Remaking the World, or Remaking Ourselves? Buddhist Reflections on Technology
By David R. Loy



As human beings our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as in being able to remake ourselves. (Gandhi)

    We can safely suppose that Gandhi was not thinking about genetic engineering when he emphasized the importance of remaking ourselves. Today, however, we have access to new ways of remaking both the world and ourselves. What criteria should we use to evaluate them?

    In the case of modifying our own genotype, for example, enthusiasm about this alternative way to reduce some types of dukkha (most obviously, by treating hereditary genetic diseases) is shadowed by concern about its very real dangers. In addition to the problem of accidents, which are inevitable and may be disastrous, there is the issue of who will control this technology, and for what ends. Given the domination of market principles today, will we end up with an elite of super-smart, super-healthy and super-beautiful people who control the rest of us? Some scientists are already discussing the likelihood of this, and not all of them see it as something to be worried about. [See, for example, Silver (1998).]

    Given both its promise and its dangers, then, how do we evaluate such extraordinary new possibilities? Up to now, at least, in much the same way that we have tended to evaluate most new technologies: by distinguishing between nature and artefact, between the "world of born" and a "world of made" (e. e. cummings) -- in order to take sides between them, by privileging one over the other. Either we are fascinated by new technological possibilities, which seem to allow us greater control over our own destiny, or we are suspicious of those possibilities and nostalgic for a more "natural" order.

    What both of these alternatives presuppose, however, is the same dualism between nature and culture/technology, a dualism that is not only peculiarly Western but perhaps even constitutive of Western civilization. Our preoccupation with this dualism may be traced all the way back to our Greek origins, to its distinction between phusis and nomos, nature and convention (which, once recognized as a construct, allows the possibility of restructuring society and our natural environment). Was this conceptual antinomy a liberating discovery, because it deprived social and ideological structures of their necessary and "natural" character, or was it another thought-construction that we today find ourselves constrained by? Or both? Such questions reveal how inescapable the dualism has become for us: even the attempt to understand it becomes expressed in terms of it.

    Much of the Western tradition can be understood in terms of increasing self-consciousness about the difference between nature and convention/culture, and the dialectic whereby each alternately becomes preferred to the other. Hesiod (8th C. BCE), who stands perhaps not far inside the threshold of literacy, already distinguishes between the traditional agricultural life he praises (in the Golden Age of the past) and the technological innovations that Protagoras and Anaxagoras would later praise (which may lead to a golden age in the future). Already we see the pattern: those who yearn for nature evoke the past, while those who privilege culture (including technology) have high hopes for the future. Then as today, nobody is satisfied with the present.

    The fifth century brought not only the democratic and imperialistic aspirations of Periclean Athens but also the first plans for reorganizing society along more rational lines. As Democritus expressed it, nature is not simply what is inborn, for it may be implanted with education and training. The most enthusiastic proclamation of human ability to control and transform the natural is found in Sophocles' Antigone lines 332-375, although these verses close with the warning -- the first of many since -- that this possibility is a mixed blessing. Like many other conceptual tensions, that between phusis and nomos was addressed but not quite resolved by Plato: the simpler life of earlier pastoral society was more conducive to goodness and happiness, yet it lacked philosophy (Laws 679e) -- itself a product of the growing alienation between social custom and natural order.

    The Cynics may be viewed as one radical reaction to this split: in response to the unsatisfactory nomos that their reconstructing Greek society offered, they preferred to live naturally, dog-like (Gr., kunikos). Unfortunately, the attraction of such a lifestyle was at the same time a condition of its impossibility. Once convention has been recognized as convention, you can't go home again, for the essential condition of being truly "close to nature" is that you do not know you are close to nature. The paradox has dogged us ever since.

    Closer to our time, but no less determined by this dualism, such figures as Diderot, Rousseau, Herder, the Romantics, and later Spengler contrasted the organic and genuine with the artificiality and superficiality of conventionality, seeking sincere spontaneity in place of sterile rationality. On the other side, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Condorcet and Comte (to mention only a few) expressed almost unbounded optimism in the progressive capacity of human beings to understand and control the laws of their own development. More recently, Freud emphasizes the necessity for the socially-constructed ego and superego to control the anomic urges of libido instinct; Marcuse and Norman Brown celebrate eros unbound. Today we debate whether the internet is liberating or alienating: we read everyday in the newspapers of the exciting new (and very profitable) possibilities provided by various information technologies; from a very different perspective, postmodern environmentalists such as Neal Evernden [1992] and Max Oelschlaeger [1991] attempt to abandon the concept of "nature," but only as a strategy to recuperate the saving power of a wild and sacred otherness.

    One could even argue that the historical dialectic between nature and culture/technology is the Western tradition, which would explain why our ways of thinking about such issues "naturally" (that word again!) tend to bifurcate into that dualism [see Loy (1995)]. In terms of bioengineering our own genetic code, for example, the dualism between nature and culture/technology means that some people want to dismiss that possibility out of hand as abominable because unnatural, while others cannot understand why we are so reluctant to take charge of our (otherwise random?) genetic destiny.

    From a Buddhist perspective, however, the dualism between nature and culture/technology may be seen to suffer from the same problem as most other dualistic ways of thinking. We distinguish between them because we want one rather than the other, but their interdependence means that we cannot have one without the other, since each term has meaning only as the negation of the other. If, for example, I want to live a "pure" life, it means that I become preoccupied with avoiding impurity; my desire for success (however defined) equals my fear of failure; and my love of wealth is difficult to distinguish from my dread of poverty. Applied to the nature/culture dualism, this suggests, rather Cynically, that today we cannot live a natural life without a rather unnatural preoccupation with avoiding many unnatural technologies. From the other side, however, our modern infatuation with technology may be brought into question by asking: why is it so important to be "unnatural", i.e. to reconstruct the conditions of our existence on the earth? To take charge (or try to take control) of our own collective destiny? This is undoubtedly a silly question for those committed to permanent technological revolution, but it is one we shall need to return to.

    Another way to get at the problem is to ask: what motivates our dualizing between nature and culture? That may be the crucial issue if we want to escape the sort of deadlock that usually ensues.

    It seems to me that their bifurcation has much to do with the tension between two of our most basic psychological needs, security and freedom. This is more obvious individually: we want to be free, but becoming free makes us more anxious and therefore more inclined to sacrifice that freedom for security, at which time we again feel a need to be free ... This dialectic appears in many forms. For example, sometimes I want to be special and better than others, to stand out from the crowd; at other times I feel a need to fit in, to be part of the group and share the security of being just like everyone else. Otto Rank expressed this in terms of two opposite fears: "Whereas the life fear is anxiety at going forward, the death fear is anxiety at going backward, losing individuality. Between these two fear possibilities the individual is thrown back and forth all his life" [in Yalom (1980): 141-2].

    In short, two of our most important psychological needs, for freedom and security, conflict. Is the same thing true collectively?

    With regard to the relationship between nature and culture, one basic issue (although not often recognized) is the meaning of our lives. To accept one's culture as natural is to be grounded in the sense that that our role in life is thereby determined for us (often by religious belief), while the freedom to discover or construct our own meaning is to lose that security due to the lack of such a "natural" ground that determines such issues for us. Materially, of course, something like the opposite has often been the case: for many premodern societies, the physical conditions of their survival were often precarious, so we have embraced technology to control and secure those conditions. The supreme irony of the ecological crisis, from that perspective, is that our technological efforts to secure ourselves materially over the last five hundred years are what have caused the biospheric degradation that now threatens our very survival.

    Collectively as well as individually, then, we have tended to alternate between yearning for the security of a "natural" grounding, and the technological freedom to reconstruct the conditions of our existence. Each has its own attractions and problems. Today our ambivalence is further complicated by the fact that, whether or not the technological genie should have been released from his bottle, he cannot easily, if at all, be put back inside. Nor would we want to return (even if we could) to some "natural" premodern society such as Tokugawa Japan, where hierarchical and exploitative political structures were presented as perfect because they conformed to "the order found in the manifold natural phenomena of heaven and earth" [Wolferen: 337]. Those are not serious options for us.

    So where does that leave us? If so much of our thinking today about new technologies such as bioengineering remains trapped within this dialectic, is there any other approach that might shed light on our situation, on our ambivalence between what are often the genuine promises of new technologies and what are often also well-founded concerns about their expected and unexpected "side effects"?

    If a dualism between nature and culture/technology has been so essential to the development of the West, we may wonder about whether the same is true for other civilizations, and the answer, so far as I can tell, is negative. Anthropologists have learned that most if not all cultures make some such distinction, but they differ widely in where they draw the line and, most important, that distinction has not been so influential in the way other civilizations have developed. By no coincidence, the English term "nature," with its extraordinarily wide range of meanings, is notoriously difficult to translate into other languages, perhaps because our dualism is not so "natural" to other cultures. For example, the main Japanese term for nature, shinen (or jinen), originally borrowed from Chinese, cannot normally be understood as one side of such a dualism [See Tellenbach and Kimura (1989)].

    Most important for my present purposes, the distinction between nature and "unnatural" culture/technology is also not very Buddhist. Sakyamuni's dharma did not distinguish between them; and insofar as some such dualism might be read into his teachings, one might even argue, although somewhat perversely, that the Buddhist emphasis may even be on the unnatural, e.g. the celibacy of the sangha and its withdrawal from usual social and economic activities. Perhaps the main places where naturalness may be said to be privileged in Buddhism are occasionally in those schools influenced by Taoism or Shinto, such as Ch'an/Zen. Mahayana Buddhism, in particular, emphasizes the interdependence of everything, which allows for no self-existence and which makes no distinction between nature and non-nature. The Hua-yen metaphor of Indra's infinite net sees everything as reflecting everything else, without any such bifurcation.

    Nor does Buddhism provide any support for those who wish to return to some (pre-agricultural?) golden age in the distant past. The Buddha could not find the beginning of our dukkha and he was not much interested in that anyway; his sole concern was to show us how our dukkha could be ended. Nor did he express any interest in a technological solution to (some of) our dukkha, although such an approach was not much of an option for his culture anyway. Unsurprisingly, I have not been able to find any references to bioengineering anywhere in the Buddhist scriptures, and more generally it is clear that critiques which argue that technology is unnatural are somewhat unnatural to Buddhism. The Buddhist angle is different, although no less acute.

    In short, our discomfort with modern technologies such as bioengineering needs to be articulated in a different way than simply trying to privilege the nature side of the nature/technology dualism -- and Buddhism offers us one such way. According to Buddhism, we are unhappy, and make each other unhappy, because of the three roots of evil: greed, ill-will, and delusion. In order to become happy, these three poisons need to be transformed into their positive counterparts: generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. That is because actions motivated by negative intentions tend to bring about bad consequences, while actions motivated by good intentions tend to bring good results. This, of course, is the Buddhist doctrine of karma, which emphasizes our intentions.

    This implies that one way to evaluate new technologies might be to look at the motivations behind our preoccupation with developing them. If this eagerness is motivated by our generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom, we can from a Buddhist perspective conclude that this technology is likely to bring about good results. If, however, we are motivated by greed, ill-will, and/or delusion, we should expect the new technology to increase our dukkha, rather than reduce it.

    In one way, this criterion may seem simple and even obvious, but it contradicts the utilitarian assumptions that we normally use, or presuppose, when we evaluate a new technology. We usually ask: what will this do? I am suggesting that we should also ask a more Buddhist question: why do we really want to do it? Why is this so important to us?

    Of course, the issue is rarely a simple matter of "either-or", for there is a wide spectrum between the two extremes of greed etc. and generosity etc.; both individually and collectively, our motivations are usually a composite of various factors. Nonetheless, and despite all the public rhetoric about the potential to improve our lives (which cannot be denied), it is not difficult to find the three roots of evil motivating much of our eagerness to develop new technologies today. Let us again take the example of biotechnology. The most obvious motivation is greed, in the form of personal desire for wealth and corporate desire for greater profits. Those desires have become so central to our lives, both individually and collectively, that we are have become reluctant to label them "greed", but from a Buddhist perspective that term is suitable. The recurring squabbles over patent rights for bioengineered life forms, and even for parts of the human genome, make that all too obvious. Since this problem has been so widely discussed, there is no need to go into it any further, except to emphasize how this "root of evil" works to circumvent the painstaking kind of long-term evaluation necessary for even the most innocuous and benign applications of genetic engineering. Unfortunately, the rush to make big money from bioengineered life-forms tends to make us all into laboratory rats.

    The role of ill-will, the second root-of-evil, is less obvious, and one hopes less pervasive, but such motivations are present in the competitive pressures that often drive researchers' eager for Nobel Prizes and corporations eager for lucrative patents. As we all know from personal experience, desire thwarted or threatened tends to generate ill-will.

    The least obvious factor, however, may well be the most problematic one: the third root of evil, in this case our collective ignorance or delusion. The issue here is whether there may be some other, less conscious motivations behind our fascination with genetic engineering. Do we really understand why this technology, in particular, has suddenly become so important to us? Are we simply eager to develop new ways to help people (as well as make a buck, of course), or is something else driving us here? There seems to be a psychological law that when we are motivated by something unconscious, which we do not understand clearly, our actions are more likely to have unfortunate consequences. If so, it is important for us to clarify our motivations.

    As one way to approach this, I would like to develop further the parallel made earlier between our individual motivations and our collective ones, to see whether this can shed any light upon our modern preoccupation with technological solutions to human dukkha, bioengineering in particular.

    From my Buddhist perspective, what is most striking about our collective problem today is how much it resembles the central problem for each of us as individuals: the sense of separation between an ego-self inside and an objective world outside. This subject-object dualism, which we tend to take for granted, is a delusion -- in fact, the root delusion that makes us unhappy. It causes us to seek happiness by trying to manipulate things in the objective world in order to get what we want from it, but that just reinforces our illusion of a self inside alienated from the objective world "out there".

    According to Buddhism, this ego-self is illusory because it corresponds to nothing substantial: it is sunya, "empty". Instead of being separate from the world, my sense-of-self is one manifestation of it. In contemporary terms, the sense-of-self is an impermanent, because interdependent, construct. Furthermore, I think we are all at least dimly aware of this, for our lack of a more substantial, Cartesian-like self means that our ungrounded sense-of-self is haunted by a profound insecurity which we can never quite manage to resolve. We usually experience this insecurity as the feeling that "something is wrong with me", a feeling which we understand in different ways according to our particular character and situation. Contemporary culture conditions many of us into thinking that what is wrong with us is that we do not have enough money, or enough sex; academics, like aspiring Hollywood actors, are more likely to understand the problem as not being famous enough (not published enough, not read enough, etc.). But all these different ways of understanding our lack encourage the same trap: I try to ground myself and make myself feel more real by modifying the world "outside" myself. I try to subjectify myself by objectifying myself. Unfortunately, nothing in our notoriously-impermanent world can fill up the bottomless pit at the core of my being -- bottomless, because there is really no-thing to fill up. To put it another way, no amount of money or fame in the world can ever be enough if that is not what I really want.

    According to Buddhism, such personal "reality projects" -- these ways we try to make ourselves feel more real -- cannot be successful, for a very different approach is needed to overcome our sense of lack. Instead of trying to ground ourselves somewhere on the "outside", we need to look "inside". Instead of running away from this sense of emptiness at our core, we need to become more comfortable with it and more aware of it, in which case it can transform from a sense of lack into the source of our creativity and spontaneity [Loy (1996)].

    The above describes our individual problem. Now the big question: is the same thing true collectively? Can this shed any light on our contemporary attitude toward technology? Individually, we usually address the problem of our lack of self-grounding by trying to ground ourselves somewhere in the world -- e.g., in the size of our bank account or in the number of people who know our name. Are we collectively attempting to solve the problem of our collective lack of self-grounding in a similar fashion, by trying to ground ourselves in the world? In this case, by objectifying and transforming the world technologically?

    Technology is not applied science. It is the expression of a deep longing, an original longing that is present in modern science from its beginning. This is the desire of the self to seek its own truth through the mastery of the object... The power of technique is not to connect thought effectively to nature; it alters nature to its own purpose. Its aim is to master its being; to own it. [Verene: 107]

    What is that deep longing? Remember the problem of life-meaning that, I have suggested, motivates (or contributes to) our dualism between nature and culture/technology. Despite their material insecurity, most premodern societies are quite secure in another way: for such people, the meaning of their lives is determined for them, for better and worse. From our perspective they may be "stuck," but insofar as they do not know of any alternative they are able to enjoy themselves as much as their situation allows. In contrast, our freedom to determine the meaning of our lives, and the direction of our own societies, means we have lost such security due to the lack of any such "natural" ground for us. In compensation, has technological development become our collective security project?

    Today we have become so familiar with rapid scientific and technological development that we have come to think of it as natural, which in this case means: something that does not need to be explained. But in what sense is it natural to "progress" from the Wright brothers' biplane to a moon-landing within one lifetime? (Bertrand Russell was already an adult when the Wright Brothers first flew; he lived long enough to watch the first moon-landing on television.) In response to the anxiety produced by our alienation from a more original type of "natural" condition, we try to make ourselves feel more real by reorganizing the whole world until we can see our own image reflected in it everywhere, in the "resources" with which we try to secure and manipulate the material conditions of our existence.

    This is why so many of us have been able to dispense with the consolations of traditional religion: now we have other ways to control our fate, or at least try to. But we must also understand how that impels us: because the traditional security provided by religious meaning -- grounding us in God, etc. -- has been taken away from us, we have not been able to escape the task of trying to construct our own self-ground. According to Mahayana Buddhism, however, such projects are doomed from the start, for nothing can have self-existence: that everything interpenetrates everything else means that all things are composed of "non-self" elements -- an important truth for a species so wholly dependent on its deteriorating physical environment.

    The result is that no amount of material security ("resources") can provide the kind of grounding we crave, the sense of reality we most need -- a need which is best understood as spiritual, for that helps us to see the fundamental contradiction that defeats us. Unfortunately, we cannot manipulate the natural world in a collective attempt to self-ground ourselves, and then also hope to find in that world a ground greater than ourselves. Our incredible technological power means we can do almost anything we want, yet the ironic consequence is that we no longer know what we want to do. Our reaction to this has been to grow and "develop" ever more quickly, but to what end? ... To keep evading these deepest questions about the meaning of our lives, one suspects. Our preoccupation with the means (the whole earth as "resources") means we perpetually postpone thinking about ends: where are we all going so fast? Or are we running so fast because we are trying to get away from something?

    Another way to put it is that our technology has become our attempt to own the universe, an attempt that is always frustrated because, for reasons we do not quite understand, we never possess it fully enough to feel secure in our ownership. For many people dubious of this project, Nature has taken over the role of a more transcendental God, because like God it can fulfill our need to be grounded in something greater than we are; our technology cannot fill that role, because it is motivated by the opposite response, attempting to banish all such sacrality by extending our control. Our success in "improving" nature means we can no longer rest peacefully in its bosom.

    Yet there seems to be a problem with this "lack" approach: doesn't it smear all technological development with the same Buddhist brush? Instead of deconstructing the nature vs. technology duality, doesn't such a perspective risk falling into the same pro-nature, anti-progress attitude that was questioned earlier?

    In response, it is necessary to emphasize that this approach does not imply any wholesale rejection of modern technology. Remember that the Buddhist emphasis is on our motivations. This does not necessarily mean that any particular technology is bad in itself, insofar as it is our problematic and confused negative motivations that tend to lead to negative consequences. This allows us to evaluate specific situations by applying a Buddhist rule-of-thumb: is our interest in developing this new technology due to our greed or ill-will; and -- applying the third criterion of ignorance or delusion -- can we become clear about why we are doing this? Among other things, this means: do we clearly understand how this will reduce dukkha, and what its other effects will be?

    Such questions encourage us, in effect, to transform our motivations, in a way that would enable us to evaluate technologies in a more conscious and thoughtful fashion. One crucial issue in this process, of course, is who the "we" is. Transformative technologies have often been initiated without much thought of their long-range consequences (e.g., automobiles), but sometimes they have been imposed by elites with a firm belief in their superior understanding (e.g., nuclear power). The evaluation process I am suggesting would involve engaging in a much more thorough and wide-ranging democratic discussion of what we collectively want from a technology. This will not stop us from making mistakes, but at least they will be our collective mistakes, rather than those of elites that may have more to gain and less to lose than the rest of us. Also, this will inevitably slow down the development of new technologies, something I see as usually being not a disadvantage but an advantage because it will allow for a more painstaking scientific and sociological evaluation less subverted by desire for profit or competitive advantage.

    What, if anything, does this specifically imply about biotechnology? In one way, nothing. Genetic engineering is not to be distinguished from other technologies in that they all need to be evaluated in the above fashion. In another way, however, biotechnology is indeed special, because it presents us with the most extreme version of the difficulty with technological objectification generally. The Buddhist claim that we are nondual with the world, not separate from it, means that when we objectify and commodify the world, we ourselves end up objectified and commodified, by it and in it. As the world has become reduced to a collection of resources to be managed, the physical and social structures we have created to do this have ended up doing the same to us, and we find ourselves increasingly subjected to them, as "human resources" to be organized and utilized in various ways.

    Biotechnology signifies the completion of this commodification process. Life, or at least human life, has increasingly been seen as the last bastion of the sacred in an increasingly desacralized world, but now this last resistance to commodification is being overcome, and the category of "sacred" ceases to correspond to anything in our experience. There are many places and phenomena we cannot yet commodify, but in principle nothing now remains outside the scope of technological transformation into resources by a species which has yet to demonstrate that it is mature enough to exercise this power in a healthy way. Up until now, we have labored to ground ourselves by reconstructing our environment. Now there is a new possibility: trying to ground ourselves by reconstructing ourselves -- by altering our own genetic codes.

    This raises in an especially acute way all the ethical and spiritual issues adumbrated above. If we allow market principles the freedom to commodify that is now accepted in most other areas, this technology will become available mainly for those who can afford it, especially wealthy parents concerned about the health, intelligence and beauty of their offspring, and wealthy individuals concerned to immortalize themselves with clones. In addition to this obvious challenge to our democratic aspirations, there are more "spiritual" problems: can we trust such technologies to be controlled by people who do not understand, and therefore are unable to cope with, their own mortality and sense of lack? Do we want the very genetic foundations of life itself to become another hostage to our inability to accept the conditions of our impermanent existence in the world?

    In this fashion biotechnology not only creates special dangers and possibilities, it also prompts us to address such technological issues in a more conscious and open way.

    More concretely, what does this mean for how genetic engineering is being conducted today? From the Buddhist perspective I have offered, I see no way to escape the conclusion that biotechnology as it is presently being developed should be suspended, while we engage in a much more thorough democratic discussion of what we collectively want from it. The greed, competition and delusion that motivate so much bioengineering research and application today are a recipe for disaster. Needless to say, we should have no delusions of our own that such a full public debate will happen unless we fight for it. The economic and political powers-that-be have too much of a stake in pushing biotechnology. But Monsanto's difficulties in promoting genetically-modifed foods and terminator seeds suggest that there are grounds for hope.

    Nevertheless, and against the view that all biotechnology is abominable because unnatural, it must be emphasized that none of the above implies that all genetic engineering is intrinsically bad. It does not deny the possibility that sometime in the future we may have economic and political conditions that enable us to pursue it with more conscious and humble motivations: to reduce human (and perhaps other species') dukkha.

    That is because the essential point of Buddhism is not to return to some pristine natural condition but to reduce our dukkha. Despite all the obvious dangers, there is the possibility that biotechnology may do that -- for example (and most obviously) by treating inherited genetic diseases. Today we cannot expect the CEO of Monsanto Corporation (or whatever its new name is) to be a bodhisattva, but we can hope that this may someday be a world where a much more cautious approach to genetic engineering will improve the human condition more than it will threaten it.

    This, however, is unlikely to occur unless we also learn that it is more important to remake ourselves spiritually than to remake the world. And that brings us back to the issue of how we are to apply the Buddhist rule-of-thumb in evaluating technologies. Earlier, I emphasized the importance of becoming clear about why we want to develop a new technology, but how can we become clear about that?

    In conclusion, I think we cannot evade yet another parallel between the personal and the social. As a society, we cannot expect to become sufficiently aware of our collective motivations unless we also make the effort to become more aware of our individual motivations. I suspect we will not be able to resolve our group sense of lack unless more of us individually address our personal sense of lack. If the root problem in both cases is due to our felt lack of reality, we cannot expect wholly "secular" solutions to technological problems that, I have argued, provide us with a spiritual challenge.



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