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Technologies of Self-Perfection
J. Hughes   Sep 22, 2004   Betterhumans  

What would the Buddha do with nanotechnology and psychopharmaceuticals?

Last year, at a conference at MIT on the contribution of Buddhism to brain sciences, molecular biologist Eric Lander suggested that in 20 years “the US surgeon general might recommend 60 minutes of mental exercise five times a week.” I hope not. It would probably have as little effect on mental health as the recommendation to exercise regularly and eat five helpings of vegetables has had on obesity and health. It would also mean that progress in neurotechnology had ground to a halt before 2005. In 20 years we should have far easier alternatives.

Since I first started standing on my head and staring at candles back in the mid-1970s, meditation has never come easily. My legs fall asleep, my mind wanders and my resolve flew out the window when I had children. Now the occasional sit on a cushion is just a painful reminder of my slide into householder somnolence.

Instead I am consumed with the much more mundane spiritual challenges of the householder life: how to be more patient, vigorous, attentive and ethical, and how not to lose perspective when you are shuttling from the treadmill to work to Little League to dinner to bed.

In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition both the fully enlightened person and the person aspiring to discover their enlightened personality are called the bodhisattva. A whole disquisition could be given on how the supernatural aspects attributed to buddhas and bodhisattvas over the ages sound remarkably like the superpowers of the posthumans we transhumanists want everyone to become. Things like multiplying your personality into myriad forms, and then pulling it back together, or flying around on a moon-disk in a heavenly realm making fun of the narcotized lotus eaters by playing tricks with their space-time.

But I don’t want to go there. Instead I want to talk about the six personality traits or virtues that the Mahayana tradition teaches the bodhisattva should cultivate on the path to greater perfection. These traits are known as paramitas, usually translated as “perfections” although the literal meaning is “to reach the opposite shore.” They are generosity, skillful ethical behavior, patience, energy, concentration and wisdom. How will technologies facilitate our cultivation of these paramitas, and what questions do technologically assisted personality perfection raise?


Let’s start with generosity.

There is substantial evidence that basic motivations such as selfishness, empathy and the willingness to contribute to collective endeavors have a genetic component. Even if we don’t give credence to the idea of a genetically determined impulse to selfless behavior—which is better, anyway, for building a case for nepotism and racism than a case for universal generosity—there are some basic neurological prerequisites of compassion and social contractual thinking. You need to be aware of your own sufferings, be able to imagine that other people suffer the same way you do, and then be able to put yourself in their shoes so convincingly that you are motivated to give up some of your time or treasure to help. Or at least, you need to be cognitively complex enough to imagine a social contract, with general reciprocity, to be motivated by the belief that the more people act generously, the better everything will be.

Debate about whether primates and cetaceans exhibit altruistic feelings and behaviors still rages, and some humans appear to be congenitally incapable of altruistic or empathetic feelings. One of the benefits of genetic and nanoneural therapies will be to enable humans with these cognitive disabilities (and perhaps some animals?) to participate in transhuman moral and emotional society.

Beyond the simple capacity to feel empathy and be motivated by moral reasoning, research also shows that human personalities can be described as a mix of five basic characteristics, all of which are stable across one’s life and appear therefore to be genetically or prenatally determined. These five are Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. One of the “five-factor” researchers, Kerry Jang at the University of British Columbia, has found that agreeableness or sociability, and associated beliefs and attitudes, are especially strongly influenced by genes. People who score high on sociability are more compassionate, trusting and helpful throughout their lives while people low in sociability will find it hard not to be uncooperative, unsympathetic and easily irritated regardless of how much they meditate and think loving thoughts. So a gene-tweak might be around the corner to make people more likely to want to help others.

We might, however, expect some resistance from those who don’t want a more generous and compassionate society—people conservative with compassion, so to speak—since Jang also finds these personality traits related to political attitudes. For instance, people who inherit high sociability are more likely to favor gender equality and open-door policies for immigrants.

So it seems quite likely that within a couple of decades we will have ways of enhancing our generosity, selflessness and empathy, genetically, pharmaceutically, nanoneurally and with information technology. We may be able to take a gene tweak to increase our natural Ecstasy production, without the dehydration, and another to improve our “emotional intelligence.” We can provide our children and ourselves with electronic superegos, reminding us of our personal moral code, pointing out lapses, or even subtly adjusting our motivations and feelings so that we act more selflessly and generously.

Skillful ethical behavior

Which brings us to skillful ethical behavior. This starts with not unintentionally doing ourselves or other people harm by paying close attention to the effects we have on the world, and controlling our behaviors that cause harm. The five commandments of the Buddhist ethical code are to avoid killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct and intoxicants. The first four because they tend to hurt other people, and the last because they make it harder to keep yourself from doing things that hurt yourself and others.

So there are two initial components of ethical behavior, attention and self-control, and we already have therapies and technologies to enhance both. For people with attention problems, we have Ritalin and other stimulants, and new designer versions with fewer side-effects. Researchers think that about 5% to 10% of kids and 3% of adults have attention deficit disorder severe enough to benefit from stimulants, but I would put that number much higher. Studies show that stimulants often improve attention and productivity when children and adults who don’t fit in the ADD diagnostic category take them, which makes the bio-Luddites really anxious about stimulant therapy sliding over into enhancement medicine. But anyone who has seen the remorse of a hyperactive kid who has just whacked his sister with a hammer because he “wasn’t paying attention” can imagine the potential benefits to society if people could pay attention well enough that they stopped hurting others unintentionally.

The only real argument for not allowing everybody to take Ritalin is that there are some very rare side-effects. In the Zen tradition it is said that the first tea plants in China grew when the founder of the Zen school, Bodhidharma, tore off his own eyelids and threw them out of his cave in frustration at his sleepiness during meditation. So I think it’s safe to say that the Buddhist tradition is willing to trade some clinical risk for attentiveness. But even if we reserve Ritalin for the clinically ADD we can assume that there will soon be cognitive enhancers that will safely improve everyone’s ability to pay better attention to their thoughts, speech and actions.

Increased attention doesn’t do much good, however, if selfish and violent impulses are stronger than our self-will. Once you see the potential negative impulse in your mind, do you have the willpower to stop it, or does it overpower you, despite your meditative efforts? Cognitive therapies also promise to give us some emotional control. For instance, we currently have increasingly powerful antidepressants and antipsychotics that keep us from developing an impulse to harm ourselves or others.

Another powerful cognitive therapy is suppression of that notorious toxin, testosterone. Suppressing testosterone, either through castration or hormone treatments, dramatically reduces repeat offenses in sex offenders, while significantly enhancing the victimizer’s quality of life, no longer plagued by violent and shameful thoughts. Castration is also a demonstrated life extender for men, and one of the more extreme body modifications growing in popularity.

The Buddhist tradition appears to frown on castration, as eunuchs are barred from ordination. But Jesus appears to encourage castration for Christian men of stout heart. In Matthew 19:10-12, where the disciples ask if it is okay to marry, Jesus replies: “All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”

So perhaps, at least for Christians, testosterone suppression could be one of the technological assists for ethical behavior.


So if we could engender empathy, pay attention to what we’re doing, and control or suppress impulses to do harm, we’re halfway to ethical behavior. The other half is actually knowing enough about the world to predict the consequences of your actions. In order to avoid compassionately screwing up other people’s lives, the bodhisattva masters upaya, or skill in the liberation of others. Upaya requires the combination of intellect, insight and compassion and is achieved through both personal good works and civic engagement.

One of the ways that bodhisattvas exercise upaya is by building utopian pure lands, perfect realms that encourage people to grow instead of lulling them into the static complacence of the country club heavens. Pure lands are societies where everyone has access to sufficient material comfort, personal freedom, social stability, spiritual community and neurotechnology to pursue enlightenment, and where personal growth is more entertaining than spending all day in VR teledramas or thumbing the bliss switch.

Making our world a pure land requires an understanding of how both the natural and social worlds work, and facility in manipulating both. Both education and cognitive enhancement improve the understanding part, while our posthuman powers will enable us to do even more good in society.


Which brings us to patience. Sometimes I say that my principal spiritual discipline since becoming a parent has been learning to remain patient with my children, and dealing with my all too frequent fits of rage.

Apparently, the key technology in Scientology is a biofeedback device that measures your galvanic skin response while your “auditor” insults and provokes you. When the auditor can no longer get a flutter or bead of sweat from calling you a short, fat, middle-aged pseudo-intellectual wanker pretending to lead a nonexistent worldwide movement of geeky guys who wanna live on the Starship Enterprise, with a budget smaller than the candle fund at the local church, then you graduate. But before you get to go to the next level of wallet emptying, I think they should bring in the auditees’ kids and have them pour crap on the floor, refuse to pick it up, and then scream, “I hate you” when you insist.

Anyway, I certainly hope that drugs or something will help with patience in the future. Mommy’s and daddy’s little helpers of the past—liquor, pot and tranquilizers—may help with patience but they have that unfortunate side-effect of robbing us of attentiveness and energy.


I stopped smoking pot in college because it robbed me of motivation. Even if the Universe is simply a contingent, empty, meaningless void, and there is no point in going to work or school or doing anything at all, the point is to get out there and pretend there is a point.

Did I mention Prozac yet? I’ve never been clinically depressed, but it’s all a continuum. We’ve all had a taste of paralyzing black despair. The really interesting thing about depression is that people are less likely to commit suicide when they are in the midst of depression than when they are coming out of a depressive episode. When they are depressed they don’t have the energy to kill themselves.

Modern Buddhists have given some thought to the question of whether Prozac is spiritual cheating, a narcotic that dulls reality. If the accepting that all life is suffering is wisdom then isn’t a happy drug a distraction, an intoxication? The general conclusion is that depression is very different from recognizing a ubiquitous unsatisfactoriness to existence. Antidepressants are precisely the opposite of narcotics: they facilitate having sufficient energy to actually get on with life and growth. Yes, you should try to be depressed Buddha when you are depressed, just like you should try to be Buddha-being-eaten-by-shark when you are being eaten by a shark, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the pill or get in the lifeboat.


Most of the current “smart drugs,” developed as therapies for dementia, offer only marginal benefits for concentration for healthy people. The best mindfulness aid of the current pharmacopoeia is the new wonder drug Provigil (modafanil), which makes possible 20 hour days of high productivity and lucidity with no side-effects. Perhaps in a century we’ll say that Provigil was cultured from Bodhidharma’s toenails.

If we have to sleep, and perchance to dream, then let’s strap on a dream machine that helps us dream lucidly, spending all that wasted sleep time writing sonnets or getting to know our subconscious. Life extension through reclamation of that one third spent in the little death.

One disturbing depiction of a future concentration technology is the “Focus” described in Vernor Vinge’s novel A Deepness in the Sky. In that novel, slavers selectively damage the brains of those with cognitive talents so that they are only interested in, and become superhumanly focused on, their given tasks. Vinge was inspired by the savant abilities of some autists.

But what if we were able to turn on and off those abilities ourselves at will? Twist that inner knob and you’re laser focused on that candle or orgasm or mind-numbing committee meeting for as long as it takes.

If we can figure out some way to shrink transcranial magnetic stimulators (TMS) down from Mr. Roboto-size to yarmulke-size we might already have Focus, or something close. Allan Snyder, a researcher at the University of Sydney, has been doing research with TMS and has demonstrated that selectively turning off parts of the brain can create temporary savant abilities. So far he has mostly demonstrated the ability to turn on creativity by stopping the brain from screwing up the Flow with left brain kibitzing. But how far behind can the suppression of distractibility be?


It is one of our most trenchant and intractable truisms that intelligence is not accompanied by wisdom. We are also constantly told that technology is outpacing our wisdom. Is there any way in which technology—practical scientific intelligence—may facilitate acquiring wisdom?

The specific term used for wisdom here is prajna. Prajna in the Buddhist tradition is the synthesis of discursive, intellectual analysis with the mental clarity and fearlessness of spacious mind. Like carving ice sculptures with a buzz saw in a large, well-lit room.

One of the consequences of such fearless wisdom turned on one’s own mind is the realization that there is no self. I’ve argued this point more elaborately elsewhere, but in short I believe that the combination of life extension technology with nanoneurotechnology will permit us to expand our minds, migrate our consciousnesses to new platforms and bodies and live long enough to tire of carrying around our accumulating karmic baggage. At some point I think it will be natural for posthumans to let go of their neurotic need for personal, isolated continuity in return for a more complex, celebratory, collective continuity, sharing their dreams, feelings, memories and thoughts with the rest of networked humanity through the Psychic Kazaa or public library. We will pour our little cup of experience and intelligence into the ocean and give it a vigorous stir.

Or maybe we will just taste Transcension and then intentionally hold onto embodiment and some internal simulation of Reality 1.0 in order to communicate with the uplifted rabbits and toasters who haven’t become Jupiter brains yet. Which is, after all, the vow of the bodhisattva: To forestall the Transcension of nirvana in order to stay in the world and

  • Liberate all beings, although they remain numberless.
  • Exhaust all mental impurities, although they remain inexhaustible.
  • Master all wisdom, although wisdom is immeasurable.
  • Attain the Way, although it is unattainable.

Closing thought

I’m currently working on a book on this question of cyborg Buddhism, and so I’ve been anticipating some of the responses it is likely to receive. Some of that dialogue involves the culling out of the essential humanist and rationalist aspects of Buddhism from the cultural and superstitious chaff. If it doesn’t make any difference if you chant in English or Pali, or use a cushion or a chair, it shouldn’t really make any difference if we take Provigil instead of drink green tea to stay awake.

But there is one Buddho-Luddite objection that I think is cogent, and it goes to the heart of our transhumanist rejection of the myth of authenticity. In Kass et al.‘s Beyond Therapy, Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future and Sandel’s “The Case Against Perfection,” the authors argue that enhancement technologies will rob us of a sense of accomplishment, an idea I have frequently rubbished, asking if diabetics shouldn’t therefore feel more virtuous if they control their blood sugar without insulin.

But there is some truth in the concern. Mountain climbers do feel different about getting to the summit if they take a helicopter. There will also be an experiential difference between instantly achieving enlightenment as part of an operating system upgrade, rather than spending years in community with fellow seekers, talking about your life, your struggles, and sitting on a cushion mastering the drunken monkey of mind.

Perhaps the compensation will be that we see new horizons of wisdom and insight from those new plateaus, heights that still require some kind of long slog. Or perhaps some of us will still choose to participate in spiritual slog just as people still like to ride horses even though they have cars.

The point is, of course, that the slog will be voluntary. For those who don’t feel the need to slog, generosity, patience, self-control, energy and even wisdom will be easily available. The world will have to be a better place when this is the case.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)

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