The Facebook Sutta (SN 57.1)

Thus have I imagined. At one time, the Fortunate One was staying in Silicon Valley. There, he addressed the bhikkhus thus: ‘Bhikkhus.’ ‘Venerable sir,’ they replied.

‘These things should not be cultivated with regards to Facebook by one gone forth. Which things? Thoughts of greed, thoughts of aversion, ignorance of filter bubbles. One who has entered the eightfold path does not engage in individuality-view posting, nor crave for likes, nor has the conceit “I share”.

‘Bhikkhus, when an uninstructed person senses a post with his device, which is an advertisement, a TED Talk, an impressive headline, thoughts of greed arise in him. Why? Here, bhikkhus, an uninstructed person gives inappropriate attention to the sign of instant, magical solutions. Thus, when an uninstructed person senses a post with their device, which is an advertisement, a TED Talk, an impressive headline, thoughts of greed arise in him.

‘Bhikkhus, when an uninstructed person senses a post with her device, which is a rant, an alarmist article, an impressive headline, thoughts of aversion arise in her. Why? Here, bhikkhus, an uninstructed person gives inappropriate attention to the sign of fatalism. Thus, when an uninstructed person senses a post with their device, which is a rant, a catastrophist article, an impressive headline, thoughts of aversion arise in her.

‘Whenever an uninstructed person goes online, Mara stands besides him.

‘Bhikkhus, when a noble disciple senses a post with his device, which is an advertisement, a TED Talk, an impressive headline, he reflects thus: this is harmful, it leads to craving, to renewed frustration and seeking, it obstructs wise action, it takes away freedom. Here, bhikkhus, seeing much danger, a noble disciple gives appropriate attention to the sign of unsatisfactoriness. He is filled with thoughts of contentment and applies himself to the training, diligent, clearly comprehending and mindful.

‘Bhikkhus, when a noble disciple senses a post with her device, which is a rant, an alarmist article, an impressive headline, she reflects thus: this is harmful, it leads to anger, bitterness and despair, it obstructs wise action, it leads away from peace, right speech and freedom. Here, bhikkhus, seeing little benefit, a noble disciple gives appropriate attention to the sign of unsatisfactoriness. She is filled with thoughts of friendliness and applies herself to the training, diligent, clearly comprehending and mindful.

‘When going online, a noble disciple is careful to abide in the appropriate pasture. The life of the deviceholder is dusty, full of filters and notifications, but life gone forth is wide open.’

This is what the Fortunate One said, and the bhikkhus delighted in the Fortunate One’s words, and shared them on social media.

Commentary from the author
Literary divertimentos aside, I think social media is such a part of our saeculum and of the world (loka) of those of my generation, that it should be given proper attention from spiritual traditions, philosophies and practices. Several studies have found that, in the way it interacts with our brain, it has the same addictive potential as alcohol, drugs and gambling.

Recently, Jay Michaelson wrote in Tricycle magazine that social media should be included in the fifth precept and, at least, be approached with the same moderation that one treats other judgement-obscuring, mindfulness-reducing substances or activities. I recognise the impulse to check my phone in empty moments. It’s strong. Because this is the online world, we are led to think that it is less real or doesn’t have consequences as real, but it conditions us just like anything else. By not including it in those areas where spiritual growth occurs, we are hindered.

If the dharma is about reducing our reactivity, we must consider whether the way we use social media contributes to or undermines such a project. I’d say that the ‘aim’ of Facebook is quite at odds with the aspirations of the dharma. I open my Facebook newsfeed and most of what I see are videos either of that one secret that will magically solve my relationships, my health, my learning a new language, or of the last outrageous incident in the world of politics, corporations, environment, etc. And frankly, they don’t help me solve my life nor enjoin me to change the world. They mainly entertain me.

Social media encourage a numb-observer approach to whatever happens, quite unlike the detached observer of meditation: one does react with desire or aversion, one doesn’t discern what’s beneficial and what is not and then translate it into wise actions or greater empathy. To be fair, sharing things through Facebook has the potential for these skilful responses, but it generates far more of unskilful ones that simply agitate us.

Not only does it encourage the first two fires, it also embodies the third. In his reflections on the roots of social dukkha, David Loy suggests that the mass media is an institutionalised form of delusion. On the internet, this manifests as filter bubbles and echo chambers. Facebook, Google, Netflix, Youtube, Amazon, etc. gather data of one’s searches and one’s preferences and use them to determine what is shown to you: I do not see reality, everything that’s out there, I only see what these filters let me, and I can’t access their criteria or know what they have excluded from my sight. One ends up only meeting those things, which already conform to one’s ideas and preferences, which doesn’t really help in the task of gaining freedom.

Social media also teach us to filter our experience. People do not share whatever meaningful thing that happens to them: they share what makes their life look amazing and special. Does this not get us used to denying whole areas of our human existence How do we square this with the first great task of fully knowing and embracing dukkha?

Bernat Font leads a sitting group in Barcelona and is currently doing an MA in Buddhist Studies. He is mentored by Stephen Batchelor in the Bodhi College Community Dharma Leadership Programme and he blogs at budismosecular.org. This also appears at: https://bodhi-college.org/buddhist-articles-videos-links/facebook-sutta-sn-57-1.

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4 Comments

  1. Jennifer Hawkins
    Posted December 31, 2017 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Ramsey (::whines piteously::), I want to go to his talk on Wednesday (Tuesday)!

    I’m signed up for email updates from Bernat’s blog and read his “Un Argumento Budista contra Facebook” (among other entries) a little while back. He’s so witty and insightful… it’s amazing that you guys are going to be able to have him talk via Zoom. Is there any way that I or others outside of New Zealand can attend the webinar or watch a recording (a link or something)?

    As for the post here:
    There’s a certain truth in connecting “rants” of various sorts to aversion. However, they also can help some people to clarify their own thoughts (just as verbal “rants” can help). Done in a more skillful way, they can be prompts for thought in others. You note this a little later on, but it struck me here. I’m a “ranter,” but for me, it’s very much about coping in a mentally healthy way (as opposed to unhealthy alternatives) and is done (usually) to offer the reader my … process for coping. Some people gain a lot from seeing the solutions that others develop (e.g. articles posted on Tiny Buddha, if you’re familiar with that website), and that’s kind of what I aim for.

    This said, I highly agree with shining a light on social media as an object for Buddhist study. Social media can be addictive (and correlated with depression). Bubbles are an issue. As for reactivity, I think that Facebook can be used as a practice space. “Okay, I’ve seen something triggering. Now I’m going to practice sitting with this emotion before responding, then practice ensuring that my response is skillful.” People need to practice this in general, and I think Facebook is a safer arena than most for practice (that allows for mistakes).

    Sorry if my response isn’t flowing as well as it could. I suppose I’m trying to say that I love that you are asking these kinds of questions. I’d like to add a couple of observations – in particular that while a person’s interaction with Facebook can be reactive and narrow, it doesn’t have to be. If one approaches it as a tool and with the proper intentions, Facebook can become a space for organizing thoughts, encouraging discussion, practicing with noticing the arising of emotion and responding more skillfully, etc. It’s not so much that Facebook needs to be “counter Dhamma” as much as it can be unless we are more careful about how we use it as a tool. There’s a way that it can be positively engaged with. (And I think that’s helpful for people who can’t completely get rid of Facebook – either because they would otherwise be separated from distant family and friends or because they manage positive online groups. Those are good things. It’s just the rest… the negative news… that is an issue, imho.)

  2. Posted December 31, 2017 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Jennifer, just for you I’ll ask Bernat for permission to record his talk and the discussion. One day, you’ll find a way to travel here.

  3. Jennifer Hawkins
    Posted January 1, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to bother, but just got emailed this paper today. It may be of interest:

    Social Media Critics Recognize Mental Health Issues

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