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Buddhadharma : Summer 2016
haven’t made many apps specifically for Buddhists. Programmer Gordon Shotwell just launched a new addition to the app world, the Shambhala Meditation App, which uses a drag-and-drop interface to let users arrange their own routine of talks, timers, and gong sounds. In designing the app, Shotwell discovered the key challenge that all Buddhist app developers face. “From a Buddhist perspective, you have everything you need to fully realize the teach- ings without needing to buy an app,” says Sho- twell. “If you are making a product, you want your users to need to buy your product.” He wanted the opposite—an app that users would realize they don’t need. Other Buddhist apps include digital dictionaries, prayer books, scriptures, malas, timers, and bells. Most of these, Shotwell explains, are created by and for small sanghas that have no intention of marketing them to a mass audience, so they tend to be rudimentary and buggy. Mainstream yoga and mindfulness apps, on the other hand, are wildly popular. With 750,000 regular users, “Insight Timer” includes hundreds of talks and guided medita- tions, customizable sounds, and 2,500 spiritual discussion groups. Vincent Horn is the founder of Buddhist Geeks and a longtime observer of the Buddhist app world. “The vast majority of apps I’ve seen are mindfulness apps and not explicitly Bud- dhist ones,” says Horn. “It’s hard to think of a single explicitly Buddhist app that is particu- larly innovative or successful.” Horn attributes that in part to Buddhist attitudes. “I think that for way too long, we’ve allowed our ideals to cloud our practical ability to create high-quality and culturally relevant forms.” So are Buddhists behind the times, or are smartphones simply an unsuitable vehicle for the dharma? Many practitioners, like Zen priest Karen Maezen Miller, simply feel that a Buddhist app misses the point. “I can’t say that apps are antithetical to the practice of Bud- dhism,” says Miller. By putting a meditation app on your phone, she says, you have at least taken a first step in recognizing an addiction to distraction. “We have this feeling that we need to take a step in another direction—but we feel we can’t do it without the phone. I can tell you how to do it without the phone. Just set your phone down.” With his app, Shotwell takes a middle view: an app can never replace instruction from a human being or a connection to a physical place. “I think of it like woodblock printing or building a stupa or prayer wheel,” says Shot- well. “It’s another way to communicate.” Sam LittLefair WaLLace is assistant editor of Lionsroar.com, the online home of Lion’s Roar and Buddhadharma. PHOTO | claire Zimmerman