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No Form, Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, Consciousness:  A Buddhist Perspective on AI

Andrew Cvercko
By Andrew Cvercko
Ethical Technology

Posted: Jan 2, 2014

It seems as though every day we grow closer to creating fully conscious and emergent artificial intelligences. As I’ve written about before, this poses a problem for many religions, especially those that ascribe a special place for humanity and for human consciousness in the cosmos. Buddhism stands out as an exception. Buddhism may be the one system of religious thought that not only accepts but will actively embrace any AIs that we produce as a species.

Much of this can be ascribed to Buddhism’s non-speciesist attitudes. From its earliest onset, Buddhism has respected all life as equally deserving of care. The Buddha often speaks in the teachings ascribed to him on how animals seek happiness and protection from harm just as much as people do, and famously opposed the ritual sacrifice of animals on these grounds.

It must be admitted that this apparently did not extend to a vegetarian diet for his followers, though many Buddhist teachers throughout history have encouraged vegetarianism or veganism as the most ethical ways of eating.

This is extrapolated and expanded by later Buddhist thinkers. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist path, enlightenment, was only open to human beings in early Buddhism. However, as the philosophy developed, Buddhist thinkers began to posit that all living things were equally capable of attaining enlightenment.

Later texts illustrate that animal life is just as capable of becoming enlightened as human life is, and recently many Buddhist thinkers have begun to include plant and microbial life as well. Buddhism may have in fact been the first philosophy to find personhood beyond the human. It recognizes consciousness and emergent intelligent potential in all forms of life.

But just because Buddhism holds a high regard for all organic life, why would it necessarily accept artificial intelligence in the same way? The simple answer is that, from a Buddhist view of the mind and consciousness, all intelligence is artificial.

Buddhism famously denies the existence of a “self”, something that we can ascribe our identity to. This stood in opposition of the beliefs of most people in India at the Buddha’s time, and still is a departure from how many people view themselves. Buddhism instead describes living things as composed of five “heaps” or “piles”: our physical forms, our feelings, our perceptions, our mental formations, and our consciousness. In some ways, this view is a predecessor to the modern materialistic view of life as a composition of basic chemical materials.

None the heaps are under our control, and none by themselves can be ascribed as who we “are”. Together they create a living thing, but taken apart they are simply temporary amassing of energy that will eventually dissipitate of their own accord. The Heart Sutra, one of the most famous Buddhist scriptures, famously describes them all through the lens of “emptiness”, poetically declaring them to be non-existent in an ultimate sense.

Some people have posited that since a computer can be programmed, an AI would be too easy to modify to be considered conscious. However, Buddhist philosophy once again takes a view that appears to support AI. From the Buddhist perspective, we are all “programmable”, the most obvious example being the course of meditation and mind body practices that Buddhists feel can alter their being to new states of consciousness.

The system is in fact founded on the concept that our brains can be rewritten (this is one way to describe the changes in perspective and consciousness ascribed to enlightenment) Moving beyond this, looking at the effects of things such as psychotropic drugs, lobotomies, traumatic brain injuries, and psychotherapy, it becomes apparent that our brains are not unchanging objects that can not be programmed by external stimuli.

From the viewpoint of Buddhism, all life is emergent, entities functioning at a capacity greater than the sum of their parts. There is no special qualifier that separates any form of intelligence from another (note that even consciousness is on the list of things that we aren’t.”. This means that an intelligence inside of a robot body, a computer, or existing on the Internet would be just as worthy of being considered “alive” as a squirrel, a human, or a bacteria.

Further, Buddhism accepts the existence of life that does not have a physical body. In the Buddhist mythology, beings that exist in realms without physical bodies are described and treated the same as those with physical bodies. Although this ethic is ascribed to mythical beings, if we begin to see actual beings that exist in “formless realms”, most Buddhists would likely see no problem accepting them as living.

In Buddhism, a computer intelligence would be viewed by most as a new form of life, but one equally possessed of the heaps and equally capable of emergent behavior and enlightenment. The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and several other high profile Buddhist thinkers have already spoken in support of AI as a living being. There are, of course, exceptions.

One Buddhist monk when asked replied that a programmed intelligence would inherently have limits and therefore would not be a form of life, and several others feel that an AI could have the appearance of sentience but not actual sentience. However, when examining the Buddhist view of sentience as emergent, and the Buddhist acceptance of all forms of life as deserving of respect, it becomes clear that most Buddhists and Buddhist communities would fully embrace an AI.

To many, it is a foregone conclusion that artificial intelligence is not only a possibility, but a definite issue on the horizon of human society. Looking at AI from the point of view of Buddhists that lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, it is clear that new forms of intelligence have been expected for quite a long time and that in fact the Buddhist philosophy is expertly equipped to welcome new intelligences in whatever form they take.

The Dalai Lama has famously said that when Buddhism and science disagree, it is time for Buddhism to change. This creates the conditions for a philosophy that can adapt itself to everything the future will bring us, both now and hundreds if years more down the line.


Andrew Cvercko lives in Winsted, CT. He works at a drug rehab, teaching mindfulness meditation to people attempting to recover from drug and alcohol addictions.
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The weak point in your argument is that enlightenment (actually “awakening”) doesn’t come through intelligence. Being able to retain knowledge, comprehend ideas, even creative thinking, is kind of irrelevant. Sentience isn’t necessarily it, either. One way to define “enlightenment” is that it’s a state in which all self-reference is lost; to forget the self is to be enlightened with all beings, as Dogen said.

Also I think you are missing the point with the idea that all beings of all species realize enlightenment. In some schools of Mahayana (Zen, for example), “enlightenment” is considered to be the natural state of all beings. The frog is already enlightened, as are you.

And we can turn that around and say that when we speak of an enlightened being, it is not the singular, individual being that is enlightened, exactly. Enlightenment is not a quality that can be possessed or not possessed. We practice not to “get” something but to manifest something that is already present.

What this means (as much as it can be explained) is that “we” are not what we seem. We have no intrinsic, individual self-essence inhabiting our bodies. Our identity as individuals is created by our relationship to everything else. But neither are we separate from the dharmakaya, in which all beings are undifferentiated and unmanifested. In the terms of Madhyamika (the school of philosophy that the Heart Sutra is expressing; form is no other than emptiness, etc.), ultimately there is neither existence nor non-existence.

So, in one way you and the frog are two different creatures, but at the same time you are not two different creatures. Not one, not two.

This is really, really, really difficult stuff, and easily misunderstood. Note also that Theravada Buddhists will have nothing to do with the Heart Sutra. There are a lot of sectarian differences on these teachings.

Oh, and the Dalai Lama didn’t say Buddhism should change, but that the sutras (scriptures) should change if they disagree with science. This isn’t actually a radical thing for a Buddhist to say, since sutras aren’t considered to be the Word of God, and it’s OK to disbelieve them.

Hoetsu, slacker Zen student (since 1988) and Guide to Buddhism for

This is an excellent foray into AI and Buddhist spirituality. I think something that might complement this is a discussion of desire. According to Buddhism, what brings about a consciousness is desire. I do think it _is_ possible to create (either directly or indirectly) an AI which can desire, but we also need to think about whether or not we’re speaking in terms of _human_ desire. Would an AI desire? What would machine-desire look like? How would it manifest?  Would we even be able to understand or apprehend it?

By no means does this negate the concept that an AI could desire, but—personally—I don’t think an AI would desire for the same things as humans; and, on a more abstract level, I don’t think humans are equipped to know/apprehend what an AI would desire.

Definitely something to think about, though.  Thanks for the post!

I’m from germany. So my english is not so good.

Yes - this is an interesting subject. Having objective knowledge. Not so many subjective feelings (wrong views). Also according to buddhism it is an advantage to have knowledge. Or, in another words, not understanding how things really are leads to a lot of suffering.

You can be of the opinion that it are those feelings that make humans (sentient beings) - if not life - so love-/livable. Of course it should be better - but it could also be worse.

So a strong computer with much knowledge (information) and the capability to react always quickly and right [perfect - so to say (albeit artificial)] to life’s situations would somehow be like a buddha - something “desirable”.

I assume that such a thing would have no feelings. Or if - at least always the right (appropriate) feelings, reactions (states). Imperturbable (equanimous), but not indifferent (unconcerned). Or?

I have the feeling (thought-sensation) that it is not so good to have so many (especially misleading - who defines misleading?) feelings - sensual desires -, (point of) views. Even though views are relative - depending on one’s frame of reference.  AI would be skilled in all ideas (limpid in “mind”). 

Would such a thing (form of existence) be an animated machine? Which, in a certain buddhist sense, does apply also to humans. For sure it’s been conditioned - and (so far) dependent on some kind of external energy. It evolved (“emergented”) in the course of evolution. Men made as it appears:

So isn’t it a, albeit very high, mathematical (“artificial”) intelligence? Something like what max tegmark for example in his book *our mathematical universe* - which I’ve not (yet?) read - holds.

Something else (besides the heart sutra) concerning emptiness:

Here, it seems, a certain reality is conceded. If that would be not so - why all that discoursing about (the) reality (of suffering)? And maybe the only thing that does not change (is not “empty”) is that (law of) change. Except of course (according to buddhism) one becomes extinct into nirvana. 

** None [of] the heaps are under our control. ** I do not completely agree (** our brains are not unchanging objects that can not be programmed [controlled] by external stimuli **). But it’s not easy to change (control) them - yourself. Forgot: There is no self - in the “ultimate” sense. 

“ This is really (r., r.,) sophisticated stuff. “ .. grin

Here’s another (“not uninteresting”) link that deals with the theme.
I have not read it - only the german original.

There seems to be a problem here with the display of/connection to the links. Copy and paste works.

The square at the end of my last posting was meant to be a smiley.

@ Axel - we do not allow links within comments to reduce spam. I hope you understand.

Thank you for your comment and participation! - Kris (Managing Director)


“One way to define “enlightenment” is that it’s a state in which all self-reference is lost; to forget the self is to be enlightened with all beings”

If one’s self doesn’t exist, how does it make sense to posit its existence in others? What are these “beings” with which one is to be “enlightened”?

“This is really, really, really difficult stuff, and easily misunderstood.”

Your phrasing implies that there is indeed something to be understood, that there really is a thing called “Buddhism” with something understandable lurking within it, rather than the confused and incoherent babblings of primates. So I’m to believe in an elaborate system of karmic accounting and reincarnation, while also disavowing anthropocentrism and subscribing to mereological nihilism? Come on. This makes less and less sense as we move further and further away from a world of discrete organisms into one of abstracted bits.

Granted, this is all less laughably absurd than other ideologies that make definitive claims and refuse to countenance anything to the contrary, but still along this same continuum, as it’s ultimately us making nonsensical claims of knowledge we couldn’t possibly make legitimately.


The skill, (want of a better word?), is in reconciling both existence/reality/truth of Self and non-Self, without entering into madness? And since both theories of existence of Self and non-Self “must be true”(?) we cannot then deny either?

Like monkeys and minds, we Humans cannot let go of one branch, (idea), without first grasping another, lest we fall. Yet we Human apes are “smart” enough to remain suspended gripping branches with both hands until such time that the dilemma Self/non-Self can be resolved, (such time as I suspect will be never)?

Of what value to us/minds is “emptiness”?

I would dare to say the same peace and security and state of serenity afforded to us by death? So was the Buddha really selling us a different flavour/notion of consolation and demise?

Did the Buddha actually believe, (as smart as they say he was), that death was not an unrelenting and timeless state of non-existence, (non-awareness), that in fact, reincarnation was valid even?

I prefer to think that the Buddha offered practical psychology and reasoning to help lead a “good and moral” life, a philosophy less concerned with ontology and answers, existence and demise?

A venerable practical philosophy, yet still not enough to satisfy our innate curiosities?


@Cygnus: I’m not sure I can find anything to disagree with. Also unsure of whether your obfuscatory misuse of the question mark is a contributing factor.

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