Buddhism, social activism, and artificial intelligence

How one is to research and arrive at conclusions on the interconnection between Buddha’s teachings and artificial intelligence appears to be a nebulous task.

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This article has been prompted by two writings in the Sri Lanka Guardian titled “Buddha’s Exact Teachings and the Paradox of Social Activism by Ian James Kidd and Bridging Buddha’s Teachings and Artificial Intelligence by President Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Buddha’s Exact Teachings and the Paradox of Social Activism

The purpose in presenting this point of view is not to challenge the scholarly presentation by the author of the article, but merely to present another point of view about what has been stated. It is purely a personal response based on the writers understanding of social activism from a Buddhist perspective different to what has been expressed by the author of the article. The following citation is taken as the basis for the perspective of the response.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Karaniya Metta Sutta, the Discourse on Loving-Kindness. It contains a line often quoted by engaged Buddhist activists – ‘May all beings be free!’ But those who quote that line as their slogan never quote the rest of the verse. It explains ideal character and dispositions of a person devoted to ‘the path of peace’:

Let them be able and upright,

Straightforward and gentle in speech,

Humble and not conceited,

Contented and easily satisfied,

Unburdened with duties

and frugal in their ways.

Peaceful and calm and wise and skilful,

Not proud or demanding in nature

The author also says that “the profile of a social activist is not someone typically severe in speech, ambitious, discontented, dissatisfied with anything less than radical outcomes, who willingly burdens themselves with grand duties, like saving the world or overthrowing patriarchy. Berating billionaires, screaming ‘How dare you!’ at political leaders, agitating for dramatic revolution, and other kinds of world-changing activism are not the acts of a person ‘skilled in the path of peace’. A Buddhist’s goal is release from the world, not reform of it, as we see in the last lines of the Metta Sutta”.

This writer feels that what is stated in the Karaniya Metta Sutraya and quoted above, is in fact the basis, or should one say, the right basis for social activism. Buddha perhaps would have argued that social activism needs to be considered from a selfless perspective, and from the fundamental mind and kind activism of Metta, Karuna, Muditha and Upekkha. There is no doubt or argument that a lot of what is practiced as social activism today is the opposite of these fundamentals and what is stated in the Karaniya Metta Sutraya. But that does not mean social activism per se is unBuddhistic or negative.. In fact social activism within the principles outlined in the Sutta, should be considered very much Buddhistic as it promotes the right way to live consistent with Buddha’s teachings.

This is said for two reasons. One, is the development of the mind to be selfless and free of defilements and craving. The profile of today’s social activists described by the author of the article is the opposite of being selfless and free of defilements of what social activism should be. The issue really is with the activist, the practitioner, and not activism as such.

The second is the very Buddhistic attitude to life in general, including respect and love for other human beings, animals, plants, and the environment because of the interdependency of all living beings and the environment. Change no doubt is inevitable, and that includes change within each living being and the acceptance and adaptation to change. Irrespective of change however, the phenomenon of interdependency is a constant.

Essence of social activism, as viewed by this writer, should be based on the condition of one’s mind. A question maybe posed whether it should it be on the basis of a mind that is described by the author as having defilements such as severe in speech, ambitious, discontented, dissatisfied with anything less than radical outcomes, willingly burdening themselves with grand duties, like saving the world or overthrowing patriarchy, berating billionaires, screaming ‘how dare you!’ at political leaders, agitating for dramatic revolution, and other kinds of world-changing activism, or, should it be based on a mind that is not defiled and not selfish and a mind that has no craving and understands the interdependency described earlier.

In regard to the authors statement that “a Buddhist’s goal is release from the world, not reform of it, as we see in the last lines of the Metta Sutta”, it is hard to say whether a monastic life in essence is an easier path towards the Buddhist’s goal of release from the world, and not reforming it. Perhaps it is. However, it is not certain how many living a monastic life has in fact been released from the world, and whether those living a lay life according to the Karaniya Metta Sutraya and adhering in mind and action to the tenets of Maitri, Karuna, Muditha and Upekkha have been released from the world and samsara. In the end it is the mind that is at the heart of this release and a monastic life which in a sense is inward looking, and therefore may be argued as being selfish, could be counterproductive to achieving such a release if the intention of such a life is an attachment itself; an attachment to being released.

If the release that follows is an ipso facto consequence of a mind being conditioned and freed from defilements and selfishness and craving, and through a true adherence to Maitri, Karuna, Muditha and Upekkha, and an appreciation of interdependency of all living beings and the environment, and not an intentional consequence for a desire to be freed from this world, one could argue that the former state has no specific intention, therefore no attachment to an intention, and the latter has an intention and therefore an attachment to it.

The writer feels that not discussing and identifying what “right” social activism is and should be from a Buddhist perspective, and painting all forms of ongoing social activism as being defiled and counter to being freed from this world, leaves no alternative, but leaving one to conclude that a monastic life led according to an extensive set of rules contained in the Vinaya Pitakaya, is the only path towards being freed from this world. Betterment of the mind and freeing it from defilements, mental wounds and developing kindness and compassion to others and all living beings and the environment, has been largely ignored on account of the current reputation of social activism.

Bridging Buddha’s Teachings and Artificial Intelligence

Never one to shy away from challenges, even controversial ones, President Ranil Wickremasinghe has made a challenging statement as follows “Now, artificial intelligence (AI) mirrors the capabilities of the human mind. AI can process vast amounts of information and operate accordingly. Therefore, it’s pertinent to explore the connection between Buddha’s teachings and AI, considering their shared focus on the mind’s control and its implications for our actions. If artificial intelligence promotes a different religion, it could pose a threat to Buddhism, so it’s crucial to consider this possibility. Throughout history, Buddhism in Sri Lanka has been influenced by Hinduism, Mahayana and political influences. With the emergence of artificial intelligence, it adds another layer of influence. Therefore, we must contemplate whether AI might propagate alternative doctrines.

He goes on to say “Buddha’s teachings emphasize the power of our minds in shaping our lives. By mastering our minds, we pave the way for progress; failure to do so leaves us with no future. This message was specifically intended for humanity, highlighting the importance of controlling our minds to overcome desires. This issue extends beyond Buddhism to other religions as well.

President Wickremasinghe says thatthere are plans to allocate LKR 1 Billion next year for research on the interconnection between Buddha’s teachings and artificial intelligence.

Although originally slated for this year, the initiative has been deferred to next year due to pending laws and regulations concerning AI oversight. Consequently, he says that he anticipates introducing new legislation to kick-start these endeavours.

Some aspects of his statement require comment. For one, his statement “Now, artificial intelligence (AI) mirrors the capabilities of the human mind. AI can process vast amounts of information and operate accordingly. Therefore, it’s pertinent to explore the connection between Buddha’s teachings and AI, considering their shared focus on the mind’s control and its implications for our actions.

It is not outside the realm of possibility that Buddha’s teachings in the discourses, and fundamental teachings in the Tripitakaya, Abhi Dharmaya maybe distorted and/or re cast/rephrased using artificial intelligence in time to come. Such activities maybe to deliberately distort the teachings but also to present more simpler ways of conveying the teachings. The doctrine as it is known today has survived because of the availability of the fundamental teachings in old manuscripts and other written forms. Until these written forms were available, the teachings were communicated by word of mouth. There can be some discussion as to whether what was passed down the generations by word of mouth was in fact what Buddha actually said for others to memorise and pass it down generations after him. Understanding the essence of Buddhism is more or less a logical exercise in this context, and therefore a matter for the brain and the mind. Of course for this to happen, there has to be a starting point and material that presents his doctrine. If that material is distorted or presented in a different way to the original documents, the starting point will be the distorted or re-presented material. Logic can be applied to such material too, and despite the intervention of AI, the human brain, not in all cases, but in some, may be able to ascertain the logic of the doctrine presented.

One cannot be sure as to what President Wickremasinghe meant when he stated that “Buddha’s teachings emphasize the power of our minds in shaping our lives. By mastering our minds, we pave the way for progress; failure to do so leaves us with no future”. Did he mean material progress or progress of the mind to understand, follow and achieve the ultimate objective of the Buddhist doctrine? If there is an assumption here that AI may diminish the power of the mind, it is not a misplaced assumption, as the extent of the power of AI is still not fully known or realised.

Finally President Wickremasinghe’s statement “If artificial intelligence promotes a different religion, it could pose a threat to Buddhism, so it’s crucial to consider this possibility. Throughout history, Buddhism in Sri Lanka has been influenced by Hinduism, Mahayana and political influences. With the emergence of artificial intelligence, it adds another layer of influence. Therefore, we must contemplate whether AI might propagate alternative doctrine?

The implication that AI, by promoting other religions could pose a “threat” to Buddhism, needs to be viewed in a historical context besides considering whether the threat is to ritualistic Buddhism which fosters a marketplace for commercial activity, or to the doctrine itself. Historically, other religions have been there prior to Buddhism and after Buddhism. All religions have basically survived to some extent or the other. Here too one has to consider whether what may not have survived or got affected is the doctrinal aspects or the ritualistic aspects of religions. Looking around at the world, the ritualistic aspects seem to have flourished although the doctrinal aspects appear to have declined in practice. This has happened without the intervention of technology like AI, but purely due to the minds of people.

In the context of these observations, and without more details on what exactly is planned, the intention to spend LKR 1 billion for research on the interconnection between Buddha’s teachings and artificial intelligence appears to be a questionable exercise. If a technical methodology can be found that protects the teachings of Buddha in the form that is available today, protecting it even from AI incursions, the Buddhist doctrine may survive and flourish into thousands of years. Paradoxically, such protective measures may require the intervention of AI itself. How one is to research and arrive at conclusions on the interconnection between Buddha’s teachings and artificial intelligence appears to be a nebulous task.

Raj Gonsalkorale

Raj Gonsalkorale is an independent health supply chain management specialist with wide international experience. Writing is his passion.

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