AI and Climate Change: The New Challenges facing Buddhists
New Delhi, India -- The Buddha Dharma remains timeless and relevant, but issues such as climate change and the advancement of regenerative artificial intelligence (AI) threaten to challenge the Buddhist status quo. However, getting Buddhists to be aware and be ready to face these new challenges requires leadership to understand the underlying issues and to take practical, effective steps in facing up to them.
The World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) is the logical body to take leadership, but it has lost its organizational charisma to rally Buddhists. Recently the International Buddhist Summit (IBS), organized by the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) was successfully held in New Delhi, India. The summit is heralded as a new beginning for the best Buddhist minds to come together and to work on resolving issues commonly faced by the community. Perhaps the time has come for the IBC to consider taking up the mantle and show leadership in facing up to these emerging issues.
No doubt this requires a new work paradigm. Rather than having talk shops to propose resolutions, the output produced could be in the form of developing prototypes, establishing expert groups, and engaging communities. Before coming up with action plans however, it is wise to focus on why these issues are important and why Buddhists should be interested in them.
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity and the planet, and it has become increasingly clear that a coordinated global response is necessary to address this issue. The Buddhist community has an important role to play in this effort, given its focus on environmental stewardship and interdependence. However, there are also challenges that need to be overcome in order to effectively incorporate Buddhist teachings into climate change programs.
One of the challenges is reconciling Buddhism's relationship with non-human beings and the environment. While Buddhism places great emphasis on compassion and non-harm towards all beings, its teachings do not typically ascribe significant ethical importance to plants and non-living entities like stones, which play crucial roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
Effective climate change solutions often require techniques like carbon sequestration, which involve working with plants and minerals to capture carbon from the atmosphere. To address this gap, climate change programs could incorporate teachings on the interconnectedness of all beings (paticca sammupada) and the importance of valuing and protecting the natural world in its entirety.
Another challenge is ensuring that Buddhist teachings on environmental stewardship are accessible and relevant to a wide range of people. This could involve linking the practice of mindfulness to the impact of personal and group behaviour on the environment and taking steps to reduce its negative impacts. Climate change programs could also incorporate teachings on compassion, encouraging individuals and organizations to recognize the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations and take action to mitigate their suffering. Finally, sustainability could be emphasized as a core value, promoting sustainable practices like reducing carbon emissions, using renewable energy sources, and reducing waste.
By incorporating these teachings into climate change programs, individuals and organizations can develop a deeper understanding of the environmental crisis and take more effective and compassionate action to mitigate its effects.
Nevertheless, there is much to do for Buddhist countries and communities generally, as on the average Buddhist nations are ranked 102 out of 180 countries in terms of positive ecological performance, according to a 2020 Yale University study1. To improve this dismal ranking effective education and awareness outreach incorporating Buddhist teachings into climate change programs as outlined above are therefore critical.
Regenerative artificial intelligence (AI), such as the large language model ChatGPT, has the potential to impact Buddhism in both positive and negative ways. On the one hand, AI has the ability to revolutionize many areas of human activity, including religious and spiritual practices such as Buddha Dharma propagation programs. For example, AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants could provide more personalized guidance and support to practitioners, helping them to deepen their practice and understanding of Buddhist teachings.
On the other hand, there are also concerns that AI could be used to spread misinformation or manipulate individuals and communities. This is particularly relevant in the context of religious and spiritual malpractices, where there is a risk that AI-generated content could distort or misrepresent Buddhist teachings. Additionally, there are concerns around the ethical implications of using AI to simulate human-like interactions with vulnerable individuals, such as those seeking spiritual guidance or support.
To address these challenges, the Buddhist community could work to establish guidelines and best practices around the use of AI in religious and spiritual contexts. This could involve developing ethical frameworks for the use of AI in Buddha Dharma propagation programs, and establishing mechanisms for monitoring and regulating the use of AI-generated content.
Additionally, the Buddhist community could work to ensure that practitioners are equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to critically evaluate AI-generated content, and to identify and resist attempts at manipulation or misinformation. The IBC could play a role under its “Preservation of the Nalanda Tradition” initiative by developing courses and train researchers to become skilful at generating “AI prompts” to become more productive in their work. As the IBC is located in India, which produces large numbers of skilled IT professionals, it should harness this human resource and develop appropriate AI policies and applications.
The Buddhist community has an important role to play in shaping the development and use of AI in ways that are aligned with Buddhist principles and values. By engaging in dialogue and collaboration with AI experts and other stakeholders, Buddhists can help to ensure that this powerful technology is used in ways that are beneficial to humanity and the planet.
The way ahead
Facing these climate change and AI challenges in an ever-changing world requires leadership, collaboration, and practical, effective steps. Buddhists can come together to tackle these issues by promoting shared values, brain power, educating and engaging people, emphasizing interdependence, and fostering dialogue. The future of Buddhism depends on how well Buddhists can unite and address these new challenges. The IBC, with support from the government of India, is in a plum position to champion these causes.
Kooi F. Lim is the founder and Managing Editor of the Buddhist Channel. He also manages a biodiversity and informatics research company and is involved in big data management for his environment conservation projects.