Commentary

‘Facebuddha’ analyzes psychology of social media through a Buddhist lens


 

 

The new book by Ravi Chandra, MD, is a concise introduction to Buddhism, and a forceful exposition on the power and danger of social networking – deftly interwoven with a moving account of the author’s personal life and professional growth as well as his arduous quest for identity.

Social networking has exploded into a major global industry within the last decade, rapidly penetrating and dominating all aspects of our personal and social lives. Instead of promoting social interactions and connections, the lure of instant intimacy often proves illusory. For far too many, the virtual world deepens their sense of isolation and loneliness, fosters jealousy and narcissism, engenders a profound sense of insecurity, and leads to anxiety, depression, and much worse.

Dr. Ravi Chandra
Dr. Ravi Chandra
In his book “Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks” (San Francisco: Pacific Heart Books, 2017), Dr. Chandra comprehensively reviews the extant literature, convincingly demonstrates the magnitude and urgency of the problems, and pleads for actions to minimize the corrupting effects of this new wave of technologies that threatens to take over our world and our lives.

By juxtaposing the Buddha with social networking in the book title, Dr. Chandra expresses his hope and faith that Buddhism could serve as an effective tool for harnessing the force unleashed by these powerful new technologies, helping us to put the genie of our invention back into the bottle. Over the millenia, Buddhism has guided societies and individuals to overcome (“transcend”) crises and adversities, and could play a crucial role in negotiating these still largely uncharted territories.

Despite the popularity of terms such as Zen, meditation, transcendence, and mindfulness, Buddhism remains mysterious and exotic to most modern readers, and is laden with misconceptions and prejudices. This is regrettable, since Buddhism is the most clinically relevant of all major philosophical traditions, and its tenets are most compatible with modern neuroscience. The term philosophical is used here because, at its core, Buddhism represents an uncompromisingly rational approach to dealing with the “human condition.” Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), its founder, admonished against speculating on questions that are “unanswerables,” such as eternity, existence after death, and the origin and ending of the universe. Instead, Siddhartha focused on identifying life’s vicissitudes (Dukkha, “bumpy rides in life,” commonly translated as “suffering”), clarifying forces responsible for these problems, delineating the ultimate goal, and specifying methods for achieving the goal (the “Four Noble Truths”). He then provided systematic paths for solving problems (the “Eightfold Noble Path”). His approaches are akin to what we clinicians strive to do on a daily basis, albeit on a grander scale: diagnosis, pathogenesis, treatment goals, and therapeutic approaches. The framework Siddhartha proposed is austere, rational, practical. It is exactly for this reason that Siddhartha has been called a great physician, a doctor, and a healer.

Cover of the book "Facebuddha"
Rooted in the rich Vedic traditions and further enriched by major thinkers in the centuries following Siddhartha’s life, Buddhist sutras contain voluminous and insightful expositions on the nature of self, perception, cognition, consciousness, mind-body interaction, free will, empathy, and compassion – issues that are just starting to attract the attention of neuroscientists. Despite the fundamental divergence in investigative methods (first-person contemplations vs. third-person observations and experimentations), recent studies using advanced technologies, such as brain imaging, have established the validity of some central Buddhist concepts, demonstrating the feasibility of cross-fertilization between the two traditions.

As a psychiatrist and a practicing Buddhist, Dr. Chandra is well positioned to critically examine these profoundly important issues (Buddhism and social networking), and he did an excellent job in “Facebuddha.” Impressively, Dr. Chandra’s discussions did not take place in a vacuum. They were not just dry intellectual exercises but were embedded in accounts of personal and clinical experiences, demonstrating the relevance of Buddhist thoughts and practices in real life.

Born in South India and raised by a physician mother in half a dozen American cities, Dr. Chandra experienced repeated uprooting and various types of racial/cultural discrimination. His childhood and adolescence were characterized by a long and arduous search for identity. That he has not only survived, but thrived, is a testament to his resilience and resourcefulness. His love of art and poetry played an important role, as did friendships and the support of Asian American communities. But, above all, it was the Buddha’s teachings and examples that have been the most significant sustaining forces in his life. His accounts are a personal testimony to the power of a 2,500-year-old tradition that is still alive and relevant in our postmodern world.

Dr. Keh-Ming Lin
Perhaps the most moving part of the book is the chapter describing the author and his mother’s pilgrimage to the four sacred sites of Buddhism. Progressing through the sites, the author noticed that they are all located in the most impoverished regions of India, with much suffering in plain sight. Reflecting on this, he realized that Siddhartha did not dwell in an idyllic world. He rejected luxuries and even personal salvation. Instead, he spent his life staring at the misery and injustice, never flinching, because this is the real world he lived in, and the people living in this world were part of him. We may continue to argue where such compassion came from (and neuroscience might eventually provide us with more definitive answers), but what matters is that compassion is real, just as suffering and imperfection are.

Dr. Chandra’s book is an endearing chronicle of a remarkable personal journey. Readers will appreciate the opportunity to witness glimpses of this journey and may reasonably expect that such explorations will continue, leading to new vistas that are not only fascinating to behold but also relevant to the practice of our profession.
 

Dr. Lin is professor emeritus of psychiatry, University of California, Los Angeles, and Distinguished Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association. He was the founding director of the National Institute of Mental Health/Harbor-UCLA Research Center on the Psychobiology of Ethnicity, the Coastal Asian Pacific Mental Health Center, and the Long Beach Asian Pacific Mental Health Center. The honors Dr. Lin has received include the Kun-Po Soo Asian American Award, American Psychiatric Association; William Sargant Lecturer, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Great Britain; and honorary professor, Hunan (China) Medical University. Information about the book can be found at www.facebuddha.co.

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