The Dharma of Linux:

A Buddhist Monk’s Reflections upon Installing Ubuntu on his Laptop
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore

Linux is a computer operating system, a competitor, with a small market share, of Microsoft Windows. Dharma is the Buddha’s teachings on the perfection of human character, in its three aspects of Serenity, Virtue and Wisdom. I’m a monk, and I pack a laptop, Dell Latitude D420.

My laptop was purchased for me with Windows XP installed, which I have now replaced with the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. The reasons for the change: First, Linux is fast, reliable and powerful. Second, I am a former software engineer and happen to be more deeply familiar with the workings of Unix, the precursor of Linux, than with Windows. Third and most importantly, Linux is a non-commercial free offering to the public from a community of generous dedicated computer programmers who made Linux so successfully happen, and I am moved to support that. This is the story of Why.

In the 1980’s the software market exploded as everybody and his uncle suddenly had to have a home computer. New startups scrambled for market share, out of which one company, with aggressive marketing but almost no innovation in technology or even design, became the big player in the operating system market, and later would leverage that position to become the big player in applications. Meanwhile Richard Stallman and others suggested a different model for the software industry that challenged the conventional business model of consolidating private ownership and control, treating software as a public resource to which programmers—the most creative of which at that time were working on Unix machines in government research and at universities—would freely contribute and improve, as an uncompensated public service. The Free Software Foundation, and the GNU Project were born, supported by the efforts of thousands of programmers of Open Source code. Linux was developed originally by a single programmer as a kernel operating system, which then accrued extensions and applications written by many programmers, finally to mature into a truly outstanding free resource. Although Linux still has a small share of the home computer market, it has become by far the biggest player in the more demanding Internet server market, especially among the users whose demands for high efficiency and low downtime are more extreme, like Google.

The story of Linux has some lessons for us. The first lesson is economic, and not particularly Buddhist, but worth noting: The Linux story points out a difference between software industry and manufacturing industries. Notice, for instance, that there is no comparable non-profit movement to produce, say, free cars, free business suits, free furniture or free wine for the general public. I think the main difference is that the primary task of the consumer software industry is to make an essentially public resource more accessible to individual users. It might therefore be comparable to providing potable water for public consumption: Water is already available as a huge and essential public resource, but sometimes a means must be implemented to make it more accessible to thirsty or soiled individuals, a task variously undertaken by for-profit, non-profit and government entities. The comparable case of computer software involves the vast public resource that has come at public expense out of universities and government-funded labs. This is almost the entire body computer technology, whose development has been paid for and managed, copiously, consistently and creatively, over many decades, by agencies the U.S. Defense Department. Naturally wherever private corporations are able to gain ownership or effective control of a previously public resource this can be very profitable. This is happening, for instance, even in the case of water resources worldwide. And we now have a situation in which international corporations are selling technology paid for by American taxpayers back to American taxpayers as well as to the rest of the world. Corporations are even in the process of positioning themselves to control that most openly public domain product of technological research, the Internet. Linux helps hold the line on this trend toward private control of public resources, at least in the fundamental area of computer operating systems.

The second lesson of the story of Linux is that excellence can be achieved in a large collaborative effort independently of the profit motive. This is an important reminder since the idea that “Greed is Good” is almost a religious creed, allegedly backed by holy scripture, The Wealth of Nations, which no one ever dares actually to read, and taught by some of the finest T.V. pundits and talk show hosts. When the corporate presence is so dominant, when everything comes through corporations, your spiffy shoes, your job, the meat on your plate and the cereal in your breakfast bowl, the rhythms in your ears, the voice on your GPS, the shiny things your clever computer does, it is easy to be convinced that corporations are the mother of everything, accessible for a price, of course, and that these things would disappear without them, and be inaccessible without it. It is not true! The lesson of Linux comes at an important time—some already call it the End Times, I hope prematurely—when all of us need to consider what it is about human economic activity that stresses so many vital limits at once, pushing toward endless and perhaps nuclear war, environmental collapse, unbearable levels of global poverty, social breakdown, political corruption and psychological dysfunction.

Now, according to Buddhism Greed is Never Good, neither is hatred or anger, neither is delusion. According to Buddhism, what is good is a Cool Head, Kindness, Compassion and Wisdom. These things are the skills one masters in perfecting the human character. Greed is unskillful for several reasons: Its experience is immediately painful. It distorts perceptions. It leads to harm for others and regret for oneself. It perpetuates itself as unskillful habit patterns and disagreeable disposition in oneself and as unskillful responses in others. And it sets a bad example for others, like for your impressionable young children. You can verify these disadvantages of greed through introspection and in examining your own life. An act of kindness is skillful because it feels good immediately, it puts things into perspective, it leads to benefit for others and satisfaction for oneself and it perpetuates itself in skillful habit patterns and agreeable disposition in oneself and in skillful responses in others, and it sets a good example for others. We are born with a potential for both skillful and unskillful, we develop whichever one we feed. Unfortunately we live in a society that values Greed and that is what generally gets fed. This is not to say that a degree of enlightened self-interest will not always play a role in an exchange economy, but he success of Linux suggests that we do not need to live in this immoderately greedy society.

This brings us to the third thing Linux has to teach us: In Linux we have a product of Kindness, the product of many hours of someone creatively writing code then painstakingly testing and debugging it, of someone integrating it into what others have produced, then testing and debugging it anew. And all this happens outside of the exchange economy, that is, without customer to compensate labor with cash, but instead with satisfaction in serving many nameless people. (So I am now one of these nameless, but no one can ever remember my name anyway.) Linux is a Gift! If this is inspiring to me, imagine the wonderful example this must set for the kids of programmers when they ask what busy Mommy or Daddy is doing. Linux represents the kind of values that are capable of transforming the world for the better, the kinds of values you want your kids to learn.

Selfless Giving in Buddhism, known as Dāna (the line over the ‘a’ indicates a drawn-out aaah sound), is a supreme virtue, and the most common Buddhist practice on the path toward the perfection of character. A Buddhist monk or a nun has the great privilege of living entirely in an economy of Dāna. That is, a pure-hearted monastic does not participate in the exchange economy, in principle not at all, has no customers, never acts as a customer, has no livelihood, and even follows strict limitations in what non-economic things he might do on his own behalf, while following few limitations in what he might do on behalf of others. A monastic can, and must, receive gifts, but observes strict limits on what she can receive, and often when she can receive it, or what she can possess, and often how long she can possess it, and only in emergencies can actually ask to be given something. This may seem like a peculiar set of behaviors, but they are actually specified in the monastic code of discipline, drawn up by the Buddha. They ensure that the Buddhist monk or nun lives entirely in an Economy of Gifts, and are sustainable only because, given the chance, People Readily Turn from Greed to Embrace Kindness … just like Linux programmers.

Why in the world would the Buddha want monastics to live entirely in an Economy of Gifts? You’ve heard of economic bubbles, and you’ve heard of people living in a bubble; in the monastic life you get both! It means that when entering the presence of monastics you, the layperson, also leave the exchange economy and enter with soap in your hair the Economy of Gifts. In living this way monastics put themselves in the very vulnerable position of being completely and continuously dependent for their basic needs on Gifts, freely offered, with no power to manipulate the situation. In this sense monastics are like puppies; in fact they are adopted much like pets by the laity: We are just as cute, with our fluffy robes and bald heads, and we need just as much to be fed, though generally not potty-trained. Also like pets, the needs of monastics are modest; because they do not need, nor can they accept, all the things laypeople generally take for granted, the support of monastics is not unduly burdensome for the laity, and is therefore sustainable. And just as Fluffy can rid a house of crawling things, and Fido can guard against intruders, Venerable Sukha can teach and exemplify Dharma, undertake social services, perform ceremonies, provide pastoral care, or even bang out code for the Open Source Project if so moved. So, Dāna works both ways. Sometimes the bubble will even give rise to a monastic Lassie, distinguished for great works.

The consequences of the monastic bubble are plainly visible in Buddhist cultures, like the Burmese. In a vibrant Buddhist community life for the monastic is infused both with a deep appreciation for the laity that sustains the monastics and with a deep joy for the many opportunities available to serve others. Also relieved of concern for personal benefit, the monastic is sustained in the ideal context for Buddhist practice, for developing Serenity, Virtue and Wisdom, and for expressing Kindness and Compassion in creative ways. Laypeople similarly experience great joy in sustaining the monastics in their lives of practice and deep appreciation for the influence of the monastics in shaping their lives and their values. Although laypeople, in the complexity of their lives, keep one foot in the exchange economy, the practice of Dāna tends to color everyday affairs. This is not to say we can live without an exchange economy, but the monastic model teaches that it does not have to dominate our culture as thoroughly as it does.

Dāna is the lifeblood of the Buddhist community, but is nourishing wherever it flows. It is important to recognize that there are two parts to keeping the blood flowing: First is the willingness to offer. Second, and just as important, is the willingness to receive what is offered with full appreciation. This second could well be the more difficult for us ruggedly independent Westerners to manifest. We don’t like to be obliged, we also think if something is given freely then it cannot be worth much. As a Western monastic I at first had difficulty with this but learned the importance of the obligation in receiving, the first time I saw the disappointment in a Burmese laywoman’s eye’s when I did not let her do some small thing she was intent on doing, simply because I could do it more conveniently myself. Receiving and appreciating what is received is integral to the flow of Dāna and is itself a Dāna. Often monastics will travel hours to receive a lunch, even when a closer alternative would otherwise be offered. Not to do so would deprive someone of the joy of Dāna.

Dāna is likewise the lifeblood of the Linux project. For those actively involved on the production side, I can imagine that there is great joy in producing such a remarkably robust, powerful and user-friendly interface to the computing experience of many users in home and business, and even of monks, all over the world. What about the second part of Dāna? That is up to you. Without it there would be no Linux project. With it the project will thrive even to include the finest implementations of those relatively few applications that are not yet available on the Linux platform. Please Accept the Offering with full appreciation for the kindness and of the hard work behind it. Even though it is free it is valuable, like water. If you are not already a user, become one, for Pete’s sake! This helps keeps the lifeblood of Dāna flowing. The world will be kinder for it.

3 Responses to “The Dharma of Linux:”

  1. don Says:

    actually xerox had started working with the first GUI system. This was actually an attempt to provide something that would benefit mankind.

    So perhaps the original idea for computers was very much in a Buddhist frame of thought on compassion.

  2. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Don, The work at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center has some of the few commercial (not part of a government effort) innovations to its credit, including the use of windows, the mouse and the idea of clicking, pointing and dragging. I believe they also developed the local area network. The user interface project, I believe, was part of an effort to make computers usable for kids. They also developed the Smalltalk language, which never became popular but was the first Object Oriented programming language, so that kids could program, and turtle graphics which involved a robotic turtle that kids could control through programming commands. But as you point out, this was never a profit-driven project. It was a noble effort. I think Steve Jobs used to hang around PARC and had the idea of introducing the GUI into the home computer environment.

  3. Kevin Says:

    Let me know when you are in Austin and I would be honored to take you to lunch any time. Hope all is well.
    Kevin

    Often monastics will travel hours to receive a lunch, even when a closer alternative would otherwise be offered. Not to do so would deprive someone of the joy of Dāna.

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