Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Where dhamma meets droid

On any busy street, maroon-clad monks clutching new smartphones are a common sight. The famed Buddhist shrine, Shwedagon Pagoda, has Wi-Fi and its own community Facebook page.

Across places and platforms, religion in Myanmar – namely Buddhism, as nearly nine-tenths of the population identifies as Buddhist – is crossing over into the realm of technology and vice versa. Though many argue Myanmar's connectivity revolution can help Buddhists spread their beliefs, it has also proved a mixed blessing, according to some. 

"With the advancement of technology there are drawbacks for religion," said U Gunar Linkara, deputy chairperson of the Yangon Region Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee. While religious mobile apps help Buddhists study dhamma – inner truth – mobile phones distract young monks, leading many ministries to ban them during dhamma lecture and study hours. However, no institutional rules prevent monks from using mobile technology.

Technology, as a door to the world, lets both the good and bad in, according to one Buddhism student. 

"The use of mobile phone or ICT technology by monks goes against Sangha rules as it can lead to defilements. For example, news may trigger anger and greed," said Ashin Nanisara, a MA-Thesis student at International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University.

He notes monks can access pornography or risqué content online and indulge in negative influences, which could motivate someone to leave monkshood. "But to keep abreast with the times, [technology] is also necessary otherwise monks can be marginalized from the modern events of the world," he said.

For both, spreading dhamma seems the main boon that comes of using mobile technology, which is where religious app creators come in. One developer, Panacea-Soft founder and CTO Pye Phyo Han, stated two of his dhamma audio and content apps – DhammaDroid for Android and iDhamma for iPhone users – have seen more than 500,000 and 10 million downloads respectively. 

"Dhamma is the clone of Buddha so we need to keep thinking how to bring it along using technology," he said. "At the same time, we need to educate users how to use that latest technology."

Meanwhile Phyu Phyu Htant of Merit Sharer, a group whose UHS-Pali-Myanmar dictionary recently took third prize for the student category of Ideabox’s first app competition in Myanmar, sees no conflicts between practicing Buddhism and engaging with technology. 

“It really depends on how the individual chooses to utilize the technology to enhance the understanding about the religion. The intention is the key,” she said. “However, it is also important to have knowledge to differentiate levels of attachments [so as] not to misuse the technology.”

Merit Sharer wanted to make learning about Buddhism easier, as mobile phones are lighter, cheaper and more convenient to carry around than books or computers, according to Phyu Phyu Htant. This need for convenience meshed with the idea that, through technology, Buddhist knowledge could spread more simply. To facilitate the process, Merit Sharer built the UHS-Pali-Myanmar dictionary, which describes what words in Pali – the language used in Theravadan Buddhist scripture – mean in Burmese and English. 

To both Phyu Phyu Htant and Pye Phyo Han, technology seems the tool that can tear down walls barring access to Buddhist information. Pye Phyo Han's apps assist Buddhists in making "worship anytime, anywhere," according to their descriptions. 

"Since these mobile apps can be easily accessed anytime, anywhere, free of charge, we believe they can bring knowledge to Buddhists who are struggling with their living or having limited exposure to Buddhism," Phyu Phyu Htant said.

Translated by Thet Hlaing