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The Gator

The student news site of Brimmer and May School | Chestnut Hill, MA

The Gator

The student news site of Brimmer and May School | Chestnut Hill, MA

The Gator

Do Android Monks Dream of Electric Buddha?

Here is the image depicting a serene and historical Shaolin Temple setting, where traditional Zen elements blend with futuristic AI technology.

If you’ve ever delved into the worlds of Mortal Kombat or Overwatch, enjoyed a Bruce Lee film, or fostered an interest in Chinese kung fu, then the Shaolin Temple, nestled in the dense jungle of Shaolin Mountain in the hinterland of Mt. Song, might be familiar to you. This temple, which has become a symbol of martial and spiritual traditions in popular culture, stands as a testament to ancient practices that continue to inspire and intrigue.

My own connection with the Shaolin Temple began in childhood, rooted in deep admiration for the Shaolin monks. A visit to this revered place revealed more than just the iconic kung fu; it was a window into the world of Chinese Buddhism. The Temple lives by a profound philosophy: “To understand Taoism, one must first understand Zen.” Here, the focus is on direct experience and personal enlightenment—rather than on theoretical knowledge or the study of scriptures.

本来无一物 Fundamentally there is not a single thing

This philosophy is particularly striking in today’s world, where the buzz of technology is in stark contrast to the tranquility of Shaolin. The emergence of AI-driven tools like ChatGPT, launched on November 30, 2022, highlights the rapid advancement in technology, a far cry from the simplicity embraced by the monks of Shaolin. These developments, while transformative, pose philosophical challenges to a way of life that has traditionally shunned worldly complexities.

Yet, even as many Chinese temples begin to integrate technology, the intersection of Shaolin’s ancient wisdom with modern innovation raises profound questions. In an information-driven society, how does spirituality evolve? This ongoing dialogue between the past and the present, symbolized by the Shaolin Temple’s enduring legacy, continues to shape our understanding of the relationship between tradition and progress.

何处染尘埃 Where could any dust be attracted?

On November 30, 2022, far from the serene surroundings of Shaolin Temple, in the bustling urban landscapes dotted with skyscrapers and busy streets, a significant development in the AI revolution occurred. Tech leaders unveiled ChatGPT, an AI-powered natural language processing tool, sparking widespread interest and discussions in the realm of artificial intelligence.

However, ChatGPT represents just one facet of AI’s integration into our daily lives. We’ve grown familiar with technologies like facial recognition on smartphones and autonomous vehicles, evidencing AI’s pervasive presence. In contrast, the monks of Shaolin Temple, guided by their traditional beliefs, remain more detached from this information-centric society, opting not to fully embrace these technological advancements.

Although numerous temples in China have adapted to modern times by permitting monks to use electronic devices, this integration raises questions about external influences on traditional practices. As such, when monks encounter AI technology, it leads to contemplation about the future direction of the world in this new technological era.

相看两不厌 Never tired of looking at each other

On November 2, 2023, coinciding with the Guanyin Festival, a significant Buddhist celebration, Shaolin Temple’s Abbot Shi Yongxin visited Meta’s headquarters in San Francisco. During an in-person sharing session, he discussed the remarkable potential when “Zen meets AI,” highlighting the fusion of ancient Eastern Zen philosophy with the advanced artificial intelligence of the 21st century.

Here is an image depicting a futuristic vision of the Shaolin Temple, where traditional martial arts and Zen practices are seamlessly integrated with advanced technology. (DALL-E)

On Facebook, Yongxin first talked about the nature of Zen Buddhism.

“Zen seeks spiritual awakening,” Yongxin writes. “Its practice primarily emphasizes genuine cultivation and validation, unbounded by any knowledge, logic, thinking, or even consciousness, and is a manifestation of enlightenment wisdom.”

For Chinese Buddhist monks, even in the face of the many temptations of modern society, they still need to maintain a pure soul that is not bound or compelled. This may sound like a harsh code to impose on followers, but it is not bad advice for students. In such an age of information technology, young people are faced with many challenges and compulsions. If our minds are always restless, we will not be able to truly focus on our studies.

Yongxin then asked a question about AI and gave his answer: Can technological progress replace moral and ethical advancement?

“I cannot possess the awakening and consciousness preached by Zen,” Yongxin writes. “In the face of AI, humans should maintain clarity of mind and seek inner enlightenment and transcendental wisdom. enlightenment and transcendental wisdom, as advocated by Zen.”

This profound question teaches us many lessons. No matter how powerful AI becomes it will never be able to truly think as deeply as humans do. At its current stage, AI is a tool developed and informed by human intelligence. However, excessive reliance on AI, particularly driven by laziness, can lead to a situation where our intelligence and spirit become confined, limited to our own selves instead of exploring and expanding beyond.

But at the same time, Yongxin also said that AI still has a role to play.

“Together, they (Zen wisdom and AI) can build a platform for communication, allowing the public to immerse themselves in experiencing the culture of Shaolin’s Zen, martial arts, medicine, and arts,” Yongxin writes.

血肉苦痛,机械飞升?Flesh and blood suffering, mechanical ascension?

But what if technology progresses to a point where society embraces technological body modifications, such as implanting computer chips to augment brain power? While this scenario may seem distant in the 21st century, humanity’s contemplation of religion and the future persists. How would Buddhists react to such advancements? Should they completely reject these developments, or accept them as inevitable?

This quandary reflects the broader narrative of the intersection between spirituality and technology. Through various literary works, we witness the fluctuating presence and influence of Buddhism within the realm of the cyber world, illustrating the complex relationship between ancient beliefs and modern innovations.

Here is an image that creatively combines body modification technology with the art of the Shaolin Temple. (DALL-E)

In the video game “Cyberpunk 2077,” extensive body remodeling is prevalent among humans. Despite this, Buddhist monks, clad in their moksha attire, adhere to their traditional beliefs. They view body modification as a surrender to earthly temptations, indicative of a moral fall and loss of heart. The natural human form of these moksha-clad monks would be far removed from technologically modified bodies.

In one of the protagonist’s experiences, he saves the younger of a pair of monk brothers. Unfortunately for the monk, he has already been subjected to prosthetic body modification by other gangs. Contrary to what we might expect, the monk brother does not alienate his brother who has become a reformed human being, and the brother still meditates every day and continues his monastic practice.

This gives us a chance to think, does the transformation of the body mean the transformation of the soul? I believe this full metal monk tells us the answer is no. For him, the prosthetic body is just a tool to help with life, and as long as the mind remains pure, he will eventually succeed in his practice.

But this does not mean that it is absolutely right to pursue physical pleasures. It is human nature to relax when necessary, and no one can afford not to eat, drink or sleep. This monk reminds us that worldliness is not the original sin; it is sinking that is the worst enemy.

Maintaining pure hearts, performing good deeds, and being virtuous individuals ensure that human wisdom continues to illuminate our world—even centuries into the future.

Many today opt for a life deeply entrenched in materialism, to the point where they become unable to free themselves, taking pride in their immersion in worldly pleasures while neglecting the pursuit of spiritual tranquility. This isn’t a matter of unavailability, but a conscious choice. As Monk Yisroel suggests, our physical possessions—like clothes, jewelry, and electronic devices—do not inherently prevent us from discovering life’s deeper meanings. Echoing a Zen master’s wisdom, he points out that one can perceive the entire world in a single grain of sand. Yet, many choose to close their eyes and dull their senses, thereby cutting off their spiritual connection to the world.

不敢高声语 Dare not speak loudly

Louis (Haochen) Zhu ’25 is a devoted monk, also believes that everything in existence has its own purpose.

“AI represents a powerful tool for preserving knowledge, particularly useful in the context of Buddhism’s complex texts, which can be challenging for many to comprehend deeply,” Zhu said. “AI has the potential to facilitate a better understanding of Buddhist teachings and philosophies. The recent dialogue between the Shaolin Temple’s abbot and AI can be viewed as a significant step in promoting and modernizing Buddhist culture.

But Louis also mentioned that human beings can’t completely rely on AI.

“If AI can be a good helper for Buddhist believers, we’d better stop there,” Louis said. “The wisdom of Buddhism ultimately needs to be understood, enlightened and carried forward by humans. aI can be a friend, but we can’t treat it as a savior on the path of cultivation.”

Louis also talked about his views on righteousness and modern technology.

“Buddhism is about for the spiritual pursuit, the simpler the physical body, the better,” Louis said. “In modern society, it’s common to use technology to improve the quality of life, but we can’t just focus on fulfilling selfish desires. Otherwise, it is easy to fall into deadly temptations and forget the peace of the spiritual world. Drugs are a good example.”

恐惊天上人 for fear of frightening the heavens

Should Buddhists evolve into androids, AI could assume the role of an “all-knowing” Electric Buddha. However, this technological advancement does not imply the disappearance of the spiritual realm. Instead, maintaining pure hearts, performing good deeds, and being virtuous individuals ensure that human wisdom continues to illuminate our world—even centuries into the future.

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About the Contributors
James Yu
James Yu, Senior Journalist
James came to Brimmer in 2022 and joined The Gator in 2023. He has a great interest in current international affairs, politics, and economics. In his free time, he is passionate about translation, debate, video game theory, and role-playing.

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