Smartphone users seem to have everything at their fingertips: apps that track friends, food and shopping deals. But where do smartphones fit into spirituality?

Researcher Joanna Piacenza is honing in on how Buddhist-centered apps have changed the way users approach meditation and spirituality. The Master of Arts candidate in the University of Colorado's department of Religious Studies will present some of her research during a Center For Asian Studies brown-bag discussion at noon Monday in Guggenheim 201E on the Boulder campus.

Piacenza said smartphones are devices that uniquely create a "mobile sacred space" and influence personal relationships with Buddhist principles.

"A smartphone is probably the most personal device you own," she said.

After living for a year in Thailand, where the majority of residents are Buddhist, she returned to the United States and began researching the ways that plugged-in consumers of digital culture access Buddhist principles.

"There's just such a large wave of people who go online to supplement their religious experience," she said.

Buddhism, like many representations of religions online, has taken on new definitions with its new medium, she said. In some cases, technology has played a role in replacing historical practices with what she calls "nondescript spirituality," which filters out institution in favor of the individual.


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That means smartphone apps, designed to serve individual users and guide them through Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired meditation techniques, detach Buddhist practice from its Asian roots and morph it into a private, personalized and self-help experience, she said.

"With smartphones," she said, "you're picking and choosing parts of your personality, picking and choosing parts of your religious self."

Piacenza said there's controversy about whether an app is the same as being a "real" Buddhist, but she doesn't pass judgment on how smartphones have influenced the broadened ways people practice religion.

However, the technology has made an indelible mark on the future of what scholar David L. McMahan calls Buddhist Modernism, she said. Instead of just existing in the modern world, Buddhist Modernism "emerged out of an engagement with the dominant cultural and intellectual forces of modernity" he wrote in his 2008 book on the subject.

Piacenza's overall master's thesis deals with broader themes of technology in Buddhism, but part of the research explores how smartphones have specifically influenced and changed people's individual relationships with Buddhism as a religion. In her talk, she said, she plans to highlight several smartphone apps, including two popular ones with ties to Boulder.

One app is Buddhify, which helps users relax, be present and mindful of the moment in order to let go of stress.

Rohan Gunatillake, founder of Buddhify, said he created the app because he was hearing the same conversation over and over: People wanted to delve into meditation but were either too busy or had doubts about how some practitioners seemed "too hippie, too new age."

Gunatillake, who was living in London and was all too familiar with the way urban life can encroach on a person's sense of calm and peace, created the app as a way to mesh with people's bustling lives while looking at meditation "in an intuitive, playful but at the same time authentic way," he said in a video introducing the app.

Another app is ReWire, which aims to follow "in the tradition of ancient meditative tools offering a modern approach to meditation without sacrificing depth," according to the ReWire website.

Users can download their own music or use the app's audio clips to reach a deeper mental state and train mental focus, then log their performance and compare sessions to see how far they've come.

The apps illustrate a new way to interact spiritually with Buddhist principles, but Piacenza said it's just one modern way to explore aspects of Buddhist principles.

"The scope is endless, and offline institutions will continue to exist," she said.

Megan Quinn writes a faith column once a week for the Camera. Contact her at quinnm@dailycamera.com.