The quest for knowledge has underpinned the history of humanity. Western thinking has been influenced by Judeo-Christian religious metaphors, such as the tree of knowledge of good and evil producing forbidden fruit that lead to sin.
Omniscience is the property of having complete or maximal knowledge. Along with omnipotence and perfect goodness, it is usually taken to be one of the central divine attributes.(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Seeking knowledge is not always encouraged in Christianity and Western religions. Knowledge-seeking, in contrast, is central to the Upanishads, in which the topic is expounded on extensively and studied by sages and knowledge-seekers from all conceivable viewpoints.
The Upanishads represent a central reference for knowledge-seekers and scholars. However, they are such an extensive resource that the general public may not be able to read them all. Attempting to give an overview may result in something superficial that does not do the texts justice, but a good summary can be found at the World History Encyclopedia.
In our times, the pursuit of knowledge is carried out using formal, scientific methods. Nonetheless, even science is limited by what is considered a scientific interest by the prevailing paradigms and by funding program policies.
The question of omniscience opens up the topic of knowledge to another level entirely: can such a thing exist? What does it look like? And how can it be attained?
In Eastern spiritual traditions, omniscience has been the subject of great attention, typically in sacred literature and an esoteric prerogative of oracles and seers. References to omniscience have recently begun to come up in the fields of science and technology. This article brings together examples from Eastern and Western literature, pointing to the relevance of the topic to contemporary discussions of AI.
Omniscience in classical Indian traditions
Indian traditions form the basis for a great part of Buddhism. The literary and scholarly traditions relating to omniscience (Skt: sarvajnata) in India can be divided into two broad categories: general knowledge of reality (Skt: tattvajnata) and knowledge of Dharma (Skt: dharmajnata). Different schools throughout the ages have held diverse views:
The School of Carvaka does not hold the possibility of omniscience. The School of Mimamsa maintains that the Vedas are omniscient, but that no being can be omniscient. The School of Nyayavaishesika Seshvara-Samkhya and Yoga maintain the omniscience of God. The School of Advaita Vedanta holds the omniscience of God as well as the omniscience of man. Although they do not believe the authority of the Vedas, or of God, or Prakrti, the Buddhists and Jainas hold that only a human being can become omniscient.(Pandey, 3)
Interestingly, even in the context of religion and philosophy, logical constructs that are also used in mathematics, such as proof, validity, and inference, are leveraged. (Pandey, chapter five)
In Buddhism, omniscience finds a pinnacle. Countless accounts recall the extraordinary cognitive abilities of mahasiddhas. Omniscience is one of the qualities of a buddha, and results from direct perception and pristine awareness, a feature of realized beings.
This is not necessarily about discriminating qualitative and quantitative aspects of knowledge, and can only be appreciated by enlightened minds. To everyone else, objectively speaking, manifestations of omniscience may even appear to be lacking logic and semantics. Key resources—listed below in the references section—offer examples of Tibetan literature and texts introducing omniscience that have becoming generally accessible for the first time in our generation.
It takes a buddha’s mindset to recognize a buddha, so to speak.
Omniscience in the Buddhist tradition is generally expounded in relation to the teaching and life of the Buddha of our times, Shakyamuni, and to his followers. In that, it can be seen as equivalent to Christianity, which asserts that Knowledge is God. Here, omniscience is regarded as the essence of buddhahood, buddhi itself.
The Myriad Worlds text is the first book in the Sheja Dzo, or Treasury of Knowledge, written by Jamgon Kongtrul in 1862. It is based on a root verse, The Encompassment of All Knowledge. The text covers all aspects of Buddhism, from Abhidharma to exoteric (Skt: Sutrayana) and esoteric (Skt: Vajrayana) teachings, which were transmitted through the lineages of Mahamudra and Dzogchen.
In the Mahayana-sutra-alamkara-karika
Buddhism inherently overcomes the distinction between “objects” and “modes of appearance” by rejecting the idea that either possesses inherent reality. That is, it is imputed (Skt. parikalpita).
According to the Prajñāpāramitāśāstra, a text that explains the theory of threefold insight, (i) “insight of paths” (margajñatā) refers to all kinds of mundane knowledge which are required for the fulfillment of religious goals, and (ii) “insight of all phenomena” (sarvajñatā), or “omniscience,” refers to the abstract truth of all phenomena gained by the elimination of ignorance, and (iii) “insight of all aspects of phenomena” (sarvākārajñatā) refers to the concrete truth that is realized in all aspects of phenomena.(Lin, 215–6)
In chapter 18 of the Mahayana-sutra-alamkara-karika, two verses are devoted to the “knowledge of technical treatises” (Skt: sastrajnata). There, it is explained that the subject matter of these technical treatises is the five sciences, and that the result of mastering these sciences is the “awareness of all modes of appearance of all dharmas” (Skt: sarvadharmasarvakarajnata).
The five sciences are: spiritual science (Skt: adhyatmavidya); logical science (Skt: hetuvidya); grammatical science (Skt: sabdavidya); medical science (Skt: cikitsavidya); and the science of fine arts and crafts (Skt: sllpakarmasthana). The purpose and application of the five sciences is a necessary condition for the attainment of omniscience (Skt: vidyasthane pancavidhe y krtva sarvajnatvam naiti).
Interestingly, the division of knowledge in Buddhist education systems can be considered analogous to that of the trivium and quadrivium in Western scholarly institutions. (Griffiths) This reminds us that science and technology are not really new. What is new is that in our times they permeate everyday life, they impact everyone, and in theory—through personal computers and mobile devices—everyone can harness their benefits. Science and technology in principle can facilitate the assimilation of knowledge and bring us closer to some aspects of omniscience.
Our generation is receiving teachings of Dzogchen and Mahamudra online from authentic teachers belonging to uninterrupted lineages. Terma treasure teachings, once hidden in the sky and the earth, are now embedded in videos and PDFs.
Ultimately, cognitive processes and objects of cognition take place in the mind, and mind is space:
When mind and space are not distinct
This is mastery of dharmakaya.Garchen Rinpoche, Eight Kinds of Mastery
Cyberspace as dharmadhatu has been discussed in a previous article for this column.
His Holiness the Karmapa gave extensive teachings on the Mind Only school earlier this year—available on YouTube—that provide an important perspective on the topic of omniscience. According to the Yogacara Mind Only school, the Karmapa explained, everything that appears in our perceptions is our own mind. It is not an external entity that is separate from our mind. Yoga here should be understood to mean dhyana meditation, the practice of resting deeply in the nature of the mind. (Kagyu Office)
Omniscience in artificial intelligence
In their purest form, science and technology also aspire to understand—and to perhaps even achieve—perfection. Although technically elusive, perfect knowledge is impossible to even define, let alone achieve.
Nevertheless, new advances in knowledge-based technologies are opening new capabilities to confront the possibility of omniscience, ranging from systems capable of extracting knowledge from very large databases to alleged mind-reading kits. Concepts such as meta-knowledge, logical perfection, and logical and physical omniscience are discussed in scholarly outlets, prompting us to examine the vast resources available in Buddhism as a frame of reference.
The practice of Buddhism should be motivated by the privilege of embodying the noble qualities of compassion and generosity, not by the desire to attain super-cognition. We contemplate the possibility of omniscience as an emergent property of spiritual practice, as well as of responsible scientific and technical evolution.
Evans, James A., and Jacob G. Foster. 2011. “Metaknowledge.” Science 331, No. 6018. Pp.721–25.
Chrisley, Ron. 2020. “Artificial Consciousness, Meta-Knowledge, and Physical Omniscience.” Journal of Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness 7, No. 02. Pp.199–215.
Cruz, John Alexander, and Zilber, Boris. 2018. “Logical perfection in mathematics and beyond” in Logical Perfection and Omniscience Morales. arXiv preprint arxiv:1803.04909.
Griffiths, Paul J. 1990. “Omniscience in the Mahāyānasūtrālaṅkāra and its commentaries.” Indo-Iranian Journal 33, No. 2. Pp.85–120.
Lin, Chen-kuo. 2011. “Phenomenology of Awakening in Zhiyi”s Tiantai Philosophy.” After Appropriation: Explorations in Intercultural Philosophy and Religion. pp.203–20.
Pandey, Lakshuman. 1972. “The Buddhist Conception of Omniscience.” PhD diss. https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/8746/1/fulltext.pdf
Stalnaker, Robert. 1991. Logical Omniscience. “The problem of logical omniscience, I.” Synthese. pp.425–40.
Bumpa: Offering Vases (University of Virginia)
Omniscience (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
The Pursuit of Knowledge (Christian Library)
Upanishads (World History Encyclopedia)
Sheja Dzo (Wikipedia)
Parikalpita (Encyclopedia of Buddhism)
Garchen Rinpoche. Eight Kinds of Mastery (YouTube)
In Praise of Omniscient Longchenpa (Lotsawa House)
Entering the City of Omniscience, by Jikme Lingpa (Lotsawa House)
Texts on Omniscience (Lotsawa House)
Khandro-la Namsel Dronma (Boeddhisme: Jampa ‘s Mandala)
The Rise and Fall of the Mind Only School and Why It Deserves Our Respect and Study (Kagyu Office)
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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
On Technology and Human Connection: An Interview with Ajahn Brahm
The Big Uncertainty
A Manifestation of Profound Wisdom and Compassion—Remembering Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche