West Coast Online - Issue 30 - page 24

The Buddhist Ethics of Cyberspace

(By Gary L. Ray)


The issue of ethics in online communications is rarely dealt with in a mature manner. Instead, the press, including well-meaning computer experts, often focus on the misdeeds and activities of such groups as skin-heads, neo-nazis, child pornographers and other bizarre groups that operate on the fringes of the online world.

Online ethics can be explored from several perspectives. The Buddhist perspective, in the form of five precepts, or "guidelines for living", is presented here.

Buddhist Ethics

First we must define the goal of Buddhist ethics. Buddhist philosophy teaches us that we are made up of continuously changing physical and mental manifestations. These manifestations, as well as all life, are sacred. Why? Because they contain the seed that allows one to develop into a fully enlightened being, free from suffering and dedicated to helping all other beings who are in pain. The wisdom generated from such a practice, and the resulting compassion, is the goal of Buddhism. Therefore, Buddhist ethics must address problems that impede this development.


Morality, or shila, is the first step in Buddhist practice and is a precondition for enlightenment. Morality falls under the Fourth Truth of Buddhism: "The way out of this mess and the end to suffering is this". Unlike a set of commandments or laws, these precepts are considered a natural morality, one on which the universe is based. When one follows precepts, one is in harmony with the universe. When one violates this natural morality, the universe is unbalanced and usually corrects itself with often painful results.

The Buddhist practice is built on at least 200 precepts. For our purposes, we will concern ourselves with lay people. Monks and nuns are specially trained to uphold morality, something that lay people have a much harder time accomplishing because of our ever-changing environment and social conditions. Lay people are expected to follow a minimum of 5 precepts.

The ZEN of Cyberspace: Five Online Precepts

I would like to present the 5 Lay Precepts in the framework of a "cyber" environment, one in which reality is often hard to discern from fantasy and which desperately needs Bodhisattvas (helpers on the path) to show a positive moral example. I would like to present you with a model for "cyberprecepts", a guideline for ethical activity for the "cyber-sangha" in the world of Cyberspace:

Each of these precepts, as stated earlier, are not laws or commandments. They are ethical guidelines for fostering spiritual development. As ideals, precepts are often hard to live up to. One should occasionally review ones progress to explore where one may be lacking. We will also fail at times to uphold the precepts. In this case we need to be firm but not harsh, like dealing with a small child. Dust yourself off and stand up again. One Zen saying reads: "Fall down seven times, get up eight."

Refrain from Killing

There are many kinds of killing. In our online culture, the biggest victims are well meaning ideas or concepts. This is a problem in Cyberspace, where we are constantly bombarded by ideas that seem foreign or bizarre. In fact, many of us come to the net just to experience this cornucopia of ideas.

We must vow to promote ideas as if they were endowed with their own lives. We must also foster a peaceful atmosphere and manner that promotes similar activity. If you meet up with an idea that you happen to like or respect, foster it and make it grow. If you encounter a nasty idea that you don't care for, or even despise, cross the grid and walk the other way. Be just and avoid violence at all costs.

Violence also comes in the form of "ones and zeroes." We should have a look at our online "games" collection. For example, Castle Wolfenstein is a programming marvel - but it is also an incredibly violent interactive game, whose realism only increases its popularity. These kinds of toys may appear to be harmless. After all, nobody gets hurt, right? However, it's the psychological effects that we should be concerned with. With increased exposure to violence, whether real or make-believe, we become desensitized. Since our goal is realization, desensitization is another hurdle in understanding ourselves and how our minds work.

Refrain From Stealing

Stealing while online may seem impossible. After all, what is there to steal? For one, there is time. Users who logon with multiple accounts or under other people's names or on systems where they don't belong, steal time, a valuable community resource. Callers must understand that security precautions are in place not to gather marketing data, but to deter theft of this valuable commodity.

Most of us use shareware. Although we are not legally required to register shareware, use beyond specified limits is a violation of the trust between you and the software author. In a sense, it is stealing. We should register shareware when possible.

To deter theft, we should practice the opposite of stealing: giving. Please give advice to confused people or those with questions. Also, please upload authorized software to promote the concept of shareware and freeware. Another important point is to register with and support online services and publications that you use regularly. Like spiritual centers, your donations are needed to promote the activities of the many so-called "free" entities.

Refrain from Misusing Sex

One principle of high tech life is that technology is often used for "adult" purposes. There are many adult online services, conferences, files, and soon the concept of virtual sex will "mature". Adult services and advertisements are a major revenue source for many BBSs and publications.

Sexuality can be a positive aspect of our lives, one that fits into a spiritual framework. To form an ethical online guideline for the use of sex, one must ask: "What is the appropriate use of sex?" I would answer that it would be an activity that promotes the full nature of a human being - body and mind. Titillation and exploitation often fail to miss this mark. There are some tasteful nude graphics of both men and women, and there are interesting adult conferences on various sexual issues. However, the line of tastefulness is hard to draw, and these materials don't seem to overtly promote spiritual practice.

In addition, adult software and graphics lack material form - they are not real. They lack the substance of a true lover and the intimacy of one who cares for you. The goal here is full psychological and spiritual development. We want to base ourselves in reality, not the delusion of fantasy and false values.

We must also be wary of the people around us. In this cyberworld of amorphous people and personalities, we will eventually come upon individuals who, through online interaction, become sexually attractive. We must not treat this differently from any other encounter in RL (Real Life), the opposite of the 'imaginary' world of VR (Virtual Reality) or Cyberspace. We must continually show respect and restraint, appropriate to the situation. Since our likelihood of actually meeting the individual is slim, the emphasis here is psychological.

Refrain From Lying

Nowhere in the world is truth more elusive than in the Net. There is less inhibition to speaking ones mind or trying to appear important. The net can form a mask that hides one from ones personality and responsibilities.

While online, we should tell the truth, including one's real name and phone number (if required). The reason for requiring truthful information is to foster responsibility for one's actions. Users having a name similar to Julie Smith have a tendency to be more responsible than those with names like Butch Cassidy or Batman. This small bit of truth allows us to foster responsibility and community among the cybersangha.

When responding to messages in conferences, remember that online services can be considered "electronic publishers" of information. Don't say or claim anything that you are not fully prepared to back up with proper sources. This also includes correct speech that promotes spiritual practice and the upholding of these precepts.

Refrain from Abusing Drugs

In Buddhism there are three types of poison: greed, hate, and delusion. They are called poison because they impede correct perception of reality and can cause additional suffering because of that imperception. When we talk about drugs, we're talking about "things" that create chemical changes in our bodies that enhance one of these three poisons.

Correct perception of reality precludes drug abuse which can keep us confused and off-balance. Therefore, like in the example of medicinal purposes, drugs and alcohol are not inherently bad or evil. It's only when drugs unnecessarily cloud over perception that delusion (and suffering) begins.

How could drug abuse possibly be a problem in Cyberspace? There's a more subtle form of drug use that releases chemicals into our bodies through outside stimuli. In Cyberspace these catalysts are those dreaded "ones and zeroes", meaning programs like shareware games. You may laugh, but watch your breathing the next time you play the latest VGA/SoundBlaster virtual-destruction game. Not only do these programs desensitize us to death and suffering, they give caffeine, cocaine, and other drugs a real run for the money. This is not to say you shouldn't play them (they're definitely one of my vices); just be aware of how they affect the body, and decide if it's how you really want to feel.

These five "cyberprecepts" form the basis for the "cybersangha", the goal being to view things just as they are, without delusion. It may sound revolutionary in this instant-gratification society, but the cyberculture is used to periodic "revolutions". May auspiciousness be upon you.

Gary Ray is a Zen Buddhist lay monk, and a graduate of the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley. Gary is the publisher of the CyberSangha publication, which is on the web at www.wenet.net/~csangha/.

Page 24 had ads for Bob Mann Golf (www.GOLFBOBMANN.com), Launch Point, and The Association of Online Professionals (www.aop.org).

Found on The Net

(author unknown)

What's wrong with a waiting period before you publish a newspaper - while the government checks your facts?

That question, seen on a button at a science fiction convention, aptly summarizes the position of Kent Hackett, founder and chairman of Press Control, Incorporated (PCI). Hackett promises that PCI's legislative agenda for 1996 will outshine the presidential election campaign and enact more unprecedented change than the House's Contract with America.

Hackett held a news conference in Washington, DC, recently in which he and other spokesmen for the organization spelled out the proposals they want to see enacted, and the reasons for them. One such item is a seven-day waiting period between composition of a publication and its release for printing and distribution, while a newly established U.S. Bureau of Accuracy, Truthfulness and Factuality (BATF) investigates the assertions contained in it.

"A waiting period on publications would go a long way toward alleviating the damage done by hole-in-the-wall publishers," Hackett says, "and we're confident that the real newspapers and magazines, having as their primary purpose the imparting of accurate information to the public, will have no problem with the proposed law.

Only those publishers that routinely spread inaccurate information, untruths and half-truths, and political propaganda in the guise of information, will suffer more than an inconvenience." The waiting period legislation, dubbed the Hackett Bill, is only the beginning of the blitz planned for next year. Other proposals include laws to prohibit the use or possession of a printer within 1,000 feet of a school.

"Our kids are having a tough enough time being educated without being exposed to pamphleteering by irresponsible people," says Hackett. In answer to complaints that the law would also ban printers in schools, Hackett concedes that some form of permit system may be needed to ensure that the right people can publish within school zones. "We want only licensed printers operated by people who have demonstrated proficiency and knowledge of safety rules," he said. "Licensing will allow the government to enforce safety compliance. Too many personal printers are based on dangerous laser technology. Anyone who has seen an episode of Star Trek or a Star Wars movie can clearly see that these death-ray printers can't be allowed to fall into the hands of just anybody."
Other proposals PCI plans to push through Congress:

Appearing with Hackett at the news conference was Rep. Harley Hoohaw (P-DQ), who announced that he was already actively seeking co-sponsors for the Hackett Bill, and that his staff was hard at work drafting bills to enact PCI's other goals.

PCI's agenda is based on the under-reported belief by pre-eminent constitutional scholars that the free-press provision of the First Amendment, having been drafted at a time when today's high-tech engines of publication could not have been anticipated, does not protect the unregulated use of desktop publishing software, personal printers and copiers, or other such devices. PCI points to the existence now, unlike the 1780s, of organized news-gathering organizations.

"We will not allow the scare-mongering and lies of the printer nuts to forestall this eminently reasonable and necessary legislation. And we already have a pledge from President Clinton to sign the Hackett Bill when it reaches his desk."
PCI was founded by Kent Hackett after his brother-in-law, Pat Pending, was gruesomely slandered by a drive-by pamphleteer wielding an assault printer.

Pages 26-32 listed thousands of BBSs and web sites.

Pages 26-32 had ads for Grafix (www.grafix.com), Pacific Exchange BBS, UNIROM (www.unirom.com), West Coast Online (the ISP), Black Tie Records (www.wco.com/~blacktie), The Sysop's Survival Guide, Lincoln's Cabin BBS, IBBS West, Bytenet Online (www.bytenet.com), and The Family BBS

End of Issue 30, the last issue of the BABBA/WCO magazine. A lot of work, but it did help change the world, at least a little bit... Go back or to Mark's home page.