Case Study: Plum Village Builds an Online Sangha

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.

Blog Training at New Hamlet

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.

Warrior, Artist and Yogi – A Lesson in Balance

Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Thich Nhat Hanh

While in France, I had the opportunity to meet and have a brief conversation with zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (nicknamed Thay by his sangha). After telling him about my hopes of affecting change and awareness with the environment and to a larger extent Zoetica, Thay said to me, “You must be part warrior, part artist, and part yogi.” Then he simply smiled at me.

Of course, like any novice, my unvoiced mental response to such a statement was, “Huh?”

But I think over the past weekend I finally understood the full impact of Thay’s words. The launch of Zoetica really drove it home.

Warrior: I got this part right off the bat. This is easy for me. Anyone who knows me understands that I’m a fighter. I get up no matter how hard life throws punches, and I know how to win.

Starting a company is an absolute war, even one with Zoetica’s mission of “providing superior communication consulting, training, and strategy to help mindful organizations affect social change.” You are pushing a big boulder up a massive mountain for years, literally. Last week we had a great start, and I am proud of our accomplishments, but it was just the beginning of what will be a very long journey, and I felt it by Friday (as I do this week, too!).

Going to “war” — even for good outcomes — drains your soul. Further, so many fighters for peace are unpeaceful inside. And what does that really mean? How can we give away what we don’t have? That’s where Thay’s other two suggestions come into play.

Artist: Art represents a human’s capture of that in life that fascinates their soul. In essence, art expresses a person’s interpretation of the beauty, in the moment. When we express beauty in life, we come to appreciate the joy of living, and that my friends is invaluable.

In that sense, to be balanced as an entrepreneur or someone trying to affect change, we cannot be all warrior. For then there will be no beauty and we become the fight itself: Anger, misery, outrage, and yes, hate. At that point, one must ask one’s self what they are fighting for? Is it to relieve the world of an ill, or to revisit a seed of the negative past and indirectly, replenish the seed transmitting its angst into others?

About 18 months ago, I engaged in painting and then photography in full. Also, at least one or two posts a week tends to be a creative experience. Beauty through art channels my soul back to the spiritual core of life, and reminds me why I am here, what I hope to achieve.

Yogi: OK, I think it’s important to define this word because there are many western misconceptions of it. A yogi practices yoga, which simply means, “any of the methods or disciplines prescribed, especially a series of postures and breathing exercises practiced to achieve control of the body and mind, tranquillity, etc.”

I simply take this to mean one must engage in whatever spiritual activity it takes to become peaceful and loving in mind. Prayer, meditation, walking in nature, exercise, and even taking and editing photos. Whatever it takes to calm my mind.

The yogi part was the light bulb for me this weekend. Four years ago when I started Livingston Communications I fought and fought and fought until I dropped. Then when I recovered, I fought some more. This type of slog is the prescribed state of the American entrepreneur. Everything became about the company, and I had no balance in my life. It also made me pretty miserable after a while.

But to achieve my hopes with the environment, and on a larger scale our dreams with Zoetica, such behavior will not do. There must be balance. To help the world, to achieve the kind of result where we are truly benefitting others, I truly believe I must be a warrior for the beauty I appreciate in life everyday, and I must do so with peace in my heart and mind. For I cannot give away what I do not possess.

Warrior, Artist and Yogi really seems to be a prescription for spiritual balance. In that spirit, I spent much of last weekend practicing, and also editing photos. And hopefully as a result, my efforts this week yielded more peace with the effect of more positive change. Thanks, Thay.