Cultivating Online and Offline Pathways to Enlightenment: Religious Authority and Strategic Arbitration in Wired Buddhist Organization

23 May, 2017

How do Singapore’s Buddhist leaders maintain their influence in the digital age?

Buddhists in Singapore celebrate Vesak Day which marks the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. While the practice of Buddhism and its rituals have traditionally taken place within homes, temples, and monasteries, many Buddhists today are increasingly turning to online sources for spiritual direction as society becomes more technologically advanced. Can devotees, however, truly chart their way to enlightenment by merely engaging with their faith on digital platforms?
A/P Shirlena Huang (Department of Geography) and her co-authors, in Cultivating Online and Offline Pathways to Enlightenment: Religious Authority and Strategic Arbitration in Wired Buddhist Organization (2011), illustrate ways in which Buddhist priests have sought to renegotiate their authority over their religion’s expanding online presence. They found that the internet can help make Buddhist teachings more accessible. However, having a long-term ‘offline’ discipleship with priests facilitates a deeper understanding of the faith, thus avoiding misinterpretations. Yearly events such as Vesak Day also require the crucial physical priestly presence to carry out sacred rituals.
Buddhist leaders advised disciples to balance their consumption of online and offline sources to avoid misunderstandings of the teachings. They also emphasized the importance of direct feedback from one-on-one mentoring relationships with qualified masters. Buddhist monks tended to view online interactions with devotees as a means of initiating offline meetings to provide spiritual guidance.
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