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From Water Moons to Digital Angels

I met Tish Shute several years ago through our mutual interest in virtual worlds – and then found, to my delight, that our common interests go far beyond that domain. Describing herself as a “digital strategist, writer, and cyborg anthropologist,” Tish is the the co-founder and co-chair of the Augmented Reality Event, and the founder of Ugotrade, a leading blog focused on augmented reality as well as virtual reality, mobile communication and other topics. On top of all that, she is also deeply knowledgeable about Buddhism and other wisdom traditions and spiritual practices.

My specific interest in interviewing Tish was to probe some of the interconnections between her many interests. I was especially interested to nudge her to explore the relationships between practical virtual world technology and those aspects of the Buddhist perspective that, to my mind, describe the everyday world we live in as being “virtual” in some sense.


You’ve written a lot of interesting things on Ugotrade about virtual worlds and augmented reality. And I know you’ve also been very actively involved in Buddhism. I’m curious for your thoughts on the relation between these two things….


I’ve been fortunate to meet many great Buddhist practitioners in my life, because my mother became a student of the first Tibetan Rinpoche’s to arrive in England after their escape from Tibet in 1959. However I have all too often fallen into distraction, and have no mastery of the teachings. And I have no experience of the true nature of reality that has been pointed out to me by these genuine teachers. So I am not sure if my answers can be of any use at all to anyone interested in Buddhism. My best answer is: if you want to learn about Buddhism, seek out a genuine teacher! But I will try to answer the best I can.


Heh… your humility is appreciated! I’ve also spent some time around Buddhism, in a different way – my first wife became a Zen priest during our marriage. And even though I meditated a lot at one point, I’ve often been struck by my own personal high degree of un-enlightenment! I’ve had some pretty awesome moments and intervals of illumination and insight (as I would guess you’ve had too), but still … a Buddhist master would surely observe me to be largely governed by desire and attachment! But even so, my limited experience has made me feel some interesting parallels between virtual worlds and the spiritual experience of “the virtuality of the world”…

That is: one interpretation of some of the Buddhist teachings, at least in my naive view, is that the world we see around us and live in everyday doesn’t have the sort of “absolute reality” that people often assume it does. That is: the everyday world is in some sense a construct. It’s constructed by our minds, and in a way it constructs itself with our collaboration. In that sense, the world we live in every day might be construed as “virtual.”

So my question is, how does this “virtuality of the ‘real’ world” tie in with virtual worlds as a technology? Can using virtual worlds technology help us more fully appreciate, and come to terms with, the virtuality of the world we live in?


Dreams, mirages, echoes, rainbows, mirrors, water moons, cities of ghandarvas, reflections, echoes, hallucinations, movies, the internet, television — “they appear while empty, while empty they appear.” The great teacher, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, teaches about the true nature of reality using both ancient examples, like water moons (the reflection of the moon in water), and modern ones like television and the internet. He points out that these are all good ways to meditate on the inseparability of appearance and emptiness as the “abiding nature of reality,” as he puts it.

There is a short teaching he gave in 2002 that talks about this more; here is an excerpt from that teaching:

“The forms that appear do not truly exist. In the abiding nature of reality, their nature is emptiness. They appear while being empty; while empty, they appear. They are appearance-emptiness like rainbows, water-moons, and reflections. All of the objects that appear to the eyes are appearance-emptiness undifferentiable.”

Ancient yogis and yoginis used to practice with metal mirrors, but we are fortunate to have many more advanced examples of illusion to practice with — like TV and virtual worlds, giant screens in Times Square, augmented reality games on our cell phones, and an augmented reality ad that puts you with angels in a London train station. As KTGR explains, we can meditate on forms as rainbows and movies, sounds as echoes to help us go beyond concepts, and reach beyond what thoughts can know, and words can show.

So yes, I do like working with media, movies, augmented reality, virtual worlds, and the Internet, because I think it gives me a wonderful opportunity to practice Buddhist meditation. I wish I was a better practitioner because I have a lot of wonderful opportunities to practice! But our old habits of mind are very strong and it takes enormous patience to change them. There are some wonderful examples of how patient you have to be to attain any level of realization; for example, like rubbing a great bar of iron with a soft cloth to make a needle. I am an impatient person, so I do not have much realization. But I love the Internet, especially because it creates so many opportunities to connect with other people, so there are lots of chances to try and be a little helpful to yourself and others, even if this doesn’t work out most of the time.


So virtual worlds and other modern technologies can help us to meditate on the nature of reality – and the way reality itself is, in a sense, just an “appearance” like what we see in the mirror or on TV or in the Internet… that’s basically the direction I was probing with my question.

Now let’s make it a little more practical. How could we design virtual worlds that would be more helpful in this way than the current ones? Any thoughts on this?


There is one design principle I think we could use to let us know if our efforts to design virtual worlds were helping us come to terms with the virtuality of the world we live in. It seems that if we do gain a better understanding of the virtuality of the world, we are much kinder and more generous to other people because we begin to realize we are all in the same boat with our delusion. So if the virtual world increased our ability to be kind, perhaps it would also be true that it helped us come to terms better with the virtuality of the world we live in.


That’s interesting to me. After all, one could imagine some people having the opposite reaction, right? If they feel like our world is somehow unreal, they may figure it doesn’t matter what they do, so they may have less compassion rather than more… I guess the reason it doesn’t always work this way is that most of the reasons people are hostile and un-compassionate to each other, are various psychological issues that come to seem less serious once you think of the everyday world as a virtual thing rather than some kind of objective absolute reality.

So, virtual worlds for teaching kindness and compassion. It’s a far cry from first-person shooter games, that’s for sure.

I guess this relates to the way Buddhism and other wisdom traditions don’t exactly just view the world as “virtual” – they also view it as being “alive” in some sense.

I mean: Buddhism is often associated with a sort of “panpsychism”, i.e. with the idea that every part of the world is “alive and aware” in some sense (rather than the universe consisting of conscious human minds versus dead, inert matter). Augmented reality technology seems conceptually harmonious with this, in that it can be construed as helping “bring the world alive” — helping make the world more obviously aware and interactive.


Tibetan Buddhist cosmology is very deep in this manner. There is a wonderful story about a great teacher and his student who asks his master, if he is such a great guru of appearance emptiness why he won’t even darn his socks if the planets are not aligned correctly. The meditation master takes the student down to a riverbank and tells him to pick up a rock and a thin reed. He asks the student to push the reed through the rock and of course the student can’t. Then the master looks up to the heavens and checks the alignment of the planets and says, “Now!” And the student pushes the straw through the rock as easily as a knife through butter.

Our modern world has many universes to explore, e.g. the algorithmic cosmologies of quant trading and machine-to-machine intelligences that operate beyond realms of ordinary human perception. I could imagine a meditation master studying these universes and using them to teach the true nature of reality, like the great guru in the story used his knowledge of the alignment of the planets to teach his student. Augmented Reality would be just another interface, like the straw and the rock picked up at the riverside, used to teach appearance-emptiness inseparability.

My recent presentation at SXSW Interactive, “Enchanted Objects and People,” was on data driven augmented reality. I’m inspired by a wonderful paper Mike Kuniavsky wrote in 2007 called, Magic as a Metaphor for Ubiquitous Computing. Kuniavsky explores magic which “often augments familiar objects with fantastical capabilities” as a design metaphor for ubiquitous computing and augmented reality. Magic, he points out, is replacing the desktop metaphor that dominated the era of the PC. I am very happy about this, of course. It is wonderful to be free of our desks. It would be even more awesome to be free of our ignorance of the true nature of reality!

Magical abilities are often associated with realization. It is often reported that realized practitioners can fly in the sky, transform into a clump of flowers, or appear as dying dog – all kinds of magical feats. Magic is no big deal to yogis and yoginis. The real question, for practitioners, is not how extraordinary it is that this kind of magical stuff is possible, but how can we overcome the obscurations that makes us think it is not?


Indeed! So we have the same kind of question here that I posed in the context of virtual worlds. How does the “aliveness of the world” that augmented reality enables, help us to more fully appreciate the direct and simple aliveness and awareness of reality as highlighted in Buddhism and other wisdom traditions?

How could augmented reality technology be developed in a manner to more fully help the mind grok the real nature of reality?


Well, there’s at least one simple answer to this one. It would be great if we could have a wordlens app for Tibetan and other Buddhist texts and help preserve and make them available in many languages. Giving the modern world this vast and still mostly untranslated body of Tibetan and other Buddhist teachings would be the best way for more people to have the opportunity to understand the true nature of reality.

Of course there are other possibilities too. A great yogi, perhaps, could use AR to give location aware teachings that guide us individually, according to who we are, where we are, and what we are doing, kind of a context-aware AR spiritual wayfinder app. Buddhist teachers point out that meditation occurs when we look at our mind and then let it rest in its natural state, and Buddhism offers many different approaches to this. Tibetan Buddhism in particular emphasizes the importance of a spiritual guide.


Yes, I see… hmmm… a virtual spiritual guide! … a digital angel that could accompany us through the physical world and also through virtual worlds, adapting to our needs and nudging us to connect with human teachers when apropos… It would be great if more technology development focused on this sort of thing, as opposed to, say, online advertising!

1 Comment

  1. as a profesional hypnotist my question is, “how would you ever know that what you are sensing is metaphysics or an interesting journey into the subconscious?”

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