An American Zen Buddhist’s reflections on HCI research and design for faith-based communities

Authors: Cori Faklaris
Posted: Tue, August 16, 2022 - 4:29:00

Computer science seems in opposition to Zen Buddhism, a spiritual practice best described (if it must be) as “without reliance on words or letters, directly pointing to the heart of humanity” [1]. Yet with so much of today’s human experience bound up in computing, some words, and pixels and bits, to address their overlap seem necessary. My aim in sharing the following reflections is to set forth the historical and modern faith context for a secular wellness practice that we design for— meditation—and to model the statements of positionality and reflexivity that I feel are essential for research in such personal and cultural domains.

Zen Buddhism

Zen’s origins were first documented during China’s Tang dynasty in the 7th century CE. At that time, Buddhism had already spread from Nepal, the birthplace of historical founder Siddhartha Gautama, or “the Buddha,” throughout neighboring countries in Asia for more than 1,000 years. The Indian monk Bodhidharma is credited with introducing China to the dhyana practice of stillness and contemplation. Dhyana (a Sanskrit word) predates the Buddha and is commonly described as his vehicle for achieving enlightenment, or the transcendence of his limited human existence. The renewed focus on dhyana was a reaction to the older branch of Buddhism known as Theravada, the “way of the fathers” [1]. The chief text of the newer Mahayana branch of Buddhism is the Heart Sutra, the English translation of which fits on one page. Zen takes this minimalist approach even further, proclaiming the superiority of empirical knowledge gained through dhyana —renamed ch’an in Middle Chinese—over scriptural learning or formal religious observance. A famous poem of the Tang dynasty sets forth this formulation for Zen [1]: 

A special transmission outside the scriptures
Without reliance on words or letters
Directly pointing to the heart of humanity
Seeing into one's own nature.

Today, the largest Zen communities remain in China and Japan (the origin of the word zen), but the practice of Zen has spread throughout the world. Like other Buddhists, who number in total 488 million worldwide [2], they venerate the “Triple Treasure” of small-b buddha (inherent enlightenment-nature), dharma (the teachings and practices), and sangha (their faith communities). Zen practitioners also particularly value upaya, or “skillful means” (the ability of an enlightened being to tailor a teaching to a particular audience or student for maximum effectiveness) and mindfulness (in Zen, the continuous, clear awareness of the totality of the present moment). Through seated meditation, alternated with practices such as chanting, bowing, and contemplative walking, a Zen Buddhist aspires to a state of mindfulness that will facilitate their own perception of buddha-nature and help them express this enlightenment in daily life, especially for the benefit of others. To check the validity of their meditation experiences, Zen practitioners are urged to consult with a teacher in an established lineage who is certified to guide others in enlightenment. Among a teacher’s “skillful means” are stories or riddles known as koans (Japanese), gong-ans (Chinese), or kung-ans (Korean). Such consultations will help Zen practitioners achieve a “before-thinking,” other-centered orientation and avoid self-centered fallacies—for example, “wanting enlightenment is a big mistake” [1]. 

Personal experiences and observations

My own experiences with Zen are Western. I began in my teenage years, when I bought a secondhand copy of D.T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism and was intrigued by his discussions of satori, the Japanese word for enlightenment. I had already liked what I had heard about Buddhism during a unit on world religions at my (Catholic) grade school. However, it wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. state of Indiana that I was able to connect with an in-person group, practicing in the Kwan Um School of Zen (KUSZ) in the lineage of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn. I began sitting with the Indianapolis Zen Center sangha once or twice a month as my schedule permitted: 30 minutes of seated meditation bookended by a 20-minute prelude of chanting and a 10-minute epilogue of a reading and announcements. I progressed to sitting weekend retreats and to taking precepts (like Christian baptism, this signifies formally joining the faith). Eventually, I studied for and became a KUSZ dharma teacher—qualified to explain subjects such as meditation forms and the history of Zen, but not to guide people to enlightenment. In KUSZ, such teachers are called Ji Do Poep Sa Nim (JDPSN, for "dharma master") or Soen Sa Nim (Zen master). I have studied with both types of “enlightenment” teachers at the Indianapolis Zen Center and with a group in Pittsburgh, PA, while helping as a dharma teacher.

As a Zen teacher, I do not take a binary view of computing as good/not good or useful/not useful. The “middle way” is to acknowledge that it is a dharma aid in some contexts and a distraction in others. Below are some examples.

Computing as obstacle to Zen practice

My advice to beginners is to turn off their smartphones completely. This is because a buzz or ding is liable to take meditators out of the moment, and beginners often will struggle to refocus. For my in-person group, I model another best practice by taking out my phone or smartwatch, silencing them, and turning them face-down on my meditation cushion, so that I cannot see the flash of a notification. I prefer to use such manual safeguards for attention rather than the “Do Not Disturb” settings, because enacting the exercise of putting away our digital helpers is an important signal to our bodies and minds that what we are doing is important and different from the everyday flow of our distracted lives. In the same vein, I recommend use of a battery-operated analog clock over a smart device for timing seated meditation, because it will not tempt you into checking messages.

In the world of Covid-19, much of our group Zen practice has joined others online. Now, it is no longer possible to physically remove ourselves from our Internet-connected devices. I am grateful to be able to see and hear my fellow practitioners even at a distance, but I miss having the break from my busy digital life and from the allure of its distractions. The “Do Not Disturb” settings help, to a point. Sitting in front of my MacBook, however, I catch myself touching my mouse and calling up screens whenever I experience a fleeting thought about, say, the status of a project. Meditating from home also means interruptions from family members, pets, or Internet outages. I confess that I do not have enough “dharma energy” to avoid breaking my stillness in response to my cat waving her tail in my face! 

Going forward, this type of Zen Buddhism will benefit from computing research and design to solve similar problems of distraction and focus as those faced by those working from home or who are “digital nomads,” connecting to their customers or clients via the Internet away from an office. I would love to flip a switch inside my home environment and be free from all ability to access Netflix or Slack while I hunker down on either a research paper or a kung-an. Even better if the “switch” is a timer, so that I do not forget to turn off my “Do Not Disturb,” or a learned routine of my home network, so that it is context-aware and picks up on the signals that I am ready to concentrate. I use Siri now to set a meditation timer by voice, although the screen and keyboard is still nearby, and it would be better for my ability to stay in concentration if  “she” could turn off everything at the same time and then turn it back on again after the timer ends. 

However, like the meditators in Markum and Toyama [3], I am wary of letting technology intrude too far or replace in-person experiences. I am doubtful that it will no longer be necessary to visit a Zen center or monastery for the sustained concentration required for intensive practice. My Pittsburgh group has returned to offering a weekly in-person (and masked) practice so that people can get a break from remote meetings and reap the benefits of in-person group meditation. I look forward to the day when we can begin traveling to other temples and learning in situ about others’ spiritual practices, perhaps with the assistance of interactive displays or augmented reality overlays. 

Computing as support to Zen practice

Is reading an obstacle? After all, “words and letters” are considered a hindrance in Zen tradition. However, reading is often the first step undertaken by someone who wants to try meditation and/or to learn more about Zen Buddhism. As Bell has noted [4], the internet has been enormously helpful for spreading Zen knowledge and for connecting seekers with faith communities. My sanghas have made use of the same computing affordances as other interest groups: websites, online groups, platforms for event discovery, and secure no-contact payments. 

I will always prefer in-person Zen practice. But, like the online group members in Katie Derthick’s work [5], I now can join a Zen meditation session or a retreat from anywhere in the world. I can take part in a distant reading group or a book club (we have those!). I can receive an interview via video and audio from a variety of Zen teachers. For those who don’t want that group experience, a variety of apps can guide them in contemplating peace or following their breaths. Headspace even dims the screen so that you can use it to wind down and prepare for sleep.

Going forward, the main item on my wish list is better audio support for remote Zen practice. We have experienced glitches in teacher interviews where one person trips over the other person’s statements, adding to the problem of not being present to pick up on nonverbal cues to turn-taking such as angling back or tilting forward. Worse, audio problems have almost killed our group chanting. This is unfortunate because, in my tradition’s Zen practice, chanting is essential for aligning participation and building an energy within the group that supports its focus. Participants cannot stay in sync—the farther from the source, the more obvious the transmission delays. Our Zoom apps also struggle to figure out which voices to prioritize, instead of blending every audio source into a unified output. For now, the workaround is for everyone to mute and only listen to the leader’s chanting. We need apps like JamKazam or Jamulus, which were designed for musicians to play together online and at a distance. Such an app will need to integrate with our existing remote meetings and be usable by anyone. 

Suggested best practices for computing researchers

Religion is as sensitive a topic as it is central to the human experience. From my N of 1, I suggest that computing researchers will do themselves good to consider their positionality and biography with regard to this subject, before embarking on faith-minded research [6,7]. Clarification of our personal experiences—how we were raised and how we have directed our adult lives with regard to religion—will make explicit our social, cultural, and historical position with regard to the faith domain. Reflexivity requires time, but reading, discussing, and thinking will help us to identify what assumptions we bring to the project. Once articulated, our preexisting assumptions will be less likely to warp our research or to stymie our openness to new ideas. (In my case, I sat and thought about whether I have a bias toward adding technology to any faith domain, regardless of whether it is truly needed. I also challenged myself as to whether I assume that adding technology will lead to only negative downstream effects for a religious community.)

For the conduct of this research, I suggest three ethical pledges that will reduce the potential for exploiting participants: adherent-centeredness, getting close-up, and considering relationship ethics. Researchers should prioritize the faith population’s needs, preferences, and values, and incorporate them to the extent possible: “Nothing about us, without us.” Careful, respectful qualitative work such as Wyche et al. [8] follow Genevieve Bell’s prescription to use techniques informed by anthropology, focusing on the particulars of place, location, and critical reflexivity [9]. Researchers should make use of practices such as participant observation that foster empathy and consider layering different participants’ accounts, rather than aggregating them into a majority narrative [6]. And they should recognize that such research will involve leveraging existing relationships and fostering new ones. Discuss issues of privacy and confidentiality upfront, for example, that it may not be possible to de-identify anyone [6]. Share work and ask for responses and comments. In publications, alter specific personal or topic details to protect their privacy, security, and safety. 

These suggestions may sound like standard operating procedure for some qualitative researchers in human-centered computing. But many of us are trained in a positivist orientation, in which reason and logic are prioritized. We will benefit from having these or similar principles explicitly articulated for our consideration and commitment, just as a Zen master benefits from reciting the temple rules about not borrowing people’s shoes and coats. We all need help staying mindful.


1. Sahn, S. The Compass of Zen. Shambhala Publications, 1997.

2. Buddhists. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. Dec. 18, 2012;

3. Markum, R.B. and Toyama, K. Digital technology, meditative and contemplative practices, and transcendent experiences. Proc. of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2020, 1–14;

4. Bell, G. Auspicious computing? IEEE Internet Comput. 8, 2 (Mar. 2004), 83–85;

5. Derthick, K. Understanding meditation and technology use. CHI ’14 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2014, 2275–2280;

6. Darwin Holmes, A.G. Researcher positionality—A consideration of its influence and place in qualitative research—A new researcher guide. Shanlax Int. J. Educ. 8, 4 (Sep. 2020), 1–10;

7. England, K.V.L. Getting personal: Reflexivity, positionality, and feminist research. The Professional Geographer 46, 1 (1994);

8. Wyche, S.P., Hayes, G.R., Harvel, L.D., and Grinter, R.E. 2006. Technology in spiritual formation: An exploratory study of computer mediated religious communications. Proc.  of the 2006 20th Anniversary Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. ACM, New York, 2006, 199–208;

9. Bell, G. No more SMS from Jesus: Ubicomp, religion and techno-spiritual practices. In UbiComp 2006: Ubiquitous Computing (Lecture Notes in Computer Science). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 141–158;

Posted in: on Tue, August 16, 2022 - 4:29:00

Cori Faklaris

Cori Faklaris is a doctoral candidate in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. She researches the social-psychological factors of cybersecurity and other protective behaviors. She also is a dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen. [email protected]
View All Cori Faklaris's Posts

Post Comment

No Comments Found