Since the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT earlier this year, there has been a media frenzy – with AI suddenly becoming of mainstream interest and concern. In this episode, I spoke with Peter Hershock, a prolific scholar trained in Asian and comparative philosophy, who has had a long-term interest in the ethical dimensions of our relationship with technology. His latest book, Buddhism and Intelligent Technology: Toward a More Humane Future, is another example of Peter’s creative and penetrating way of approaching a very complex subject – where he draws from the deep well of Buddhist thought – with its rich histories of cultivating ethical intelligences, grounded in attention training, an understanding of karma, and the importance of developing a responsive virtuosity – for the purposes of eliminating value conflicts and suffering. Our conversation sheds light on why we need to see the ethical issues surrounding AI as a demand for more enhanced human capacities of predicament resolution, not as mere technocratic problems to be solved. Resolving such values conflicts, Peter tells us, requires clarity in understanding how we got to where we are, and a commitment to be present as in order to respond to in ways that are superlative – an improvisational.
We touch on a number of themes – why we should view AI more as a synthetic form of intelligence - which can helps us to see with more clarity how our own wants and desires are feeding a karmic loop, in effecting colonizing our consciousness; how our reliance on so-called smart services could inadvertently have unintended consequences in the forfeiture of our own social intelligence and capacities for open creativity and embodied presence – and much more.
Peter Hershock, Ph.D. is Director of the Asian Studies Development Program (ASDP) at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. Dr. Hershock is also the Director of the Center’s initiative on Humane Artificial Intelligence, with a focus on the societal impacts and ethical issues raised by emerging technologies. Trained in Asian and comparative philosophy, his research and writing draw on Buddhist conceptual resources to reflect on and address contemporary issues of global concern. His books include: Liberating Intimacy: :Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in Ch'an Buddhism(1996); Reinventing the Wheel: A Buddhist Response to the Information Age (1999); Buddhism in the Public Sphere: Reorienting Global Interdependence (2006); Valuing Diversity: Buddhist Reflection on Realizing a More Equitable Global Future (2012); Public Zen/Personal Zen: A Buddhist Introduction (2014); Value and Values: Economics and Justice in an Age of Global Interdependence (edited, 2015); and Philosophies of Place: An Intercultural Conversation (2019).
Could it be the case that the Western Buddhists have lost touch with the radical questioning and the transformative power of transcendence? Has the focus on meditation, the mimicking of South Asian monastics with the necessity of engaging in long and austere silent retreats, and the dominant materialist view that Buddhism is a “science of mind” created an ecology that is elitist and exclusionary? Will worshipping at the secular alter with its fMRI brain scans satisfy our yearnings for transcendence? Is stress-reduction, neuro self-optimization and vague notions of individualistic ‘happiness’ and so-called “human flourishing” among the Secular Buddhist all we can expect from Buddhism modernism?
What if -- rather than science and psychology -- that the arts may a more fruitful path and gateway for us in the West to engage with the Transcendent, to rediscover our true nature, or what Paul Tillich called our “infinite passions” and the “joy of creative communion”? Rather than celebrating the mainstreaming of mindfulness as it has accommodated itself to the needs of capitalist ideology, can we engage in a politics of refusal and reclaim Buddhism as a countercultural force in the modern world?
These thought-provoking questions are the subject of Curtis White’s new book, Transcendent: Art and Dharma in a Time of Collapse, published by Melville House. In this episode, Curtis White dives deep into these questions, showing us why the 60’s counter-culture was so open and receptive to Buddhism and it felt so familiar as if something lost was being returned to us. Curtis argues that our own native traditions – from the English Romantic poets to the American transcendentalists – were forms of social transcendence that opposed the alienating effects of rationalism, science and industry – social movements that were not only aesthetic, but liberative. Our conversation was wide-ranging – from trashing the Davos crowd to appreciating Blues music, to the wrathful compassion and performative enactment of comedy embodied in George Carlin, to the spiritual transcendence of a Vermeer painting – White shows us how our everyday world is where transcendence is always available and that we can play to be free and how art can model that freedom.
Curtis White spent most of his career has writing experimental fiction, and was formerly a Professor of English at Illinois State University. He is the author of some 16 books, including such titles as Living in a World That Can’t Be Fixed, The Science Delusion, We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data. His essays have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Salon, the Village Voice, Tricycle, Orion, and In These Times. His newest book, Transcendent: Art and Dharma in a Time of Collapse was published by Melville House, 2023.
Our way of knowing seems seduced into seeing things – including ourselves as the self as the knower – as substantial. We believe and take for granted that the world is a myriad of things and objects, that the passage of time is real, and that we can rely on science to tell us how to live and what has meaning and value. Whether it’s our fascination with neuroscience or whether we are perpetual spiritual seekers, it seems the answers we find never seem to fully satisfy us. And that’s because we suffer from a fundamental and deeply rooted belief and set of assumptions that there is a substantial external world ‘out there’ and a substantially existing internal world ‘in here’ in its givenness as “I-me-mind-mind and my-self”.
This is what Zen Priest Steve Hagen calls "The Grand Delusion" – and it’s the topic of our conversation based on his book of the same title. Steve Hagen has been contemplating these deep existential questions and this great matter of liberation from delusion for nearly sixty years. Now semi-retired, Steve Hagen is founder of the Dharma Field Learning and Meditation Center in Minneapolis, and author not only of The Grand Delusion: What We Know But Don’t Believe (Wisdom, 2020) – but many other books, such as Buddhism Plain and Simple, Meditation Now or Never, Buddhism Is Not What You Think.
We cover a lot a difficult themes in this conversation, from how our modern worldview operates from unwarranted assumptions that perpetuates our belief in substantiality, to why our reliance on neuroscience to reveal the mysteries of the mind is a dead-end, to the challenge of using language to point out what cannot be grasped conceptually – and much more.
Roshi Steve Hagen continues to teach occasional courses at Dharma Field. Although Steve trained and received Dharma transmission in Soto Zen, he has no formal ties to any Zen or Buddhist hierarchy.
Richard Payne is the Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California and the Graduate Theological Union. I spoke with Richard about his new edited volume, Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition, published by Shambala. Our conversation explores how the discourse of secularization with its binary oppositions such as "religious" vs. "secular" are constructed categories that are influencing how modern people are understanding Secular Buddhism. Richard explains how the legacy of Protestant theological ideas are overlayed on what we now view as "modern" Buddhism, as well as how so-called "traditional" Buddhism is a response to such modernization.
In this episode I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Sarah Shaw, who is an Honorary fellow of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies; and lecturer for the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. We spoke about her new book, Mindfulness: Where It Comes From and What It Means – published in paperback by Shambala. This is a very accessible and very well researched book – and we explored the history of mindfulness as it first appeared in the English language, the important role of memory and the oral chanting tradition in early Buddhism – to the multiple functions of mindfulness. We also touch on the significance of the Abhidharma and Abhidharmakosha – and how mindfulness is situated and functions in these schools.
Sarah draws from her decade of practicing, researching, and teaching the history of mindfulness.
Sarah read Greek and English at Manchester University, where she took a doctorate in English. It was later in her career that she decided to study Pali at Oxford, and she has a deep interest in Early Buddhist (Pāli) suttas and Abhidhamma material on meditation, the Pali chanting traditions. In addition, Sarah practices with the Samatha Association of Britain.
In this episode, I was fortunate to speak to Gregory Kramer who is the founding teacher of the Insight Dialogue Community. Back in 2015, I invited Gregory to be one of the keynote speakers at an international conference that I organized on Mindfulness at SFSU. I knew of his work on Insight Dialogue. I recently stumbled upon his new book, A Whole-Life Path: A Lay Buddhist’s Guide to Crafting a Dharma-Infused Life, and I immediately knew that I had to have him on the podcast.
In this deep and free-flowing conversation, I explore with Gregory how he came to a pragmatic understanding and creative application of the Eight Fold Noble Path into his daily life. This conversation was itself a living example, perhaps a spontaneous unfolding in real-time of the power of dialogue – when the intention is turned to full awakening. We explore the importance of the first path factor – Right View – and why it is critical to getting all of the other path factors right. We also riff on how many Western Buddhists have acquired a wrong view – a meditation-fixation, a mindfulness-only approach to practice – that not only lacks a guiding Right View, but fails at integrating a small fraction of time that is spent in sitting meditation with their daily life.
We both get a little geeky at times pondering the meaning and implications of scriptural terms and teachings – but I think you will feel the intensity and dynamism of this down-to-earth conversation on the Buddhadharma. I think you will enjoy this episode very much. But first, a little more about Gregory Kramer.
Gregory teaches meditation, writes, and is the founding teacher of the Insight Dialogue Community. He is also author of Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, from Shambhala Publications; Dharma Contemplation: Meditating Together with Wisdom Texts; Seeding the Heart: Practicing Lovingkindness with Children; and other books and articles. Gregory has practiced meditation since 1974 and studied with esteemed monastics, including Anagarika Dhammadinna, Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Mahanayaka Thero, Achan Sobin Namto, Ven. Punnaji Mahathero, and others.
This conversation explores an obscure historical figure, Dhammaloka, who was perhaps one of the first Westerners ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1901 in British occupied Burma. Laurence Cox is co-author of The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk who Faced Down the British Empire, published by Oxford University Press. Based on ten year of archival research, it’s fascinating tale about the extraordinary life of this Irish working-class migrant worker, who was also a hobo and sailor, an anti-colonial activist and a devout defender of Buddhism against the onslaught of Christian missionaries and the British empire.
Laurence Cox is a long-time social movement activist and practicing Buddhist who has been involved in many different movement struggles in Ireland and internationally since the 1980s. He co-edits the activist/academic movement journal Interface, works with the Buddhist-based Ulex activist training centre in Catalonia and with low-impact child-friendly meditation retreats in SW England. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Ireland Maynooth and the author/editor of ten books and many other academic and activist pieces on social movements, revolutions, modern Buddhism and new religious movements, including Why Social Movements Matter; Buddhism and Ireland: from the Celts to the Counter-culture and Beyond; and Voices of 1968.
Titmuss was an ordained monk in Thailand, spending six years there from 1970 to 1976. During that time, he resided for three years in a monastery with Ajahn Dhammadharo, his Vipassana (Insight Meditation teacher) and Ajahn Buddhadasa.
Our conversation takes a deep dive into the themes in his insightful book, The Political Buddha. We explore just how central the role of critical inquiry is in the Dharma, Buddha’s position on wealth and war, the privatization of spirituality, corporate mindfulness, ethics and institutional change, and the importance of the community.
How many times have you heard people claim that Buddhism isn’t really a religion, that it’s a philosophy, a way of life, that its spiritual but not religious, or even that it’s a “science of mind”? These familiar tropes are a legacy of Buddhist Modernism, what Evan Thompson aptly has coined “Buddhist exceptionalism.” In this episode we explore these common claims, especially how they have been taken up by Secular Buddhists, mindfulness teachers and even scientists. We explore in this interview the historical reasons for why Buddhism has received special treatment, with its modernist claim that it is fundamentally different than Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism. We dive into the confused understandings of mindfulness meditation which has been portrayed as a privatized “inner telescope” to objectively view our interior minds (brains), along with the misguided attempt to map meditative experiences onto brain states and neural correlates (Neural Buddhism). Evan challenges the popular view that Buddhism is compatible with science, and that science can validate Buddhist insights. Drawing on his intimate friendship and collaboration with the late Francisco Varela (a key founder of the Mind & Life Institute) he takes aim at how the so-called Buddhism – Science “dialogue” has been one-sided and stifling of mutual learning.
Evan Thompson is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He writes about the mind, life, consciousness, and the self, from the perspectives of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and cross-cultural philosophy (especially Buddhism and other Indian philosophical traditions). As a teenager, Evan was home-schooled in Southampton, NY and Manhattan at the Lindisfarne Association, an educational and contemplative community founded by his parents, William Irwin Thompson and Gail Thompson. He received his A.B. in Asian Studies from Amherst College (1983) studying with Robert Thurman, and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Toronto (1990). Evan has been actively involved as one of the leading researchers and advisers for the Mind & Life Institute.
We spoke today with Evan about his new book, Why I Am Not A Buddhist, published by Yale University Press in 2020. He is the author of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (Columbia University Press, 2015); He is also the co-author with Francisco J. Varela and Eleanor Rosch, of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (MIT Press, 1991, revised edition 2016).