Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Post-Buddhism: Networked Dharma is Swarming

I should make it clear to my readers that I am a sociologist, not a philosopher or a Buddhologist. I don’t read or translate Pali or sanskrit. So I tend not to look at Buddhism from within the tradition. I tend to look at Buddhism from the outside, as a social institution. I critique it from the perspective of its social construction as a cultural phenomenon. As I said in my last article on Post-Buddhism, I see Buddhism today being shaped by the same “consequences of modernity” (Giddens) that have affected all social processes in the late 20th century. I see Buddhism as subject to a post-modern pressure that is an intensification of the process of modernization. Buddhism today is simultaneously western, modern, global and post-modern, precisely because it is being transformed by the same [post]modern processes that affect all cultural phenomena.The following excerpt is from futureslab.org, a website that compiles futuristic scenarios. This excerpt is concerned with developing ecological organizations, that is, organizations that are sensitive to the laws governing planetary biological life.

The Extended Present and Emerging Future:

Ecological capacity building is essential if alternative entities are to take advantage of changes in the way that societies consider time (from clock time to timeless time), form(from vertical to horizontal) and space (space of place to space of flows – spacetime) as a consequence of the widespread availability of networking technology and smart mobile devices. Together with a range of other factors these changes are already constraining the contemporary capitalist economy and are making possible a collaborative post capitalist economy. As these social enterprises take advantage of the shift in relational and transactional dynamics many are focused on building markets for exchange rather than markets for accumulation. (Beyond the machine: Making ecological organisations real byMike McCallum on MAY 4, 2016 https://futureslab.org/2016/05/04/beyond-the-machine-making-ecological-organisations-real/#_ftn1

Time as timeless time; space not as place but as flow, as spacetime. Form as networked and horizontal, and from the Buddhist perspective, as emptiness, as the ever-morphing flow of form through spacetime. These are the forces that are shaping our world today.

These conditions are advantageous for a new organizational structure of Buddhism: sangha as global flow, as the global flow of conversation, image and information; sangha as networked swarm; sangha as translocal, as localities that are networked below and beyond the nation-state, beyond the cultural milieu; beyond lineage and tradition.

Post-Buddhists—the X-Post-Non-Un crowd, the Buddhist Geeks, the Hardcores, the DIY’s, the Dharma Punx, the Secular Buddhists—are coming together as a loosely coordinated networked entity. We are starting to find each other, not in gilded shrine rooms, not at hushed retreat centers, but online, peer-to-peeer, in the network swarm. We are the most networked Buddhists in history, linked by videos, podcasts, blogs, and facebook groups. We can find everything we need, and not just teachings on the dharma, but each other, online, in the network swarm.


The process of learning traditional religious Buddhism has been so disempowering in so many ways: don’t think, shut up, listen to the teacher, you’re wrong and the teacher is always right, trust the teacher, trust the community (while they screw you royally). It’s a wonder I put up with it this long.


Traditional authoritarian Buddhist sects, east and west, are set up as corporate monopolies, built on a scarcity model as silos of a singular teaching and culture, vertically integrated, hierarchical, controlled by lamas, monks and senior teachers at the top, with ranking practitioners in vertically stratified ranks below them. Vince Horn from Buddhist Geeks calls this “the meditation-industrial complex.” This structure emerged in the West under conditions of scarcity. When Buddhism was introduced to the American West mid-20th century, the dharma was indeed scarce. A student could not obtain the teachings without either travelling to the East to study with Buddhist exemplars, or unless Buddhist teachers came West to teach the dharma within their single lineage and tradition. Those teachers were, without a doubt, the only source of teaching and transmitting the dharma. Students had to stay in line and do what they were told, or they could be socially ostracized and pushed out of the silo. But all that has changed with western Buddhist publishing and the internet.


All the forms of Buddhism that have ever been put into written form (or electronic media) are now simultaneously available to everyone in the world who can read and has a connection to the internet. There are no more boundaries between forms of Buddhism, which were formerly divided and contained by historic period, sect, culture, language, etc. You are free to learn any kind of Buddhist dharma or practice you can lay eyes on. The historical sangha, which was an enclosed society based on “secret” teachings and practices, is gone. There are no secrets anymore. Anyone can learn any kind of Buddhism, anywhere, any time. The Buddhisms we practice now are forms of a global Buddhism that is growing, spreading and intensifying: it is no longer scarce, it is ubiquitous. (Bartone, “Trust and the Sharing Exchange: A Buddhist Response to Kojin Karatani. . .”, 2015). 


The growth of information to a level that exceeds and overwhelms social institutions (Bartone, 2015), and the collapse of the global economy, are conditions ripe for the disintegration of corporate structure in the wold economy. It is also ripe for the rise of the sharing economy, peer-to-peer, open-sourced, anarchist, horizontal, networked, radically democratic, empowering individuals and small creative groups. This process is mirrored in the razing of the Buddhist corporate silo and the rise of networked dharma.


Like most people, I began my study of Buddhism within the lineage silo, but found it too authoritarian, too strict, too narrow and self-referential, tending toward cult dynamics. With everyone else, I switched to reading and going online to teach myself the dharma, the Pali canon and the Mahayana Sutras. At first it was dark and isolating, but I finally feel like I’m starting to hit my stride and figure out what these teachings mean to me, how I interpret them for myself. It really helps to have the support of the x-post-non-un-buddhist community, people who are serious thinkers and practitioners, who are seriously challenging the religious hierarchy of Buddhism. The post-Buddhists are the post-religious, post-traditional pioneers of a global networked culture of awakening.


But here’s what I figured out: there’s a lot more of us—the post-Buddhists—than there are of “them”—the religious Buddhists who belong to exclusive upper class white communities and only do what their senior teachers tell them to do. They are actually few in number. The rest of us, the (sneer) “Buddhist sympathizers” or post-traditional Buddhists, are far greater in number and ultimately in strength. So-called  Buddhist sympathizers  and “freelancers” are two to three times the number of religious Buddhists, according to several sources who track the numbers of Buddhist adherents in the West (e.g. Pew Trust.)


We are beginning to find each other, building networks outside of religious Buddhism. The stronger we get outside of traditional religious Buddhism, the weaker religious Buddhism gets in the West. Their numbers are shrinking as the few Boomers that are left (that aren’t dead or in nursing homes) try to hold down their expensive gilded fortresses, temples, shrine rooms and retreat centres. Those communities are burdened with the debt of expensive properties they cannot afford to maintain. (To give you an example, Shambhala Mountain Centre in Boulder CO, one of the oldest retreat centers in North America, owes millions in debt and back property taxes and is essentially bankrupt.) Meanwhile, GenXrs and Millennials decide in greater numbers not to go the traditional route, but connect almost exclusively online. Almost all of the Buddhist connections I have are with transgender and activist Buddhists from all lineages. We meet regularly in person via Skype and Google+, and other live video conferencing platforms, and in-the-body at annual conferences.


“Power Now Resides in the Swarm.”
from Adbusters: Aesthetic Terrorism, #123, January/February 2016:


The Swarm has spoken. In Guatemala, the collective action of thousands has led to the first signs of substantial change in decades. Led to the resignation and arrest of a President accused of stealing millions from his own people at the expense of basic public services. Led to the incarceration of 38 government officials and the denunciation of dozens more. Led to a seismic change in a nation with catastrophic murder and poverty rates, decades of repression, corruption and civil war.


Various branches of science talk of Emergence: the moment at which an unorganized system of build of autonomous units begins to exhibit a complex, collective and mutually beneficial behaviour. The self-organizing construction of ant colonies. The inadvertent hive-selection techniques of honeybees. The mechanism of indirect coordination between organisms, some trace left in an environment which stimulates the performance of the next complimentary action by another, which leads to the spontaneous appearance of a coherent pattern necessary for continued survival. A collective consciousness. A swarm intelligence, dependent on  no single leader, but behold to the whole. To a single achievable goal.


And the Swarm has spoken. But Perez Molina was merely the flint. The embers have been soldering for decades, not just in Guatemala, but all over Latin America: Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Honduras [and Iceland, France, Greece and Spain—Editor]. Once the Swarm hit critical mass all it took was five months. Five months and tens of thousands of citizens in a steadily growing protest movement demanding justice, accountability, equality. A beautiful example of the Internet as a platform for equality ad grassroots power. A beautiful example of the people’s ability to call the shots form below in the most unlikely of places, a nation where a few months ago, prevailing wised said it couldn’t have happened. The Swarm has spoken.


Do activists stand at the Edge of Emergence?
Do post-Buddhists stand at the Edge of Emergence? I think we do, but our networked sangha is just beginning to emerge out of millions of momentary connections. We are just beginning to connect and to realize that we are stronger and more numerous than we thought we were. Networked dharma is swarming around the silos of vertically integrated dharma corporations. The swarm is about to overwhelm the authoritarian power of religious Buddhism.


The Buddhist sangha that I connect with today is global. I have struggled for several years with the concept of what sangha is for me. My experience of face-to-face Buddhist communities has been that they are at best cold and indifferent congregations, at worst, manipulative and disempowering cults. It took me a long time to realize that I was not stuck with whoever I could connect with at a local shrine room or retreat centre. I have been able to connect with many Buddhists, and many good-hearted spiritual people, all over the globe, organized in tiny translocal groups. My sangha is globalIt is not marked by the clock time of ringing the meditation bell, it is not the ‘space of place’ of the retreat centre. It is the flow of spacetime, the networked swarm, the translocal connnection beyond a singular culture, lineage or tradition.

7 comments on “Post-Buddhism: Networked Dharma is Swarming

  1. Pingback: The Digital Swarm | The Non-Buddhist

  2. johnvon23

    Interesting thoughts, Shaun. A couple questions — first, in the post-Buddhist age, why limit our explorations to Buddhism?

    Also, in the absence of an experienced teacher, how can we know we’re on the right track? What are we even trying to do?

    • Shaun Bartone

      “in the post-Buddhist age, why limit our explorations to Buddhism?” Exactly. Buddhism doesn’t solve all our problems. It’s too narrow and self-referential. My reading of the Heart Sutra says that the fully enlightened live by wisdom alone. What kind of wisdom? Whatever wisdom works for you, wherever you find it.

      “in the absence of an experienced teacher, how can we know we’re on the right track? What are we even trying to do?” As my friend Vimalasara Mason-John said, “Our teachers are all around us. The issue is whether we are open to receiving what they have to teach.” My challenge of the Buddhist power structure doesn’t mean that I’m against learning from others. On the contrary, I think we should learn from everyone who has something valuable to teach, great or small. How do we know we are on the right track? Are you suffering less? Do you feel more whole, more inspired? Are you relating to people around you with more depth, equanimity and friendliness? Are you more joyful, more capable of meeting suffering with compassion and kindness? These are the kinds of tests we should use to see if we are making progress on the path.

  3. John

    This is a good post, but most Boomers are far from dead or in nursing homes. Their parents, the WW2 generation, are. But Boomers themselves only started turning 70 this year, 2016, and the vast majority are still in their 50s and 60s. They also have access to rapidly advancing medical care. They are going to be around for decades – according to projections, many will live into their 90s and a significant number into their 100s. So they will remain a huge demographic force for quite some time to come.

    In fact, I think Boomers are going to be the first major segment of the population to radically develop a post-Buddhist ethos, as the great majority are only now starting to become interested in spirituality as they get older. But this is not the same world as when they were young, and the ones I have observed begin a spiritual practice are not traditional and are more likely to search the web looking for brainwave entrainment etc. than an introduction to Vipassana.

    • Shaun Bartone

      Very interesting observations. I am interested in the issue is ‘post-buddhism’. Anecdotally, I see a pattern where people go through an initial period of institutional Buddhism, and then follow a post-Buddhist trajectory. I’d like to see some more social research on that issue.

      • John

        Indeed, as a child of Baby Boomers this is the trajectory I have followed – first an encounter with institutional Buddhism, then disillusionment with its stagnant worldview, then adoption of a post-Buddhist perspective. I see the need for a radical overhaul of Eastern spirituality if it is to ever be effectively adopted by the masses in the 21st Century, in its language, hierarchy and most of all, skillful means.

        Very few people are in a position to spend 20 years in a meditation hut, but most are willing to strap on a pair of headphones for an hour a night or one of the many other forms of contemplative technology in the pipeline. (If my own initial experience with these technologies is anything to go by, they have extraordinary potential.)

        This is very much the case for myself, and it is for anyone else I speak to who has never developed a concept of spirituality is ‘supposed’ to look like, including my parents. They lived through the psychedelic era and are aware that there is more than one way to experience altered states 😉 They want to hear what I have to say without the mumbo-jumbo or irrelevant stories from societies a thousand years removed from our own in social and technological evolution.

  4. Pingback: Buddhist Futures: Beyond Class, Capital and State – Engage!

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