by VenerableWayne Slacker (Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi)
Buddhist texts give warnings about the delusions that can arise when mindfulness and awareness fall away, even for a moment. This is the reason for some contemporary Buddhist books like ‘The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching’ by Master Thich Naht Hanh, to offer that right view must be first practice of the Eightfold Path because it allows the practitioner to see their world through the lens of reality. There is value in this as one must have a view based on the reality of the causal Universe, not on a reality that is created by the self or by someone else. In the technology of this moment has arisen what some want to experience as a world within the world. The Awakened One, the Buddha, couldn’t have imagined the possibilities of delusion that can arise from a space that is important to each us whose avatars sit here in this moment . . . the virtual space of Second Life.
Second Life (SL) is advertised as a “virtual world” as if it is a world separate from the physical world each of us are inhabiting. It is not. Realistically it is not a world in any sense. It is a virtual space created from the workings of many minds, and is populated with avatars that are the workings of as many minds. SL is a tool. Whether the space is used as a tool for learning, one for entertainment, or simulated sex, or religion, or advertising, or putting in job applications it is just a tool. The virtual space is reality only for the fact that engaging it, no matter what the reason, has both cause and effect on the person behind the avatar.
The nomenclature of SL for Second Life and RL for real life strengthens the illusion of duality. It offers the delusion that, ‘what happens in SL, stays in SL” and that isn’t possible. Whatever happens in SL has a direct effect on the person behind avatar, and can have direct and indirect effects on people who know nothing about the virtual space of Second Life. To believe that the two, SL and RL, are separate is a delusion that can lead to negative causal consequences.
Marriages have dissolved because the discovery was made that one partner was “married” or having “sex” in the SL space with someone else. They weren’t married or having simulated sex with an avatar; they were doing those things with the person behind the avatar. Paypal accounts have gone empty because of gambling in the virtual space. It wasn’t virtual money. It was real money being used in the virtual space. The profile of an avatar may include a site where Daddies can find their Babies, and The Buddha Center. The first will adversely affect the practice of the latter. Whatever happens in the virtual space will have causal consequences.
This isn’t to say that Second Life doesn’t have value. Quite the opposite, it has great value as a tool. I’ve been involved in SL for more that nine years. A little more than three years ago I discovered that SL is a great tool for connecting with other people all around the world. That is when I began to offer the dharma in the SL space known as the Buddha Center. My avatar, VenerableWayne Slacker has been how I “turn on” the SL tool. Like a television remote is used to turn on the t.v., and how channels are accessed and the volume controlled, the avatar is my SL remote. That is why, from a Buddhist perspective I view all the other avatars with an appropriate view that I am always interacting with a person behind the avatar. As you journey through the amazing spaces of SL you, as a bodhisattva-in-training must maintain the same appropriate view.
Whatever goes on in the SL space will be a causal factor in how the person behind the avatar thinks and acts. If this wasn’t a reality then your time and my time at the Buddha Center studying and practicing Buddhism would be a total waste of time and energy. Avatars don’t act on their own. Avatars don’t think at all. Avatars gain nothing. Avatars are a clear contemporary example of emptiness. Like a screwdriver is empty until it is used, so too avatars are empty until the person behind them rezzes into the Second Life space and engages. Avatars are tools.
You and the avatar . . . no . . . it is all you. A recent communication resulted in an enlightened moment. I experience proof that there are some who hold firmly to the belief that an avatar has its own distinct personality, one separate from the person behind it. When one says that SL is your Second Life, one distinct from RL (real life) this is a delusion. In SL there are murders and marriages, jobs and journeys, love and lust, fear and fun, confrontation and camaraderie . . . not dissimilar from RL. These thoughts and actions may be being performed by avatars that look like medieval knights, vampires, hookers, furries, babies and dragons, but there are still people behind the avatars . . . people in RL. People that are being affected by what is thought and done while in the virtual space. I have counseled people who have conflicts in SL, conflicts that are causing depression, anger and anxiety in their life when they aren’t signed-in. The effects of their actions and the actions of others in the virtual space had consequences that affected the person behind the avatar, not the avatar. This is proof that there are not two distinct personalities.
No teacher/facilitator/scholar that teaches at the Buddha Center holds the view that they are offering Buddha Dharma to a Second Life identity/personality that is active only in SL, and only secondarily to the person behind the avatar. If I believed there was that sort of duality between an avatar and the human behind the avatar I wouldn’t be offering the dharma through the SL tool. When Delani and Zino started the Buddha Center in SL, and nurtured it through the years they did it so people would have access to the dharma. They didn’t do it for the avatars. They had the appropriate view of the people behind those avatars and how the dharma could benefit them. They understood that an avatar gains nothing from the dharma.
There is no separation between the “personality” of an avatar, and that of the person behind it. To harbor that belief is a dangerous delusion. The avatar doesn’t have a personality. When a person signs-out of SL they aren’t leaving a personality behind in storage, that personality stays within the bodymind of the person. It is their personality, even one that they “experiment” with while in SL. I am reminded of an old cartoon that would air when I was kid. A child is tucked into bed, the parent quietly shuts the door and the child falls deeply asleep. Toys on shelves, in a toy box, and scattered around the floor come to life, each with their own personality and desires. They play. They fight. They laugh. They cry. They love. They war. When the sun rose the toys were right where the child had left them. Engaging SL as a game an avatar is nothing more than a toy that is taken out and played with, then returned to shelf. It has no motivation of its own. Engaging SL as a place to learn and transform an avatar is a tool that is used, then the computer is turned off. The lesson stays with the person using the tool.
However exhaustible my delusions are, I vow to extinguish them all. (Bodhisattva Vow)
There are thousands of opportunities to act out different personalities, lives and scenarios in Second Life just like I once did playing fantasy role-playing games. The Buddha Center is not that kind of SL destination. When my avatar sits on the cushion in the temple or Deer Park it is not to role-play and the people behind the avatars sitting on the arc of cushions in front of me can’t be role-playing either. There is no such thing as a Buddhist avatar. Actors and actresses play characters with the knowledge that they are illusions. Off the set those characters don’t go shopping, go to a temple, or spend time with their children; the real personality of the person does. Jeff Bridges isn’t playing “the dude” when he sits down with Bernie Glassman to practice and study the dharma . . . he is Jeff Bridges.
For those of you experienced in the SL environment you might be wondering, “How come he hasn’t mentioned how an avatar looks? Isn’t that important?” Speaking only for me as a dharma teacher, it doesn’t matter what your avatar looks like (though you must show respect and not show up naked) anymore than what you might look like in life. The form isn’t important, it is the emptiness that has come to experience the dharma that is.
Whatever is thought or done when you are signed-in to Second Life is not separate from your life, it isa part of your life. There is not one personality that is learning the dharma and one that is not. There is only your personality. The time you spend in SL is as much a causal factor in how you are, and how you can be as any other activity you engage in. Any other conclusion is a delusion. A delusion that must be extinguished.