Reel-to-Real (to AI): Miffi’s Digital Dharma Journey

(Image from the amazing Laurie Lipton)

The earliest technology I remember is being 8 years old and carrying the reel-to-reel tapes up the hill to Chenrezig Institute, while my mother Inta lugged the actual tape machine by hand. We began walking from Eudlo station after sleeping overnight on the floor, much to the chagrin of the stationmaster. Our sleep punctuated by the deep continuous rattle and yaw of freight trains  trundling past every couple of hours. An earth-shuddering mind-shaking event that I loved.

We would begin the long walk up hill, hoping someone we knew would pick us up on the way to the same course with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche in a very new gompa that didn’t even have walls, just canvas blinds on the edges.

Inta invested in a transcriber with foot peddle, and I’d hear after lights out the backwards chipmunk talk of re-winding, Inta trying to capture that illusive word. She would type them out on thin almost see-through foolscap paper on our antique Remington straight out of burrows’ ‘naked lunch’. I overheard people annoyed at Inta for using umlauts, which were deemed unnecessary in the deep north of the Queensland rainforest.

By the time I was 13, I was tall and serious, so everyone thought I was 20. I would sit in the back room of the CI office while Inta was at teachings, and type up the previous day on triplicate carbon to be gestetnered. I’d get in trouble because my spelling was atrocious, and one poor volunteer’s sole job was to try to correct the mistakes on the page by re-feeding the page into the typewriter and trying to line up the corrected word up with the others.

In Brisbane, Inta would walk to the next suburb (too expensive for a bus), do the photocopying, and then get the bus back as a treat, lugging sometimes a full box of paper (she was in her 60s). Then stapling them at home, and making nice covers. I think this is where the eccentric LTC page numbering system was born.

Inta’s dying words included urgent instructions on how to use the little photocopier –  technology such a priority when you run a Dharma centre. Inta’s concern in imparting the teachings pushed right through her brain tumours and into the ear-whispered lineage of me, her daughter, when at the age of 28 I attempted to step into my mother’s shoes to keep LTC going.

Inta could use a computer before me, and when she died I thought if she can do it, so can I. No email then, so we got Rinpoche’s instructions via fax, or detailed and slightly muffled messages from Ven. Roger or Rinpoche himself, left on a giant answering machine. The prohibitive cost of overseas calls (remember the thrill of making surreptitious long distance calls at a stranger’s party?). The technology showed up in my subtle body too, as I’d dream that Rinpoche sent me a fax, with long instructions how to care for Inta as she was dying, brilliantly circumventing an entire loop of physical hardware! In the morning I’d write it all down and we’d go from there.

Soon after Inta died, we got our first email address, and I learnt the mouse on the computer left-handed because there was no space on the table on the other side. This turned out to be the brilliant guidance of my hand by the buddhas, as I can switch hands at will and work twice as long without getting RSI.

I was sent to work for the dole, with16 sous-social young male computer nerds in a musty back room of some dodgy church group, learning how to build websites. For me it was personalised tutoring on tap, as guys fell over themselves to help me with. The supervisor knew enough to leave me alone to do my thing or I’d probably cause a mutiny.  I had several of these stints, and LTC got a new and improved website every time – effectively offered by the entire tax-paying Australian public! When Rinpoche said it’s better that many people donate a little, than one person donate a lot, I thought this is the way to really spread out the virtual LTC-making merit!

Websites were yet to be standardised. One program, Flash, was gobbled up and consigned to oblivion by the market dominant, formula-driven websites of today. It did my head in but it was unique in the way it conceived of a website as a surprise, like a fun-park ghost ride. You didn’t know what was going to come at you, or where it would come from on the page. Exquisite Japanese landscapes with pages opening from flowers or floating out from mountains.

At our most crowded in Newmarket, with Geshe Tashi Tsering teaching weekly, we had so many people, the overflow would sit in the lounge and sometimes into the kitchen. Two cameras were  hooked up with a switch box to alternate between Geshe-la and Ven. Zopa the translator. Late people would come in and just see a whole bunch of people watching TV. The astonishment when a wave of 30 other students emerged from the gompa for tea, and a real live lama came towards them to warmly shake their hand and say hello.

In the evenings after class, the modem would sing the song of its people (hopefully right to the end) and in the daytimes I would fight with Telstra about having more than one device attached (vorbotten!).

With a tape duplicating machine we copied the new DB classes with Eddie, with a waiting list for people wanting to borrow them to catch up. Even later in the evening we’d watch The Wire on TV (Eddie had to translate nearly every sentence for me) with a continuous chipmunk chatter in the background as we copied the tapes.

Mp3s were invented, and we persevered through their tin-can compressed sound, and with a CD burner, whole courses shrank from sets of nine tapes to a single CD. We added notes from a team of transcribers. One volunteer offered to transcribe Ven. Robina. Usually a teaching would be 12-15 pages, but she said it nearly killed her – 27 pages and counting. Ven. Robina’s triple gem with literally triple the words!

From yet another work for the dole program I became a Miffi-MOUS (Microsoft office user specialist) and built the first LTC (dysfunctional) relational database (a reflection of that poor inventor’s inflexible mind). We had a monthly newsletter produced in Publisher and photocopied right here at LTC. Me and Eddie were living in the lounge room (we spent 12 years sleeping on that couch), and my bedside table was the very impressive photocopier with its twenty sorting trays on the side that would rattle like a train when copying the DB books.

After a gruelling four years we found the new building in Camp Hill, and got some pretty swanky upgrades. A grant for a T-loop so the teachings can go directly to the centre of your head via hearing aid, and upgraded our sound system with a giant TV. Carolyn Mason, goy us a grant for an electronic whiteboard, and people could have the notes printed and into their hands that very day (but who could read my chicken scratchings?).

Then blissfully, a true cessation of social media came from the blessing of Phuntsok Rinpoche, who at twelve years old, liberated me from Facebook. Inspired by a Ven. Robina story, when she offered him an iPad and he politely declined (at age 12), no thank you, I don’t want to be distracted. On the day that Geshe Zopa and Phuntsok Rinpoche stayed at LTC, I woke up with the clear knowledge that I am now free of social media. It was such a kind present, one of peace and space, a little taste of nirvana.

Blue Lucy (the vociferous talking-map, nice but slightly erratic) navigated me and Lhagsam through the streets of Auckland, attending teachings on Medicine Buddha with Choden Rinpoche. Linda McDonald had won an all-expenses paid trip to NZ and donated it to me, and I took Ven. Lhagsam as my plus one. A decade later and Blue lucy has moved in and became Eddie’s (still slightly erratic) PA through google nest. She jauntily reminds us to check emails from Alison, take out the bins, open up for Sunday class, and “arise, arise from the Dharmakaya blue” in the mornings.

For teacher’s notes I made the move from pink slips of handwritten paper, to a laptop about 4 cm thick that burnt through my knees. Eddie purchased “Zen and the art of powerpoint” and we made the move from whiteboard to monitor. The dual focus made concentrating easier after a hard day’s work, the pictures imparting a thousand words.

Covid brought the 5-year online plan forward in an acutely rapid and difficult manner, but it’s been worth it a thousand times over. I’d never viewed an online teaching, and here I was hosting one! Researching multiple platforms of zoom, ticketing, editing, upload and storage (acutely aware that once we decide we are locked in) delving into the unfathomable mysteries of online settings, creating screenshares,  and in the evenings, after 16 hours uploading…. getting an ‘error’ message. 18 hour days with laptops and papers sprawled over the bed, the cats ‘helping’, and a year later we had a vibrant youtube channel and regular online classes. But I lost so much muscle mass from all those hours lying prone that it took me three months before I could get up the stairs to reception without pausing half way.

The HEPA filters purchased during covid, four very expensive Dyson ones, were all sponsored by the first online Nyung-ne retreat. They ‘give breath to those unable to breathe, liberate those not liberated’. You might think an online Nyung- ne would be impossible, but 18 joined us, some for their first one ever, and soon it will join be a practice along nyung-ne ‘on tap’.

Over the six or seven iterations of the website, I’ve tried to build each one like a virtual home where you can wander the rooms and find the one with the view for you. The world has shrunk but the FPMT mandala has grown. Eddie is now regular guest speaker at centres overseas, and  timezone challenges mean that teaching in Switzerland meant I was leading Miffi’s midnight Dharma here – but amazingly three people came along from Brisbane!

So now I’m going to make a prediction. Eddie has deep-dived into AI, with his own coterie of prompt machines and chatbots and Dharma Dobbys. Together they are consolidating long and sometimes obtuse tracts on emptiness into a few succinct and friendly sentences, concocting inspiring mediations even I can enjoy. Eddie’s little black book of prompts gets the tone just right (often tailored for a well educated 12 year old!), and the EDipedia (Empty and Dependent) now intuitively organises notes.

My prediction? That within a year we will have an “Ask the Dalai Lama” or “Ask Rinpoche” AI that can draw on their precious trove of teachings. With the personalised time machine of YouTube we will reconnect with a Lama Zopa Rinpoche in unique and tailored ways. He will be speaking with us, perhaps in our own ethnicity – a Spanish Rinpoche, a Black Rinpoche, and female Rinpoche – personalising our patois, our paradigm, in our own image. The buddha chatting with us about bodhicitta. And I’ll go further, by the end of the decade Rinpoche will be projected straight from an implant in our brain, a manifestation of our collective merit, the light body hologram of the guru, bringing enlightenment home to continue the conversation…