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Michael LaTorra explains Buddhist Transhumanism in a nutshell

Giulio Prisco
By Giulio Prisco

Posted: Jan 6, 2016

My friend Michael LaTorra, an ordained Zen priest and the abbot of the Zen Center of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has written a short, simple and readable introduction to Buddhist Transhumanism. The article was published in Theology and Science in April with the title “What Is Buddhist Transhumanism?

Unfortunately the article is protected by a paywall. The abstract reads: “The meeting of ancient Buddhism from Asia with modern orientation towards science and technology in the Western world has led to a burgeoning movement that combines these in new and innovative ways. Lacking much institutional structure, but with many shared goals among its adherents, this movement seeks to attain the traditional Buddhist goals of reducing suffering and realizing Awakening, but with the assistance of scientific knowledge and technological means.” 

This essay was first published in Transfigurist here

I often tried to educate myself about Buddhism and Buddhist Transhumanism (or Transhumanist Buddhism?), and Mike’s article is very useful as a first step because it is simple and focused on the essentials of both. The article provides a clean and clear introduction to Buddhism for people already familiar with Transhumanism, or the other way around.

Mike LaTorra

An important parallel between Buddhism and Transhumanism is that both emphasize practical philosophy over abstract metaphysics. At the same time, deep metaphysical concepts are there to be found in both Buddhism and Transhumanism.

Buddhism asserts the doctrines of karma and rebirth. “Your actions now will affect your present lifetime and your subsequent afterlife, just as your actions previous to this birth affected your current life circumstances,” says Mike. In related speculations, Russian Cosmism and derived visionary interpretations of contemporary Transhumanism assert that future technologies could resurrect the dead.

The Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha – right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation – is a guide to “right” lifestyle and mental discipline that offer benefits to both individuals and their society. Similarly, Transhumanism emphasizes the potential of emerging futurist developments in biotechnology, neurotechnology, cognitive science, computer science, nanotechnology, related disciplines, to make people “better than well” and able to function in utopian societies. In both cases, philosophical concerns with eschatology and the ultimate nature of reality are confined to an inner esoteric core, not as evident as the outer exoteric front-end.

Reducing suffering is a key aspect of both Buddhism and Transhumanism. While Buddhism suggests diluting the ego in a cosmic unity, and emphasizes meditation as a practical way to achieve enlightenment, Transhumanism wants to change the world using advanced technologies.

To put the difference into perspective, LaTorra cites an old Buddhist teaching aphorism that says ‘To walk more comfortably, it is better to cover one’s feet than to try to cover the whole earth.’ By contrast, says LaTorra, many transhumanists would prefer to cover the earth in comfortable materials. “And Buddhist transhumanists would use a combination of both, providing shoes for everyone while at the same time making large swaths of the earth into benign and comfortable regions where people could safely go barefoot. “

It’s important to note that, contrary to other religion, Buddhism doesn’t oppose using technology as one of many means to achieve enlightenment. “[T]here is nothing in the teachings of the Buddha that forbids the inclusion of science and technology in Buddhist practice,” says Mike. The compatibility of Buddhism and Technology was also emphasized by Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” a cult novel that contributed to popularize Buddhism among Western audiences. “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower,” wrote Pirsig. “To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha - which is to demean oneself.”

The question is, once all suffering is eliminated by diluting the ego in meditation and unity with the whole of reality, is anyone left to experience happiness? Mike is well aware of “the typical horrified reaction of many Westerners to this vision, which seems to imply annihilation.”

In fact, reducing suffering doesn’t necessarily mean increasing happiness. For example, a rock doesn’t suffer, but doesn’t experience happiness either. Many Westerners tend to think that in Nirvana, “the deathless state of perfect liberation” attained by those who reach enlightenment after a succession of earthly incarnations, they would be as happy as rocks. Yet, for those who are ready, the Buddha “urges determined effort to put an end to wandering in samsara and to reach [Nirvana], which transcends all planes of being,” as explained by an American-born Buddhist monk.

Mike explains that the Buddha did not teach annihilation: “He generally preferred to speak of the goal, the state of Nirvana, in terms of what it was not: not mortal, not suffering, etc. The implication of the Buddha’s teaching, therefore, is that once all negatives are removed, the intrinsic positive would reveal itself.”

I find that rather vague (I guess Mike would say that here vagueness is not a bug but a feature), and I try to think of ways to reconcile Buddhism with cherishing the individual awareness that I wish to keep. My formulation of the core Buddhist message for Westerners would be something like:

Don’t think of Nirvana yet – you’ll cross that bridge when you get there. Try to live a right life, and advance with some little steps on the Karmic road to enlightenment. Then in your next existence you will have a bit more of a cosmic mind, and perhaps a bit less of an earthly mind. So in your following existence, and the next, and so forth … until you see the bridge to Nirvana, and then you will be ready for whatever comes next, which probably we couldn’t even imagine now.

At the 2014 Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, Mike gave a presentation titled “Where Is Heaven? An Examination of Multiple-World Models of the Cosmos and Beyond.” A few days after the conference, I had the pleasure to attend a Buddhist meditation session led by Mike, who designed the session for Western newcomers to Buddhism. I can’t say that I achieved enlightenment (I guess that takes much more than one casual session), but I think got part of the cosmic flavor of Buddhism and I look forward to repeating the experience anytime.

Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.
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Indeed, aren’t the perceptions of what enlightenment/Nirvana/insert-goal-state-here functions of our own limited perceptual ability? As beings with the capability to be “the way for the universe to perceive itself”, as Carl Sagan so wonderfully put it, it should be entirely possible to attain a greater understanding of our connection to everything while still appreciating the uniqueness of ourselves.

Since you know Michael LaTorra, how about suggesting to him that publishing an article behind a paywall is not benevolent conduct, and asking him to post a copy of his article here?

@rms - Posting a copy of the article here would violate the terms of Mike’s agreements with the publisher (I guess). I don’t like paywalls either, but where Mike chooses to publish is not my business.

But what if Buddhism is fundamentally at odds with transhuman aims—as Buddhist practices allow us to become fully human, here and now, and transhumanism takes us away from here and now and away from our own humanity?  An argument in detail, here:

@Giulio Prisco - I didn’t suggest you should post LaTorra’s article here. I suggested you should tell him (since he’s your friend) that publishing behind a paywall is not a good way.

I could say this to him myself, if I knew his email address, but I am a stranger to him.  I think that if his friend said this to him, it could have more effect.

@rms - I guess Mike would answer that only peer reviewed articles are recognized as academic credentials, and peer-reviewed articles are usually paywalled because the costs of peer-review and professional publishing must be recovered.

I don’t like paywalls and I think they are going to disappear. If a paywalled article (or book) is good, useful and liked, a freely downloadable copy will soon be uploaded to the torrent networks and darknet sites. Once enough people know how to download books and articles for free, the traditional publishing model will collapse.

But then we will need another publishing model that enables publishers to recover their costs. I think major publishers charge far too much, but what they do - editing, peer review, production, promotion… - does cost money. Of course asking $41 for Mike’s article, $15 for a mass market fiction book, or $100 and more for a scholarly book, is way too much, but there are costs to be recovered.

What could be a new, fair and sustainable publishing model?

See my article:

@Giulio Prisco - You argue that paywalled journals are a necessary evil, but successful libre scientific journals have already proved they are not necessary.
Now it remains only to eliminate the paywalled journals. To that end, there is a campaign among academics to refuse to review papers for non-libre journals.

Another campaign calls for “self-archiving”: post copies of your own papers on your own web site (or your institution’s web site).  Most paywalled journals tolerate this more or less.  How about asking your friend Michael to post a copy elsewhere, for the good of science?

As for how to fund the costs of publishing, Public Library of Science has a model that already works on a large scale.  The remaining problem in scientific publishing is that the non-libre journal publishers control chokepoints with which they maintain their dominance.

Rather than waiting passively for them to lose their grip on science, let’s seize opportunities to pry it loose.

@rms - as yous say, successful open scientific journals have proved that paywalls are not necessary, but I guess the publishing ecosystem needs some time to adapt.

I will write to Mike and ask if he can post a copy on his website.

re “Rather than waiting passively for them to lose their grip on science, let’s seize opportunities to pry it loose” - totally agree. Of course it should be done legally.

“It’s important to note that, contrary to other religion, Buddhism doesn’t oppose using technology as one of many means to achieve enlightenment.” —True, but there is an issue with using technology (or even meditation itself) to become other than or more than human.  A detailed argument against ‘Buddhist transhumanism’ from the Zen perspective is here:

Buddhism is about becoming fully realized as a human, not transforming into the posthuman.

@Giulio Prisco - We need not bend over backwards to obey an unjust law (such as prohibiting people from sharing copies of published works), nor the unjust power that the journal publishers obtain from it.

The reason I do not suggest _you_ post Michael’s paper _here_ is that I understand if you would rather not get into a direct confrontation with the journal publishers’ attack lawyers.  I don’t want to either, and I suppose the IEET also does not.

Someone else may be prepared to go further, just as some Greenpeace supporters are willing to risk arrest trying to end the reign of the oil companies.  To them I say, “Right on!”

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