Compassion & Technology and the Life of the Buddha at the Nieuwe Kerk
Compassion & Technology and the Life of the Buddha at the Nieuwe Kerk
September 15, 2018
Amsterdam, the Netherlands – Yesterday morning, under sunny blue skies, His Holiness the Dalai Lama flew from Malmö to Rotterdam. He was received at the airport by members of the Dalai Lama Foundation who have organized his visit to the Netherlands and drove into the city of Rotterdam. About 200 Tibetans, many of them children, and other well-wishers were gathered in front of the hotel to greet him as he arrived. His Holiness walked the entire length of the barriers on which they leaned to return their greetings. Tibetan dancers performed on the hotel forecourt. He was offered a traditional Tibetan welcome just by the door to the hotel. More people were gathered in the lobby inside.
Once His Holiness reached his room, the Indian Ambassador to the Netherlands, H.E. Venu Rajamony and his wife paid him a brief courtesy call. His Holiness also met with four people representing a larger group of 12 alleged victims who say Tibetan Buddhist teachers have abused them physically or psychologically. They presented him with written accounts of what they say happened to them and appealed to him to address the problem.
Early this morning His Holiness drove more than 80 kms from Rotterdam to Amsterdam where he was received at the Nieuwe Kerk by the Director Cathelijne Broers. She escorted him into the 600 year old building before a congregation of 450. In her welcome address she mentioned that there were people from all walks of life, including the royal family, in the church and they were joined by many more around the world through live streaming of the event. “Let’s connect through compassion and technology,” she said, “and celebrate the life of the Buddha through works of art, ancient and modern, including Ai Wei Wei’s ‘Tree’, beneath which you’re sitting. We have assembled young people and scientists to have discussions with you.”
Moderator Christa Meindersma explained that there would be two panel discussions of about 40 minutes each—the first would focus on ‘Robotics and Telepresence’, while the second would deal with ‘Sickness, Aging and Death’.
After a short video about ‘Robotics and Telepresence’, she introduced a young girl from Britain, Tilly Lockey, who, as a result of meningitis when she was 15 months old, had lost her hands. She was expected to die, but survived. “I lost my hands so young, I have no memory of having had them,” Tilly told His Holiness, “but I’ve been working with technologists who are developing these bionic limbs. I don’t mind being different and I know that other people lose their limbs suddenly and the work we are doing can give them support.”
Tilly asked His Holiness how technology and compassion could be of help to other people around the world. He answered,
“Machines are very important, but they are controlled by human beings. We human beings are not only physical entities, we also have minds. When we are motivated by positive emotions our physical actions will be constructive. Modern psychology knows about sensory consciousnesses, but doesn’t distinguish them clearly from mental consciousness, which involves emotions like anger. I’m very appreciative of the comfort and relief that technology can provide, but I’d like to see its effects implemented in less developed countries where there is still great suffering.”
Christa Meindersma introduced scholar Prof Martin Steinbuch, who holds the Chair of Robotics at Singularity University, and practitioner Karen Dolva, the developer of AV1, the world’s first telepresence robot. A short video introduced Jade, in Britain, who suffers a chronic medical condition that prevents her leaving home for extended periods. The telepresence robot, which consists of a mobile head and shoulders, allows her to participate in classes at school even when she can’t go and enables her to stay in the loop with her friends. It has a two way audio connection, but only Jade, the operator, has access to a video feed. Her question to His Holiness was about whether there has been a female Dalai Lama and if not, could there be one in the future?
His Holiness replied that he had been asked this repeatedly over the years and has answered that if a female body would be more useful, why not? He qualified this by adding that whether or not there will continue to be a Dalai Lama in the future is something Tibetans, Mongolians and people of the Himalayan Region will decide.
When Christa Meindersma asked Jade what AV1 means to her, she was clear that it gives her freedom to go to school and keep up with her friends. Karen Dolva added that the telepresence robot, which can also be helpful to elderly people suffering Alzheimer’s syndrome, doesn’t replace human contact, but augments it and keeps it alive.
“Sophisticated machine,” His Holiness asked leaning over the robot, “can you read my mind? This technology is wonderful, but I don’t believe it can reproduce the human mind. Still, you may yet prove me wrong.”
Martin Steinbuch had brought a play robot with him, a dinosaur the size of a small baby.
“These machines are material devices,” His Holiness observed, “but we also have to think about consciousness. Our waking consciousness depends on our brain and sensory organs and is relatively coarse. When we dream the senses are at rest. In deep sleep, consciousness is subtler, as it is when we faint and so forth, but the subtlest, deepest consciousness manifests at the time of death. There are cases of practitioners, like my own tutor, whose body remained fresh for thirteen days after clinical death—the stopping of the heartbeat and death of the brain—because that subtle consciousness remained.”
His Holiness explained that psychologist Richie Davidson of University of Wisconsin–Madison has undertaken a project to investigate what is going on. He pointed out that while technology can improve eye and ear consciousness, it has little effect on the subtler level of mental consciousness that nevertheless can be extended infinitely. Inner values involve the mind and ancient India was rich in understanding the mind’s workings as a result of the practices for cultivating a calmly abiding mind (shamatha) and analytical insight (vipashyana). The Buddha’s attainment was a product of such practices.
Asked to talk about self-learning robots and whether they could develop empathy, Martin Steinbuch explained that they can learn rapidly about human behaviour and can develop acute intelligence. His Holiness asked if they could comfort someone who was sad and demoralized and he declared they could, somewhat to His Holiness’s surprise. As the first panel came to an end, His Holiness blew kisses to Jade via her AV1 telepresence robot.
For the second discussion of ‘Sickness, Aging and Death’ the moderator introduced members of the panel: scholar Kris Verburgh, a doctor and medical researcher, practitioner Liz Parrish, CEO of Bioviva Sciences, scholar Jeantine Lunshof, a philosopher and bio-ethicist and youngster Selma Boulmalf, a religious student at Amsterdam University and alumni of IMC Weekend School. The challenging question raised was, “Would you like to live to be 1000 years old?”
His Holiness retorted that it’s necessary to be realistic and the question represented unrealistic thinking. He observed that Indian Sadhus and others have tried to achieve such a goal through yoga and breath control, but none have lived more than 200 years. “Our earth will eventually disappear, our sun will disappear, even our galaxy will ultimately disappear, so it’s unrealistic to think we will avoid death.” Verburgh agreed that the prospect of living beyond 120 was small, but recent work with mice has seen them convincingly rejuvenated.
His Holiness speculated that the world’s human population would expand beyond 10 billion, which would anyway be too big for natural resources to provide for. He stirred a laugh from the audience when he suggested that a non-violent method of population control would be for more people to become monks and nuns.
Selma Boulmalf declared that she would not want to live to be more than 150, which would eliminate the choice that a limited lifespan affords. “What’s more,” she said, “as a Muslim, why would I want to remain in this temporary world?” She asked His Holiness if sickness had any meaningful role in life. He told her he thought that facing pain and difficulty reminds believers of God and their religious path. He added that at her age he was a lazy student, but that just as Muslims memorize scripture, Tibetan Buddhists learn their texts by heart and study them word by word. He explained three levels of knowledge: basic understanding gained by hearing or reading, conviction that derives from critical thinking and experience arising from deeper acquaintance in meditation.
Liz Parrish explained that gene therapy need not extend life but by overcoming tendencies towards sickness can improve its quality. Jeantine Lunshof wanted to know why human beings want to live longer. His Holiness told her that even animals love life and move to defend it. “We all naturally love life and death brings an end to it. We tend to fear death because it is a mystery, but through training we can develop confidence in the next life.”
Christa Meindersma announced that the discussion was running out of time. His Holiness took the opportunity to look back on the 20th century and the great violence that had taken place in various wars. “However,” he noted, “towards the end of the century there seems to have been a change of attitude as people exhibited an opposition to further violence and the suffering it entails. If we can extend this trend into the 21st century, there’s hope for the future. We need to focus on a sense of the oneness of humanity and maintaining religious harmony, which India vividly exemplifies. If religious harmony can flourish there, why not elsewhere?”
Diederick Croese of Singularity University offered words of thanks to the panellists, the staff of the church, the organist and everyone who contributed to the morning’s stimulating event. His Holiness presented the various participants with white silk scarves, as is the Tibetan custom.
During a meeting with members of the media immediately afterwards His Holiness remarked that technology can clearly play a significant role in alleviating physical distress, but that peace of mind and the role of moral principles cannot be overlooked. He commented that existing education sets material goals, resulting in aspirations for a more materialistic way of life with little attention to inner values.
He acknowledged that the Buddha’s strictures regarding sexual behaviour are not limited to members of the monastic community, but relate to the laity too. He said he had recommended that the question of abusive Buddhist teachers be raised at a conference of religious leaders in November.
He expressed disapproval of the use of technology for oppressive surveillance, but noted that the problem lies with the motivation of perpetrators and the way it is used rather than the technology by itself. He repeated that moral principles lay the basis for individuals, families and communities to live a happy life.
Challenged to say why, in the face of climate change and global warming, we continue to fly, he suggested that education about climate change is essential. He also lamented America’s withdrawal from the Paris accords. While accepting that aircraft flight is a cause of pollution, he suggested that to ban flying altogether or to ban all cars would be an extreme step. He recommended instead the adoption of a more balanced, broad-minded and far-sighted solution.
His Holiness reviewed the various works of art, mostly statues and paintings, that made up the exhibition illustrating the ‘Life of the Buddha’. He took particular interest in a statue of the fasting Buddha and a thangka painting of the twelve deeds of the Buddha’s life. At the end, in a small alcove, his old friend Erica Terpstra presented him with a copy of her children’s book about the Buddha’s life, to which he had contributed a foreword. When she requested him to sign her own copy, he did so on the condition that she sign the copy she had given him.
He was then entertained to lunch with old friends and supporters of Tibet. Eventually emerging from the church into bright sunshine he found upwards of 300 Tibetans and other friends waiting to see him off. They included many children and His Holiness reached out to as many of them as he could, shaking their hands, patting their cheeks and laughing with them before climbing into a car to return to his hotel.
Tomorrow, he will meet with Tibetans and give a talk explaining ‘Why Compassion is Essential in Our Troubled World’.
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