Buddhism and technological mysticism

- through Sophie Solere

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Steve Jobs: From India to Zen

In 2018, Apple and Amazon passed the $1000 trillion mark in market capitalization. This figure gives an idea of ​​the power of the digital empire and the weight of Apple in the extension of generalized guidance technologies. The work of the co-founder of the apple brand (Steve Jobs) consisted in revealing the deep unity of human beings and technology. It has achieved this by reconciling an internal approach and an industrial action dedicated to bringing facilitation technologies closer to human beings.

The accomplishment of man

Steve Jobs envisioned the computer as “the most remarkable tool that man has ever constructed. It is the equivalent, he said, of a bicycle for the mind”. The metaphor hints at the liberating power accorded to technique. Today, the digital giants dream of amplifying the interactions between human beings and artificial networks so as to relieve human societies of many servitudes. This momentum owes a lot to our consent, to our fascination for new technologies and the facilities they provide. To speak of technological mysticism is to consider technology as the accomplishment of man.

The Indian experience

After reading theAutobiography of a Yogi of Paramahansa Yogananda and his association with the Hare Krishna movement, Jobs spent seven months in India with the aim of studying Indian wisdom. It is 1974. He travels to the North of the country in the hope of meeting Neem Karoli Baba, a saint known for his immense compassion. Unfortunately, Neem Karoli Baba died in September 1973. At the Kainchi Dham Ashram, Jobs discovered Indian mysticism in the form of the path of devotion and the tradition of chanting (“kirtans”) that accompanies it. His Indian experience will be decisive in his career.

Take inspiration from Zen

Back in the United States, he realizes the limitations of the mind and rational thought. Very marked by his experience of LSD, he supports the idea that one can succeed in life without being a conformist. He adheres to the Libertarian Party, an anti-state movement that places individual freedom at the center of its political project and rejects any form of state interventionism.

Jobs is also committed to the Soto school, the main school of Zen Buddhism. He is close to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at the origin of the Zen Center in San Francisco. “Zen is not interested in philosophical understanding, writes Shunryu Suzuki (1). It's the practice that counts. The abrupt approach of the Soto school matches Jobs' temperament well. He has been meditating since he was a teenager and follows a drastic diet. Zen's lack of interest in philosophical understanding goes well with an economic and managerial profile based on the politics of results and professional efficiency.

The impact of Zen on industrial circles will be considerable. It is also to wonder if certain Zen formulations have not been diverted for the purposes of personal motivation. I am thinking in particular of the statement: "When you believe in your path, enlightenment is there" (2). Formula that can be transformed into a personal development adage: “When you believe in yourself and/or in your company, success is there”.

At the end of the 70s, Zen penetrated the universities. Management courses integrate the Zen approach to stimulate creativity in business. This is the case at Stanford University in San Francisco where Steve Jobs made a memorable speech in June 2005. Relating his experience of cancer, he encourages students to develop a continuous awareness of impermanence and death. According to him, this heightened awareness promotes essential mental dispositions to stimulate the audacity to undertake. We find precisely in the Buddhist teachings the idea of ​​an urgency to be accomplished because of our transitory state.

Beauty and simplicity

Those who have seen Steve Jobs' presentations and have heard of Zen recognize in the Apple co-founder's slides some Zen principles relating to aesthetics and balance. He adds his knowledge of typography. On stage, when presenting a new product, Jobs combines moderation in the design of the screens, minimalism in the visuals, efficiency, clarity and naturalness in the oral presentation. He thus applies a central Japanese notion called "wabi", the beauty of simplicity. Apple's success owes much to the industrial implementation of this principle. Clean lines, immersive ergonomics, fluidity of the user experience, sobriety of the design and elegance of the forms embody the quest for material perfection, the outline of a possible paradise where technology would echo the beauty of the world. . This is how Macs, iPhones and iPads have become cult objects.

By adapting certain codes of Zen to marketing and brand products, Steve Jobs tries to embody in the business world a way of seeing life and a way of being specific to Zen.

The quest for plastic beauty and simplicity goes hand in hand with the Far Eastern vision of nature. Nature is that which self-produces spontaneously, without intention, without objective. Nature being one and entire, man is not exterior to "what is so of itself." Vision found in the teachings of Zen Sôtô. In this context, a computer, a tablet or a mobile phone do not go against the flow of things. The efforts made at the design level also aim to "humanize" technologies to make them "natural objects".

Thus, by adapting certain codes of Zen to marketing and brand products, Steve Jobs tries to embody in the business world a way of seeing life and a way of being specific to Zen. His aura is such that the day after his death, The World of Religions relates "the death of a modern god" (3). “Prophet”, “messiah”, “guru”, various religious or spiritual qualifiers are then associated with the personality of the entrepreneur.

Make the world better

Mentor of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs advises the boss of Facebook to go to the Indian peninsula and spend some time in the ashram of Neem Karoli Baba. This ashram has become a place of pilgrimage for many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, including Google co-founder Larry Page. In 2015, in a public dialogue with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Zuckerberg revealed that he took his mentor's advice. In 2008, he stayed at the ashram where the Indian saint lived. He then realizes that "the world could be better if people were more truly connected", he told Narendra Modi. We find in his remarks the recurring statement of the mission that the digital giants assign themselves: to work for a better world; relay what Steve Jobs said 25 years earlier during an intervention on the marketing of Apple: "The central value of Apple, he said, is based on the fact that we believe that passionate people can change the face of the world by making it better.


This vision remains idealistic. Beneath the aluminum shell of technological artifacts vibrates the immemorial energy of the Earth. The presence of precious materials and rare metals results from the devastation of a large number of ecosystems. Digital is also trying to establish itself as a culture by promoting practical intelligence to the detriment of reflexive intelligence. With the unlimited deployment of artificial intelligence systems, the trivialization of “all digital” and the need to adapt to continuous changes, life as a whole is becoming technical. Buddhist traditions would lose their authenticity by becoming "technical" and yielding to scientific inclinations. We find the premises in the coupling of cognitive sciences and meditation practices or in the desire to assimilate Buddhism to a “science of the mind”. Faced with the technical system, based on the certainty of the ultimate emancipation of man through technology, the teachings of the Buddha still invite us to find within ourselves the resources essential to self-transformation.

The entry of robotics and AI into practices

From banking to the army, from education to nanosatellites, via connected objects, artificial intelligence systems are ubiquitous. Committed for a long time to technical fatality, Japan saw the “birth”, in the course of 2019, of an android replica of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of universal compassion (1). The result of a collaboration with the intelligent robotics department of Osaka University, this humanoid robot at the heart of the Rinzai Kodai-ji Zen temple in Kyoto reveals the power of an empire whose expansion occurred at a exponential speed. The economic and geostrategic stakes are now considerable.

The need to develop a digital “culture”

A recent interview published in these columns and devoted to the study program " Emory Tibet Science Initiative or “Science for Monks” suggests the weight still exerted by scientism. Indeed, we cannot deny the tendency of the population to grant, out of habit, an absolute value to the objectivity of the sciences. After the First World War and until the end of the Glorious Thirties, it was inappropriate to question science, because it promised the happiness of humanity via an ever more rational organization of human societies. His conquests then aroused wonder. This vision is perpetuated even though the devastation of the living world is partly the consequence of technical civilization. Despite the establishment of widespread guidance via AI and the intensification of surveillance policies, particularly in China, the digital giants continue to claim that they are working for a better world. And yet, the ordeal of the Second World War will have shown us that there is no such thing as neutral science or pure progress. Thus it would be naïve to think that attempts to simulate the brain or that research on cerebral modifications during meditative practice are reserved for the sole quest for scientific truth relating to the behavior of the brain.

This is why, in a world that science and technology have made more and more complex, we can try to acquire a digital “culture”. I'm not talking about this “culture” touted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to help the workforce adapt to the consequences of the fourth industrial revolution. I'm thinking more of obtaining some useful knowledge to reflect on the choices of the experts and to understand how a Buddhist temple came to use the service of an android equipped with an artificial intelligence system. It is about maintaining our lucidity and our ability to thwart the various forms of alienation linked to the passive use of ever more powerful digital tools.

Avalokitesvara as a humanoid robot

Expression of the compassion inherent in Buddha-nature, Avalokiteshvara is famous throughout Asia. Since the fourteenthe century, the Dalai Lamas are considered to be its emanations. Literally, Avalokiteshvara, or Tchenrezy in Tibetan, means "the Lord who looks down from above", the one who contemplates the world with kindness and leniency. At the end of February 2019, the priests of the Rinzai Kodai-ji Zen temple in Kyoto presented its emanation in the form of the humanoid robot, Mindar. Placed on a base, it is reduced to an aluminum trunk, two animated arms and a silicone-covered head. Devoid of a cranium, we can make out the back and profile of the tangle of electronic devices. Endowed with an evolving program, he recites in Japanese the Sutra of the Heart, the most popular of the Prajnaparamitasutras, a text from the Great Vehicle which exposes the inseparability of transcendent knowledge (prajnaparamita) and love-compassion. In the background, on giant screens, the stanzas are displayed in Chinese and English, with psychedelic effects. The machine takes place within a 400-year-old temple, rich in harmonious architecture and remarkable gardens. Renowned for its hundred-year-old maple trees, which are admired by visitors during the nocturnal autumn illuminations, the Rinzai Kodai-ji temple is now the seat of a new form of teaching through images.

Response to decline

In a Japan fond of pet robots and where Shintoism does not hesitate to consider technological artifacts as living beings, the arrival of Mindar shocked those who refuse to submit tradition to technological innovation and scientific ideology. . The monk Tensho Goto at the origin of the initiative is delighted with the sustainability of such a system because it compensates for the mortality of the monks. We should rejoice in the power of digital technology and artificial intelligence systems capable of curbing the harmful effects of entropy and mitigating the consequences of impermanence. By bending the transmission to the taste of a population fond of direct contact with the cutting-edge scientific universe, Tensho Goto hopes to attract a youth increasingly indifferent to ancestral traditions.

“Despite the establishment of widespread guidance via AI and the intensification of surveillance policies, particularly in China, the digital giants continue to claim that they are working for a better world. And yet, the ordeal of the Second World War will have shown us that there is no such thing as neutral science or pure progress. »

Passed almost unnoticed in the European media, the event was commented on in Anglo-Saxon countries, sometimes with amusement, without being the subject of an analysis on the extension of the digital empire. Yet that is what is disconcerting in this “Disneylandization” of Buddhism. We know that AI systems like Amelia, a hyper-realistic avatar of a young blonde woman with blue eyes, are digital employees capable, in just 30 seconds, of knowing and memorizing the contents of a 300-page technical manual. , speak 30 languages ​​and handle thousands of calls simultaneously. It is difficult for a European to transpose such prowess into the spiritual domain. The Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, a major contemporary creator, had however paved the way in 2016 during an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, an exhibition devoted to the relationship between artists and robots. He had represented himself as a "deserving" (arhat), a disciple of the Buddha remaining his life in the peace of nirvana. The silicone sculpture corresponded to a sound android of human size, reciting the Sutra of the Heart to infinity as Mindar can do today in the Rinzaï Kodai-ji temple.

Sacralization or desacralization of appearances?

It is important to remember that the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha were born between the Ier and the IIe century of our era. Before this period, it is believed that he cannot be represented in human form because he does not belong to the world of becoming. In my opinion, there is a very distant relationship between a sophisticated automaton and a stone statue that often embodies the infinite tranquility of the Awakening experience. The humanoid robot coincides with a highly urbanized society, imposing unprecedented technological conditioning and a radical break with the natural dimension of the living world. The stone statue has an operative character for those who are open to feeling. The aesthetic emotion it provokes weaves a close relationship with the depth of spiritual experience. The contemplative see et feels commensurate with the lights that the work arouses in him. See et feel statuary in the silence of contemplation is to find the trace of the unspeakable in oneself.

That an artist like Murakami seeks to update traditional Japanese art and to question the public on human nature, one can easily understand. On the other hand, it is more delicate to envisage that a silicone humanoid robot and doped with artificial intelligence can contribute to the sanctification of appearances. To thus establish a permeability between the digital universe and tradition, in the name of the inseparability of the constituents of reality, is to believe that science is the only bearer of the future and that it ultimately constitutes the absolute recourse for dusting off transmissions that have become inaudible if not obsolete.

Contemplative life under the eye of neuroscience

The brain makes the beautiful days of Neuroscience. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence systems, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and neurostimulation techniques, the scientistic ideal is regaining vigor to animate research based on the conviction that everything can be examined and explained from objective way. Since the creation of the Mind and Life Institute in 1990, a whole section of research is now devoted to the scientific understanding of consciousness and the positive effects of meditation in the prevention of mental disorders.


This research has its roots in India. As early as 1924, north of Bombay, the Kaivalyadhama Institute launched scientific programs aimed at proving the validity of yogic practices. In a few decades, the institute has developed a vast field of expertise in the field of yogic therapy. In the early 60s, in California, we witnessed the founding of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur and the Zen Center in San Francisco under the impetus of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Then, in 1974, Chögyam Trungpa established Naropa University in Boulder. With the arrival of many Tibetan masters, scientists are beginning to study meditative states of consciousness. In 1979, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the stress reduction protocol based on mindfulness (MBSR).

When the Chilean neurobiologist Francisco Varela (1946-2001) founded the Mind and Life Institute with the Dalai Lama, they assigned this institution the mission of working to reduce suffering and promote well-being. According to Varela, examining meditative techniques helps advance scientific models of consciousness and cognition. Contemplative neuroscience was thus born. American universities are following suit. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is developing the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory and the Center for Healthyminds headed by Dr. David Richardson, friend of the Dalai Lama. The researchers update the benefits of meditation on strengthening the immune system, regulating stress-related emotions, reducing chronic inflammatory diseases and the positive effects on pathologies associated with brain aging, including Alzheimer's disease.

European universities are following the trend by opening departments of neuroscience (King's College in London) or social neuroscience (Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany). We start talking about neuropsychoanalysis, neuroeconomics, neurosociology, neuroanthropology and neuropedagogy. From 2007, contemplative neuroscience became a very important field of experimentation. Tibetan Buddhism takes an active part in this development. Research highlights the plasticity of the brain, its ability to change positively through meditation training. This observation is a source of encouragement when we are bogged down in painful mental patterns, because it reveals our ability to transform ourselves favorably. Such is the recognition of the benefits that New York University offers a program (the Mindful NYU) aimed at promoting contemplative living, wisdom, compassion and well-being in university life. In the process, a course devoted to inner education is set up. This Inner MBA aims to contribute to the positive transformation of the economy. Speakers include Jack Kornfield, the famous teacher of the Theravada tradition.

Relationship to AI and brain emulation

It is important to remember that the development of research in neuroscience owes a great deal to progress in artificial intelligence. During the last two decades of the twentiethe century, AI is experiencing its second golden age: that of major advances in expert systems and the simulation of human reasoning. From 2010, when contemplative neuroscience became an important field of investigation, AI entered its third golden age, that of machine learning. Now, the algorithms used are not explicitly programmed. Algorithmic analysis models acquire real autonomy, because they learn from their experience and improve their performance over time on specific tasks. With their ability to discriminate and classify, they can make suggestions, predictions and thus promote decision-making. Their role in medical imaging is decisive.

One day, imaging may pick up a very widespread flare-up of brain activity. But it will tell us nothing about the natural peace proper to a timeless consciousness, carrying the qualities of plenitude and bliss.

These advances also highlight the plasticity of artificial intelligence systems. This discovery also coincides with the thesis developed by Francisco Varela regarding the link between the cognitive faculties and the history of what is experienced, “in the same way that a non-existent path appears while walking”. This approach, Varela calls it “in action”. It is of major interest to the meditator. According to the neurobiologist, our experience of the world cannot be reduced to a representation or an interpretation of what we perceive. Nor is it the result of a coincidence between external stimuli and pre-existing mental representations. Enaction proposes to overcome the dilemma of the anteriority or the posteriority of the egg or the chicken, of the world or of the subject who perceives it. Enaction frees itself from this dualism by considering cognition as a continuous process where the subject and the world are correlative. In other words, to know comes down to bringing out meaning through experience. This insight illuminates the importance of the beginner's mind in meditative practice, what Shunryu Suzuki Roshi has called a continually fresh mind.

Certainly, artificial intelligence systems do not meditate, but the most efficient ones mimic our brain functions as closely as possible. Hence the importance of projects to emulate the brain: the Blue Brain Project, a Swiss initiative; the Human Brain Project (HBP), a European project; The Brain Initiative, an American proposal. Everyone deploys their new dream of conquest by raising science to its supreme and prophetic function: discovering the nature of human intelligence in an attempt to unravel the mystery of existence. No doubt these projects will play a decisive role in the advent of an intelligent machine at the human level. The scientific approach involved presupposes believing in the possibility of seeing consciousness appear by considering it as an emergent property of complex computer arrangements. The stakes are high, because such an event would confirm the materialist and evolutionist theses according to which consciousness is the product of the brain.

Beyond the Brain and the Grand Design

The grand design is “the perfect integration of man into the technical system”. But we don't become more human through technology. We don't meditate better because of neuroscience. On the one hand, “to meditate better” has no meaning except to consent to the ideology of all measurable and all quantifiable. On the other hand, yielding to the sirens of generalized guidance and augmentation technologies is to run the risk of losing the natural feeling at the heart of the practice. Cerebral imaging simply confirms the relevance of experiences that centuries of contemplative practice have long since brought to light.

The teachings underline the obvious and pose a riddle until now unresolved. The obvious: we are not reducible to the body, because we have a spirit endowed with a nature distinct from dense matter, in the same way that space is different from the gravity of the earth. This spirit longs for happiness and does not want to suffer. The riddle: we know nothing of the code of consciousness in the sense that the ultimate nature of mind remains elusive and unspeakable. The growing influence of science will certainly not change anything. One day, imaging may pick up a very widespread flare-up of brain activity. But it will tell us nothing about the natural peace proper to a timeless consciousness, carrying the qualities of plenitude and bliss. Moreover, the masters remind us that the meditator enters into friendship with himself, familiarizes himself with the natural spirit, notes the signs of its presence to recognize the omnipresent fundamental state. Beyond any “technical adjustments”, the approach has a deeply poetic flavor.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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