2020 Volume 5 Issue 2 Pages 6-41
This paper explores the ephemerality of digital spaces by paying special ethnographic attention to removed or deleted spaces—what I call no-longer-places—from the Buddhist corners of the virtual world of Second Life. While some Buddhist informants in Second Life tended to attribute the virtual disappearances to the Buddhist truth of impermanence, the Buddhist communities of Second Life were built to endure for some time. Therefore, the instances of failed no-longer-places continue to have cultural significance in their own meaningful and haunting ways.
Since its launch in 2003, Second Life (SL), a virtual environment in which the content is largely created by its in-world denizens, has become a place for residents to work, play, shop, and even practice their faith. Second Life, like actual life (AL), is comprised of a mix of secular and sacred spaces (Falcone 2019). Although a corporate entity, Linden Lab, maintains the online platform, the denizens themselves designed and created most of the landscapes, objects, clothing, and art that one finds in SL (Malaby 2009). Following in the footsteps of Tom Boellstorff’s study of the virtual human in the social world of Second Life in Coming of Age in Second Life (2008), as well as other research being done on the cultures (Consalvo 2011; Hillis 2009; Martey and Consalvo 2011; Pearce and Artemesia 2011; Schroeder 1996; Smith and Kollock 1999; Sunden 2003; Taylor 2009) and religions (Campbell 2011; Campbell 2013; Grieve 2013; Helland 2013; Schroeder, Heather, and Lee 1998) of virtual spaces, I engaged in a multi-year study of Buddhist practice in Second Life from 2010 to 2012 and 2018 to 2020. 1 In this article, I discuss my Buddhist informants’ thinking regarding impermanence and the ways that notions of precarity, and attention to the “nimbus of affects” surrounding endings and loss (Berlant and Greenwalt 2012, 88), can elucidate the complex feelings experienced by virtual actors in spaces that can so easily change and so often disappear.
The diverse religious landscape of SL includes several Buddhist buildings and communities, and Buddhist holy objects have been replicated and sacralized in SL (Falcone 2015). The Buddhist landscapes, temples, and stupas in Second Life have been crafted by the residents themselves, 2 many of whom came to Buddhist spaces for communal and private meditations, teachings, and ritual (Connelly 2010; Connelly 2013; Grieve 2017). To the uninitiated, it may seem strange to argue, as Hill-Smith did (2011), that through digital “co-location” people have engaged meaningfully and quite spiritually with virtual sacred spaces, but the scholarship is not ambiguous on this point: many people have had active, robust religious lives in virtual worlds. 3 In this article, I background the vigorous cultural life of Buddhism in SL to focus upon what is less well-explored: that is, what is no longer extant. Here I seek to learn from the removed Buddhist spaces that sometimes leave digital traces (for example, in the form of blog mentions, photographic reminders, or archived code), although these traces are not in the form more familiar to us in the actual world of visible, decaying ruins. 4 My focus on the built-then-unbuilt, deleted Buddhist spaces also illustrates the extent to which Buddhist concepts like “emptiness” and “impermanence” can be useful to think with in this precarious, fragile virtual world.
In this article, by exploring what happened when sacrality wore thin and certain Buddhist virtual places and objects ceased to be, I complicate Andrew Hoskins’ notion of the “end of decay time” (Hoskins 2013), in which he suggests that (for good or for ill) digitally mediated sociality has immobile, permanent, necessarily archival qualities. By focusing on no-longer-places and loss, I am contributing to the anthropological literature on precarity and affect in virtual worlds. Furthermore, given the unique perspective of Buddhists with regard to impermanence, it is significant to look at how precarity can sometimes be interpreted as both social failure and spiritual opportunity at the same time.
I undertook a focused period of fieldwork from 2010 to 2012 by regularly doing participant observation and interviews (formal and informal) in the Buddhist spaces of Second Life. 5 Specifically, I spent several hours a week at the Buddha Center in SL attending teachings and events, and talking to builders and members of the Buddha Center in SL. I did regular “field trips” to other religious sites in SL to better understand the particularities of my primary site. While I focused on the Buddha Center, I interviewed several independent Buddhist builders and some organizers and members of the Zen sangha in SL that Gregory Grieve studied for his book Cyber Zen (2017). I followed Tom Boellstorff’s example as modeled in Coming of Age in Second Life (2008) and with his coauthors in their methodological handbook (Boellstorff et al. 2012), which demonstrates that one can follow the methodological conventions of cultural anthropology. I found specific utility in Boellstorff’s model for his monograph, which asserts that it is not necessary to interview people in actual life about their experiences in SL: rather, one can interview people in SL avatar-to-avatar. Especially from 2010 to 2012, this was my primary method of engagement: avatar-to-avatar interviews in SL and substantial participant observation in-world. In line with one of Christine Hine’s foundational principles for digital research: “This is ethnography in, of and through the virtual” (2000, 65).
In preparation for this article and another (Falcone 2019), I returned to Second Life in 2018–2020, after an absence of about five years, to reengage regularly with Buddhist SL for several rounds of follow-up participant observation and interviews. The second phase of my fieldwork was more part-time and more targeted, with several rounds of two to three months of regular attentiveness to particular places and to particular no-longer-places. In addition, this article includes some autoethnographic reflections based on my experience with a Buddhist place that subsequently became a no-longer-place. My own positionality as a nonheritage Buddhist who practiced meditation in SL, even as I conducted research, is relevant here. I had done professional ethnographic and personal meditative work at Druk Yul during my first fieldwork stint in SL, but it had become a no-longer-place by the time I returned for my second stint. Since I had developed an attachment to Druk Yul and its environs before it ceased to be, I felt an unexpected pang of loss when it disappeared. (Although my Buddhist identity is germane, I should note that one might also feel deep nostalgia for the places one once frequented, whether one is religiously attuned to that place or not.)
Since no-longer-places are no longer extant in the digital now of time and space, how might scholars study them? The invisible, deleted, non-ruins have echoes or traces that still exist in digital space, if not the virtual world they have been scrubbed from, and so there is potential for a somewhat unsettled temporality. In 2000, Christine Hine noted that some writers oversimplified the potential for the internet to transcend time and space: “On the Internet,” she wrote, “it is said, you can be intimate with people who are not there any more, or who have yet to arrive” (84). But in contemporaneous SL, your avatar is either there for other avatars to interact with or not (“away from keyboard” and “lag” notwithstanding), and a virtual build is either there for other avatars to see, touch, or engage with or it is not.
Digital traces may take the form of blogs, photos, videos, research papers, 6 or even notations of some kind that remain after the object or place they refer to is gone. Like the semantic messiness faced by Hine’s hypothetical Martians—who she surmised would struggle to sort through various internet sites’ truncated, non-updated, nonchronological, or otherwise decontextualized narratives (2000)—digital echoes remain findable after the fact without context. While the Bodhi Sim is gone from SL, someone searching the internet may find traces that erroneously suggest to them it is an extant digital place. Since no-longer-places are gone while their digital echoes and memories remain, these traces can be seen as a form of the “temporal collage” (cf. Castells 1996, as cited in Hine 2000, 103) that Hine found useful to think with as she looked at various websites surrounding a particular court case. Traces, like archival material, must be pieced together and contextualized in order to be rendered coherent by social scientists.
While some removed virtual spaces had digital echoes, some did not: some old builds are just completely gone, inaccessible except by human memory. 7 I did not study any spaces with no digital echo, but it is important to acknowledge that they exist. For every extant virtual place there are countless no-longer-places; those that once had some degree of individual or social significance are worthy of scholarly attention. 8
Interviews and communications with users and/or builders are important tools for the robust discernment of no-longer-places. Just as when anthropologists seek to understand bygone worldviews and events that once unfolded in the actual world—for example, aspects of an arrested “new religious movement” such as Heaven’s Gate (Harding 2005)—we can rely upon media and archival traces, as well as interviews. By focusing on the digital traces and memory of the spaces lost within still extant digital worlds, I suggest a workable framework available for studying no-longer-places. Here I am contributing to the methodological toolkit available to those undertaking the ethnographic study of digital places and cultures by adding attention to the no-longer-place as a complement to the studies of no-longer-worlds, such as the work done with refugees from the abandonware studied by Pearce (Pearce and Artemesia 2011).
In order to contextualize the slew of Buddhist no-longer-places that are discussed in this piece, it is important to note that there were spaces that persisted and thrived even as others fell out of use and were deleted or disabled. Virtual landscapes are so rapidly made and unmade, inhabited and abandoned, that one might make the mistake of seeing them as anthropologically insignificant. But the careful study of virtual “villages” refuses such a dismissal (Laurel 1990, 93; Escobar 1994, 218), since virtual spaces can be very socioculturally meaningful to their regular interlocutors.
Christopher Helland has written that the newness of virtual spaces is taken into account as a user interacts with them; there is more of a persistent need for vigilant enculturation in online sacred spaces than AL ones, since shared social expectations take time to develop: “The online virtual environment is a fairly new social space and in many ways it has not developed a ‘cultural memory’ that the majority of people in the environment subscribe to—despite recreating the symbols and the architecture online. For example, in Second Life there are amazing recreations of sacred churches; however, the behaviour of many online avatars is anything but sacred or respectful…. There is no collective ‘ritual memory’ that grounds people’s behaviour and orients them toward the sacredness of the events occurring. Ritual memory is developing in places like Second Life … but participants must prescribe the area and impose restrictions on the liminality itself, enforcing the sacredness of the event by booting and blocking people that are disruptive” (Helland 2013, 34). Even as Helland notes that collective memory had to develop over time, he rightfully acknowledges that at the time he was writing it was developing in SL. Certainly there were shared cultural norms and expectations at the Buddha Center in SL during both of my research tours (Falcone 2015, 2019).
Indeed, it is clear that collective memory has now taken root in many virtual worlds, as players and residents have learned social norms and enculturate others in their turn. T. L. Taylor, a scholar who studied the EverQuest virtual world (2009), noted that even as players feel a sense of embodiment (even to the extent of “motion sickness” at times) (11), they also develop a sense of emplacement; describing her own experience of growing attachment to place, Taylor writes, “During those first few weeks of play I got to know the area very well. When I venture back I still remember the valleys and hills, the location points of many monsters I killed…or was killed by. Returning is not unlike going back to a real-life hometown, with all the memories the landscape and architecture evoke” (32). As Paul Connerton writes, memory is both individual and social; and shared memories are very much a part of how we experience the present (1989). The editors of a book about the evolving game-world of EVE, Internet Spaceships Are Serious Business, show how fictive and social histories can emerge in a virtual world in ways that enculturate new players and enable robust online community building and sociality (Carter, Bergstrom, and Woodford 2016). Thus, the collective memories rooted in online experiences have created the conditions for shared nostalgia and feelings of loss as virtual places change or disappear.
Digital Traces: Deleted Buddhist Spaces Remembered
As I asserted in the introduction, no-longer-places deserve some attention in any comprehensive understanding of Buddhist practices in Second Life because the ecosystem of virtual Buddhism includes the remembered debris and detritus of what has come and gone in addition to what still stands. In this section, I will discuss three case studies, based on digital traces and interviews, of Buddhist no-longer-places in Second Life: the Heartwood Forest Monastery, the Bodhi Sim, and the Potala Palace Project.
The Buddhist spaces in SL that I explore in this section were erased or archived before I began my research in 2010, because the makers were unwilling or unable to sustain the cost of keeping their build active. Not unlike Buddhist centers in AL, Buddhist spaces in SL needed funding in order to sustain themselves. Linden Lab, the creators and regulators of the SL platform, made much of their profit from leasing virtual real estate (if an operator chose to buy a monthly or annual membership, it came with a specific amount of land). Therefore, at any given time, each Buddhist place in SL had a certain amount of digital information or mass that it could manage, and only a certain number of avatars it could host—limitations dictated by Linden Lab based on leasing categories and rental agreements. Echoing what Pearce wrote when explaining why an Uru-themed island in SL had been painstakingly built and then disappeared: “Second Life islands are notoriously expensive to maintain and the small handful of artisans could no longer sustain their creation” (Pearce and Artemesia 2011, 265). 9
Heartwood Forest Monastery
The Heartwood Forest Monastery, my first example, had vanished from SL before I began fieldwork in earnest, but it was remembered by reputation and my informants liked to talk about it. During interviews with SL Buddhists active in various Buddhist realms from 2010 to 2012, I was told that many Buddhists in SL soured on the Heartwood Forest Monastery because at least some of their “monastics” in SL were not monastics in AL. According to my informants in other communities, some of the erstwhile supporters of the Heartwood Forest Monastery were disillusioned by the lack of formally credentialed teachers there, and soon began drifting away to other communities in SL with more substantive vetting processes. When traffic slowed at Heartwood Forest Monastery, the build was not maintained.
I was never able to track down the builder(s), but several of my informants from the Buddha Center mentioned Heartwood Forest as a space whose failures had taught other Buddhist communities the lesson that virtual Buddhism would work best as a new platform for established traditions. When I interviewed one of the founders of the Buddha Center in October 2010, the problems with Heartwood Forest were a motivating factor for starting a new community. The co-organizers began the Buddha Center as an antidote for the nascent problems cropping up with Buddhist communities in SL: “I saw how there were good people, but I also saw intentional bad information, or some people portraying themselves as monks (but I knew better)…” They went on, paraphrasing their earlier conversations as collaborators, “Why don’t we start a center—credible teaching—real monks. We’ll do intensive interviews with potential teachers. We can start with RL people and convince them to come on. We need ordained dharma teachers.” Heartwood Forest Monastery was one of the spaces that inspired, through its failings, the birth of other SL Buddhist centers organized on different principles of authenticity.
Screenshot of Heartwood Forest Monastery (Sands 2007)
Apple Seven, one of my informants who was an active participant in events at both the Buddha Center and the Zen center in SL, explained to me in 2011 that he felt that it is dangerous if people can just“play monk” or say that they are a religious leader online. He noted that there are gullible and fragile people in SL that are looking for connections and guidance, and Linden Lab does not monitor people’s real identities or provide for quality control. The Heartwood Forest Monastery did not thrive, Apple Seven told me, because “it was not real Buddhism in SL, it was fake Buddhism in SL.” While Apple Seven had spent some time there himself, he did not mourn it when he found out that it had disappeared from the SL landscape.
In these interviews, Heartwood Forest Monastery lives on as a memory with a lesson to teach. That is, its failure taught other Buddhists in SL that Buddhism worked best when it embraced a loose replication of the hierarchies, aesthetics, practices and ideas that one finds in actual life. Aside from these memories, there is very little trace of Heartwood Forest Monastery. A single screenshot, taken in 2007 and posted publicly to Flickr with the caption, “Me meditating at a Buddhist shrine at Heartwood Forest Monastery, Second Life,” is the only digital remnant I could find of SL’s Heartwood Forest Monastery (Sands 2007).
The Bodhi Sim
The second expunged Buddhist space I will discuss here is the Bodhi Sim (built as a part of the Manjushri Land Trust), which once represented sacred landscapes from Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions (see fig. 2). The Bodhi Sim was a pilgrimage space, where holy objects and spaces were designed to inspire reverence. In its Vajrayana Mt. Meru sim, when an operator selected a three-point prostration from a menu, their avatar would prostrate as an audio track played “aum mani padme hum.” Barrett writes of the Bodhi Sim, “While the specific meanings of the prostrations … may escape the avatar’s operator, the sense of holiness associated with them is more difficult to miss. This sense of holiness is engendered in the relationship between the avatar and its operator, through a perspective that simulates the experience of the prostrations via the avatar. Rather than the pure spectacle of viewing an external body performing prostrations, the operator of the avatar is participating in a manifestation of the holy. Furthermore, the audio of the chanting both reinforces the actions of the avatar as observing the holy, and creates an audile space around the operator of the avatar” (Barrett 2010). Indeed, the Bodhi Sim successfully created holy spaces that many interlocutors moved through with considerable awe and respect.
In 2011, when I corresponded with Tenzin Tuque, a Canadian Buddhist who had designed and built much of the Bodhi Sim, I learned that he felt that the Bodhi Sim was supposed to be a place where people could make merit through operating their sims to prostrate and soak in the benefits of choosing to be in a Buddhist space rather than a decadent disco (in fact one of his other builds was abutted by an SL brothel at one time, much to his discomfort). He emphasized to me that from his perspective the Bodhi Sim in SL was as much a Buddhist sacred space as any temple or pilgrimage place in AL, since it was “all illusory anyway.” The fact that he was a prolific builder in SL and responsible for many Buddhist spaces and objects there was a part and parcel of his Buddhist practice.
Tenzin Tuque believed that SL offered a particular and unique opportunity for Buddhist practice. In a blog post about one of his Buddhist builds, he wrote, “SL is like a mandala—a three-dimensional otherwordly abode—not for deities or buddhas, but for our inherent buddhanature, as obscured as it may be at times. So we build temples within this landscape to celebrate and remind ourselves of said potential, just as generations past explored uncharted terrain in RL, and we see what happens next....” (Tuque 2005). His many builds did capture the imaginations of countless visitors, and although some builds survived, most melted away into the ether.
In the end, while the Bodhi Sim was heralded as a beautiful spiritual retreat, it could not sustain itself. It was too big, required too many “prims” (SL objects, which have digital mass), and did not attract enough attention or donations to remain viable. The builders tried to get an AL temple or organization to take ownership or sponsor the Bodhi Sim, but when there were no takers, the organizers shut it down in 2010. 10 As I described in a previous publication, the Bodhi Sim met its end in a ritualistic manner: the community gathered, the prims were put inside a container (meant to evoke a reliquary or the vase that a disassembled sand mandala is swept into), and then the vessel itself was disposed of (Falcone 2015, 182). The manner in which it was unrendered shows a respect for the sacred space that had been constructed, and an attachment and appreciation for the place that made its destruction a point of loss for several people I talked to in the SL Buddhist community.
Screenshot of “Bodhi – Land of Buddhadharma” on YouTube (Curci 2009)
Of the invisible non-ruins that I have reflected upon here, the Manjushri Land Trust has the most echoes that still exist in digital space. For example, the blogs that I quoted from above preserved the thoughts of the builder for a time, even though most of his builds are gone (Tuque 2005). There are many YouTube videos of SL explorations that may long outlive the particular SL space that was thus documented, the Bodhi Sim among them. At the time of writing in 2020, there were several video tours of the Bodhi Sim still accessible on YouTube: for example, “Bodhi – Land of Buddhadharma” (Curci 2009) and “Prostrations Performed by Avatar in Second Life” (Barrett 2009). The fact that one can still view a video representation of this no-longer-place has some limited value as an artifact, but the fact remains: one can no longer go there to explore the place oneself.
Potala Palace Project
The third case study of digital non-ruins is that of the Potala Palace Project, which sought to replicate the AL Potala Palace in virtual space. In order to fund the Potala Palace project, organizers asked Buddhists in SL for donations, and even held some fundraisers. Fundraisers in this context were parties in SL that required an admission fee. The organizers of the Potala Palace sim also asked for donations from AL nonprofits, but there was not enough energy, nor funding, to maintain the build, and the project went on permanent hiatus. There was an official SL “group” established to fundraise for the project, but during the decade that I came and went from SL there was never a virtual Potala Palace extant to explore. The main organizer/creator was a nonheritage Buddhist who said that he had studied in Tibetan and Korean Buddhist traditions.
The Potala Palace build did have some digital traces that persisted. The group was still listed in the SL directory when I last checked in 2018, with these stated goals—“1. Building Tibetan Potala Palace in SL as a ‘Gift of Love’ to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetan People, Past & future Dalai Lamas for preserving Tibetan Buddhist Culture; 2. Invite His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama into Second Life for an Inauguration of Virtual Potala Palace in SL; 3. Help Build a Tibetan Community in SL” (Linden Lab 2018)—but the group had no SL land or assets, and seemed to be defunct for all practical purposes. There was still an accessible blog in cyber space: “Building Potala Palace in a Virtual World” (Jun, n.d.) and some photographic traces. On Flickr in 2018, I found a photostream from someone, called “ffleur_fleur,” who had saved multiple screenshots of the Potala Palace build in SL “under construction.”
In my first round of interviews in 2010–2012 with SL users whom I met at the Buddha Center, it was clear to me that the Potala Palace build had made limited discernible ripples with SL Buddhists from this community. I was always the one to bring up and ask about the Potala Palace Project, and most interlocutors had never heard of it, which stands in sharp contrast to the two aforementioned Buddhist no-longer-places. In discussions with SL users about the Potala Palace, when I mentioned the circumstances of its unavailability, my interviewees thought this was an unfortunate situation, but not an uncommon one. In actual life at the time, I was writing a book about a not-yet-place (that has since become a probable never-place)—a proposed giant statue of the Maitreya Project slated to be built in India (Falcone 2018)—and I could not help but notice the similarities along at least two lines: Buddhists would have liked to visit these places, saying in both cases, “I would like to visit a place like that,” but while the idea of these places was compelling, socioeconomic realities presented insurmountable problems. 11 When I asked the builder of another Buddhist project in SL (not associated with the Buddha Center) about the Potala Palace, he explained to me that this Potala Project had been too ambitious, with too many prims needed, to undertake without organizational funding. He suggested that the project had needed a community, an institutional sponsor, or a rich benefactor, and noted with regret that the Potala Palace build had had none of those assets.
The above discussion of three Buddhist no-longer-places from the SL platform is not meant to be an exhaustive accounting, as there were other Buddhist spaces that came and went. Indeed, SL is always changing. Exploring the landscape of SL has always meant exploring what a particular place looks like at that moment, and taking stock of change through my eyes and through the views of my informants. This mutability is hard to write about, as representing digital cultures can be like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. The shifting sands of the religious landscape in SL have been discussed elsewhere, for instance when Gregory Grieve shared the struggles faced by his research assistants as they tried to catalog religious spaces in SL that were in a frustratingly constant state of flux (2017). T. L. Taylor acknowledged this difficulty very eloquently in terms of her research on EverQuest: “Writing this book has been a bit like trying to describe a moving object, one which, the moment I think I have a handle on it, slightly morphs. When I look back at my first forays into the subject I am struck by how much the game has changed since it began” (2009, 161). And the EVE Online compilation editors wrote about dynamic changes of the virtual world they studied thus: “The EVE archived within this volume is distinct from the EVE of 2003 and will undoubtedly continue to evolve” (Carter, Bergstrom, and Woodford 2016, xx). The ephemerality of virtual world cultures notwithstanding, virtual world histories and stories are worth recording.
As a frequent visitor to SL, my field notes are littered with observations about how, in a particular temple, a statue had moved (or its face had changed) or an animation had been added to the cushions in front of the altar, or a side room that was previously there had disappeared since my last visit. SL actors are used to some degree of change, and tend to go with the flow—up to a point. The SL landscape is not fixed, but always growing and changing according to wishes of the platform (Linden Lab’s changes to SL) and its denizens (many buildings and objects in SL are fashioned by the users themselves), but the fact of constant change does not necessarily mean that all change is welcome. SL actors do sometimes rail against change—protest it, fight it, or mourn it. For example, Tom Boellstorff captured the frustration that some of his interlocutors felt when the platform shifted to make voice and audio tools available; some of his informants engaged in a protest rally in SL to fight against the proposed upgrade (2008). When another user builds up right up against one’s domestic or business spaces in SL (either for their own personal benefit, or just to troll someone for fun), the shift in a landscape can be upsetting and frustrating for the original builder who wants things back the way that they used to be and who will sometimes pay off a “griefer” to accomplish this.
The nature of sociality is change, or impermanence, and given the medium of digital worlds, change happens faster in virtual spaces. But while some digital actors may applaud particular changes, others may loathe them. I will explore this notion of precarity, as well as attendant Buddhist engagements with impermanence, in later sections. Here I just want to reaffirm that the changes in virtual places, especially the shift from place to no-longer-place, can be jarring. As used to change in SL as I had become, I was quite taken aback when a place that I had familiarized myself with, and felt a personal connection to, simply winked out of existence, so I will elaborate upon that story in the next section.
Mourning a Buddhist Space: Feeling a Virtual Loss
Emotional attachments to places in SL are common; my informants have elaborated upon the ways that their attachment to virtual spaces is “real” and “significant.” Aubrey Anable explores this phenomenon further by writing about how the digital worlds of video games are a part and parcel of contemporary human experiences and psychological worlds writ large (2018). She writes, “Video games are affective systems…. From pressing buttons on a controller to navigating through a virtual world, feeling pleasurably immersed in a landscape or mission, to tapping and swiping brightly colored candy on a mobile phone to pass the time on the commute from home to work, video games give color, rhythm, shape, and sound—a texture and a tone—to time spent with everyday computational systems. Video games ask us to make choices, and they ask us to operate within the sets of constraints or rules that govern those choices…. They also engage and entangle us in a circuit of feeling between their computational systems and the broader systems with which they interface: ideology, narrative, aesthetics, and flesh” (xii). In this section, I will narrate, through a documented process of autoethnography, my own experience of mourning the shifting spaces of SL.
In 2018, after neglecting Second Life for about five years to work on other research projects, I reentered the virtual world for several more months of engagement. My first order of business was visiting all my old haunts. I reacquainted myself with familiar spaces with great delight. The Buddha Center was still thriving, with as many scheduled events as they had had on the calendar several years before. Some of the teachers on the list were familiar, and some were new. The look of the altar room was familiar, although some details had changed. The Buddha statue at the center of the room looked different; it was a sharper, more sophisticated graphic. As my avatar settled on a cushion, I felt quite at home. I had not missed SL terribly, but I was rather pleased to be back in my virtual field site. Earlier in this paper, I quoted Taylor describing how returning to a memorable virtual space feels not unlike returning to an AL hometown (2009, 32). I, too, felt like I was returning to my hometown; well, maybe not going home, but returning to a place where I had spent several years and built memories. To me, returning to SL was like visiting the college town of my alma mater. I wanted to lay eyes on places that I had cared about and spent time in back in the day; I wanted to process what had changed, and I was relieved to see how much had stayed the same.
In the course of my explorations, I went to pay my respects to a small Buddhist temple (not a part of the Buddha Center) called Druk Yul (see fig. 3). It was gone. I felt oddly unsettled by this turn of events. Druk Yul was special to me as a researcher, since it was a space that I had learned about, meditated at, and interacted with regularly from 2010 to 2012. When I returned in 2018 and it was gone, I was surprised that I missed it, but I did. Years before, Tornado Alchemy had accompanied me to Druk Yul and given me a guided tour of the place he had built. As we discussed the merits of Buddhist building, he had shown me how he had created a set of giant prayer wheels outside the temple (see fig. 4). He took them apart for me and showed me how he had pasted a mantra texture in Tibetan script onto an internal layer of the wheel, so that the mantras would be activated when the wheel was animated by touch (similar to the design of giant Tibetan prayer wheels in AL). I had developed a respect for his digital craftsmanship and the love that he had shown in making these sacred digital objects, and I had the place in my rotation throughout my first round of SL fieldwork. But in 2018, when I learned one of my SL haunts had been virtually bulldozed and built over, the pangs of nostalgia I felt were not unlike those I experienced when I returned to Ithaca, New York, in 2018 and surveyed the burned-out ruins of a beloved bar that had been my graduate school respite in AL years before.
In 2018, as I wondered if Druk Yul had become a no-longer-place, I reached out to Tornado Alchemy to see whether it had just been moved, renamed, or substantively altered.
Screenshot of my avatar kneeling before the Druk Yul altar in SL in 2010 before it became a no-longer-place
Tornado Alchemy told me that Druk Yul had indeed been removed. In AL, in 2012, he had parted ways with the Bhutanese teacher whom it was built to honor, and therefore had simply “dismantled the lhakhang without ceremony.” He noted that he may still have the building stored as an object in his inventory, but he was not sure. He told me, “One of the large prayer wheels was relocated to the Kuan Yin Terraces.” He subsequently built another temple in the space, where it stayed for about three years until it too was moved. This case study shows the fluidity of spaces and materiality in Second Life. Tornado Alchemy explained to me the complexity of following the journey of just one set of builds:
In April 2012, I built the Lokeshvara temple where the Druk Yul Lhakhang had been. I added a version of the Kuan Yin Oracle but especially I added a 15 minute spoken “Karuna-metta” meditation that triggered four times daily at 6:45 and 12:45 am/pm SLT. This was very popular with attendees of the nearby PaB (Play as Being) meeting area who held meetings at 7:00 and 1:00 am/pm.…
In early 2015, and after 7 years, the sponsorship that covered PaB land tier fees … came to an end. Some PaB members formed a new group and the lands became largely privately owned with a small communal part. Although I had been an admin and community builder for the original PaB lands (as well as being a founder member of the group) I relinquished my personal plot there and merely facilitated the transition for everyone else. The huge numbers of builds I was responsible for in Mieum I simply dismantled overnight. I moved the Lokeshvara Temple to the Kuan Yin Terraces where it remains. I negotiated with the curator of the Museum of Sacred Art, that had previously occupied part of PaB land, to install his Bodhisattva exhibition in a purpose built museum on the Terraces, where it remains.…
In May of 2016, I announced that the Kuan Yin Terraces would be closing in the following July, as I did not feel I could justify the expenditure any longer. However, a benefactor … stepped in who had spare tier on her full sim usage fees. Ownership of the controlling group … was transferred to her. The Kuan Yin Terraces, the Oracle, Museum, Temple, meditation hall, waterfalls and gardens have been preserved and continue in Second Life.
Tornado Alchemy’s recollections of the changing virtual landscape of his builds were similar to stories I had collected from others in SL who also told me about unbuilding, storing and moving places and objects. However, Tornado Alchemy’s was unique its particulars, as well as the scope of the landscape that he was personally responsible for creating in the first place.
Screenshot outside of Druk Yul with Tibetan prayer wheels in SL in 2010
While I had been discomfited to discover that Druk Yul was a no-longer-place, I was heartened to learn from Tornado Alchemy that one of the giant prayer wheels I admired so had not been deleted, but had simply been moved, and so, in 2018, I went off in search of the sacred object in its new home. My avatar walked through the Kuan Yin Terraces—which was a space for quiet reflection and solo meditation, as opposed to a Buddhist community space designed for group meditation and teaching (like the Buddha Center)—but I had no map, so I wandered through gardens and over hills.
I paused my search to take my fortune from the Kuan Yin oracle that had been modeled on the AL oracle at the Asakusa temple in Tokyo. Eventually, I found the giant prayer wheel in its new home, happily situated between a pink cherry blossom tree in full bloom and a gushing waterfall (see fig. 5). The cherry blossom tree moved lightly, shedding a few flowers as if blowing kisses. I sat my avatar on the ground until I noticed that Tornado Alchemy had thoughtfully provided a vista point; I clicked on the animation, and my avatar then winked atop the overlook in a seated position. As I looked down on the scene, I took some time to reflect on the serenity of the virtual environment. I relaxed.
I have returned to the Kuan Yin Terraces and that giant prayer wheel many times in the intervening years (2018–20), so when the digital place inevitably disappears someday, if I am able, then I will take my place in line to mourn. It was a lovely virtually sacred space that allowed me, through my avatar, a picturesque space to sit, reflect, and meditate. My years working, studying, and interviewing in SL allow me to note with certainty that I am far from alone in feeling a sense of loss and uncertainty as landscapes morph in virtual worlds. As I will discuss in the next section, it is not uncommon to experience the swiftly changing landscape of SL as a symptom of a world in which everything is frenetically in motion.
Screenshot of relocated giant prayer wheel in the Kuan Yin terraces in 2018
Precarity and Digital Worlds
In actual life, precarity is increasingly the common thread of the neoliberal, post-Fordist, globalized moment (Tsing 2015). The invisible, deleted, built-then-unbuilt, no-longer-places—as well as abandonware (no-longer-worlds), unoccupied spaces standing bereft in extant virtual spaces (like the empty malls or storefronts with “for rent” signs that stretched out in certain underutilized regions of SL throughout my time there), and other frames of digital loss—evince a kind of virtual ephemerality that is no less real than AL precarity, although perhaps moving at the faster tempo enabled by digital ephemerality and fluidity.
There is a double precarity for SL actors today: the worlds being built in SL are entangled in the AL instabilities that builders experience in their embodied nonvirtual lives, but the virtuality of SL makes for an ease of disappearance that makes their virtual work especially, abjectly, precarious. Precarity is pervasive in our modern, globalized society, as Tsing makes plain:
The world’s climate is going haywire, and industrial progress has proved much more deadly to life on earth than anyone imagined a century ago. The economy is no longer a source of growth or optimism; any of our jobs could disappear with the next economic crisis. And it’s not just that I might fear a spurt of new disasters: I find myself without the handrails of stories that tell where everyone is going, and, also, why. Precarity once seemed the fate of the less fortunate. Now it seems that all our lives are precarious—even when, for the moment, our pockets are lined. In contrast to the mid-twentieth century, when poets and philosophers of the global north felt caged by too much stability, now many of us, north and south, confront the condition of trouble without end. (2015, 1–2)
Virtual actors face these realities in their online and offline worlds. In her book Play Between Worlds, T. L. Taylor tells the story of how the EverQuest platform modeled the shock of globalization and its instabilities in-world (2009). EverQuest had initially been fairly localized, to the extent that some players relied on paying others to port them to disparate locales, but a change in the platform in 2002 enabled a new self-port function: “Almost overnight the economy around porting crashed. Players who had formerly made a decent living as a kind of in-game taxi service found themselves practically out of work” (61). Taylor shows that as virtual boundaries fell away there was an accompanying period of turmoil which entailed a major shift in the game’s socioeconomics, geography, and sociality: “Just as in offline life, the move from provincialism to cosmopolitanism, from localism to globalism, may bring with it many quality-of-life-improvements, but we would be remiss to not at least be clear-eyed about the costs associated with it as well” (64–65). EverQuest, although a virtual landscape with enough longevity that Taylor deems it a “persistent [environment]” (2009, 21) or “persistent [world]” (2009, 151), showed itself to be internally changeable in ways that players felt keenly.
The modern Buddhist too, then, from the global north or south, is now bothered by a newly distinguishable patina of instability, and the lack of solid ground upon which to build a stable and lasting future. Buddhist actors in SL must contend with precarity in their everyday lives on and offline. In many ways SL, as a corporate entity in the era of globalization, reflects and refracts AL social precarity, even if it advertises itself as an escape. Second Life is part and parcel of our precarious times. In terms of the three built-then-unbuilt landscapes I discussed earlier in the paper, they each have their own connections with particular AL troubles and instabilities. For example, the Potala Palace build in SL was inspired by the builder’s sadness and frustration that the Tibetan nation-state was still incorporated inside the boundaries of the modern Chinese state. The written explanations about the Potala Palace build in SL vocally advocated for an independent Tibet, and sought to connect the exiled Dalai Lama to his rightful homeland, if only virtually. The builder’s own motivations as laid out in their digital explanations show that the work of construction is part of the larger Free Tibet–type activist-scape, or “Virtual Tibet” as conceived by Helland and others (Helland 2015, 158). While the AL Potala Palace stands, it functions largely as a museum in Chinese-occupied Tibet today. It was being reconstructed virtually in response to this ongoing crisis for the Tibetan refugees, and thus was itself a refraction of real-world troubles. The no-longer-place was meant to be a virtual tether to a place that could not be experienced properly in AL.
The Heartwood Forest Monastery reflects less political upheaval, but it exposes a particular AL social world embroiled in a time of uncertainty and growth nonetheless: as the relatively nonheritage Buddhist communities in the United States continue to grow, they are sometimes troubled by controversies and questions about authenticity that nonheritage Buddhists work diligently, and not always successfully, to address (Falcone 2018; Gleig 2019). In AL, nonheritage Buddhists must answer persistent questions about who counts as a Buddhist, whom to follow, and how far. In SL, the Heartwood Forest Monastery extended and deepened the precarity of Buddhism in the age of globalization, because in a virtual world in which anyone can fashion their own avatars and public-facing identities there were cases of people who claimed expertise and authority in SL that they had not been granted in AL.
Each of the disappeared builds, including the Bodhi Sim, was affected deeply (and fatally) by the capitalist, for-profit corporation Linden Lab, which owns the Second Life platform. Each of the user-generated builds, which were spurred by the desire to create something beautiful and Buddhist, was ultimately discontinued because of the lack of funds. The Bodhi Sim, which Tenzin Tuque reported was plagued by adjacent stripper advertisements, was thus doubly affected by the capitalist bent of SL. The Sim was negatively affected by unsustainably high rents, and by the deleterious effect of adjacent graphics suggesting the sexuality for sale next to a virtual place meant to evoke sacrality and serenity.
How much faster, more fluid, and more precarious are our virtual landscapes? The SL actor faces the “conditions of precarity, that is, life without the promise of stability” (Tsing 2015, 2) in actual life, and, I would argue, in virtual life too. The precarity in virtual life contributes to the precarity in actual life, as our experiences in SL have real-world effects. As Pesce describes in the context of exploring “short shelf-life media” (2016), 12 the boom and bust of contemporary digital cycles influences, and is influenced by, social perceptions of temporality in our nondigital worlds. She writes, “…short, paratextual media shape cultural processes as much as they reflect a culture struggling with the contradictions of a utopia of unlimited capacity and a dystopia of unsustainable growth in a ‘post-scarcity’ world” (Pesce 2016, 20). That is, anxiety about permanence and availability is made manifest through the precarity of our digital lives: “The metaphor of ‘short shelf-life media’ encompasses different challenges concerning decay, abundance, and sustainability in a globalized world…. this metaphor draws on the availability of goods on shop shelves, their consumption and, moreover, their perishability. The temporality of media use has an economic worth in the digital context—a category rooted in the industrial mentality” (Pesce 2016, 24). Furthermore, as Pesce and Noto observe in their larger examination of ephemeral media, “[a] dialectic between permanence and obsolescence is apparent in the production and experience of these products” (Pesce and Noto 2016, 2). Precarity is not a singularly virtual condition, but it is arguably exacerbated by nonactualness.
In this paper, I have noted four Buddhist spaces, each lovingly crafted, and each in their turn wholly wiped off the face of the Second Life landscape. It is tempting to compare these spaces to a Tibetan sand mandala—a Buddhist visual representation that is meant to be ritually destroyed and thus intended to remind the practitioner of the truth of impermanence—but to do so would be missing the point. It is worth noting that these particular Buddhist spaces in SL were not built in that spirit. According to my interlocutors, these builds were not supposed to be summarily unbuilt. They were built and worked upon to be used, explored, and appreciated. They were supposed to last, maybe not forever, but they were supposed to last for much longer than they did. The unbuilding was a result of neglect, lack of activity, the expense of maintaining a build, or changing priorities; the deletions in these cases were direct responses to various kinds of failures of these spaces. And so, these expunged spaces have become invisible non-ruins, inventoried or deleted code; they have become no-longer-places. As they are neither monuments to failure, nor monuments to impermanence, it is worth asking how Buddhist actors think through the ambivalences associated with these losses.
The Buddhist notion of emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā), which is found in various forms across the spectrum of Buddhist traditions, is not nihilism. 13 Instead, emptiness in Buddhist discourse means that there is nothing essential about anything; everything is in process and in flux. Mahayana Prajñāpāramitā (or Perfection of Wisdom) texts argue that everything and everyone is empty, which goes a few steps further than earlier Abhidharma texts (Williams and Tribe 2000, 135). Regarding the Prajñāpāramitā texts, Rupert Gethin writes that the emptiness conceived of in the Mahayana Perfection of Wisdom texts emphasizes “emptiness of all things that we might be tempted to think truly and ultimately exist of and in themselves. To see any dharma as existing in itself is to grasp at it, to try to hold onto it, but dharmas are like dreams, magical illusions, echoes, reflected images, mirages, space; like the moon reflected in water, a fairy castle, a shadow, or a magical creation; like the stars, dewdrops, a bubble, a flash of lightning, or a cloud—they are there, but they are not there, and if we reach out for them, we find nothing to hold onto” (1998, 237).
The notion of dependent arising or dependent origination (Sanskrit: pratītyasamutpāda) is helpful in teasing out the whys and wherefores of emptiness. The logic of dependent arising is that everything is caused and contingent, and therefore should not be understood as anything other than fluid and impermanent. Williams and Tribe explain dependent arising this way: “All elements of saṃsāra exist in some sense or another relative to their causes and conditions. That is why they are impermanent, for if the cause is impermanent then so too will be the effect” (2000, 64). The notion of impermanence (Sanskrit: anitya) is key to emptiness, since everything changes fluidly from moment to moment. Since impermanence is a key theme in Buddhist philosophy, it is not surprising that Buddhists in SL have engaged with the notion of emptiness in their discourses in SL.
In his ethnography of a Zen community in SL, Gregory Grieve importantly captures some of the ways that his informants allow the notion of emptiness to inform their experiences, and this about reality in SL and AL: “For convert Buddhists Second Life and real life were different but the same, and Second Life’s empty nature illuminated the illusory quality of real life…. Second Life and real life were obviously different because one was actual and the other virtual. They were similar, however, because both Second Life and real life were conditioned conventional realities, those mutually constituted and historically contextualized material discourses, practices, and objects by which people construct, interpret, and manage their everyday lives” (2017, 202). Yet, his informants did not read the emptiness of all things as a reason to disrespect the created Buddhist environment built for the community. His informants did not treat “Hoben,” their Zen Buddhist sacred space in SL, like a uniquely temporary space. The organizers built it carefully and it was treated with respect: “American converts at Hoben strove for a landscape of silence and visual simplicity embedded in an aesthetic strongly influenced by a romanticized notion of a premodern Asian landscape. The Hoben landscape afforded mindfulness and was built to draw a resident’s attention toward spiritual practice. Community members moved among the landscapes and buildings, acquiring a sense of direction and a spiritual frame of reference that created place by structuring events, relationships, and avatars’ bodies. Visual elements dominated: buildings, mountains, and forests” (166). While “Hoben Mountain Zen Retreat” had a garden on its virtual grounds (159), its community did not perceive itself as a Zen garden writ large; that is, it was not itself a sandbox that was expected to morph constantly. It was a space that residents could occupy and use; and, like most communities, its denizens would have been unhappy to just see the whole space melt away.
Daniel Veidlinger has argued that the medium of the internet lends itself to Buddhist thinking (2015), writing that “the more time one spends on the Internet … the more likely one is to have an affinity for Buddhism” (128). While I am not convinced of the a priori assumption that the internet is creating more people interested in Buddhism, I acknowledge that online sociality may connect nicely with some Buddhist ideas and may reinforce those notions for Buddhists online. Veidlinger notes “that the Internet affords a conception of the individual self as illusory, replacing an unchanging self with a sense of interconnectedness and interdependence. These ideas dovetail well with the Buddhist notions of anātman (no-self) and pratītya samutpāda (dependent origination), and are likely to play an important role in the attractiveness of Buddhism to the wired segments of society” (128–29). For Buddhists who choose to reflect upon the synergies between Buddhist ideas and the experience of virtual being in virtual spaces, there are myriad opportunities to use the double precarity of virtuality to think with.
While the no-longer-places of Buddhist SL that I have explored in this paper were not built to be ritually dismantled, in retrospect their losses have sometimes been interpreted as constructive, because they can exemplify impermanence in action. While emptiness is not being fetishized in digital Buddhist place-making—just as it is not in AL Buddhist place-making—I would have missed an aspect of the story if I had not asked my informants, “What role, if any, does emptiness play in SL Buddhism?” For example, as I mentioned in an earlier section, in my correspondence with Tenzin Tuque he made a point of reflecting upon the illusory nature of both actual and virtual worlds. In a blog post from 2005, discussing one of the Buddhist builds he had made as part of the Milarepa Land Trust, Tenzin Tuque reflected upon this point further:
More than a few people have wondered, why bother with Buddhism in Second Life? After all, malls, casinos and nightclubs do dominate the landscape—hardly sacred terrain. But this confluence of desire, consciousness and imagination seems almost too perfect to ignore. All those little green dots on the Second Life map, each represents a singular consciousness.… Even with all its griefers and kink, Second Life might well embody core Buddhist teachings about how consciousness is not singular, that avatars are as actual a phenomenon of one’s mind as anything else. Each green dot on the SL world map is a bundle of memories, aspirations, desires, an emanation of our actual-life selves. Put another way, Second Lifers are often surprised at how much of their real-life (RL) selves winds up out there on the grid, making friends, enemies, lovers, cyber-sexing, building, destroying, exploring, searching. This kind of extension of self into virtual worlds—sometimes profoundly invested in virtual life, if the emotion on display in SL’s discussion forums is any indication—poses questions, not so much about the melding of machine and mind, but about our waking assumptions about identity and everyday existence. Do Second Life’s avatars and sims pose some kind of new mental yoga that might help to broaden and dissolve assumed truths about actual life? Tantric adepts and siddahs from the 4th century onward have tried to break down innate, mundane ideas about reality and consciousness, all in an effort to fully realize our inherent potential. Put yet another way, is playing Second Life a subtle, unfocused form of meditation? Can the very architecture of advanced on-line gaming potentially benefit its denizens, simply by allowing people to dissolve themselves into on-line worlds? (2005)
Tenzin Tuque was the first of many of my Buddhist interlocutors to remark on the special opportunities available to help illustrate the trope of emptiness through the veil of virtuality.
In an interview I conducted in October 2011 with a Dutch-born monastic who practices in the Tibetan Buddhist Nyingmapa tradition and teaches at the Buddha Center regularly in SL, the emptiness of all things was assumed for virtual and actual worlds, but it is easier to wrap one’s mind around the emptiness of virtuality, and that provides a unique opportunity to think about this tenet of Buddhism.
Jess: So, do you ever find SL a helpful analogy for emptiness?
Palden Phuntsok: Yes, totally. I think it is appealing to Buddhist teachers (or should be), because it is such a perfect illustration of emptiness, and of how our thought processes impart solidity to an illusionary world … it does illustrate that Nagarjuna is totally right in his rendering of Madhyamika philosophy.
Jess: Can I ask a bit about space and objects? Can you tell me if a Buddha statue in SL is the same as a buddha statue in [AL]?
Palden Phuntsok: Well actually, it is of course. Not in the sense of conventional reality, although even there we may say “a buddha statue,” but ultimately it’s all the same stuff—our experience of it. And in that sense karma operates both in [real life] and SL—no difference. In fact, I see SL like how you’re taught to see mandalas—as 2D representations of a 3D model. In that sense, SL is such a mandala.
Palden Phuntsok did not see SL and AL as precisely the same, as he would go on to say that pilgrimages to sacred spaces in AL would create more merit than a pilgrimage in SL, but he did believe that the inherent ultimate emptiness of both worlds is laid bare through the “mandala” of the virtual world. And though he sees virtual statues as illusions, he wanted them to have longevity for all that.
Buddhist actors often demonstrate some ambivalence about impermanence. For example, while Buddhists are encouraged to see the inevitability of decay, they are also enculturated to repair crumbling temples and build statues to last as long as possible. While they are liturgically reminded of the impermanence of life, most endeavor to live long healthy lives and to be remembered and memorialized after they are gone. In SL, Buddhists are creating builds, maintaining communities, and memorializing the dead in their virtual world. At the Buddha Center in SL collective practices include communal memorialization practices and structures for people who died in AL; at the time of writing in 2020, there were at least two public memorials for particular deceased individuals erected in that virtual landscape, and these virtual monuments stand in service of lasting social memory. In a discussion I had with a Buddha Center student in SL in 2020, I referenced these virtual memorial stupas, in our conversation about impermanent places: “The memorials at Deer Park [in the Buddha Center in SL], won’t it be hard when they disappear someday with the rest of this place … or if SL ever closes?” My interlocutor, Basil C, a relatively regular attendee at Buddha Center teachings for over a year, replied: “The end of people and places—that is what happens. But we should not forget our loved ones. And places shut down or burn down or get buried too. It all ends someday. It will be sad if, when, no, if, no, when, the Buddha Center closes.” His vacillation between “if” and “when” laid bare his desire for permanence as it dashed against his awareness of impermanence. Basil C went on, “Those memorials should not be deleted. I did not know those people [who are being memorialized], but they are being remembered, and that is good. Memorials are supposed to stay.” We talked a little more about this, and returned to it toward the end of the interview when he asserted that he would be devastated if the Buddha Center closed. “I mean, I know it will, but it shouldn’t. I will be really upset. I know that everything is empty and impermanent and that is real, but this place is important and it should stay here as it is.” He had flirted with Buddhism in AL, but only began calling himself a Buddhist while engaged at the Buddha Center, so he wanted the place to last—it had helped him, and he wanted it to be there for others.
Nighttime screenshot of Buddha statue in front of one of the memorial stupas at the Buddha Center in SL in 2020
Earlier that spring, in mid-March 2020, I had had a brief conversation about longevity of the Buddha Center at a talk in Deer Park, in which we also discussed our appreciation for its durability in a changeable virtual world. I had logged onto SL that Saturday, and joined fifteen other avatars in Deer Park gathered for the scheduled teaching. The instructor’s avatar was in monk’s robes, as he was a monk in AL as well as SL. Looking out at the gathered students, he recognized everyone else and greeted them by SL name, and asked me if I was a newcomer. I typed into the chat that it had been a while since I had been to one of his talks, but that I had been coming to the Buddha Center for a decade. The facilitator, who said that he had been teaching at the Buddha Center for eight years, replied, “It’s an experiment in impermanence; it will go away someday, but it keeps going. Who knows how long it will keep going. People keep donating so it stays around. That is the old way of things, if people want it, they donate and it keeps going.” As he talked about how resilient the Buddha Center had been, another long-time devotee typed into the chat, “It would not survive without all the volunteers and supporters! <3” As a group, we communally acknowledged the truth of impermanence, and then noted our relief that this particular Buddhist place had lasted as long as it had; then the bhante began his regularly scheduled dharma talk.
My informants impressed upon me that while impermanence and emptiness are Buddhist truths, they are aspirational at the level of deep cognition and realization. That is, one cannot go so far as to say that Buddhist builders in SL are ambivalent about what they have made, since Buddhists in SL are not themselves thought to be enlightened. Buddhist spaces, whether for private or communal practice, and whether in actual life or virtual space, can be built with love, faith, and hope for longevity. While the loss of the Bodhi Sim ought not be equated to the loss of an AL temple space that burned to the ground, neither should the loss of a Buddhist build in SL be treated as if it were a desirable outcome rather than what it is: the disappointment of a past hope. If nothing else, these Buddhist no-longer-places represent the loss of an investment of time and/or money, as their builders sought to motivate Buddhist engagement, cultivate community, and inspire Buddhist belief and practice, and now the fruits of their labors are gone.
Each disappointment—when a virtual world becomes a no-longer-world or a virtual locale becomes a no-longer-place—happens in a very particular social and technological context, and thus while some virtual losses have been accompanied by grief and tears, other deletions may be punctuated with a shrug and a sigh. In most cases, though, to interpret the loss of Buddhist spaces in SL as a nonissue (or to assume it is interpreted as a bonus to those sympathetic to Buddhism) is to sorely misunderstand the intentions and hopes of the Buddhist builders. To paraphrase one of my interlocutors: the extra precarity of SL is a bug, not a feature, of digital sociality. In sum, while impermanence, which is the nature of all things, can be good to think with—and virtual Buddhism offers some unique and constructive opportunities to develop increased awareness of this truth—the actual loss of Buddhist places of worship, memorialization, or gathering in either AL or SL is rarely, if ever, seen as a boon in the Buddhist world.
Although the differences in tempo between disappearances in virtual and actual worlds are not wholly insignificant, the precarity of virtual worlds—the lost communities, deleted familiar spaces, and expunged Buddhist temples—is not wholly apart from our nondigital lives; the virtual is folded into the sum of a contemporary person’s lived, “hybrid” (Haraway 1991) experiences and thus virtual precarity is integral to the express uncertainty of the times. Anable tells us, “Video games—as media objects, as cultural practices, and as structures of feeling—can tell us quite a bit about the collective desires, fears, and rhythms of everyday life in our precarious, networked, and procedurally generated world” (2018, 132). Following Anable, I have discussed several case studies of digital loss and failure in the Buddhist spaces of Second Life that do serve to teach us something about our current cultural moment. I have argued that the fact of the digital world’s extra impermanence—virtual worlds rendered abandonware with the click of a button; no-longer-places that give us no proper decay or ruin to excavate; changeability like quicksilver, for example, as lovingly-crafted things cease to be—can give rise to a second layer of precarity for those social actors building worlds, spaces, and communities in virtual locales today. This precarity can be emotionally unsettling to Buddhist actors, even as they give some Buddhists yet another means of working toward trying to truly internalize the Buddhist truth of impermanence. Perhaps the fairest characterization of Buddhist no-longer-places is that they can be the source of both loss and meditative opportunity in turn, depending on the particular social actors and the particular context of the deletion.
People sitting at their computer screens can, and sometimes do, mourn for lost virtual connections, objects, and spaces. Whether for no-longer-worlds or no-longer-places, where there is loss, there is sometimes very real grief. By cataloging some of the heart-rending poems shared by players on Uru-themed blogs after their virtual world became a no-longer-world (Pearce and Artemesia 2011, 91–93), Celia Pearce shared with her readers the very real grief that players felt when Uru Prologue went offline. Highlighting her “melancholy” and “yearning” for Uru, one blogger’s final stanza read:
I sing of my homeland, beautiful and loved
I suffer the pain that is in her soul
Although I am far away, I can feel her
And one day I’ll return.
I know it.
(Raena, quoted in Pearce and Artemesia 2011, 93)
While Pearce notes, “To an unknowing reader, it would be hard to recognize that its writer was talking about a fictional place” (2011, 93), these piercing poems are digital artifacts of actual loss. The virtuality of a place does not make it insignificant, nor ungrievable.
As I sift through the traces of disappeared Buddhist SL spaces, I think about what others have lost already. Impermanence, while an acknowledged Buddhist truth, is not a particularly desirable outcome for a beloved Buddhist place. I think, too, of popular collective religious practice sites in SL, like the Buddha Center, and I wonder how their many dedicated community members will mourn when the impermanence of all things—and the particularly swift pace of change in online worlds today—inevitably takes a cherished religious space from them someday too. Based on what I have learned, I anticipate that there will be laments written and virtual rituals performed. And I know, with deep certainty, that there will be many, very real tears shed.
I want to thank Gregory Grieve and Trevor Durbin for their insightful engagements with an earlier draft of this paper. Thanks also to the organizers and participants of the Buddhism and Technology conference, and to the anonymous peer reviewers, for their many generative questions and comments. Finally, I would like to extend my gratitude to the students in my Ethnographic Methods class in Spring 2017 for their patience as I puzzled through some of this no-longer-place business with them.
It may be useful for readers to note that, based on my research in Second Life, most of the actors who spent time building and occupying Buddhist spaces in SL were nonheritage Buddhist practitioners: that is, they were not enculturated into Buddhism from childhood, but chose Buddhism later in life. For more on this topic, please see my discussion of the heritage-semiheritage-nonheritage terminology in my book on the Maitreya Project (Falcone 2018).
When I say that residents can have robust religious experiences in SL, I mean that some of the successful SL spiritual institutions allow for deep, sustained, and regular practice. The Buddha Center in SL that I researched at length provided opportunities for regular worship and dharma study (Falcone 2015, 2019). In any given week from the outset of research in 2010 to the time of writing in 2020, there were over a dozen events on their regularly updated weekly schedule, including several meditation sessions and several in-person teachings (with teachers giving discourses in various Buddhist and Buddhist-adjacent spiritual traditions). The Buddha Center, not unlike the SL Zen center described in Grieve’s book (2017), is active not just once per week, but throughout the week, offering people many ways to practice and many opportunities to do so.
The only ruins one can find in SL were built that way to begin with, as ruins-by-design, and as a rule I have not found these ruins in Buddhist spaces.
I sought verbal informed consent from interviewees, and offered pseudonyms and confidentially to interlocutors. I only use actual avatar names where people have published under those names previously, such as Tenzin Tuque. However, I have not changed the names of any SL places, whether extant or not.
I am aware that someday, ironically, this very paper, if listed in a searchable database, may provide an additional digital trace of the particular no-longer-places discussed herein.
Does Linden Lab have the code filed away somewhere? And if so, does it matter? In terms of the first question, there are several considerations relevant to thinking about erasure of place in SL, but I will focus on two key ideas: land and builds. In terms of land, people can own and rent SL lands, but these digital landscapes can be abandoned, seized, and reallocated. Was land abandoned and the place subsequently erased by Linden Lab? I used to have a house in SL, but it is gone. I cannot get it back. A Linden Lab employee advised, “You should never expect to be able to reclaim abandoned land. Please use care to make sure that any abandonment action is intentional” (R. Linden, n.d.). Linden Lab notes in its directions to residents that abandoned land reverts to them, and they do not want people to think that they can revive lost lands. In the first case, if available, such corporately owned code could be seen as a digital trace, but not a digital place. If the land was abandoned, but the builder downloaded the Buddhist build—e.g., a temple—into their inventory first, then that place is merely shelved. But either way, whether Linden has code on file, or whether a builder has the temple in their inventory, I would argue that these are still no-longer-places, as the places are not available for anyone to interact with. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there.” Thus, a no-longer-place is in a state which is likely permanent, but which can be reversed, resurrected, or perhaps rebuilt as a new iteration. On the other hand, if a Buddhist build is deleted (really deleted—the person’s “trash” emptied) the build is even more completely inaccessible. Jeremy Linden has written that they do autosaves that retain a few days’ worth of information about builds, and thus builds can, perhaps, be rescued within seventy-two hours, but even then one needs to convince them to dig back in their servers to restore a region, something which they may be very loath to do, as it undoes all changes within that period for everyone in that region (J. Linden, n.d.).
One would surmise that many built virtual spaces had little significance at all, such as computer-generated builds, structures made while an avatar was practicing building, structures that were never inhabited/used, etc., and so as no-longer-places they are not really worth much scholastic attention. Still, since drafts, plans, and nonevents can be extremely valuable archival material (Stoler 2002; Falcone 2018) for understanding certain social groups in time, I make this point with some ambivalence.
The Uru theme in this case refers to the Uru video game that is part of the Myst franchise. The volume on Uru devotees by Pearce, co-authored by her avatar (Pearce and Artemesia 2011), details how the Uru online community had a wide digital footprint across many platforms, even after Uru folded. In fact, the Uru-themed SL island was archived (with “Linden lab’s assistance”) and eventually, at least for a time, came back online as a new iteration because of the passion of Uru’s fandom (265).
While the Bodhi Sim was digitally removed, the Manjushri Land Trust organizers did have several more modest builds in place at the time of writing.
This is an admittedly rough analogy, especially since it backgrounds the Maitreya Project’s controversial dealings with actual-life local farmers in India. That is, the nonevent of the Maitreya Project was very complex, and the neoliberal economic challenge faced by the project was just one among several factors that led to its eventual shelving.
Pesce (2016) focuses on the digital paratexts, specifically user-generated digital content surrounding film (for example, memes, YouTube videos, GIFs, and blogs), but here I extend her observations to include virtual user-generated content.
For a lengthier treatment of this, see Donald Lopez’s work detailing Schopenhauer’s misreading of Buddhism: the latter insisted that Buddhism was unethical (indifferent to good and evil) due to a misinterpretation of Buddhism as essentially nihilistic (1998).