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A Buddhist Perspective on Faith and Technology

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In healthcare medical interventions can perform feats that in a different age would have been considered miracles. Medical technology saves lives. And yet the bewildering array of medical interventions can sometimes cause unintended consequences and paradoxically increase a patient’s pain and suffering. Similarly, I’m continually amazed at the breadth of valuable information and resources on the web, which just a few decades ago was unfathomable. To deepen my Buddhist practice I can quickly pull up accurate, free translations of the Pali Canon. And in an instant I can pull up the latest studies of neuroplasticity and mindfulness meditation. The internet deepens my practice as a Zen priest and makes me a better psychologist. Similarly, the near infinite potential of the internet can build communities, democratize information, and spread the healing waters of social justice throughout the world. Yet the internet can also be misused to rapidly spread false information, and facilitate cyber bullying, stalking, homophobia, and terrifying invasions of privacy. Thus we must be skillfully compassionate in our technological growth. The developments of many products in our recent past may have eased the stress in our lives in some ways but contributed to our stress in others. As our technological growth expands we must ask ourselves what is our intentionality? Are we expanding products to ease suffering and to make the world a better place? Or are we expanding technology because we are ensnared in mental delusions such as the ego, greed, or anger? Neurons that fire together wire together. It is easy for our brains to be conditioned in unskillful cognitive and emotional patterns. We can become addicted to things for addiction’s sake. When reflecting on intersections of faith and technology four Buddhist concepts come to mind: saddhā, facing reality, samsara and nirvana are one, and the practice of compassion. In the Pali Canon, the oldest Buddhist texts, there is perhaps no literal translation for the word faith. The closest Pali term is the word saddhā, which is often translated as confidence rooted in experience. Buddhism is a spiritual empiricism. As Buddhists, we like to follow the evidence directly wherever it takes us. Similarly, the term Buddha itself is accurately translated as a being who has awakened to the true nature of reality. We don’t want to labor under delusions, no matter how comfortable they may seem, we strive to face reality directly. Taking these first two concepts together, if we draw upon the data and face reality directly we see that technology is another manifestation of the phenomenon that samsara and nirvana are one. This means that suffering and joy can exist together, and technology has the potential to facilitate great suffering and great joy in the world. Buddhism shares the perspective of the seminal psychologist Carl Rogers, that human beings, if nurtured in the proper way, will blossom and flourish to their fullest potential. As a Buddhist priest and clinical psychologist I am a lover of science and research. Our skillful minds are our greatest resource as a species. I believe our technological advances can make the world a better place. The twin wings of enlightenment are wisdom and compassion. My aspiration is our collective wisdom and compassion will empower us to soar to heights that previously were only imaginable.