#599: Visualizing Bardo States from the Tibetan Book of the Dead in VR

john-bentonEvery culture around the world has their own beliefs around what happens to us after we die, and virtual reality may be a great medium to explore all of these different rituals and mythologies. The Tibetan Book of the Dead contains descriptions of the various bardo states that the Tibetans believe our consciousness experiences after we die. NYU instructor John Benton created a Bardo Thogul VR prototype in collaboration with his Tibetan Buddhism teacher as well as with two students from Columbia University’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute, Devorah Medwin & Lia Walton.

Benton’s prototype experience premiered at The Art of Dying VR art show that happened in San Francisco in October 2016. I had a chance to catch up with him to talk about how training for the afterlife in VR, visualizing Buddhist metaphysics, Eastern philosophical perspectives on the malleability of reality, and how VR can be used as a gym to train your awareness to be more potent, available, and present to our every day reality.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So I recently made a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, where they separate their collection into different regions as well as time periods. And one of the things that I was really struck by is how there's different themes around death and dying and grieving and different rituals that people have created across all different cultures to be able to deal with the fact that we're all eventually going to die. So what happens after we die is something that nobody can really answer, but there's many stories that we tell ourselves about whether or not consciousness survives after we die and what are the different practices and rituals that we have for the survivors to be able to actually grieve and process that death. So, John Benton is an adjunct instructor at New York University, and he looked at the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the different bardo states that are talked about in that book and that specific tradition. And so, he created a VR experience exploring the different bardo states. It was featured at the Art of Dying show that happened last October of 2016, and I had a chance to talk to John about both the process that he went through of making it and his collaboration with his Tibetan teachers, as well as some of the metaphysical ideas about death and dying that come from the Buddhist and Tibetan cultures, and how virtual reality can help us to experience these different myths and stories about death and dying and how doing that can actually change your relationship for what it means to be alive and how it can become even more present in each and every moment. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Jon happened on Friday, October 26, 2016 at the Art of Dying show in San Francisco, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:06.218] John Benton: So my name is John Benton and I do a number of things in VR. I teach at NYU and I teach a lot of the theory and practice of this stuff. So my background is in filmmaking and storytelling and a couple of years ago I got very engaged with the idea of haptic and immersive storytelling because it engages us on a kind of very deep and physical level. And I think it's a new form of storytelling, whether it's kids with iPhones or it's people in a vibe. I mean, it's a whole different kind of vocabulary that we need to build right now. And also the VR community in New York is kind of great. Because it's a lot of people, it's really open, it's a lot of diverse people, men and women from all different ethnicities trying to figure this stuff out. So it's not being run by technology companies that much on the East Coast. It's not being run by entertainment. It's being run by a bunch of people who are trying to figure this stuff out. And the community is kind of great, because we're all figuring this stuff out together, and we're sharing things. We're not proprietary. So, one of the reasons that I love Voices of VR is because, A, it documents this time, but B, it gets us to start really looking at what we're doing in sharing information like this. So, kudos to you for that.

[00:03:26.672] Kent Bye: Cool, great. Thank you for that. So we're here right now at the Art of Dying show and you have a piece here about the bardo and looking at some Tibetan Buddhism teachings and trying to translate some of these cosmological conceptualizations that, you know, what happens to us after we die as we go into these different phases and transitions into these different interim states and so Maybe you could walk through, first of all, a little bit of the process of how it came about to actually start to translate some of these teachings into a VR experience like this.

[00:03:59.068] John Benton: So, I have some friends who studied at this wonderful new program in Colombia that unites psychology and spirituality, and Devorah Medwin and Leah Walton, I think, I forget how it came about, but somebody found this and approached me with it, and I was like, you know, this idea of dying I like, but putting that experience into VR, I mean, I wouldn't know where to begin. unless you were to do the Tibetan Bardo teachings, which actually would be perfect for it, because it's such a visceral experience about what you go through when you die. And all of a sudden I heard my voice and I started to convince myself, like, wow, this could be a really good idea. And that was about, what, a month, month and a half ago? And, you know, again, like I was saying before, I think that the potential for VR to physically engage us and to communicate ideas on a deep level is incredible. So I'm fortunate enough to study with an amazing Tibetan teacher. And I asked her about that. I was like, what do you think? Will you guide me on this? And she was like, yeah, sure, try it. So I built this prototype in three weeks. And what I'm trying to do is, A, it's like this idea of rapidly prototyping that we were discussing before. Because none of this language is necessarily codified yet, one of the best ways to approach it is to just make, and make, and make. And we do these things at these kinds of VR jams or in these short spurts where we make something and then we take time to reflect on it. So I wanted to make something really fast that I could take back to my teacher and show her. So for me, one of the things that I was interested in this is Unlike most of the experiences that I create which are for either the Vive or the Oculus to be room scale and physically engaging, this experience is for the gear and is specifically to bring this to the person and take my voice out of it and let myself be a kind of a conduit for her and the real teachings because I do not profess to understand this stuff in any way where I should be teaching it.

[00:06:12.432] Kent Bye: Well, it seems like from what I got from actually going through the experience is that, you know, there's these four different bardo states. And so as we're in these different states of life and death and becoming and dharmapada, it seems like those four different stages are transitory stages. And that by looking at the process of preparing for death, we can start to learn about the process for what it means to really be alive is sort of some of the big takeaways that I got. from going through the experience. And so given that, it's sort of like you're showing people this shamanic journey into the afterlife to actually kind of give them some sort of conceptualization of this process of sinking through these different gates and phases. But, you know, the visuals are something that I think is kind of abstract and really left up to each individual creator to kind of figure out some sort of metaphoric explanation for what this might feel like in some way of our mind. trying to understand something that may be beyond what anybody's actually experienced to be able to really comprehend, describe, or really talk about. But the thing that I find interesting is that you're taking these kind of ancient teachings and trying to transmit them in a way, and then use your own artistic license to try to describe them. So given that, I'm just curious what the intention is in terms of like, as somebody goes through this experience, will this perhaps give them some sort of metaphoric conceptualization of what these different phases are like, what the meaning behind them are, and then how they can start to work with trying to tap into those energies so that it could become this inner contemplative spiritual practice.

[00:07:49.793] John Benton: That's a good question. So there are a lot of interesting things in Buddhism where you're working with visualizations. And this can be an amazing tool with VR. But more I would turn it into, like most people are approaching VR or thinking of VR as an entertainment platform where we're actually kind of taken away. And I think one of the potent parts of VR is actually it can put you here right now and make you very physically engaged with this moment in time. So, when you start to train in certain things that you will be possibly encountering after you die, when you may not be as conscious or as cognizant as you are right now, when you can train with physically grappling with things, you could probably recognize them at a time when you're less cognizant. I think that one of the great things about VR is that we're physically and actively engaged. It's not like other forms of entertainment. And a lot of the point of meditation is to be thoroughly and physically and consciously engaged in something so that at other states you can bring that being to bear as well. So, you know, one of the things that I got out of doing this process is that We think that training to be aware at the time of death, it's like trying to be aware when you're sleeping, right? You think that you're going to be able to do that then? You will be able to do that then if you're able to do that right now, right? If you're able to in the moment that you're living right now, if the moment that you're speaking, that you're listening, that you're listening to this audio thing, If you're able to be that kind of present and aware, then the possibility exists for you actually to have that quality of awareness later on when you're not conscious in the way that you think you're conscious now, right? It's very much like lucid dreaming and training yourself to be cognizant as you fall asleep.

[00:09:50.332] Kent Bye: One of the things that I found really interesting about being into virtual reality is back at the first Oculus Connect 1 and hearing Brandon Irby get up on stage and tell everybody that the ultimate purpose of VR is to cultivate this sense of presence. Brendan talked about his first experience of having presence by going through Val's demo room and what that was like for him to actually feel like he was present in an experience. And so that to me was always striking because I had been familiar with the concept of presence from more Buddhist teachings and the process of trying to cultivate a sense of presence, which is a little bit more of an inner contemplative breath and clearing your mind and a whole long lineage of different practices in order to really cultivate that presence. The thing that I've been really finding interesting about VR is that there's different dimensions of presence and so that we're present in life and then we go into VR into the synthetic reality where we're starting to take out different levels of presence and then add them in one by one and the end game of that that I see is that we're able to perhaps really focus in on a sense of emotional presence or social presence or active presence or embodied presence And through those different levels of presence, if we get into the flow state within a VR experience, then we're able to bring that back into our real life day to day and be able to actually cultivate that level of presence just more easily. So to me, there seems like just a kind of a natural insights and lessons that VR could learn from what the Buddhists think about presence. But to me, it feels like a whole inner process of really trying to be present with yourself. Some people say I've never achieved a state of presence in VR and then my questions like well Have you ever been able to really be present in your real life with these other types of practices? So I'm just curious to hear some of your thoughts on that.

[00:11:36.432] John Benton: It's a great question again, you know, I think it was the Dalai Lama who said all reality is virtual and Right? Which is kind of great. So one of the big things that a lot of Buddhist teachers say is, understand that we're constantly creating our reality again, every moment, every moment. And it's a kind of hard pill to swallow. One of the ways that you can see that is if you're doing the lab in the Vive, and you go over to the archery games. I remember at a certain point, I picked up a bow, and it wasn't a realistic bow. And I put an arrow in, and I'm pulling it back, and with a little visual feedback, a little oral feedback, and a little bit of haptic feedback, I could feel tension between my two hands. And there was nothing there, right? But my brain was saying, oh yes, yes it is. And when I realized that, I was like, holy shit, I do this all the time. And that has made the way that I look at reality a little more fluid, and the way that I'm able to kind of experience in my daily life. It's a little more robust, because I realize it's not actually the way that I'm creating it, perhaps. So that's one kind of very theoretical way to kind of think about this. But the other thing that it goes back to, too, is I think that usually everybody who is working in VR has had one or two aha moments. So for me one of those was working with the bow and arrow. One of the others is that I feel like VR can be a kind of gym where you're training your awareness, your ability to pay attention, your ability to have empathy, your ability to... I think for VR as an educational tool has not even been explored. or a social education tool. You know, we might be able to experience each other in ways that, and build things with each other in ways that we wouldn't dare to in real life. So I think that it could be a transformative power. It can also go in the other direction too, right, where it can totally alienate and have people not wanting to lead this kind of virtual reality. But it's something that I think we have to look at, and be cognizant of, and talk about, and struggle with, and flesh out, and critically analyze as it's happening. And I think that the opportunity that VR gives us needs to be played with. And that's how we're going to figure it out. But it's specifically by trying this stuff, throwing it against the wall, seeing what sticks, seeing what happens when we turn it upside down. Yeah, it's the Chinese curse. May you live in interesting times.

[00:14:14.560] Kent Bye: So with your piece about the bardo, I do think it can be seen as a potential way to train yourself to be able to be prepared for these different bardo states. And so it seems like a lot of these practices and teachings are trying to cultivate a certain level of awareness. One of the things that I found most striking that was said in the experience was that we can actually achieve some sort of awareness of each of these different bardo states while being alive. And so we're able to slip in or somehow gather some sort of sneak peek about what is to come in these other realms of consciousness, if you want to think of it in that way. But for you as you're creating this VR experience, do you feel like it would be a little bit of a training to be able to go into these different states? I'm just trying to connect the dots from the perspective of the Tibetan Buddhists, what they would say in terms of why is it important to be able to look at these and study how is that related to what's happening right now?

[00:15:12.349] John Benton: That's a great question, too. So I think that meditation, if you look back at it, has always used props. Whether it's the breath or it's concentrating on an object or a mantra, there is no real difference between that and using technology, right? Using this stuff to really be able to train yourself, there's a lot of potential here. I don't know the answer to this, but what I do know is that with something like the Bardo teachings, these Tibetan teachings, All I'm trying to do is trying to take it to people who know a lot more than I do and use this as a way to be a voice for them. To get my design and my ego and my aesthetics out of there and just to be able to say, here's what we could do. What about this? Or what about that? So for me, this is actually a very selfish thing. This is me wanting to learn from amazing Tibetan teachers and also wanting to learn from amazing people working in VR. Like, hey, what happens if we do this? I do believe that there's a way to use this if we're consciously looking at it and if we have the right intention to use it in a good way. So if your intention with whatever you're making has heart in it, the way that I tend to judge works now is by how much heart they have in them and how much love is kind of there.

[00:16:31.619] Kent Bye: One of the things that you said earlier was that the Buddhist teachings have a lot of visualizations, and I think that in the process of doing an interview with a dungeon master, with Chris Perkins, this is someone who talks about the theater of the mind and how Dungeons & Dragons is able to allow people to do a sort of collaborative storytelling that is able to use each individual's imagination. So I think there's something unique about being able to actually use your own sources of imagery. And I've heard somewhere that the same part of the mind that remembers the past is the same part that can imagine the future. So we're kind of taking these visual metaphors that we have in our life to be able to then project them out into the future. So I guess the question is, in terms of using virtual reality to be able to give someone a guided experience that is showing them a visualization of something, Is that going to do damage or harm to their own process of being able to come up with what that should look like from their own sense of what that might be given just an auditory cue and let them kind of come up with their own imagery?

[00:17:33.223] John Benton: That's a great question, again. And this is something I think a lot about, actually. It goes back to toy design, in a sense, when there are times where nowadays you see like there are toys that play with themselves, right? That the kids just like, they go to sleep, they're hypnotized by this toy that's playing with itself. And that's bad toy design, right? I grew up building with blocks. And that's the best stuff. So I sympathize with that question. It's something that I ask myself a lot. Initially, when I built this thing out, I built it with a lot of Buddhist imagery. And I was using a lot of photogrammetry. And it was too literal. And so then I pulled it back into this thing that you saw now. And it's a little too cartoony. We're going to have to figure that out. But I think it's a great thing to think about. I mean, when you give somebody something to visualize, are you making them work for it? Or are you making them just take it and not do anything? And that's, I think, the difference between passive media and the potential of active media. And active media is there in books. It's there in films. It's there in a lot of what we think of as lean back. experiences. You know, what your question gets to is beyond technology, it actually gets into just basic writing. You know, when you can write a story about the redheaded girl, you imagine one redheaded girl with all the embodiments of every, you know, whatever. But if I show you a red-headed girl, you become less active, right? But then there are ways of showing you that red-headed girl that also are engaging you in different ways. One of the potentials that I see for VR, and again, I don't know how to do this, but I know that it's possible to build for your user or player or reader narrative objects that they then get to put together in their own active way. and create something that's their own. So VR is more like a co-creation environment. And that's what I would hope to kind of bring to this. How on earth I am going to do that, I have no clue.

[00:19:41.139] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that's the, I really noticed that you did dial down the fidelity spectrum so that it was very stark, but there wasn't a lot of explicit instructions of describing what you were seeing or experiencing. One thing that it made me think about in the process of going through it was Fran Panetta's 6x9 experience and in the process of doing an interview with her, She had wanted to do a documentary about solitary confinement and so she had this question of like, should we include documentary footage of other people who have been through solitary confinement? And so she did these different experiments of whether or not it actually worked to put somebody embodied within a solitary confinement cell and then having other people talk about their experience. what she found out is that it actually doesn't work to be in that solitary confinement and hear other people's experience of that and so she actually had this great idea to be like well why don't we have these people who have been through solitary confinement tell you what it's going to be like by saying you are going to experience this you're going to notice the cracks in the wall you're going to Count all the different bricks and you're gonna know exactly and so as each of those prompts are being spoken It actually started to engage me and to start to notice the room in a new way it was a way of using the second person pronoun to be able to direct the information at me and to be able to pay attention to. And so I was kind of wanting a little bit of that, of like, you are going to experience this, you are going to see this, you're going to, and then kind of have maybe some sort of, you know, this is a decision that you have to make. So you experiment with a super photorealistic literal visualizations that is maybe too heavy handed and then dial it down to, somewhere that's a super stark and almost no details at all. Maybe that's not enough. Maybe there's some sort of middle ground where it's abstracted enough to allow people to project onto it in some way, but yet detailed enough for them to give some sort of sense of dynamic progression as they're going through this. And so that was some of the thoughts that I was having going through it is that I wanted with each audio proms be brought more into the experience and more present and somehow engage and activate my own sense of imagination through that process.

[00:21:50.180] John Benton: That's absolutely true. I think, and I remember interviewing Francesca Panetta, and one of the things that was so great about this process, because she comes from audio background, right, and she was looking at this as, again, as an iterative thing, and she worked with the mill to kind of like, is this going to work? No, it's a little too realistic. Is this going to work? No, it's a little too, and that is actually what was kind of beautiful about that, and the thing you mentioned too is that The design, these new design systems rest on these beautiful subtleties. So just switching the tense of something, you know, enables us not to actually be told what is the thing, but it allows us to, it almost reflects our own mind. Oh, this is going to happen. So it almost becomes like a natural thing that we're thinking, right? Yeah, those subtle design issues, none of that is really codified yet, so to begin to play with it and see what works is going to be a really interesting thing. One of the other things that for me has been really valuable about this thing too is that I'm used to creating where I'm the creator, and in VR, because this stuff is not being codified, my ego is outside of it. And in a weird way, I'm able to kind of turn to you and other people in this and just be like, hey, what works and what doesn't? And that's something that I really appreciate right now is that I'm able to kind of take a lot of my ego as a creator and put it on the side and really say like, hey, what works and what doesn't and what needs to be told and what doesn't.

[00:23:26.362] Kent Bye: Well, since you're looking at the Tibetan conceptualizations of bardos and the afterlife and death, and we're at the Art of Dying show, I'm just curious to hear some of your thoughts of how VR could really start to more deeply explore death and dying.

[00:23:41.397] John Benton: I mean, my My point of view about death and dying is that it's an amazing thing that we could possibly use to benefit ourselves and other people. And there are a couple of reasons. One is that in our culture right now, we do not look at death. We're looking the other way. And as a result, we're not looking at life, right? So I think by not understanding that you, your loved ones, all of this is going to disappear, we're not actually really living. We're not living in reality, right? There's a certain kind of bittersweetness that life has and most people, I mean in America, I grew up thinking that the point of life was to make it as sweet as possible for yourself and the people you cared about, right? And that's true, but it's also part of the way to really do that is to make it as real as possible. So this kind of bittersweetness that life has is what actually, that's the point where you really relate to people. That's the point that people really connect is when we connect through the heart in that realm of suffering or, I don't want to make it morbid, but that's the way that people connect. And we connect in beautiful ways. I mean, it's the operatic spectrum of life. So I think that looking at dying is a beautiful way to look at life. Specifically then, in Tibetan Buddhism, death is looked at as a real opportunity to liberate yourself. And if you can understand the process that you go through, it can be for a really accomplished master. It can be something that they look forward to. because now I'm going to get out, and I'm going to take you with me. But there are people who, if you really know how to navigate this, you can make choices about how you want to be reborn. You can help guide other people. There's a lot of good work you can do. And again, this sounds very, for Westerners, for people living in the modern world, it sounds very other than. But the point about the Bardo and the things that I really like about it is that The bardo is not just about dying. We're always going through bardos. There's a bardo in between each heartbeat. There's a bardo in between day and night. There's a bardo in between each in-breath. Each moment in time has that ability to come back. So again, it's very much about living and having freedom of range of expression and range of how you physically and emotionally engage in the world.

[00:26:16.939] Kent Bye: Yeah, to me I think that our culture in America doesn't look at death and there seems to be a bit of a cultural taboo of really seeing that connection between being able to look at death that is going to actually allow you to be more alive in the moment and To me, I feel like virtual reality is able to explore grief and these hard aspects of death that are kind of things that you share face-to-face with people. And I think VR is able to create this level of intimacy to be able to explore these different topics a little bit more.

[00:26:53.230] John Benton: If I'm going to be able to make a decision after I die, in those moments when I'm dying and I'm in pain or I'm out of it, or right after I've died, if I'm going to be able to make choices then, those choices then come down to how able to be present I am right now. It's like there are moments in life, like my dreams are horrid, like I don't remember much of my dreams, but in painful parts of my life where I've really had to exert myself in ways that have pushed and pulled me, my dreams become very clear. It's because my presence is not necessarily been comfortable, but I've been awake and alive, and that's been reflected in my dreams. So my quality of being able to be fully present, At the time of death, the only way I can make sure that I'm able to have any hope at that point and able to make clear choices for myself and others is to be really rounded out and present now. And I'm not good at doing that. I'm a creature of comfort. I don't want to do that. I don't want to be uncomfortable. But slowly but surely, I've been in enough situations where it's like, you know what, if I put myself in a little bit of pain now, like I'll be bigger and better later. If I see this through now, it'll work out better for everybody later, right? And I think that those kinds of things are the things that you're pointing to as the things that we can experience perhaps in VR where we can actually use VR not as escapism, but as a tool to actually like grow a little bit emotionally so that we can be a little more potent and available to our world.

[00:28:32.735] Kent Bye: Yeah, the thing that in watching your experience that I really took away was that, you know, we start talking about this concept of reincarnation, you know, and I think that it's some sort of mental construct that we use, which is kind of like a story that we tell ourselves of what happens after we die, and it's a philosophical question where no one will really ever fully know what the actual answer is. It's not something that science can ever really ever prove, and so it becomes a matter of religion and philosophy, but given that there is this conceptualization of reincarnation and that it's a story that you can tell yourself that if you do die you go through these different bardo states and that depending on how well you live is going to kind of set the context of being able to put you at a certain level of consciousness in the next starting point when you come back the next time and so that was a moment where i thought that oh well that's a story that if you're believing in that then at the end of the day it's really coming back to a choice that you're making as to whether or not you're able to be fully present and be able to live in alignment and integrity and it's heart-centered and live into your ultimate potential of who you are and what you're becoming in this lifetime so that you can just be fully present with that. And if that's all that that story ever does, and if the reincarnation is true or not, it's kind of beside the point if it's some sort of open question that we're never really fully going to be able to answer. And so you can either just endlessly spin your mind thinking about something that is never going to be resolved, or we won't know, which is an answer, or it's heaven, or you just die and that's it. or that you do have this concept of reincarnation. So using these metaphoric concepts of the bardos to be able to use that ultimately to get you back and present into how you're living day to day.

[00:30:21.432] John Benton: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, for me, again, I'm using this as a tool to work with people who know a lot more about this than I do and to work with them on a kind of more intimate level because this is going to come down to those macro calls of like, do we talk in the present tense or do we talk in the past tense? But for me, it's an interesting thing because it's not necessarily about telling somebody the right way to behave in the future, that's ridiculous. It's all about how open we're able to be right now. Good actions are important, but they're not as important as actually being really aware. Some amazing like really enlightened people or really really smart people are able to do horrific things for good reasons that actually benefit people like you know I've had people slap me in the face to wake me up in certain ways you know things like that like so it's not necessarily about the right things that you're supposed to do for the future. or prescribing things that will be good things to be able to do when you put down the headset or something. But it's the ability to actually presently open up and visualize, like, oh, I can do that. this is the type of person I am. And to expand the range of who you are and how you think of yourself and how you think of your relationships and how you visualize things when you put down the headset. Because what's great about VR is that it shows you how plastic this reality is. This stuff is really solid. We make it solid. We're so sure that it's solid. But there's a lot more pliability to our reality. And I think that VR can show us that.

[00:32:10.869] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:32:19.639] John Benton: That's a big question. When we're talking about VR and AR and mixed reality, I think we get very hooked into the technology. Whereas I think that a lot of the major changes that we're really experiencing right now are a little less visible. And some of that might be in artificial intelligence and how that's really going to change things. Part of that is in the fact that people are programming. So people are telling stories in new ways where they're not just writing a description or an action, they're programming the behaviors with which people are going to pick these things up and view them. And for me, the reason I'm interested in VR is half of it is the technology, but half of it, more than half of it, is the creative potential that you can show things to people in new ways. And I think that to be able to do that as a writer in storytelling is great. To be able to take that to Tibetan teachers or to teachers or to, you know, another project of mine is working with artists to be able to introduce them to technology that's more haptic and immersive so that they can contribute to this kind of conversation. To be able to kind of put myself with these people and have them articulate things through me and through technology, I really believe that the potency of this doesn't rely on the headsets or in the haptic feedback per se or the immersive environments. It relies on the fact that we're telling stories in new ways with these new things that we can't even begin to imagine.

[00:33:59.501] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.

[00:34:01.302] John Benton: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

[00:34:04.254] Kent Bye: So that was John Benton. He's an adjunct instructor at New York University, and he was talking about his experience called Bardo Thogol that premiered at the Art of Dying show in 2016. So, I have a number of different takeaways about this interview. First of all, I think it's a fascinating idea. Contemplating what it means to go through these different phases of death, you actually start to then reflect upon what it means to be alive. And that these different stages of death and rebirth are happening every moment, either from every breath, every heartbeat, from day to night. There's these different bardo states that we're cycling through each and every day. For John, this is a bit of a contemplative spiritual practice to be able to think about in the context of these bardo states, but an opportunity to use virtual reality to collaborate with these different Tibetan teachers to dive into some of these wisdom traditions and teachings so that he could start to interpret them in a new way and perhaps give people a new access to be able to experience these different beliefs of these different religions and worldviews. If nothing else, this is a great way to explore cultural heritage and different belief systems of different people, and you could potentially just get a sense or a vibe of having a direct experience of what different people's conceptualizations of their afterlife might be like. We have no real idea the method in which this mythology and stories have been cultivated over time. Who knows if it's been through people who go through near-death experiences, or perhaps they have some sort of shamanic journey where they're able to get deeper insights. If nothing else, these are grief rituals that are for the survivors of people who have passed away. In our culture, in America at least, there's not a lot of really sophisticated grief rituals. And around the holidays, with both Thanksgiving and Christmastime, is a time period for people that, if you've had somebody that you've lost over this past year, then these holidays really start to bring up a lot of these memories of your loved ones. And from every culture around the world going to these different art museums, I just see that there are these different practices that people do to be able to cope and to deal and to process their grief and their emotions. And there's not a lot of sophisticated rituals that have been evolved within the United States. And that means that we're kind of left with our grief to be able to process it on our own. And I think that virtual reality provides us these new opportunities to be able to access our grief and to be able to potentially have grief rituals with other people who are otherwise completely isolated in their grief. And the other thing that I was taking away from this interview is just how John has been studying Buddhism, and from the lens of these more Eastern ways of thinking, their conceptualization of consciousness is that it's something that is primary, and that the reality around us is somewhat of an illusion. And as he goes into virtual reality and sees how easily he can be tricked by the different combinations of visuals and sound and haptics, just how much of our reality is constructed within our minds. And it is giving him this much deeper sense of the fluidity of what is real and what is a part of our direct experience. So there's been lots of different approaches to cultivate and teach the process of visualization for all these different rituals. And I think that there's many different visualizations that are out there from many different traditions. This was something that John was trying to find the good middle ground for. he found that having too much details of doing something that was too realistic was too literal and it didn't allow people to really tune into their own experiences of these different symbols. And then he dialed it back to the point where it was almost like very sparse and not a lot of details and it was almost not enough details. And so there's this open question of where is that middle ground between being able to provide the architecture of the experience so that you can start to project your own imagination and your own symbols within the experience. So virtual reality definitely seems like it could be a tool but it still is a big open question in terms of how to best use VR as a tool because it could be that just cultivating your own sense of imagination is going to be way better than using something like virtual reality. It's very similar to whether or not you should read a book and a novel before you see the movie and then after you see the movie then Are those conceptualizations of the different characters in the scenes going to prevent you from having your own interpretation of what all of these different places and characters and situations are going to look like? So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member to the Patreon. This is a listener supported podcast, and I rely upon your gracious donations to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member today and donate at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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