The Facebook Sutta (SN 57.1)

by Bernat Font

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 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 recognize 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 skillful responses, but it generates far more of unskillful 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 institutionalized 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 Community Dharma Leadership training and he blogs at budismosecular.org.

Last updated: 2017/05/24