Virtual Reality Spaces: From the Profane to the Sacred

Over the last several years I have developed a large scale research project exploring the role of developing Internet technology in the ritual practices of the Tibetan Diaspora Community. “The Cyber Lama and the Virtual Sangha” is examining how computer-mediated-communications can become a central tool in the religious and ritual practices of a globally dispersed religious system. We all know how important the Internet has become for staying connected, yet for some groups, it has afforded them the opportunity to develop those connections in an incredibly deep and complex way—weaving new technological practices into an ancient religious tradition.

As Virtual Reality technology has become more readily available, there is a push on to “VR” ritual leaders within the tradition conducting important and significant rituals so that the community can engage within the practice in a new and meaningful way. Part of my research funding is to assist with this process. By helping to VR the monks and Lamas, I am in effect helping to develop the research activity that I am set on studying.

VR technology has been developed so well, it now allows for cyberspace to be engaged and experienced as a very temporal location. With the monks and Lamas actively involved within this new technology, they have turned it from a gaming area and entertainment platform to a sacred ritual space. Within this Buddhist tradition, they do not see the online and offline environments as a dichotomy. In fact they were one of the first religious institutions to fully embrace the Internet as a new space that they simply perceived as part of our reality. As early as 1996 they were conducting large scale rituals online, in an effort to sanctify the space and connect with their followers. For the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there is no difference between the online and the offline worlds, it is all part of the world we live in.

In my opinion, the VR experience is so profound, that “ritual transfer” into this new media platform creates the ultimate form of online religious activity. Once the monks and Lamas place the ritual activity in the VR environment, it remains there in cyberspace allowing for people to engage with it in profound and meaningful ways. This new form of old ritual activity moves beyond time, space, and place. It forces us to consider the social shaping of technology in new ways and challenges academics and practitioners alike to consider cyberspace as sacred ritual space.

As the project develops, we are examining the process and production of the online ritual activity and also how it is consumed and engaged by those that experience it. What does this new form of ritual activity mean for this ancient tradition? How are they shaping this technology and how is the use of this technology shaping them? What does it mean to be a digital practitioner? Can cyberspace be sacred space?

By Christopher Helland

Christopher Helland’s research focuses upon religion in contemporary culture from a sociological perspective.