Visiting Facebook, Karmapa Urges a Kinder Internet Culture

(March 18, 2015 – Menlo Park, California) His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, paid a visit today to the global headquarters of Facebook. During this visit, the 29-year-old Buddhist leader was not merely exploring an important presence within today’s global society and popular culture. He was primarily connecting with leaders of a growing emphasis within American technology companies centered in Silicon Valley, who are working to find ways to make the Internet a kinder place. This emerging movement has roots in the mindfulness movement sweeping the United States, but also extends to efforts to foment greater empathy and compassion in society.

Although His Holiness the Karmapa did tour Facebook’s facilities, the bulk of the visit was given over to a roundtable discussion. Participants posed one question after another to the Karmapa, eliciting his counsel on methodology for cultivating compassion and his views on the use of the Internet in spreading meditation advice and his suggestions for how Facebook could be a force for healing broken relationships.

Participating in that discussion was Facebook’s own Arturo Bejar, who heads the 80-person Protect and Care team at Facebook, a team devoted to countering cyberbullying, and creating a climate of greater empathy and respect online. Many other major figures in the Silicon Valley kindness movement joined as well, includingEmiliana R. Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center and Rich Fernandez, founder of the Wisdom Labs, a think tank devoted to wellbeing and mindfulness. Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s own wellness advocate, and James Doty, director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford lent their voices to the roundtable discussion as well.

One interlocutor described the reasons she generally gives in her presentations to promote compassion, which focus on biological and neurological benefits, such as the fact that humans have evolved to care for their young, and that neurological pleasure systems are stimulated when one offers support to others. She then asked what other reasons His Holiness the Karmapa suggests when he is teaching on the cultivation of compassion.

In response, His Holiness highly commended the research being done to identify and acknowledge the biological and neurological benefits of compassion, but stressed that it was also important to look beyond such physical effects. He further cautioned that one should consider not only the benefits to oneself but also the central benefit to others when one acts with greater compassion. The two need to be complementary, he said. “It is important that our motivation in cultivating compassion not be limited to the benefits that has just for us.”

“Our own feelings of compassion do have practical effects on others,” he said. “For example, there are many people who suffer and act in unskillful ways due to not being loved or not being extended care and concern. Thus we can contemplate how much our development of compassion can help others.” As our development of compassion progresses, the aim is to reach the point where we do not miss opportunities to be of practical service to others as well.

Another question raised was what His Holiness the Karmapa feels about using the Internet and mobile apps to make meditation instructions more readily available to a greater number of people.

“In general, I think there is a potential for technology to be of great benefit as a means of disseminating basic information on meditation or other teachings about spiritual practices,” the Karmapa said. “Yet I also think we need greater mindfulness as to how we are making this information available.”

He went on to note that, “people have different dispositions. Some tend more toward anger, others toward other habitual emotional states. The traditional Buddhist analogy describes the spiritual teachings as medicine and the teacher as the doctor who administers the medicine based on their examination and diagnosis of the patient. But if you are getting all of your information from the Internet, it is as if the patient is making a self-diagnosis. I am not sure what we should be doing to account for this fact, because it means that you cannot simply upload something for everyone to download to self-medicate themselves. Not everyone should be taking the same dose of medicine at the same time. Therefore there should be some sort of relationship between instructor and instructee.”

Another participant described discussions to help factor in the individual diversity of those seeing meditation tools online. Methods considered include combining questionnaires with analytical tools from gaming technology to create customized “spiritual workouts.”

The Karmapa was also asked what fundamental ways he sees for Facebook to shape how people interact with each other for the better. In response, His Holiness stressed the opportunity that social media affords us to come to see how interdependent we are upon one another, and to recognize our fundamental shared longing to be happy and to stop suffering. Facebook could become a place where our basic connectedness and our deep equality is made more palpable.

Arturo Bejar commented that too often opinions expressed in social media end up wounding others and tearing people apart. He asked what Facebook could do to help heal those wounded relationships. His Holiness expressed his appreciation for the question, and acknowledged it was too weighty a question to be answered in one brief response. However, he could share some observations.

“Most of the people who come to meet with me are going through hard times,” he reflected. “What I often see is that they come to identify with the difficult situations they are in and forget who they themselves are. It is as if they lose sight of their own personal identity in their focus on the situation that is troubling them. I think it is important to find ways to call ourselves back to who we are, beyond and apart from the painful situation we find ourselves in.”

The 17th Karmapa explained that Facebook has become so much a part of the fabric of our daily lives that their efforts to be a force for conflict resolution, compassion and harmony-building are truly worthy of praise and rejoicing.