I’ve set up a simple (DIY) video streaming service of my own, having far smoother video and audio quality than Zoom. The link leading there (which will work only while I’m currently streaming) is:

rtmp://stream.ebt.support/live/dhamma

I manage that server, as well as manage that DNS domain. It won’t ever disappear so long as I can keep coming up with the small amounts of money that keep it alive (which isn’t difficult these days). I promise I won’t do any privacy-violating or evil thing to anyone who wants to watch the video streams I make.

Once installed:

1) pull down the “Media” menu:

2) “Open Network Stream…”:

3) in the “Please enter a network URL:” box, copy and paste in:

rtmp://stream.ebt.support/live/dhamma

Press the “Play” button, while I’m currently streaming

4) to make the video size larger, pull down the “Video” menu -> Zoom -> select “2:1 Double”

5) Once the video is displayed (my face), and you can hear me speaking, great. But at this point, I don’t know who you are, or that you are actually paying attention to what I’m saying. It’s possible to give feedback (like questions, emojis), as well as show me your presence in a chat server I’ve set up, called “Mattermost”. (Note: you can’t log into Mattermost, until you’ve gone through the Invite process of creating a new user there.). Once in Mattermost, switch “Channels” to “Dhamma Talk Qs”. Now I get to see your presence as being online in Mattermost. A green circle (with a white checkmark) appears in the lower right corner of your Avatar within Mattermost. This “status badge” remains as long as Mattermost is the Window/App which is focused. This assures me you aren’t playing Minecraft (or some such) in another window, not really paying attention to what I’m saying.

So how about VLC in Android?

1) Open the “burger” menu (three horizontal bars) in the upper left corner.

2) Tap “Stream” (Note: in VLC for iOS, on an iPhone/iPad, this menu item is called “Open Network Stream”):

3) Paste in the following: rtmp://stream.ebt.support/live/dhamma …and press the Orange Arrow, while I’m streaming a video:

4) Once the video is displayed (my face), and you can hear me speaking, great. But at this point, I don’t know who you are, or that you are actually paying attention to what I’m saying. It’s possible to give feedback (like questions, emojis), as well as show me your presence in a chat server I’ve set up, called “Mattermost”, at the same time as watching VLC (shrunk down in the corner of your screen). How to do that? By using the “Pop-Up Player” feature of VLC in Android (and this works in Android only; it’s not found in VLC for iOS on an iPhone!).* This feature makes my face “hover” in a small rectangle, allowing you to also chat with me in Mattermost (Note: you can’t log into Mattermost, until you’ve gone through the Invite process of creating a new user there.):

  • 4a) in VLC (being fullscreen), tap the screen to reveal the controls.

  • 4b) To the right of the Pause/Play button at the bottom, is a menu button with three circles. Tap that and a menu pops out.

  • 4c) In there is “Pop-up Player”. Tap that and the video (my face) turns into a small hovering rectangle. You can drag it to whatever corner of the screen you like.

  • 4d) Now switch apps to your web browser, where you are logged into Mattermost.

  • 4e) Once in Mattermost, switch “Channels” to “Dhamma Talk Qs”. It will look like this:

Now I get to see your presence as being online in Mattermost. A green circle (with a white checkmark) appears in the lower right corner of your Avatar within Mattermost. This “status badge” remains as long as Mattermost is the Window/App which is focused. This assures me you aren’t playing Minecraft (or some such) in another window, not really paying attention to what I’m saying.

* Note: It’s advisable to use a laptop instead of an iPhone. On a laptop, VLC can show the video stream, and have Mattermost beside it, in a second window. What about iPad’s? You can approximate the “Pop-Up Player” feature using so-called “Picture in Picture” with iPad Pro, iPad (5th generation and later), iPad Air 2 and later, or iPad mini 4 and later. See here for more details (search for “Picture in Picture” there).

Motivation and Back-Story:

I asked myself: how would one go about doing online Dhamma Talks, having pretty much no choice from this whole Covid-19 thing? After all, no monk (with enough seniority to teach), in his right mind, would want to completely lose the ability to teach the Dhamma.

Well, first of all, it’s bad enough to have the Internet, between myself and the laypeople. For a very, very long time now, monks and nuns have always had personal interactions with their supporters IRL, which goes a long way to the relationship having nuanced, subtle “vibes” (for lack of a better term) being sensed through the interaction. The Internet makes this much more difficult, when you miss out on much of the body language, emotional tenor, etc. Many people in Zoom don’t turn on their microphones or webcams either! They are just a silent black box, often labeled as their incorrect name.

To make matters worse, middlemen want to get in on that Internet meeting conduit, and take advantage of their position (say, Zoom, Microsoft, Facebok, Google, etc). They want to profit off these interactions, bringing undue distractions upon the laypeople. They make money by selling highly targeted and privacy-violating advertising, after profiling the words used, and they want to attract attention over to the rest of their offerings as aggressively as they can get away with. Buddhism suffers from this extra competition for attention, being built right into these slimy, law-skirting communication platforms.

I’m feeling fatigued by using these so-called “free” accounts any longer, from giant corporate services who get to change their terms of service whenever they like, and furthermore know that they are effectively above the law in several ways. They aren’t sorry for all the millions and billions of dollars they know they are making. By using their service, they are the ones who hold all the power, and I hold no power. They know just how to nickel-and-dime me into being just short of wanting to react very negatively towards them. They get to endlessly play a game of cat-and-mouse with me.

Have you ever noticed that when you actually visit a Buddhist monastery, the place is very meticulously kept free of clutter? Notice that all your favorite worldly delights are kept out of your easy reach (not within your easy reach, as is the case with all social media platforms)? This distraction-free environment in a monastery is on purpose, as it helps people take a desperately-needed mental break from all their desires and obsessions. I suggest we copy this paradigm: as we take our Buddhist teachings online, keep it very simple and spartan. If monks try to teach the Dhamma online, displaying themselves right alongside all the wordly delights which their congregation are easily distracted by (say, on Youtube), tailored to their psychological weaknesses, then Buddhism is in deep trouble indeed.

I tried a few video-chat services, and I wasn’t happy. The bandwidth used by these apps is poorly managed, making for undue limits on how many people a monk can reach at once. These video-chat platforms unfortunately send the entire contents seen by a webcam, not just the interesting part: the other person’s face. Then they apply a quick and dirty compression to these overly-large video “canvases”, making the voice and video poor quality (low frame rate), with obvious artifacts that make it cheap-looking. The experience of listening to a monk or nun can get really unenjoyable, as their voice gets garbly. Who would want to hear a Dhamma Talk like that?

For how poor the image and audio quality was, I was surprised that Zoom was gobbling up huge amounts of bandwidth, like more than 250KB/sec, having added together upload and download. That’s way too much, especially during the peak busy internet times, when my lay congregation are all generally available to meet (right during prime-time hours, at 8pm).

After investigating different ways of streaming video (giving me a chance to control and fine-tune the video settings), I was able to avoid sending the unnecessary surroundings (around my face), and get much nicer audio and video quality, for about 1/8th the bandwidth! I can stream to many, many dozens of Buddhist laypeople from a $5 US/month VPS. This low-bandwidth usage also makes it possible for me to stream from forest monasteries (where I prefer to live), which invariably have poor internet service.

It turns out that good-old VLC can receive and display “Video streams”, using a built-in network protocol called “RTMP”. VLC is super popular, and the RTMP support is mature. VLC works great on a laptop, smartphone, or even a Raspberry Pi 4, hooked up to your TV. It’s free, Open Source, and contains no ads, or other horse manure.

Note: VLC is no worse than Zoom, in the sense that with Zoom, you also need to send a link around to the audience!

Yes, watching a talking head on VLC seems boring, but that’s a feature, not a bug. It doesn’t lead laypeople into other personality-tailored distractions!