Tibetan Buddhism's Insights Into Virtual Reality

11/11/2010 09:22 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

During a recent tour of Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim and Bhutan, I found myself reading Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, a whopper of a book about the imminent fusion of biological and technological intelligence.

Along with his description of what would essentially be a new species of being, Kurzweil also talks about the onset of a virtual reality that would be essentially indistinguishable from what we currently call reality -- i.e. a direct access to our inner fields of perception (via our brain) from inputs other than the external phenomenal world we live in.

Between my sessions of reading about this visionary high tech future (on our rickety old bus traveling down monsoon-soaked, single-lane, cow/goat/monkey-sharing, cliff-dangling, so-called "roads") our group would periodically dismount and swarm (like a small group of bees) into some of the most awesome and impressive Tibetan style Buddhist monasteries in the world. They were replete with stunning wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling representations of the pantheon of Tantric Deities, said to be representations of our own layers of consciousness, but also readable as an alternate and parallel "virtual" reality of its own.

Huge blue and red and green rupas (statues with multiple arms, heads, ornaments), thangkas (paintings) and mandalas (symbolic representations of different Buddha fields) seemed to invite the viewer to step through a portal in his/her own mind into a sensuous, vivid and somewhat other-worldly realm in which enlightened beings with their full manifestation and retinues are completely present and manifest.

Buddhists who practice these disciplines (increasingly available in our modern Western culture) can spend hours a day and weeks or months on retreats conjuring visual (visualizations) and audio (mantra) of these environments, and at some point begin to recognize that the world which we take to be flat, ordinary, confusing, painful and uninspiring is actually the playground of these deities, and that we ourselves are in fact actual embodiments of them. Talk about virtual reality!

On our trip, I wondered about the future of our species, the nature of the singularity (near or far), and the future of a Buddhist country like Bhutan (whose 28-year-old leader is empowered as a Buddhist chogyal -- dharma king -- and who is a Harvard graduate). Technology is present in Bhutan (even the monks have cell phones) but many traditional methods of agriculture, crafts and daily life are still in place. In some sense Bhutan has the potential to work out a balance of social concerns, ecology, spiritual practice and material well being that could well be a model for future civilizations on this planet.

My hat is off to Ray Kurzweil for having the audacity to back up his ground-breaking vision of the future with considerable scientific and mathematical data. His view is something that at least every geek and nerd on the planet should be aware of, and should be of considerable interest to the rest of us ordinary folk, whether we buy into it or not.

And my hat is off to the people of Bhutan who were lovely, cheerful and very hospitable. They are also "keeping the faith" for Tibetan Buddhist practitioners worldwide.

May all beings, before and after the singularity, whether "actual" or "virtual," be safe, happy, healthy and at ease!

And hey, if you want to meet non-virtually, Cyndi and I are teaching Yoga Body Buddha Mind 2 (The Heart of Enlightenment) up at Kripalu Nov. 19-21. Blogging is great but we would love to meet some of you in the flesh!

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