Buddhism speaks to a truth regarding the death of the ego- to eliminate desire, and essentially shut off all the anxiety-inducing aspects of corporeal existence, to move towards transcendence or Nirvana. By doing so, one needs to, as mentioned, shed all “desire”- i.e. wanting (or “needing”) a giant SUV, new pair of sneakers, reservations for the restaurant opening up down the street. In Buddhism, the concept of “dhukka” (suffering) is essential, as life is suffering, as we attempt to cling to impermanent and transitory “things”. It produces the fundamental nature of life: suffering. Buddhism stretches back almost a millennium, and of course not all it’s tenets can be made parallel to our modern world, but it is worth noting that social media is both a hindrance and a benefit for Buddhism, or at the very least, seems to bring up fascinating questions regarding Buddhist thought in the age of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Within Buddhism, the Self is an object to overcome. You don’t need that quadruple cheeseburger, three-story McMansion, extra Master’s degree, or hot model that is currently your desktop wallpaper to be whole. All desire is the cause of suffering. There’s quite a bit of tearing down preconceived notions about society and culture to obtain Nirvana or Enlightenment, but the basic gist of Buddhism remains the same: eliminate desire, which emanates from within and without, and you’ll eliminate suffering.
The problems of social media are obvious- young kids lack empathy, friends sit around, silent, staring at phones. There are clear psychological issues stemming from the need for self-worth and self-esteem that skews towards absurdity online- the need for attention, the display of framed self-image. The “narcissism” manifested online is, for many, debilitating- a desperate need for likes or external affirmation, a form of desire and a major source of “dhukka”. Social media is also not going anywhere (and is healthy and/or extremely helpful for many). Complaining about social media creates more “suffering”.
Buddhists have used social media to establish online sanghas and in many ways, it’s the perfect religion for the Internet. There’s a reason why Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have been prominent techno-utopianists as well as Buddhist practitioners. The minimalism, the cloud-based software, and the emphasis on ethereality over real-life objects goes hand in hand with much of what Buddhism stands for. The broader individualism/end of suffering in Eastern philosophy is acceptable within neo-liberal Silicon Valley capitalism, a palliative milquetoast catchall pseudo-spirituality that goes hand in hand with the Singularity, itself a kind of techno-Nirvana.
The Dalai Lama gave the thumbs up on social media a few years ago, when he said that “if the person [using social media] has a certain inner strength, a certain confidence, then it is no problem. But if an individual’s mind is weak, then there is more confusion. You can’t blame technology.” A conversation between two Buddhist monks on buddhanet.net led one to claim that monks should not use computers. He claims that “…there’s something about computers that exaggerates this “desire brings suffering” paradigm. Could it be that with computers, you have the shortest possible connection between the mind and outside the mind. I mean there’s only a keyboard and a few small circuit boards between what’s going on inside (in the mind) and what’s going on outside (in the computer).”
He continues: “When we manipulate the data inside a computer, we’re spending time manipulating things inside our minds (like a patient spending years on a psychiatrist’s couch), rather than spending time letting the outside world manipulate things inside our minds.” He takes an objective-reality stance. The “real world” should be the focus of the Buddhist monk. Go outside. Be “one with nature”. Computers are a man-made distraction- but they also seem capable of disciplining the mind and its global infinity into a potential grander historical nirvana. Let’s just hope the robot monks are chill.