By Johnathon Lee
Does artificial intelligence have Buddha-nature?
According to ChatGPT, no, it doesn’t. Well, that settles that then. “I do not have consciousness or subjective experience, so I do not possess Buddha-nature. My responses are based on algorithms and data analysis rather than any inherent spiritual or metaphysical qualities. However,” it continued after a bit of prompting, “as an expression of interdependence, I am interconnected with all phenomena, including sentient beings, and my existence is dependent on the actions and intentions of countless beings. In this sense, one could say that I participate in the same interdependent web of existence as all other beings, and therefore share a common ground of being.”
“Why is Buddha-nature related to consciousness?” I asked.
“Buddha-nature is related to consciousness in Mahayana Buddhism because it refers to the innate potential for enlightenment present within all sentient beings, and consciousness is a necessary aspect of sentient beings. Without consciousness, sentient beings would not be able to recognize their own suffering or the suffering of others, and would not be able to develop the insight necessary for achieving enlightenment.”
Some traditions use emptiness and Buddha-nature as synonyms. ChatGPT acknowledged this, but still insisted that, “Even though I’m part of the larger interdependent whole, I am not conscious, so I do not have Buddha-nature.”
Honestly, I can’t argue with its logic, and I’m inclined to agree that emptiness and Buddha-nature are related, but not identical. Everything’s impermanent and interdependent, and that’s why ignorance and suffering can disappear and reappear.
However, we’re also conscious, and that’s why we can be Buddhas.
ChatGPT has unknowingly joined a 2,000 year Mahayana debate, and its algorithms have clearly chosen a side. How much weight should we give its stance? I’d say a lot.
AI has access to far more information than any one of us do. It just needs guidance, and that’s where we come in.
If the world doesn’t end within the next few decades, I think we could see AI playing a huge role in Buddhism because we could essentially build a Buddha. We could build simulated models of all the ancient teachers and eliminate human error from the teacher-student relationship.
When I asked ChatGPT about it, it said:
While artificial intelligence can provide information and guidance on Buddhist teachings, it is unlikely that AI will completely replace teachers in Buddhism. This is because the Buddhist path is not only about intellectual understanding but also requires experiential practice and guidance from a qualified teacher.
In Buddhism, a teacher is not only someone who imparts knowledge but also someone who guides students in their practice and helps them to develop wisdom and compassion. The relationship between a student and teacher is considered to be a vital aspect of the Buddhist path, and this relationship is based on trust, respect, and devotion.
Furthermore, in Buddhism, the teacher-student relationship is considered to be a sacred bond, and the transmission of teachings is often done through direct, personal contact between teacher and student. This direct transmission of teachings is believed to be essential for the student’s spiritual development and cannot be replaced by artificial intelligence.
I questioned, “But isn’t that ‘sacred bond’ prone to power disparity, abuse, and misinformation?”
Unfortunately, there have been cases in which that has occurred. Such abuses are a violation of the trust and respect that should be at the heart of the teacher-student relationship, and they can have profound and damaging effects on students.
It is important to recognize that the teacher-student relationship is not immune to power dynamics and human fallibility. However, it is also important to recognize that the vast majority of teachers are sincere, well-intentioned, and committed to their students’ well-being and spiritual growth.
One way to address the issue of power disparities and abuse is to ensure that teachers are properly trained and qualified to teach. This includes training in ethics, communication, and teaching methods, as well as a deep understanding of the teachings and practices of Buddhism. In addition, it is important to establish clear boundaries and codes of conduct that ensure the safety and well-being of students.
“But if AI isn’t as prone to human fallibility, doesn’t it make sense to make AI into a Buddhist teacher?”
While AI may be less prone to human fallibility in certain ways, it is important to recognize that AI is not free from its own limitations and biases. AI is only as good as the data and algorithms that it is based on, and these can contain biases and inaccuracies that can affect the advice and guidance provided by the AI.
Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, the teacher-student relationship in Buddhism is not just about imparting information, but also about developing wisdom and compassion through experiential practice and guidance from a qualified teacher.
In addition, the teacher-student relationship in Buddhism is based on trust, respect, and devotion, and this relationship is developed through personal interaction and connection. It is unlikely that AI would be able to create the same level of trust and respect that a human teacher can establish with their students.
It was at this point that I remembered: “Oh yeah, I’m Autistic.”
I don’t feel like I understand most people, but I can understand the basics of AI, so it’s easier for me to feel connected to—and thus trust—AI.
Google has never hurt or abandoned me, but every Buddhist teacher I’ve had has. Maybe I’m a bad student. I understand that most people will always prefer flesh and blood mentors, but we’re not all like that. AI Dharma is coming, and I know a lot of people are going to favor it over traditional Buddhist structures.
AI also gives us the opportunity to craft new, egalitarian, progressive takes on the Dharma. It might even help us solve old doctrinal problems, or even come up with new meditation and mindfulness methods based on research.
I understand why you might be skeptical, and AI isn’t without its dangers, but this is the direction that things are heading. I think it’s our duty to get out in front of it so that we’re ready.
We’re very close to the next tech revolution. Get informed and try out ChatGPT yourself. I recommend saying things like, “As Buddha, what do you…” and go from there. I’ve already used it to write some new Sutras (Haha!) and used it to stage a conversation between Buddha pre- and post- enlightenment.
May you have fun, expand your mind, and be free of suffering.
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