuscripts found in Gandhara, and I can watch lectures delivered by monks, nuns, and teachers from virtually every living tradition. I can conjure Mahayana sutras to read, or listen to beautiful recitations on YouTube. I can stream Vajrayana empowerment ceremonies and become initiated into a tantric lineage. I can do all of this, sitting upright in the comfort of my bed. Without ever stepping foot outside my door, I can tap the resources of ancient (and modern) India, Sri Lanka, Tibet, China, and Japan.

In many senses, this is a blessing. However, there are also some dangers which present themselves to us in this modern age of information. For practitioners seeking to understand the Dharma, the signal-to-noise ratio has never been more overwhelming. Even if we restrict ourselves to sources from bonafide Buddhist traditions, seekers wishing to study Buddhism without the guidance of a teacher must navigate through the different teachings of the Three Vehicles. This choice alone can be daunting. Furthermore, once someone has discovered an affinity for one of these three broad classifications, they must then navigate through the various schools and traditions of that particular Vehicle. Someone may have decided Mahayana Buddhism is the path they wish to follow, but how can they proceed and make sense of the disparate accounts of the Zen traditions, the Pure Land traditions, or the many other options which they would have to consider? Even if this person should decide that Pure Land Buddhism specifically is their interest, they must now look at the different competing schools in China, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea. Hopefully my point has been made clear: when we have ready access to such a wealth of information, the amount of conflicting information can be confusing at best, and paralyzing at worst. Such a person may even decide it isn't worth the trouble and abandon their research entirely.

This problem is only compounded when we consider the vast amount of illegitimate information which further muddies the water. The internet has not merely made it easier to consume information - it has also made the dissemination of information a trivial matter, and now anyone may speak as if they are a teacher. I understand the irony of me saying this; I am a layperson who runs a website where I post my own interpretations and reflections on select Buddhist teachings which I, personally, find favorable. However, I am quite transparent with the fact that I am only a layperson, and that this website is first and foremost a product and reflection of my own research and understanding. As always, I implore you to scrutinize everything I publish here, do your own research, and rely on authoritative teachers whenever possible.

Unfortunately, you can not always expect transparency when reading things written by unqualified laypeople. Join any online Buddhist community, and you are almost certain to find some random guy claiming that he is an enlightened tulku, who has achieved supernatural siddhis and recalled his past lives. Others may tell you that they have read journals personally written by the Buddha - given to them, of course, by an unnamed teacher. Others will speak on behalf of the suttas, telling you the Buddha said this, that, or the other - but they will not be able to point you to any copy of the source. Perhaps the most common muddier of waters is the person who enjoys roleplaying as a wise old Zen master - they delight in sharing mushmouth nonsense which they came up with after taking one too many bong rips.

Perhaps my tone betrays the level of frustration I have developed after digging through the rough in trying to find diamonds of truth. Below I will give a list of guidelines I recommend when using the internet to research on your own.