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Buddhist ethics in the age of technology

Buddhist ethics in the age of technology

This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of Eastern Horizon, a publication of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia.

Eastern Horizon: We are now entering Industry 5.0 or the 5th Industrial Revolution, a new and emerging phase of technology development where humans are expected to work alongside advanced technology and artificial intelligence (AI)-powered robots to enhance workplace processes and human flourishing. From a Buddhist perspective, how should AI developers consider the core Buddhist teachings of reducing our suffering so that their design can assist mankind achieve happiness and mental wellbeing? Once again we ask our three Dharma mentors – Venerable Aggacitta, Venerable Min Wei, and Venerable Tenzin Tsepal – for their comments and advice.

How can technology like machine learning and virtual reality benefit the preservation and understanding of Buddhist heritage? What steps should scholars take to ensure these discoveries are shared effectively with the Buddhist community?

Aggacitta: Scholars can use technology to digitize and preserve ancient Buddhist texts, artifacts, and artworks. Machine learning can help in character recognition, translation and analysis of Buddhist texts, making them accessible to a wider audience. Databases and platforms can be established so that research findings can be shared with researchers worldwide.

Virtual reality can create immersive experiences to preserve physical artifacts digitally and also provide immersive experiences of Buddhist temples, monasteries, and historical sites. This can help individuals understand the architecture, rituals, and cultural aspects of Buddhism.

Using these tools, educational programs and workshops should be created to foster understanding within the Buddhist community. Scholars should be mindful of ethical issues when using technology for preservation and analysis in a culturally sensitive and respectful manner.

Min Wei: Machine learning can assist in analyzing vast amounts of historical data related to Buddhist heritage, helping scholars decipher ancient texts, artifacts, and teachings. It can aid in translation, preservation, and identifying patterns within these materials. Virtual reality (VR) can recreate historical Buddhist sites, allowing people to virtually explore and experience these locations, fostering a deeper understanding of the heritage. By combining machine learning for data analysis and VR for immersive experiences, we can create interactive platforms or applications that effectively convey and share these discoveries with a global audience, making the teachings and history of Buddhism more accessible and engaging. This technology could offer new insights and perspectives on Buddhist heritage, enabling a wider audience to appreciate and learn from its wisdom.

Tsepal: One invaluable benefit of machine learning is in Optical Character Recognition [OCR], the electronic conversion of scanned Buddhist sutras, treatises and texts of various traditions and languages into plain text. OCR is invaluable in documenting, disseminating and preserving the vast Buddhist literary heritage, making searchable plain files available to Buddhist scholars, translators, practitioners, and the general public.

For example, the Buddhist Digital Library Center [BDRC] has preserved texts from all the Buddhist traditions since 2015. It houses a digital library of FO R U M scans and OCR-generated text from those images, which can be searched by anyone.

Virtual Reality can help accurately visualize a deity’s mandala or ancient sacred sites. One literature review concludes VR as an effective innovation in mindfulness training for improving mental health in adults—shown to help reduce anxiety, depression, improve sleep quality, emotion regulation and mood improvement.

How can Buddhist ethics guide us in our use of technology, such as artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and social media?

Aggacitta: By integrating the following Buddhist ethical principles we can foster a more harmonious coexistence with technology and each other.

  • Emphasize compassion and the principle of nonharm in the development and use of technology. Ensure that it benefits humanity as a whole and alleviates suffering, rather than causing harm or further inequality.
  • Encourage mindfulness and full awareness in technology use, which involves being aware of the impact of our actions and choices on ourselves and others.
  • Respect individuals’ privacy and personal boundaries, whether it is through the data you collect as a developer or how you engage with others on social media.
  • Cultivate equanimity in the face of the constant influx of information and stimulation from technology.
  • Recognize the ecological impact of technology and make efforts to reduce waste, energy consumption, and the environmental footprint associated with its production and disposal.

Min Wei: Buddhist ethics can be applied to technology like AI, genetic engineering and social media by encouraging users to employ these tools mindfully and compassionately. Mindfulness can help individuals maintain a balanced relationship with technology, avoiding excessive use or dependence. Practicing ethical conduct, such as truthfulness, kindness, and empathy, can guide interactions on social media, fostering positive and constructive communication. Applying Buddhist principles, like non-harming and the pursuit of genuine well-being, can encourage the development and utilization of AI in ways that benefit humanity without causing harm. These ethical guidelines can aid in utilizing technology in a manner that supports individual and collective well-being, rather than perpetuating negative impacts. Integrating these principles can help foster a more mindful, compassionate, and ethical use of technology.

Tsepal: Many of our problems today are due to lack of awareness of an ethical dimension to our actions and the effect our actions have on others. As part of the human community, we have the responsibility to benefit that community.

Since AI systems are known to embed biases and discrimination, threaten human rights and contribute to environmental degradation, strong core ethical values are necessary guardrails to guide developers to ensure human rights, inclusiveness and diversity, and environmental considerations.

Consciousness is one of the unique features of sentient beings, and the root of our intelligence. As AI and robots become more human-like in their abilities and decision-making, can we say that they too have kamma?

Aggacitta: Kamma is defined as intention itself, as the moral quality of an action is determined by the intention behind it.

When it comes to AI and robots, it’s important to distinguish between the actions of these technologies and the intentions behind them. AI and robots are tools created and controlled by humans. They operate based on algorithms and programming, devoid of consciousness, intentions, or moral agency. They can perform actions but do not have the capacity for intention or consciousness.

Their actions and decisions are a result of their programming and the data they process, and any ethical or moral considerations are the responsibility of their human creators and users.

The moral responsibility lies with the individuals and organizations that create and deploy these technologies. Buddhist ethics, which emphasize compassion and non-harming, can be a valuable guide in ensuring that AI and robots are used in ways that benefit sentient beings and do not cause harm.

Min Wei: In the context of Buddhist philosophy, karma refers to the ethical principle that one’s actions have consequences, influencing future experiences and conditions. Karma is a result of intentional actions carried out by sentient beings, driven by volition and consciousness. AI and robots, as of now, lack consciousness, self-awareness, and the ability to generate intentions or volition. Therefore, from a Buddhist perspective, they wouldn’t accumulate karma as they do not perform actions based on volition and intention. However, as technology advances and AI becomes more sophisticated, it might raise ethical questions about the potential development of conscious, sentient AI. But presently, AI and robots, lacking consciousness and intent, do not generate karma in the Buddhist sense.

Tsepal: The Sanskrit word karma literally means action, and refers to the intentional physical, verbal, and mental actions that we sentient beings create all day long. Potentials from the actions we create are stored on our mindstream, which later give rise to experienced effects, so to create karma necessitates having a mind. Artificial Intelligence does not experience what’s happening; AI operates based on limited algorithms and programming, not conscious intention.

In order to determine whether machines could possess mind, scientists try to pin down what is meant by “consciousness.” Large language models such as LaMDA and ChatGPT certainly seem conscious and humanlike in ability, however AI is just software, running on hardware. I don’t find any mention of karma in the scientific literature.

In a discussion many years ago between the Dalia Lama and scientists, he was asked whether computers could become sentient beings. In other words, could computers one day have minds that create karma? He said that if a computer or robot is sophisticated enough to serve as the basis for a mental continuum, there is no reason why a mindstream could not connect with such a machine as the physical basis for one of its lives. However, this is not saying that a computer is mind, or that we can artificially create a mind in a computer.

How can Buddhist values help address the negative impact of technology on our mental well-being, such as smartphone addiction and information overload?

Aggacitta: Buddhism places a strong emphasis on mindfulness, the practice of remembering the right view of conditionality and discrimination between wholesome and unwholesome things, reminding oneself to apply that right view and looking back at one’s mind to see how it is performing. Mindfulness can help individuals become aware of their technology usage patterns and the impact on their mental wellbeing. The Buddhist concept of the Middle Way encourages moderation and balance in all aspects of life. This principle can be applied to technology use by avoiding excessive screen time, setting boundaries, and finding a balanced approach that doesn’t lead to addiction or mental strain.

Detachment from material possessions and desires is another important Buddhist value. Applying this to technology, individuals can learn to detach from the constant need for validation, likes, or notifications on social media, reducing the emotional attachment to these platforms.

Encouraging compassion in online interactions can mitigate the negative effects of cyberbullying, trolling, and online hostility. Periodic digital detoxes, where individuals intentionally disconnect from screens, can be aligned with the Buddhist practice of retreats and meditation. This can help refresh the mind and reduce the stress of constant connectivity.

Practicing mindfulness and clear awareness helps in time management by setting priorities and allocating time to technology use that aligns with one’s values and well-being, including refraining from gathering unnecessary information.

Min Wei: Buddhist values can offer practical ways to address the negative impacts of technology on mental well-being. Mindfulness, a key aspect of Buddhist practice, can help in managing smartphone addiction by encouraging present moment awareness, enabling individuals to recognize and control their tech usage. Additionally, concepts like detachment from material desires and cultivating compassion and empathy can help in forming healthier relationships with technology, emphasizing the importance of using it for positive and constructive purposes that benefit both oneself and others.

Tsepal: Smartphone addiction and information overload are symptoms of a mind seeking happiness and wellbeing from external sources, which are unreliable, fleeting, and invariably leave us feeling dissatisfied. In his teachings on karma, the Buddha skillfully showed how happiness and suffering actually come from our own mind, our own thoughts. In fact, external stimuli like social media is one of the main causes of afflictions.

A daily practice that includes cultivating mindfulness (smṛti) and introspective awareness (saṃprajanya) of our thoughts, as well as analytic meditations on lamrim topics such as the preciousness of our human life, impermanence and death, karma and the nature of samsara are invaluable for inspiring us to use our lives in more meaningful ways.

In addition, surrounding ourselves with qualified Buddhist teachers, teachings, and like-minded fellow practitioners will support us in cultivating the necessary methods for working with our afflicted minds and habits.

What can the Dharma teach us about environmental ethics, especially concerning electronic waste and resource consumption?

Aggacitta: The Dhamma emphasizes the interconnectedness of all life. It teaches that everything in the world is interdependent. This principle can be applied to environmental ethics by recognizing that our actions, including resource consumption and electronic waste generation, affect the broader ecosystem and other sentient beings.

The value of simplicity and moderation in all aspects of life can be applied to electronic consumption by encouraging individuals to purchase only what is necessary and to avoid excessive gadgetry.

Min Wei: Regarding electronic waste, the Dharma encourages practicing mindful consumption and responsible disposal. It advocates for reducing unnecessary consumption, reusing items whenever possible, and recycling to minimize the environmental impact of electronic waste. In addition, the concept of impermanence teaches us that all things are transient. This can inspire a greater awareness of the life cycle of electronic devices, fostering an understanding of the limited nature of resources and the importance of using them responsibly. Furthermore, the Buddhist teachings on compassion extend to all beings, including the environment. It encourages a sense of responsibility and care for the world around us, promoting the idea of mindful stewardship of resources and the environment for the benefit of present and future generations.

Tsepal: There is an energy cost to computational technologies like crypto mining and AI. Did you know that data centers around the globe currently use about 1-1.5 percent of global electricity use? AI is especially energy intensive, and its hefty energy requirements will drive that number up fast, so accounting for interactions between the climate, society and technology warrants close examination.

Reflecting on the interdependence of all beings brings us in touch with a perspective larger than just our own happiness. Guided by genuine compassion for all beings, those in developed countries must consider the impact their use of resources and waste has on humans and animals around the globe. Cell phones, computers, tablets and other electronics containing toxic materials like lead and mercury are the fastest growing source of electronic waste. Is it ethical that a considerable portion of this waste gets transported to developing countries where fewer environmental and health safety laws exist? Ethical considerations are imperative in making wise decisions about technological development and waste management.

What do you think are the opportunities and challenges presented by technology in the
dissemination of Buddhism?

Aggacitta: Technology, especially the internet, allows Buddhism to reach a global audience. Anyone with an internet connection can access teachings, texts, and resources related to Buddhism.

Technology enables interactive and multimedia learning experiences, making it easier for individuals to engage with and understand complex Buddhist concepts.

Machine translation tools can help translate Buddhist texts into various languages, making them accessible to a more diverse audience.

Social media and online forums facilitate the creation of virtual communities where practitioners can connect, share experiences, and seek guidance.

Virtual reality and augmented reality can provide immersive experiences of Buddhist pilgrimage sites, allowing people to virtually visit and learn from these sacred places.

Despite such opportunities, there are also challenges. The internet contains a vast amount of information, including misinformation and misinterpretation of Buddhist teachings. Ensuring the quality and accuracy of online resources can be challenging.

While online communities can be valuable, they may not fully replace the depth of personal connection and support found in physical Buddhist communities.

Balancing these opportunities and challenges is crucial for the effective dissemination of Buddhism through technology. Encouraging responsible use of technology, promoting authenticity and respect for the tradition, and fostering online and offline communities that support each other’s spiritual growth are essential considerations.

Min Wei: In fact, technology presents both opportunities and challenges in the dissemination of Buddhism. For opportunities, technology allows for the widespread dissemination of Buddhist teachings to a global audience through online platforms, and live streaming of teachings, making Buddhist knowledge more accessible to people regardless of their geographical location. Innovative teaching methods such as interactive apps, meditation guides, and online courses cater to diverse learning styles. For Challenges, the online space can lead to misinterpretation of Buddhist teachings, as authenticity might be diluted or lost. Technology can create distractions and encourage superficial engagement with teachings, affecting depth and genuine understanding. And the risk of losing traditional methods of teaching. Balancing the integration of technology with the core principles and practices of Buddhism is a challenge that requires mindfulness and a thoughtful approach to maintain the essence of the teachings while utilizing the benefits that technology offers for spreading the Dharma.

Tsepal: Opportunity: Researchers, translators and students will have greater access to Buddhist sutras, texts and materials. Global access to Dharma teachers, teachings and resources is a wonderful opportunity afforded by new technologies and the dissemination of Buddhism. Even in developing countries, many people have cell phones with which to access Buddhist teachings. Electronic teachings are now available in many US prisons, even when books and other religious items are restricted. More people world-wide can connect with supportive Dharma communities, as well.

Challenge: With so much Dharma available via the web, people may think they don’t need a qualified teacher. Anyone can post so-called ‘Dharma’ on a YouTube channel, FB page, or webpage, but may provide misinformation. YouTube algorithms don’t take into account the quality of what’s posted. While qualified Dharma teachers aren’t necessarily interested in search engine optimization, those who have questionable motivations will be. It may be harder to discern genuine Dharma on the web.

Can you share your personal experiences regarding how technology has aided your study, practice, and propagation of Buddha’s teachings?

Aggacitta: First of all, I concede to ChatGPT for generating very comprehensive answers to all the questions (except this one) for this forum. My editor and myself had a hard time summarising them to fit into this forum format. Most of the answers are built around current technological perspectives beyond my expertise as a Buddhist monk, and yet are still very aptly ‘Buddhist’ in tone. These AI generated answers save me a lot of time having to read up on such modern technologies that I am not at all familiar with.

As for my own study and practice of the DhammaVinaya, the digitalisation of our Pāli scriptures has made it so convenient to make comprehensive research into profound Buddhist concepts and controversial aspects of Dhamma practice. This is also facilitated by the many other supplementary resources freely available online. The findings from such research have brought about ground breaking realisations on how to practise effectively according to the suttas. I also use properly animated slides and images during my workshops, Dhamma talks and meditation retreats when appropriate.

I am currently leading a team of volunteers to upload authentic material based on the early Pāli suttas to the data source of a Buddhist AI chatbot called NORBUEBT (Neural Omniscient Robotic-Being for Buddhist Understanding). It is set up to aid monastics and laity alike to conduct their studies of the DhammaVinaya, based on Early Buddhist Texts (EBT), with particular emphasis on Pāli sources.

Min Wei: In fact, technology has been significantly helpful in my study of Buddhism in several ways: the internet provides access to a vast array of Buddhist scriptures, texts, commentaries, and teachings. This accessibility allows individuals to explore various aspects of Buddhism, fostering a deeper understanding of the teachings. Numerous apps offer guided meditation sessions, timers, and resources for mindfulness practice. These tools help individuals establish and maintain a regular meditation practice, regardless of their location. Various websites and platforms offer structured online courses and educational programs on Buddhism. Furthermore, through digital platforms, the propagation of Buddhism has reached a global audience, allowing people from diverse backgrounds to engage with and explore Buddhism.

Tsepal: Over the years, I’ve certainly taken advantage of Dharma teachings and meditations on CDs, MP3, online videos and streamed teachings. I’m not a fan of meditation apps, but have benefited from various websites like Sutta Central,, and Search engines have made researching the Dharma much easier.

In brief what is your advice to AI developers so that their creations contribute to the happiness and well-being of sentient beings on Earth?

Aggacitta: By adhering to the following principles, AI developers can create technology that aligns with Buddhist values and contributes to the happiness and well-being of sentient beings.

  • Prioritize the principle of non-harming, avoiding the development of AI systems that could cause harm to sentient beings, directly or indirectly. Recognize the interconnected nature of all life, and ensure that AI respects and nurtures this interconnectedness rather than disrupting it.
  • Integrate ethical considerations into AI development.
  • Design AI systems with a user-centric approach, ensuring they contribute to the well-being and happiness of users rather than exploiting them.
  • Engage with Buddhist communities and other stakeholders to gather feedback and ensure that AI aligns with Buddhist values and the well-being of all sentient beings.
  • Develop AI systems that support mindfulness and clear awareness, meditation, and ethical living, helping users cultivate inner well-being and wisdom.

Min Wei: AI developers contribute to the happiness and well-being of sentient beings by creating technologies that assist in healthcare, optimize resource management, enhance accessibility, provide personalized services, and improve various aspects of life. Furthermore, their work helps in developing solutions that aim to improve quality of life, supports mental health, enhances efficiency in industries, fosters education, and assists individuals with disabilities, ultimately aiming to enhance overall quality of life and well-being for individuals and society.

Tsepal: I would advise all AI developers to follow UNESCO’s “Recommendations on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence,” produced in November, 2021. This framework highlights protection of human rights and dignity, transparency and fairness, and the importance of human oversight of AI systems. It has an extensive policy Action Area which encourages policymakers to implement core values and principles into actions regarding data governance, environment, and social wellbeing, and other areas. For Buddhists, our motivation is most important, and concern for the largest number of beings as well as the environment.

Venerable Ayasmā Aggacitta is the founder of the Sāsanārakkha Buddhist Sanctuary (SBS) in Taiping, Perak, a Pāli scholar and a meditation teacher.
Ven. Min Wei is a teacher of e-learning at the International Buddhist College (IBC) and an independent translator of Buddhism.
Venerable Tenzin Tsepal was ordained by HH The 14th Dalai Lama in 2001 and received her higher ordination in Taiwan in 2019. She is currently a nun residing at Sravasti Abbey, USA, supporting Ven Thubten Chodron in her teachings.

Guest Author: Eastern Horizon Magazine

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