Awhile back I was contacted by Zen teacher Jundo Cohen about his wonderful Tree Leaf Zendo, which provides insightful v-cast teachings that include a time for sitting Zazen. It's a very effective way of staying interconnected with a teacher and the sangha of practitioners if one has needs that precludes a person from sitting formally.
I know the advent of the "Online Sangha" has been of some controversy of late on the Buddoblogosphere. I personally find it change to embrace and appreciate. It is allowing and enabling the Dharma to reach more and more people who seek its wisdom. People are discovering the Buddha's teachings through the internet who might not ever have come into contact with them if it were in years past.
I do not understand how enabling more people (through technology) to sit with and learn from ordained teachers as well as enjoy support from fellow practitioners is a less helpful. It seems to me that such thinking is allowing yourself to be tethered to the "iron ball and chain" obstacle of "I'm here" and "you're there." Just because people aren't sitting the same room does not mean that their sitting is less helpful, less real or a "fad." If we believe that we truly understand interconnection then the idea of a sangha meeting virtually from all corners of the world should make complete and total sense. It is a creative way to make that understanding of interconnectedness stronger to encompass the world and beyond. Jundo Cohen speaks of the illusion of "Now" and "There" quite beautifully in this v-cast:
James:Along this same parallel, I believe that there is other life out in the universe (as even the atheist Richard Dawkins believes). As Dawkins writes in his fantastic book, "The God Delusion":
Now suppose the origin of life, the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA, really was a quite staggeringly improbable event. Suppose it was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets. And yet, even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets -- of which, Earth, of course, is one."James: This was in response to the creationist claim that evolution means life was created spontaneously, whereas evolutionists know it evolved over billions of years. He was saying, however, that even if it was spontaneous--the probability still makes it very likely.
That all said, I do not believe that alien life has contacted us or our world--yet. But my point in all of this "alien life" discussion is that idea of infinite lives being connected to all things and beings regardless of proximity to a meditation center or physical presence at one. We are interconnected with things that we haven't even discovered yet!! How cool and humbling is that idea?!! Imagine one day being able to virtually meditate with Buddhist practitioners of some other planet?!! You could be meditating at the same time with someone from your country, another country on the other side of the planet and another life form on another side of the UNIVERSE!!!! That would be quite the mindful moment of awareness of the many levels of interconnectedness. What a marvelous thought. Even better? We can do that right now. We can imagine all forms of life as we meditate on interconnectedness, which makes the Universe (I find) very personal and easier to grasp.
UPDATE: I wanted to elaborate a bit more on why there is some blow-back (resistance) to online sanghas and online or telephone interactions with teachers. I suspect that some of the "anti-internet" sanghas stems from a perhaps hidden desire to maintain their position as "Abbot" of some prestigious temple. Or as an ordained practitioner by a prestigious and famous "Master." This is not to say that there is anything wrong with ordaination but there seems to be a bit of a tendancy for some traditional practitioners to act as "purists" when someone discovers another way of diseminating the Dharma.
It's sad that rather than welcome another way to spread the Dharma and sustain practitioners who can't access physical sanghas; some of these folks laugh off online interactions as "not as real" or "authentic." As if there is anything "real" to begin with but that's a topic for another time. Part of these backlash could also stem from a desire to maintain their institution and steady line of devoted students. Such a position of importance can easily fuel their egos and push them to seek maintaining such a situation regardless of what it might mean for others.
I don't see how online sanghas and online interaction with ordained teachers threatens traditional "brick and mortar" sanghas. They both administer to different groups of practitioners. Some feel the need for physical interaction like those who attend school on a campus. Versus those who attend online classes. This doesn't threaten the disappearance of traditional sanghas and temples for people will always have a need for sacred places. It's to say that no one needs a savior, a "master" or any other being to wake up. It's not a matter of one or the other.
Physical sanghas, temples and monasteries simply need to adapt a bit. Perhaps setting up an online sangha on their own web page administered by a senior monk would help people continue their practice while maintaining a deep connecting with their teacher and that particular sangha or temple. Even just maintaining an interactive website where senior monks answer questions as they can would help maintain both needs of updated sangha options and making sure our institutions are still honored.
Establishing or growing retreats and especially days or weeks when the temples and sanghas celebrate and honor traditions and festivals. That way people would be more willing drive an hour or so to attend something to connect with fellow physical practitioners from time to time without having to drive hours upon hours every time sangha meets. It would also enable people with psychological conditions to be apart of a communion and connection with a physical temple/sangha while limiting the stimulation that they easily become overwhelmed with.
Even just maintaining an interactive website where senior monks answer questions as they can would help maintain both needs of updated sangha options and making sure our institutions are still honored.They are all helpful, useful and I believe essential to a degree. However, they are still, in the end--fingers pointing at the moon. No one can do the waking up but us.