Case Study: Plum Village Builds an Online Sangha

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The Unified Buddhist Church, commonly known as the Plum Village International Sangha and personified in Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, launched a social media presence approximately one year prior to a 2009 U.S. Teaching Tour. Led by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh, the effort was launched using Twitter and Facebook in an effort to reach a broader, and younger, audience for people interested in mindfulness practice but may not frequent static web pages (see Plum Village photos here).

“The goal was not lofty, but simply to put the voice of Thich Nhat Hanh into the new social media environment,” said the online architect of the effort, Kenley Neufeld, who is a lay practitioner ordained in the Unified Buddhist Church. “I wanted to reach a new, younger, non-Buddhist audience. People who can practice mindfulness. Anyone.”

Engagement

The effort launched on Facebook and Twitter in 2008. The social media efforts were integrated into our email distribution lists and on the traditional web pages.

The online audience for the Thich Nhat Hanh branded accounts grew in ways that were unexpected, and it grew fast. The initial demographics represented groups not typical of those who came to retreats. Many more young people and also a more equal balance of male and female followers.

Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Thich Nhat Hanh

“What’s really happened is that a conversation is taking place between audience members,” said Neufeld. “They talk to each other. Discuss. Explore concepts and ideas together. The ‘official’ page can really takes a back seat and allow for the conversation to take place on its own.” 

The traditional community wasn’t too keen on the Twitter/Facebook stuff. However, monastics like Facebook because it connects them to their brothers and sisters in the different centers across the globe, so in many ways they are leading the way. This is why we see the online monastery concept happening. We definitely have both voices now – many new people and some longer term practitioners.

Outcomes   

Sangha Watches the Sun Rise

The biggest outcome for the Unified Bhuddhist Church and Neufeld was the ability to reach audiences. On the 2009 tour, the Colorado event was the largest retreat on the U.S. tour ever with 900 attendees (see photos from the retreat here), and the dynamic experience spawned a new book, “One Buddha Is Not Enough.” Today, the volunteer effort now has a significant Facebook community with more than 160,000 members.

As a result of these successes, there is a new movement to create an online monastery where people can hear and practice the dharma at a distance. Additional forms of online media are being incorporated into the Church’s efforts. Thich Nhat Hanh has encouraged this and provided the resources (monastics and money) to help make it happen. The group is purchasing computers, cloud servers, and other resources.

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Two of the other centers in the Order of Interbeing tradition (Deer Park Monastery and European Institute of Applied Buddhism) have created Facebook pages where they are interacting with the audience. Deer Park, in particular, has started an Ask a Dharma Teacher effort though Facebook. For the most recent Southeast Asian Teaching Tour, the Church is livestreaming its efforts. In addition, it continues its Facebook and Twitter initiatives to share live dharma talks by including quotes and key concepts through the social media environment.

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  • http://johnhaydon.com John Haydon

    Geoff,

    What I like about this example is that their primary goal has been to extend their ability to have meaningful discussions with seekers. The norm is usually the opposite: Using Facebook and Twitter to push out content with a secondary goal (maybe) of dialogue. What’s ironic though is that these platforms include tools for dialogue as a primary feature.

    Great job, oh wise one! I bow to you. :-)

    John

  • Mike Kondratick

    Thanks for sharing, Geoff. This seems like a perfect example of a straightforward approach to social media married with compelling/relevant content leading to a great result.

  • http://kenleyneufeld.com Kenley Neufeld

    Thank you Geoff. With the goal of meaningful discussion online, I’m still working on methods to facilitate that on Twitter. Perhaps people are connecting with each other as a result of tweets, it’s much more difficult to track that conversation on Twitter when compared to Facebook.

    I’d be interested in hearing what others have been able to accomplish and how we might be able to apply this to the Plum Village presence. What tips or suggestions do you have to build a stronger relationship?

  • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

    Twitter is so much harder because you have to have that live voice. Otherwise it becomes an information feed, which seems to be the current direction. Without actual practitioners manning Twitter everyday, I wouldn’t experiment more…

  • Karen Harrison

    Smile we are online. The online sangha is a great way for people to interbe when physically this may not be possible.In Toronto, our sangha is very much impressed and grateful for the online Dharma Talks and it helps us very much with our daily practice.

    I am new to this also. I would be happy to see programs that are just for children’s practice and maybe some gardening and inter-peacemaking and deep listening programs. An online mentoring program would be lovely too.

    I would like to also say that during this current time with my father’s illness, it has been so nourishing for our family and myself to have the online sangha family.

    Many thanks and this is a happy moment.

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