What is the future of Buddhist communities on the web? Ben Upham looks at the progress of the “Unfettered Mind” community.
One group’s nearly decade-long experiment in building a web presence—full of fits and starts and plenty of missteps—is finally paying off, and may show the way to nurturing a strong and vibrant sangha online.
Los Angeles-based Unfettered Mind, led by Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod (a disciple of the late Ven. Kalu Rinpoche) first established a website in 2001. At that time many of McLeod’s students had little experience or interest in the Internet. And the website itself was “about a millimeter above an online pamphlet,” according to Franca Leeson, McLeod’s chief web designer.
Today, that early web footprint has expanded to include hundreds of hours of podcasts on iTunes and the home site, translations of Buddhist texts, video conferencing with students, virtual meetings of volunteers, an Unfettered Mind wiki, and a rapidly growing social networking site.
“Other Buddhist sites may be well organized but they never struck me as attractive as Unfettered Mind, and they are teaching sites, outreach sites or news sites,” remarked Jaye Lander, a student of McLeod. “They have not become virtual sanghas to the level that Unfettered Mind’s members display to a reader.”
And this “virtual sangha” is having a concrete effect on the real world one, so much so that there really is no distinguishing the two. All of McLeod’s dharma talks and retreats are podcast and uploaded to the website, and a group of students are working on uploading and transcribing earlier recordings as well. Once a month, McLeod sits down in front of a web camera and conducts a virtual teaching retreat with twenty people, via the web conferencing site Dimdim. All of this in addition to one-on-one meetings via Skype with students from New Zealand to Malta and everywhere in-between.
“I would say probably more than half my teaching practice is with people all over the world,” said McLeod. “A lot of people think unless you’re in the same room you can’t effect anything spiritually, and that’s not true.”
And of course, McLeod continues to lead retreats and dharma talks in the real world.
Part of Unfettered Mind’s growth online can be attributed to the decentralized nature of the group, based on the concept of the “network.” The group has no fixed headquarters, and McLeod prefers to meet with smaller groups of students, or one on one.
McLeod’s students say this virtual communication has only strengthened their practice, and their connection to Unfettered Mind, especially when they have little access to Buddhist teaching where they live.
Art Gardner, a long-time student of McLeod’s who recently moved to Austin, TX from LA, said while “there really is no substitute for face to face communication, but once that initial connection has been made, the medium in which it continues doesn’t really matter.”
The online presence has also expanded UM’s membership. Charles Goodman, a professor of Buddhism at Binghamton college, in Ithaca NY, began attending Unfettered Mind retreats after listening to McLeod’s podcasts, often in the car on the way to work. “When Ken gives a talk these days, he’s got an audience of maybe twenty, thirty people who are physically listening, and an audience of maybe two or three thousand people who are listening to the podcasts.”
The social networking site, based on the online software Ning, grew rapidly after its inception last year, and now has almost 400 members. Topics in the site’s forums range from “Meditating at Work” to a discussion of Milarepa’s “Song on the Six Perfections.” Members have organized Probing Presence Groups to work on their meditation practice, meeting both online and off.
Like the development of the Internet itself, Unfettered Mind’s usage of the web has not been without its misfires. Wtsir.net (”When The Student Is Ready”), a website to connect students with Buddhist teachers based on Internet language tutoring, never gained traction and was abandoned. And an extensive web-based study guide to McLeod’s popular book, “Wake Up To Your Life,” gets few hits.
About five years ago, the entire site had to be shut down and restored after the Unfettered Mind server was hacked and turned into a zombie net-bot.
But the Unfettered Mind web audience continues to flourish. Users contribute its success to several factors: the simple, uncluttered design of both the website and Ning social network, the ample amount of resources uploaded, and its organic “unfettered” structure. Both the curious and the devoted are welcome, and the forums are uncensored and welcome a range of opinions.
Perhaps the most important factor is McLeod himself. McLeod’s students and peers agree he is a techie at heart, who is open to new uses for technology, and especially the web. “He takes risks,” said Leeson, “and is willing to try out new ideas.”
But, in the end, it’s not about the technology. “I don’t see these technologies changing my practice,” said Professor Goodman, “I see Ken changing my life through these technologies.”
Take the whole tour at Unfettered Mind.
On a couple occasions we've taken participants in CPsquare's Foundations of Communities of Practice workshop to visit Unfettered Mind. One thing that has impressed me is that the site, the conversation, and the sangha itself is international by default. Although there are lots of students in the LA area, they are surrounded by people all over the world. In a way the digital support for their virtual sangha is most important to the far-flung students who can't get to a face-to-face retreat in LA. And my impression was that the "remote" people played a big part in actually creating the digital part of the Unfettered MInd. (Obviously Ken leads, but it takes a lot of people to actually produce all the podcasts, transcripts, wiki pages, etc., etc. that are the vehicle for the community "being together.")
Although I see Ken seldom these days, (I live in the boonies 800 miles north of him) he is my root teacher and I am forever grateful to him for his teaching. Sometime ago I introduced one close friend of mine to Ken. My friend now lives in Mexico and is involved in Ken's online program for teachers. smithjd8's comment above is quite accurate in my mind. Whoever reads these postings, check out unfettered mind, you will be delightfully suprised at the wealth of Buddhist material there. Would you say I am showing one of the three poisons? Sure. I note my preferences and go on.
As you say, the online part may support us on the path but isn't a substitute. And finding the right balance is itself an issue for our time. One thing that I didn't mention in my comment above was that when we took students for a visit to Unfettered Mind, we always arranged to have a host to give us a tour. We've found that collections of websites like Unfettered Mind, and even specific pages need context and explanation. So I would also suggest, once you "check it out" is that you connect with someone, somehow. There are many means to do so (technology mediated or not).