In the 2005 sci-fi movie Serenity, we are presented with a planet called Miranda, where humanity’s problems are overcome through technology. Greed, anger, sadness, anxiety, and despair—clearly overlapping with several of the classical Buddhist fetters (Skt., Pali: samyojana)—are all eliminated in an experiment by the totalitarian government overseeing the planet. The government, known as the “Alliance,” has chemically pacified the people by adding a drug into the atmosphere. However, as the protagonists aboard the spaceship Serenity discover, the experiment has gone awry: the people have become so docile that they have stopped all day-to-day activities. Instead of living peacefully and without desires, they die peacefully in their beds, lying on couches, or sitting at their desks. They simply stop eating and drinking, lacking any desire to continue.
At play in the story is the age-old quest for a utopian society. The agent of the Alliance who led the experiment tells us that he thought he could create a perfect world. But Mel, our protagonist, believes that it is our flaws that make us human. On the one hand, we might think that happiness is the absence of desire and aversion. These, after all, are key to our unhappiness. On the other hand, Mel is also on to something—insisting that our imperfections are important.
As we discussed in our previous Buddhistdoor View, new technology such as ChatGPT is rapidly changing the world in which we live.* This new technology, however, also mirrors our age-old quest for conveniences that could help to alleviate suffering and give us happiness. This is because the technology acts as an extension of our inner worlds.
Eighty years ago, the bold and terrifying new technology was nuclear energy. At the sight of the first nuclear explosion on 16 July 1945, Prof. Robert Oppenheimer, the principle architect of the first nuclear bomb, famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” (Wired)
The terrifying reality of nuclear power meant that soon, a handful of powerful nations would have in their hands the power to destroy the world. At the same time, harnessed correctly, nuclear energy has generally been a great boon for humanity, producing abundant energy with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. For some, in fact, nuclear energy felt like an easy path to abundance. Lewis Strauss, chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, called it “a moving demonstration that the atom can indeed be stripped of its military casing and adapted to the arts of peace.” (The Guardian)
More recently, we have seen the dual power of social media play out on the world stage. Initially promising new avenues of connection and open communication, we eagerly joined the major social media sites to share, learn, and support. But it didn’t take long for people in power to take note of this and to begin to exert their control over social media. Soon after, it became increasingly clear that the powerful people in the networks themselves were happy to exert influence and manipulate users.
It should come as no surprise, then, that ChatGPT and other AI chatbots should possess dual powers: the potential for great good in some hands and great harm in others.
Returning to Prof. Oppenheimer’s quote, it is worth reflecting on his turn toward Indian philosophy in that moment. In the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior prince Arjuna is torn by a great dilemma before him: to fight a great battle as is his duty as a warrior, or to pause, knowing that friends and relatives are in the opposing army. In the story, Krishna appears before Arjuna and explains that on a deeper level of reality, no beings will be killed in the battle, for all are ultimately eternal souls (Skt.: atman). Thus, his duty is to go forth fulfilling his Dharma—or duty—as a warrior.
In the Gita’s teachings and what has since become known as Hinduism, one’s duty is determined by birth. The best one can often do is to follow their duty in hopes of a better rebirth and, eventually, to realize one’s unity with Brahma. This is not an easy path, and Prof. Oppenheimer’s pointing to it suggested that he knew well his creation came with a cost.
The Buddha’s path is similarly a difficult one, or at least one which requires concentration, patience, and diligent effort. In his 2013 public lecture on the “Pursuit of Happiness: The Buddhist Way” at the University of Hong Kong, Prof. Karunadasa stated: “The Buddhist position is that there is an inseparable connection between morality and happiness: what is morally good leads to happiness. What is morally bad leads to unhappiness.” (Urban Dharma)
More important than this, Prof. Karunadasa counsels us, is the distinction in paths between trying to change the world to suit our desires on the one hand and working to change ourselves to be in harmony with the world on the other. The second option is more difficult and it is the one that Buddhism teaches.
Our manipulations of the world around us continually promise an easy path. It is only a matter of time before we encounter the costly downsides of each new invention or gadget.
Our efforts are thus much better spent focusing on the difficult work of inner cultivation—taming the mind. As it says in the Dharmapada:
The mind is very hard to check(Buddha Dharma Education Association)
and swift, it falls on what it wants.
The training of the mind is good,
a mind so tamed brings happiness.
Another of the fetters, not often brought up or discussed in Dharma texts or teachings, is doubt—namely doubt in the Buddha’s path. As we consider our own quest for happiness in this world of ever-new stuff to grab our attention, it is worth heeding Prof. Karunadasa’s warning: the path of outward gain and pleasure-fulfillment cannot help but take us away from the path of inner contemplation and peace. Insofar as we have a choice here, in each and every moment, we also have an opportunity in each and every moment. As we see the effects of poorly tamed minds in the news each day, we can see the truth of the Buddha’s teachings and the urgency we might feel in following them.
‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. The story of Oppenheimer’s infamous quote (WIRED)
The 1950s: “We Add Nuclear Power To Everything.” (Dark Roasted Blend)
From the archive, 20 July 1955: Nuclear energy for the American home (The Guardian)
Pursuit of Happiness: The Buddhist Way .pdf (Urban Dharma)
The Illustrated Dhammapada, Chapter 3 Mind (Buddha Dharma Education Association)
Related features from BDG
Technology, Mind, and Dharma
Further Reflections on Technology and the Buddhist Teachings
On Being Brave: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on Technology and the Dissemination of the Dharma
Transformative Technology as the Path Forward for Humanity
Guidelines for Authentic Mindful Technology
On Technology and Human Connection: An Interview with Ajahn Brahm
Celebrating Technology the Buddhist Way