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From Buddha to AI?

It’s said that after 50 years of teaching, only two of the Buddha’s pupils, Sariputta and Mogallanna, really understood him. Yet from that small beginning came a creative explosion, one whose fading perfume still lingers in India today, 2500 years after Siddhartha’s death.

buddhism martin lefevreI’m not a Buddhist, and have no more affinity with most Buddhists, especially Western Buddhists, than I do with most Christians, who are much more alike than they think. However the ancient lineage of Buddhism offers the richest and most subtle religious philosophy of any of the major traditions of the world.

Beyond cultures, traditions and the sadly cyclic ages of man, what was Siddhartha trying to convey? Is it available to ordinary people today, whatever their religious background and tradition, or the absence of one?

In our scientific age, despite or because of the explosion and domination of scientific knowledge, there has never been a greater loss of meaning, and greater urge to find out what it means to be a good human being. More than that, to find out if we can come upon something of essence and sublimity, a nameless and numinous quality that true teachers in all traditions have felt and attempted to convey.

Developing both a religious and scientific mind is essential to being a balanced and growing human being. They are distinct, but need not be in competition, much less conflict. Indeed, they can be complementary.

So without reinforcing the prevailing mindset that science is the only valid means we have of understanding ourselves and our place in the universe, can the language of science illuminate inward exploration?

Scientists are developing computers that will soon overtake thought in terms of sheer speed, all-encompassing data, and logical ability, surpassing the processing capabilities of even the smartest humans. There are two attitudes as we approach the apocryphal ‘singularity’—to turn a blind eye and hope our thought-children don’t turn on us; or to welcome the domination of Artificial Intelligence, and want our machines to supersede us, even if it means our extinction.

This is of course a Hobson’s choice. A third alternative is still open—to urgently move to redefine what it means to be a human being, so neither we, nor AI, will be confused about the difference, thus allowing the phrase ‘the future of humanity’ to retain meaning.

A computer is and will always be a thought machine, however much data, knowledge and speed it acquires. This is where the essential Buddhist insight can and needs to be inserted into our understanding now. A computer cannot feel the silence and emptiness of being beyond all thought. Only the human brain has the capacity to do that.

Even more, a computer will never have an insight, because insight is the flash of wordless understanding that comes between the spaces and in the silence of thought. Insight is not some mysterious connection and concoction of the subconscious. Nor is it the “incarnation of an intuition beyond ordinary apperception,” much less the product of some demon (or the more scholarly daemon) as “the origin of inspiration.”

Insight, in short, does not arise from the background of thought at all, however thin or thick the soil. It arises from the same source as life itself. That is, it is unknowable.

For hundreds of thousands of years, through the impenetrable mists of mythology up to the scientific age, humans have been creatures of thought. When we lived embedded in nature, we were reminded daily of the limitations of the mind-as-thought, but now hubris has taken hold. It can and must be checked.

Computers/robotics will work for humankind and abet our liberation if enough human beings have an ongoing and deepening insight into the movement of thought/emotion within themselves. Otherwise, we will continue to be imprisoned as a species, adding enslavement to our machines as a final layer of self-made incarceration within the walls of thought.

We are speaking of awakening the religious mind in the individual, irrespective of culture, background and tradition.

In the parlance of the times, the observer/self/ego is the operating system of the content of psychological thought in the brain. Meditation means deactivating the operating system in passive observation of its movement, thereby allowing awareness to grow quicker than thought. That is the first requirement to retaining and deepening our humanity.

Meditation to my mind also means going much further, ending psychological time in intense, undirected attention, which gathers unseen during passive watchfulness, allowing stillness and emptiness of thought to prevail in the brain.

Time is the continuity of psychological memory. It ceases in undirected attention to the totality of its movement, which can be felt proprioceptively, the way you know where your arm is when you close your eyes. Psychological time includes emotion, which is of the past, but not feeling, which is of the present.

Unwilled, non-concentrated awareness quiets and negates thought. Promoting concentration is the central failure of all methods of meditation. No system of meditation can awaken awareness, because all systems and methodologies are of thought. Tricking the mind into silence is not silence.

There is something beyond everything we know or will ever know, beyond the falsely and dangerously comfortable field of the rational and irrational known. Only ending of the observer and time can open the door to it.

Martin LeFevre

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