Dealing With the Internet
Q: I am writing to ask about whether you think the Internet is an evil place? It is a place where video footage of brutal executions, accidents and traumas are readily available as "entertainment" to ordinary people. Also, people behave on forums with little or no decorum, saying what they want, and hurting and abusing with words. And there is the sexual aspect to the Net, which I gather is as popular as UFOs! As Buddhists, where should we put our minds with regards to the Net? Do you think the Lord Buddha would have banned the Net from its negative influence on the minds of disciples?
A: From my perspective the Internet is simply a medium. While it does have a great deal of objectionable content, it also contains much that is worthwhile: charitable sites, information which can benefit cancer patients, words of wisdom from various traditions, inspiring stories of personal courage, weather information that can warn people of impending storms, etc. Our own web site as well as other Ch'an and Buddhist websites which are on the Internet are dedicated to assisting people with their understanding of the Dharma. There are thousands of Buddhist sites worldwide that are engaged in spreading the Dharma for the benefit of all.
And so the Internet is much like the world itself, full of things which benefit sentient beings and things which hinder sentient beings as they travel the Path of Awakening. The Internet, like the world, is neither "good" nor "bad," but rather it is just as it is. I think that the Buddha would have no more "banned" the Internet than he would have "banned" the world itself. Each day his bhiksus and bhiksunis went out into the world to beg for food; they traveled from place to place; they met with all who would listen to the Buddha's teachings. They were not totally isolated from the world, but at the same time they were deeply training themselves to be aware of the suffering of the world as well as the suffering of their own minds. In this way they were able to deal with whatever the world handed them, for good or for ill, and to turn each of these situations into an opportunity to enlighten themselves and others.
As the Buddha taught, it is up to each of us to find our own way to Awakening, and this means we must walk over ground that is very rough in spots. The Buddha himself witnessed tribal warfare, drought, famine, crime, sexual immorality, heated arguments and so forth during his life, but in the midst of it all he kept teaching that it is up to each of us to overcome such terrible things by using the Noble Eightfold Path to train our minds and hearts.
Regarding the Internet, we should approach it as we approach all life, utilizing compassion, wisdom and skillful means so that all may benefit. I don't think the Buddha would have "banned the 'Net," but I think he would have encouraged his disciples to be cautious and to see that it, like all conditioned phenomena, is impermanent and illusory and to act accordingly.