Metaphysical Crisis: Buddhism and A.I.

How do the Buddhist religion and the advancement of Artificial Intelligence intersect? Photo courtesy of

Jampa Dorje, Guest Columnist

A revolution is happening that is changing the way we understand the world. Data scientists Tristan Harris and Asa Raskin, co-founders of the Center for Humane Technology and the driving force behind Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, claim that “50% of all A.I. researchers believe that there is a 10% or greater possibility that humans go extinct from our inability to control AI.” The actual cause of our demise is a threat not from the outside but from the inside. 

When an event is of serious purport, journalists sometimes use the term “existential crisis” as a rhetorical flourish to emphasize the importance of the event to our very existence. However, the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence is of such a magnitude and of such far reaching consequences a hyperbolic word like “metaphysical” is necessary. And metaphysical is an accurate term to use because it designates what is behind the paradigm shift now underway in our consciousness. We are on the cusp of a brave, new consciousness.

Buddhist philosopher Peter Hershock insists we are moving from the data gathering era of computers to the “attention economy” era. Big Data technology can now identify us as individuals and through advertising exploit us economically, what Hershock refers to the “colonization of our mental faculties,” producing a metaphysical revolution that will increasing threaten our freedom to think and act. We are being drawn into a terrifying world by a technology that uses synthetic intelligence to shape our behavior. We are inundated by fake news; we are seduced by the sexualization of commodities; our attention spans become shorter as we web surf; our mood more pathological as we doomscroll. AI has metaphysical ramifications because it is in the process of shaping human intelligence. Can Buddha’s teachings guide us on this exciting but perilous journey?

Gautama Buddha probably lived in the 5th c. BCE and would have been born into the Hindu religion. The Vedas are a large body of religious texts written in ancient Sanskrit between 1400 and 1200 BCE. This was the Big Data of Buddha’s time, and through these teachings his society was held together in a deterministic social order called the caste system. After his enlightenment, Buddha created a path, known as The Four Noble Truths, that freed us from the unnecessary suffering induced by attachment to a phenomenal world of impermanence.

Non-attachment and right-intention. If I ask myself what my intention is for using technological devices, I can better discipline myself in the use of them. If I am using them only for pleasure, I am more vulnerable to being controlled. The Buddha would advise me to use technology constructively for the benefit of myself and others. This means recognizing that the constant stream of advertisements and demands for my attention is not something I need to react to. When I realize that suffering arises from attachment to impermanent things, I can focus on what is important for me to accomplish and avoid unnecessary stimulation.

The practice of mindfulness is central to Buddhism and involves being fully present and aware of one’s thoughts, feelings and surroundings. By developing this meditational skill, I can be conscious of how technology affects my mind. I can learn to recognize when I am being pulled into the attention economy and make a conscious decision to step back from it. 

Artificial Intelligence has been proclaimed to be revolutionary and world-changing, but it is not without risks. Governments, businesses, individuals, as well as machines will have a say in how it is to be applied and how the risks are computed. Buddhist teachings can have an influence on these deliberations.


My previous conclusion about Buddhist teachings having any influence on solving the drawbacks of technological revolution underway amounts to putting a band-aid on a serious wound. During the summer of 2008, while I was preparing to go into long retreat at Tara Mandala, one of my jobs was to put other retreatants into cabins and to be their caregiver during their stay. The economy had just collapsed, and many of the retreatants were in a state of confusion. A man, let’s call him Lester, a day trader on Wall Street, had flown a thousand miles to be alone in the woods in a cabin with a hope of sorting out the conflicts in his life. He had come to ask a Tibetan lama for a quick fix. 

The lama told him he must complete a series of preparatory practices before he could receive Dzogchen (Great Perfection) Teachings. The practice cycle is called ngnödro (literally “something that goes before”) and is itself a complete path of transformation. Ngnödro consists of the following types of practices: (1) 100,000 full-body prostrations to purify pride, while repeating the refuge mantra and raising bodhicitta to purify jealousy; (2) 100,000 recitations of Vajrasattva’s hundred-syllable mantra to purify anger and aversion; (3) 100,000 mandala offerings to purifying attachment; (4) and concluding with guru yoga practices that consist of one million tutelary deity heart mantras and 800,000 action mantras to purify delusion. With rigorous effort, it might take a practitioner six months to complete. The lama would give instructions along the way.

Lester was excited to get started, and with high expectations for his accomplishment on this adventure, I established Lester in a small cabin with his supplies. I told him I would return in a week to pick up a grocery list and credit card that he was to leave in a container at a designated spot and I would go to town on my shopping run and return with the items he had requested. Two days later, I was drinking a cup of tea on the porch of the community hall after breakfast, and Lester walked up to me and said, “I can’t stay. I must go back to New York. It is a great time to buy General Motors.” What Lester had really wanted was a direct transmission from the lama so he could maintain a stable mind in the volatility of the stock market crash. In short, Lester wanted a quick fix without doing the work necessary to prepare his mind for the transmission.

What is ironic is that Lester might not really have wanted the attainment of the Dzogchen “view” he sought. Dzogchen is a radical Buddhist teaching. It is a position of non-meditation and non-action. Once Buddha mind is realized, the dualistic desire-attachment framework of the self is transcended, and one recognizes pure consciousness. After his retreat, Lester might have discovered that he was no longer interested in the hectic pace of his previous lifestyle. This reminds me of a story about Jigme Lingpa, an 18th century Tibetan yogi and author of Longchen Nyingthig, who had to avoid a prickly shrub when he left his cave. He considered pruning it back, but would then change his mind because he couldn’t be sure he would return to his cave once he left it. This story illustrates an extreme position of non-doing. The chaos of the trading floor at the stock market on Wall Street is at the other extreme. 

Again, can Buddhist teachings have an influence on these deliberations? In the first part of my analysis, my answer was yes. At this stage, I am not so sure. Lester wanted a mind-transmission from a lama that would allow him to maintain a mental state of equanimity and trade stocks during periods of volatility. Essentially, he wanted to maintain his lifestyle without the emotional rollercoaster ride. Meditation is not a drug to calm nerves. It is a means to gain clarity about the nature of the mind and the relationship of the mind with the world. By improving his ability to buy stocks with less anxiety, Lester would be adding fuel to the desire-fire that drives the wheel of independent causation which in turn would lead to more anxiety. To be free of the wheel of suffering, Lester would likely have to give up his lifestyle for something simpler. But what kind of life would that be given the goal-oriented, consumer-driven, materialistic society we live in? 

Lester asks, “Without my distractions, what would I do with myself?” The lamas are fond of saying, “No self, no problem.” This translates as: take yourself off the clock and out of the mix, and you will discover a self-evident pure land.