Buddhism’s Influence on AI and Climate Control

Sri Lanka already has a lot of qualified young scientists to play that role without having to depend on Buddhism in lazy complacency, except perhaps as a source of moral inspiration.  

12 mins read
File illustration

Addressing a gathering as chief guest at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Society Moratuwa held at the Moratuwa Buddhist Society Hall on May 11, 2024, president Ranil Wickremasinghe pledged SLR 1 billion for research to ‘explore the connection between Buddha’s teachings and AI’ starting next year as The Island (Online) reported May 13, 2024. He revealed that though the project was scheduled to start this year, it had to be deferred for lack of legal provisions for the regulation of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The programme will go ahead once new laws are adopted by parliament, he assured. The president also said that the government would provide the funds required for  the restoration of the Moratuwa Buddhist Society Hall ahead of  its own first centenary in 2029 (The construction of the building was completed in 1929).

The president’s determination to exploit AI for the global promotion of Theravada Buddhism was first mooted in a statement he made as guest of honour at the inaugural function held at the Edward Stadium in Matale, a day ahead of the 73rd National Upasampada Maha Vinaya Karma of the Ramanna Nikaya which was to be conducted at a venue in Bandarapola, Matale from July 20 to 27, 2023. Before commenting on this ludicrous subject of a costly programme of research on a hypothetical relationship between Buddhism and AI, an obvious case of comparing apples and oranges, let me turn to what else the president said at Moratuwa.

President Wickremasinghe laid similar emphasis on the global issue/s of climate change involving atmospheric warming and worsening water scarcity, both currently experienced in Sri Lanka. He thought that these challenges are to be met in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha. His arbitrary assertion in this connection is that, in terms of the Buddha’s teachings, ‘this issue’ (of climate change) ‘stems from civilization’s greed for rapid progress’. The president would have been more convincing in making this claim (if he actually did so as reported) had he mentioned the particular discourse or context where the Buddha allegedly talked about climate change. Since the president didn’t do so, his audience probably took him at face value. I, for one, don’t think that Buddhism offers any answers to climate change issues. The Buddha never claimed omniscience regarding the physical world, world-systems, or universes (cakkavala/chakravata in Pali and Sanskrit respectively, and sakvala in Sinhala), which he said is  achintya, meaning surpassing human thought, inconceivable, an idea modern physicists accept. 

The subject of ‘ loka’ or the world is beyond thought (Sin. loka vishaya achintyayi). Gautama Buddha was the world’s first exponent of what is today known as the scientific method, which is important in any field where identifying and solving problems are involved, including climate control. He used it for discovering the Four Noble Truths about human existence: the reality of the unsatisfactoriness of samsaric journeying, its causes, the possibility of stopping that aimless wandering, and the way to achieve the cessation of the endless cycle of repeated reincarnations that is full of ‘dukkha’ or suffering/unsatisfactoriness. This goal  has to be reached through wisdom while practicing universal love and compassion (lovingkindness) over all living beings. 

 ‘Buddhism integrates our spiritual understanding with our experience of the natural world’  a Western scholar speaking about Albert Einstein’s view of Buddhism says (Source: ‘Dream Sparks’ YouTube channel). Albert Einstein is celebrated as the 20th century’s greatest scientist. Einstein stated that the Buddha found what he was searching for. The following is a popular quote from Einstein: ‘If there were any religion capable of aligning with the demands of discoveries of modern science it would indeed be Buddhism’. So there is no need to make false claims involving AI or climate control on behalf of Buddhism to extol it in order to raise its image in the world.

Incidentally, The Island (Online) report (May 13) which is my source here doesn’t say whether, in his speech, the president made any grateful mention of Arthur V. Dias (1886-1960) under whose leadership the Moratuwa Buddhist Society was established.  The Moratuwa Buddhist Society Hall was built under his sponsorship, too. Most probably, being a sort of history buff, the  president did talk about Arthur V. Dias, though the newspaper report makes no mention of it. If he didn’t, by any chance, (which is unlikely), it would be a regrettable lapse on his part.  This patriotic Sri Lankan (Arthur V. Dias) used to be one of the national heroes annually honoured in our school days from the early 1950s to mid1960s. He is still fondly remembered by at least a few grateful Sri Lankans, as ‘kos mama’,  who was a successful planter, philanthropist, temperance movement member, and freedom activist. (He was nicknamed ‘kos mama’ or ‘Jackfruit uncle’ because he  pioneered an islandwide movement for the cultivation of the jackfruit tree’ (Artocarpus Heterophyllus) primarily as a source of food. If he were living today, he would definitely have said and done something to tackle these problems.

To resume the subject of a hypothetical relevance of Buddhist teachings to climate control, the issue of harmful effects of uncontrolled human activities on climate was most unlikely to have been encountered in India in the time of the Buddha two thousand five hundred years ago, nor anywhere else in the rest of the world for that matter. Nowadays, however, it is a huge problem that impacts life on the Earth generally, and that seriously impairs the quality of human life and humanity’s physical and mental well being. It could be even worse than that unless remedied. Renowned British broadcaster, TV presenter, film-maker, biologist, natural historian and popular author David Attenborough (b. 1926) mentions changing climate among the factors that make him conclude that “we are finally fast approaching the Earth’s carrying capacity for humanity” (A Life on Our Planet/2020), that is, its ability to support human life in terms of a healthy environment, good climate, clean water, healthy food, fuel for factory engines and transport vehicles, electricity  power for lighting homes and cities and running industries, and so on. 

The president was reported to have blamed climate change on what he called humanity’s ‘greed for progress’. Though there is something incongruent in the phrase . humanity’s greed for progress’, he probably had in mind the same sort of problems that David Attenborough suggests ways to deal with in the book mentioned. But material progress is a good thing that should be desired. Only the unconscionable greed of a few individuals for material wealth in a poor country like Sri Lanka where the majority of the people live in poverty is bad. Greed for power for its own sake among politicians is much worse.

The survival of traditional institutions such as religions depends on their perceived relevance to the day to day life of a community. The president is aware of this fact. That must  be why he appears to be taking a special interest in serving the cause of Buddhism by researching a possible relationship between AI and Buddhism, and also by trying to establish a source of intellectual support  in Buddhism in the matter of climate control. Experience has shown us, though, that politicians use religion as a readymade identity tool conveniently available for them to try to appeal to the herd mentality of a particular social community, in this case, the Buddhist electorate in order to pacify and placate them and  win their loyalty. Still significant is the power of religions as the opiate of the masses even in the case of Buddhism (which is perhaps the most secular of belief systems).

Be that as it may, instead of turning to Buddhism for solving this mundane problem, we could listen to Bill Gates, former CEO of software giant Microsoft and its principal co-founder, technologist, businessman, investor, and philanthropist, who spent a decade investigating the causes and effects of climate change with the help of experts in diverse fields including physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, political science, and so on. He found three broad areas that should receive vital attention if certain climate disaster is to be avoided. These he lists on page 8 of his book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ (2021): To paraphrase, these include 1) bringing the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases that the industrial world typically releases to the atmosphere every year down to zero, 2) deploying the tools that we already have like solar and wind power faster and smarter, and 3) creating and rolling out breakthrough technologies. The whole book is a carefully integrated elaboration of these basic themes in twelve chapters, that discuss problems connected with, for instance, use of fossil fuels, generation and consumption of electricity, agronomy (soil management and crop production), safe use of fertilizers, proper management of water resources, etc, and the crucial issue of the importance of conducive government policies. I mention these things to show that we need to consult local counterparts of specialists from diverse fields whose expertise that Bill Gates drew upon. Sri Lanka already has a lot of qualified young scientists to play that role without having to depend on Buddhism in lazy complacency, except perhaps as a source of moral inspiration.  

 Incidentally, Bill Gates claimed in his website ‘GatesNotes’ in 2018 that he and his wife Melinda took to meditation as a way to ‘exercise’ their minds, following, as evident in the context, the guidance of former Buddhist monk Andy, who seems to combine both the Burmese (Theravada) and the Tibetan (Vajrayana, a form of Mahayana) traditions. But this doesn’t mean that Gates adopted Buddhism as a religion. 

He was originally reluctant to practice meditation because of the connection he thought it had with the concept of reincarnation, which, obviously, he didn’t accept. Nevertheless, Buddhist teachings can after all be said to have been indirectly relevant to the Gateses’ climate control activism. When Gates says he took to meditation to ‘exercise’ his mind, he most likely means the same as what we normally mean when we say that we meditate at least as a minimal goal, to gain control over our thought process in order to ‘calm’ our minds, gradually achieving a state of mental tranquility, peace and balance, that enables us to use our mental and physical energies for best effect in our intellectual and physical exertions. I added this information to suggest that the moral ethical teachings of Buddhism help Buddhists and others who choose to follow them to focus their mental as well as physical energies on the performance of the required tasks to achieve any desired goal. 

Dr Yuval Noah Harari, who lectures in World History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, thinks that to understand the role of traditional religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in the 21st century world we need to distinguish between three types of problems: 1) Technical: e.g., how should farmers in arid countries deal with severe droughts caused by global warming?, 2) Policy: e.g., what measures should governments adopt to stop global warming in the first place?, and 3) Identity: e.g., should we even care about the problems of the farmers on the other side of the world?, or should we narrowly focus on problems faced by the people of our own tribe and country?

Harari’s opinion is that though traditional religions are largely irrelevant to technical and policy problems, they are extremely relevant to identity problems; and in most cases, rather than being a source of a potential solution, traditional religions are a major part of the problem! Harari doesn’t mention Buddhism in this section. This may be because he doesn’t include Buddhism in the category of traditional religions, and identity is not relevant to Buddhism at all, or in other words, Buddhism is not relevant to identity problems This is the exact opposite of the image of Buddhism made current in Sri Lanka by its local detractors. (My references to historian Yuval Noah Harari are based on his 2018 book ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, Penguin, Random House, UK.)

The president’s dedication for research into the linking of AI and Buddhism with a view to propagating it in the world might be well meant. But it is misplaced piety. AI is an immensely useful tool that can be applied in relevant fields by specialists for great results, but  it cannot be used as an organic extension or expansion of human intelligence or consciousness or mind (which are similar looking, but  are distinctly three different faculties); it would be an unrealistic and impossible task to try to do so. Traditional religions, according to Harari, embody cosmic dramas which are denied by the prevailing political and social philosophy of liberalism. Liberalism, however, has recreated the drama within the human being. In his opinion. ‘The universe has no plot, so it is up to us humans to create a plot, and this is our vocation and the meaning of our life’, writes Harari, who is a professional historian. That is, a la Harari, a historian’s job and the meaning of their life is the creation of a plot for the drama within the human being.

 Ancient Buddhism, thousands of years before the age of liberalism, Harari argues, ‘went further by denying not just all cosmic dramas, but even the inner drama of human creation. The universe has no meaning, and human feelings too are not part of a great cosmic tale. They are ephemeral vibrations, appearing and disappearing for no particular purpose. That’s the truth. Get over it’. (p.351)  

That is how the Oxford educated historian Dr Noah Yuval Harari, summarizes an essential teaching of Buddhism without explicitly referring to the following found in Buddhism: The  Three Characteristics or Tilakkhana. These define all component things, or sankhara: they are anicca (transient), dukkha (unsatisfactory), and anatta (soulless, insubstantial). This is not a negative view of the world, but a realistic one. Harari touches on some more points of Buddhism. Unfortunately, how many of few impassioned monolingual Sinhala speaking Buddhist monk preachers quarrelling over the real meaning of what the Buddha taught will be able to even make sense of such a fairly simple thing as Harari’s rudimentary understanding of Buddhism, I wonder?  It is the silliness of some monks who have no proper grasp of the Buddha’s teaching who endanger the survival of the Buddha Sasana by doing politics and depending on politicians to protect it. Having said this, I must immediately add the following qualification: there are many  highly educated, virtuous, and well behaved young monks deeply learned in Buddhism ministering to the Buddhist laity and serving the country at large in silence. The above mentioned handful of wayward monks have become what they are  because they lack the guidance they need and deserve. But that is a problem that the Sangha hierarchy must take responsibility for.  

Artificial Intelligence offers an infinity of better uses than as a means of exploring the truth content or the efficacy of gaining spiritual goals found in a religion. This applies to Buddhism too, though basically it is not a religion. 

The ultimate truth that Buddhism guides the seeker to find for themselves cannot be realised with the help of an artificial tool. Self-realisation cannot be achieved through a machine. As to propagating Buddhism abroad, there is no need for AI  or any other modern technology to be specially used for that, which cannot also be used for the propagation of other religions. 

Actually, if AI is used to establish the veracity of each religion by its adherents as the sole custodian of what it claims to be the Absolute Truth in contravention of the claims of rival religions, the advent of AI will definitely spell doom to all religions including the Buddhist religion. But the ethical philosophical essence of Buddhism cannot remain in circulation unless it survives in the form of a religion. Unique among religions, Buddhism recognises two kinds of truth: sammuti sacca or conventional truth and paramattha sacca or absolute truth. Will a machine make this distinction? Any technology savvy adherent of a religion will be able to use AI to establish their religion’s claim to the possession of the Ultimate Truth, but the problem is that a similarly skilled different believer of the same religion, by feeding a different sample of selected data as they understand it from their so-called sacred sources, may arrive at a different form of the Absolute Truth they propagate. That is the situation that has continued down the ages causing sectarian conflicts within a religion and between religions, sometimes involving death and destruction with the gods they worship and offer prayers to for protection nowhere to be seen as is now happening in the Israel-Gaza theatre. 

My opinion for what it is worth is that there is hardly anything that the most pious protector of Buddhism could do to save Buddhism in Sri Lanka or propagate it in the world through AI. There are at least 500 million Buddhists in the world, most of them belonging to the Mahayana tradition. Sri Lanka’s 15 million Theravada Buddhists are a small minority in global terms. But Sri Lanka has the historic distinction for being the venue where the Tripitaka of the Theravada or the Elders’ tradition was first committed to writing in the 1st century BCE and for having maintained its still prevailing Buddhist religious establishment unbroken since the 3rd century BCE. So Sri Lankan Buddhists do have a very important role to play in global Buddhist missionary movements. However, AI is not likely to have any central role to play in such a sphere. 

 The good uses that AI can be put to in diverse fields such as medicine, space exploration, archaeology, agriculture, economics, defence/military, espionage, and so on and so forth,  are limitless. As numerous are its possible abuses at the hands of antisocial elements with the necessary expertise in its application. For example, AI tools can be misused for making deepfake videos to misrepresent the message of a well known personality, such as a prominent monk in order to sabotage his work or merely to defame him. This is a legitimate concern that the president hints at in his original proposal, where he says proper legislation must be put in place before the envisaged AI programme is implemented.  

Finally, it may be submitted that the money set aside for the proposed AI for Buddhism research programme (which could be seen as discriminatory towards adherents of other faiths in addition being open to criticism by the Buddhists themselves as counterproductive) should be better spent on providing easy access to (preferably, free) online education for all students of the country irrespective of the urban rural discrimination, social and economic status discrepancies, race, religion or language differences.  Let’s protect the Buddha Sasana from politics.

This article was originally printed in The Island, a Colombo based daily newspaper

Rohana R. Wasala

Rohana R. Wasala is a freelance journalist and regular columnist for Sri Lanka Guardian, with a background in academia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog