Tzu Chi, or the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, exemplifies a growing trend towards digital innovation among religious organizations.
Tzu Chi was established in 1966 in Taiwan by a 29-year-old Buddhist nun. She recognized that the Buddhist virtue of compassion could be achieved in practical innovative ways, such as activism and donation, rather than in traditional Buddhist approaches such as mediation. Today, Tzu Chi has millions of members in 50 countries and provides significant humanitarian aid all over the world.
However Tzu Chi leaders saw a need to help members find ways to show compassion on a daily basis. This is where social media started playing a crucial role, by helping Tzu Chi supporters to maintain contact with each other and offering members around the world opportunities to get involved in aid outreach and environmental conservation.
“When clergy and members of a religious community get involved in online activities, it helps religious organizations spread their vision and mission globally. This means daily online communication plays a vital role in building such organizations,” according to Pauline Hope Cheong, Associate Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, and the study’s lead author. The study was published in the journal of Information, Communication and Society in January 2014.
“The use of new media not only helps to advance the spiritual knowledge, but also helps to increase a sense of unity, belonging and commitment to public service among community members,” Cheong adds.
The Tzu Chi community has developed, for example, a unique icon-based online religious sign language that is shared only by members, allowing them, with a few keyboard characters, to say “Giving thanks” or “Praying piously” online. This use of the special religious symbols and other community specific communication strategies reinforces a sense of family among the members.
Tzu Chi’s innovative use of digital media—from posting teachings and mantras on a YouTube channel—to allowing members to share prayer requests on Facebook, also demonstrates what is described as “Engaged Buddhism.” This form of Buddhism focuses on putting Buddhist philosophy into action to alleviate human suffering and to advance human well-being. In “Engaged Buddhism,” media technology becomes the gateway for deeper spiritual and social engagement.
Cheong notes that while other scholars have presented social media as a problem and a threat to religious authority, their study shows social media is “an essential tool that helps reinforce a religious leader’s positions and their community creed.” By embracing social media, religious leaders make themselves more approachable and relatable, which helps them gain the support and trust of their members and volunteers.
Overall this study demonstrates that digital media practice helps religious organizations expand their influence and authority around the world.
For the full text of study, “Transnational Immanence: the Autopoietic Co-constitution of a Chinese Spiritual Organization Through Mediated Communication,” authored by Pauline Hope Cheong, Jennie M. Hwang and Boris H. J. M. Brummans visit: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1369118X.2013.833277
Summary of research provided by the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies (http://digitalreligion.tamu.edu), which seeks to show how digital religion shapes our everyday lives and world.
Pauline Hope Cheong