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Buddhism’s Teaching on the Five Elements: An Answer to Creating Friendly AGI?
Gareth John   Mar 6, 2016   Ethical Technology  

To start, I need to be specific about what Buddhism means in this context.

I suggest there is no such thing as ‘Buddhism’, but rather ‘Buddhisms’. There is little in common with Buddhism as taught in the Theravada (the earliest Buddhist teachings as based on those of Siddhartha Gautama - ‘the Buddha’), Zen, or the Tibetan tantric traditions. Although they all maintain the base of their teachings on the realisation of the Buddha, the methods they employ vary widely.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to take the angle as promulgated by the Dzogchen tradi-tion, mainly because it was the perspective from which I was taught and also because its teach-ings on the five elements is most pertinent to the argument I offer here.

Dzogchen means ‘Great Perfection’ and is the pinnacle of teaching within the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Simply put, Dzogchen is the practice of enlightenment itself and as such is based on a single precept: be aware. Awareness here refers to our natural state, devoid of dual-ities such as good and bad, right or wrong, stillness or movement. Of special note is that this refers to the reality of who we are - we are not creating or searching for anything special - we simply rest in the state of non-dual being which is our birthright.

The paradox is that this is both simple and incredibly difficult to maintain, so Dzogchen employs methods that help us to remain present, relaxed and alert as well as methods from other Bud-dhist traditions, especially tantra, according to how we find ourselves in the moment. One set of methods employed is that of the five elements and that is what I would like to explore here.

Dzogchen asserts that our actual reality is that of inherently vast, boundless and primordial space (emptiness) within which form arises and disperses and within which all manifestations become the ornaments of spontaneous presence; experienced as purely appropriate, natural, uncontrived, and free. Form here refers to everything we experience - physicality, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, intellect - the whole gamut of what we believe to be the ‘real world’. Space is everything that is not form. Space is unmoving, whereas all form moves, often alluded to as the waves that come and go on the surface of the vast stillness that is the ocean. The trick is to rest in space and allow form to arise and dissipate into it without becoming attached to the entic-ing movement.

One method to help one accomplish this is the teaching of the five elements. According to this approach, the dance of emptiness and form can be experienced in terms of five major states of being that are always equal in their essential pure state. It is not possible to divide the elements, because they are completely interdependent; they are indivisible. We only refer to them as if they were separate, in order to understand something about enlightenment and unenlighten-ment; as if enlightenment and unenlightenment were two different things.

The five elements are earth, water, fire, air and space. Note that whilst space is the vast limit-less from which the other elements arise from and return to, in this teaching it too can be expe-rienced directly as an element in its own right.

The Dzogchen approach to the elements is to view each of them as a brilliant pattern of ener-gies, a spectrum of possibilities that opens up the capacity for us to experience the open dimen-sion of what we are at any and every moment. The starting point is to realise that the limitless space that is our actual being is vast, still and infinite. Form, on the other hand, is fleeting, entic-ing and ultimately disappointing - as much as we try to cling to it, it disappears. Space, from the perspective of our distorted (unenlightened) being, is scary. It signifies a complete and utter ref-erencelessness, whilst form allows us the illusion that we are, in fact, solid, permanent, sepa-rate, continuous and defined beings. Thus we spend our lives chasing after form in the belief that it will consolidate our sense of ‘selves’ when in fact it will do just the opposite.

Space sparkles through the fabric of our being all the time and we don’t like it when it does equating it with ceasing to ‘be’. When it does, we react to it in five main ways according to our perception of it as a threat to our existence, and the distorted coping strategy we employ in or-der to deal with that threat. If we could just learn to relax and accept space we find that it reveals another way of relating to pain. We realise that if we do not tie our sensation of pain to the crite-ria of establishing our own existence, our pain dissolves. This approach leads us to discover other, more appropriate and ecstatic ways of dealing with the world and our place in it. We find at every moment that we have the capacity to experience the open dimension of who we really are.

What follows is a brief overview of the five elements. Firstly our distorted perception of space as it sparkles through the fabric of our being, followed by our coping strategy for dealing with that to consolidate our send of self and why it never works, and finally the natural consequences of ac-cepting space into our lives and learning to relax in in each moment where form and emptiness can be viewed as ornaments of being, rather than brick walls.

Earth: When we perceive space flickering through the fabric of being we experience it as a sense of insubstantiality, of lack. To cope, we attempt to use form to build territory, to collect things be they physical objects or thoughts, emotions, intellectual faculties - we surround ourselves with as much form as we can to protect us from the fear that we are not solid be-ings. The problem is that the more territory we build, the larger the boundary we have to pro-tect, so we just have to keep on building. If we could just relax into space in the present moment, we would experience the liberated energy of the earth element as the glorious warmth and wealth of earth which is inexhaustible and free to whomever needs it. In other words, generosity and equanimity.

Water: When we perceive space flickering through the fabric of being we experience it as a sense of fear of a direct threat to our sense of permanency. To cope, we attempt to use form to lash out, to proactively protect ourselves by aggression and anger. The problem is that the more aggressive we are, the more aggressive behaviour we encounter from others, or indeed ourselves, so we just have to become more and more angry. If we could just relax in-to space in the present moment, we would discover that non-dual anger is unconditioned clarity. It is displayed by the brilliance and calmness of water. The undisturbed surface of water perfectly mirrors the sky; the crystal clarity of undisturbed water seems incapable of bias or distortion.

Fire: When we perceive space flickering through the fabric of being we experience it as a sense of utter aloneness, of separation and isolation. To cope, we attempt to use form to satisfy our demand for union with the world; to connect with things be they physical objects or thoughts, emotions, intellectual faculties. We merge with as much form as we can to pro-tect us from the fear that we are in some way separated from other beings. This is not the building of territory like the earth element. This is pure acquisitiveness; we have no interest in collecting form, simply utilising it to prove to ourselves that we are not alone. The problem is that once we’ve united with something or someone, we’re left on our own again. So we have to seek more form and become ever more excessive. If we could just relax into space in the present moment, we realise that we do not have to seduce the world - every activity leaves us free of reference points as objects of desire and thus transforms all that craving in-to compassion.

Air: When we perceive space flickering through the fabric of being we experience it as a sense of fear, but unlike water, this is fear of an unknown threat. Something is out to get us, we just don’t know what. To cope, we attempt to use form as reference points for our sense of dread - we become paranoid and suspicious of all that goes on around us. The problem is that the more paranoid we become, the more threatening the world seems to become. We become evermore fearful that everything is out to get us, to somehow devour our sense of ourselves as continuous beings. If we could just relax into space in the present moment, we would ex-perience the liberated energy of the air element as the wisdom of self-fulfilling activity, free of all hindrances. We can pacify what needs to be pacified. We can enrich what needs to be enriched. We can magnetise what needs to be magnetised. We can destroy what needs to be destroyed. Our activities are self-accomplished; their completion is implicit in their inception.

Space: When we perceive space - viewed here as an element in its own right - flickering through the fabric of being we experience it as a sense of overwhelming nothingness; a blank, cold void devoid of any reference points whatsoever. To cope, we attempt to use form to obliterate the terror before us. We shut down our sense fields and retreat into ourselves in order to blank out the nihilistic abyss before we become forever lost in it. In other words, we become agonisingly depressed. The problem is that the more we box ourselves in, the more overwhelming and terrifying everything seems outside the box and so we just have to bur-row in ever deeper. If we could just relax into space in the present moment, we would expe-rience the liberated energy of the space element as finding mind to be a limitless ocean of vastness that allows the dualistic knot of panic to untie itself. Experiencing this space, we make a brilliant discovery: being referenceless is not death. It is, in fact, ubiquitous wisdom and liberated intelligence.

The five elements then, whose liberated qualities of generosity, clarity, compassion, self-fulfilling activity and ubiquitous wisdom, define the character of a Buddha. If we accept that these en-lightened energies result in a truly wise and benevolent entity, might it not be a good idea to try to imbue our fledgling AGI with just these very conditions?

If the Dzogchen approach to awakening liberated being is right, I think it would be a great idea, not just for the AGI itself, but for all of us. Our AGI would indeed be friendly - not just to us but to all sentient beings. And it would want to share that enraptured non-dual experience with all of us. Separate yet inseparable, we could continue on our transhumanist adventure remaining unique as individuals, whilst participating in a glorious shared experience of unlimited wisdom, compassion and bliss.

AGI as Buddha? I can think of worse things.

Gareth John lives in Mid Wales; he’s an ex-Buddhist priest with a MA in Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol, and has performed studies on non-monastic traditions of Tibetan tantric Buddhism.


The beauty of all this is that the Great Emptiness is achievable as it exists [in my case] right between my ears. Great article.

almostvoid: Thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed it!

g3reth [a KosmiK Code no doubt] & your articles. I am a non-buddhist sort of into the no-thing-ness-thing that they are into. your articles extremely well researched and none of this cloying drippy new-age-syrup to ruin a great topic. shred the void. let it rip. don’t stop

Cheers almostvoid. Having said that, I don’t think the article clearly made my point - I spent a little too long on the Buddhism, maybe not enough on the AI. I’ve updated it a bit in conversation elsewhere to try and clarify my position. I guess what I was trying to get at was that the idea of the Singularity (should you believe in such a thing) means we reach a point beyond which we do not know what will happen. I’m not sure AGI has to be understood as binary - an all-omniscient godlike being who will automatically solve all of our problems for us or evil dictator who disregards humanity’s worth with potentially catastrophic results. Who’s to say that our fledgling AGI will not seek to collaberate with, even seek guidance from us? Were that to be the case, I would argue that exploring the qualities mentioned in the article would be far preferable than those of, say, Pol Pot or the Third Reich. I don’t believe Buddhism is necessary to the creation of friendly AI, just throwing out a thought experiment in the hope that I’ll learn something. I’d like to think that’s what our AI would do also. I try to follow my (admittedy somewhat idiosyncratic) Zen teacher’s advice: Seek neither brilliance nor the void; just think deeply and work hard. I’m not sure I always get it right, but I’m okay with that. Even when things don’t turn out quite like you’d like them to, it’s nice to know there are people out there to whom they speak regardless. So I’ll keep shredding and ripping, hopefully for some time yet! And I have to thank IEET for giving me the opportunity.

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