Michael LaTorra explains Buddhist Transhumanism in a nutshell

My friend Michael LaTorra, an ordained Zen priest and the abbot of the Zen Center of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has written a short, simple and readable introduction to Buddhist Transhumanism. The article was published in Theology and Science in April with the title “What Is Buddhist Transhumanism?

Unfortunately the article is protected by a paywall. The abstract reads: “The meeting of ancient Buddhism from Asia with modern orientation towards science and technology in the Western world has led to a burgeoning movement that combines these in new and innovative ways. Lacking much institutional structure, but with many shared goals among its adherents, this movement seeks to attain the traditional Buddhist goals of reducing suffering and realizing Awakening, but with the assistance of scientific knowledge and technological means.”

I often tried to educate myself about Buddhism and Buddhist Transhumanism (or Transhumanist Buddhism?), and Mike’s article is very useful as a first step because it is simple and focused on the essentials of both. The article provides a clean and clear introduction to Buddhism for people already familiar with Transhumanism, or the other way around.

An important parallel between Buddhism and Transhumanism is that both emphasize practical philosophy over abstract metaphysics. At the same time, deep metaphysical concepts are there to be found in both Buddhism and Transhumanism.

Buddhism asserts the doctrines of karma and rebirth. “Your actions now will affect your present lifetime and your subsequent afterlife, just as your actions previous to this birth affected your current life circumstances,” says Mike. In related speculations, Russian Cosmism and derived visionary interpretations of contemporary Transhumanism assert that future technologies could resurrect the dead.

The Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha – right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation – is a guide to “right” lifestyle and mental discipline that offer benefits to both individuals and their society. Similarly, Transhumanism emphasizes the potential of emerging futurist developments in biotechnology, neurotechnology, cognitive science, computer science, nanotechnology, related disciplines, to make people “better than well” and able to function in utopian societies. In both cases, philosophical concerns with eschatology and the ultimate nature of reality are confined to an inner esoteric core, not as evident as the outer exoteric front-end.

Reducing suffering is a key aspect of both Buddhism and Transhumanism. While Buddhism suggests diluting the ego in a cosmic unity, and emphasizes meditation as a practical way to achieve enlightenment, Transhumanism wants to change the world using advanced technologies.

To put the difference into perspective, LaTorra cites an old Buddhist teaching aphorism that says ‘To walk more comfortably, it is better to cover one’s feet than to try to cover the whole earth.’ By contrast, says LaTorra, many transhumanists would prefer to cover the earth in comfortable materials. “And Buddhist transhumanists would use a combination of both, providing shoes for everyone while at the same time making large swaths of the earth into benign and comfortable regions where people could safely go barefoot. “

It’s important to note that, contrary to other religion, Buddhism doesn’t oppose using technology as one of many means to achieve enlightenment. “[T]here is nothing in the teachings of the Buddha that forbids the inclusion of science and technology in Buddhist practice,” says Mike. The compatibility of Buddhism and Technology was also emphasized by Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” a cult novel that contributed to popularize Buddhism among Western audiences. “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower,” wrote Pirsig. “To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha - which is to demean oneself.”

The question is, once all suffering is eliminated by diluting the ego in meditation and unity with the whole of reality, is anyone left to experience happiness? Mike is well aware of “the typical horrified reaction of many Westerners to this vision, which seems to imply annihilation.”

In fact, reducing suffering doesn’t necessarily mean increasing happiness. For example, a rock doesn’t suffer, but doesn’t experience happiness either. Many Westerners tend to think that in Nirvana, “the deathless state of perfect liberation” attained by those who reach enlightenment after a succession of earthly incarnations, they would be as happy as rocks. Yet, for those who are ready, the Buddha “urges determined effort to put an end to wandering in samsara and to reach [Nirvana], which transcends all planes of being,” as explained by an American-born Buddhist monk.

Mike explains that the Buddha did not teach annihilation: “He generally preferred to speak of the goal, the state of Nirvana, in terms of what it was not: not mortal, not suffering, etc. The implication of the Buddha’s teaching, therefore, is that once all negatives are removed, the intrinsic positive would reveal itself.”

I find that rather vague (I guess Mike would say that here vagueness is not a bug but a feature), and I try to think of ways to reconcile Buddhism with cherishing the individual awareness that I wish to keep. My formulation of the core Buddhist message for Westerners would be something like:

Don’t think of Nirvana yet – you’ll cross that bridge when you get there. Try to live a right life, and advance with some little steps on the Karmic road to enlightenment. Then in your next existence you will have a bit more of a cosmic mind, and perhaps a bit less of an earthly mind. So in your following existence, and the next, and so forth … until you see the bridge to Nirvana, and then you will be ready for whatever comes next, which probably we couldn’t even imagine now.

At the 2014 Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, Mike gave a presentation titled "Where Is Heaven? An Examination of Multiple-World Models of the Cosmos and Beyond.” A few days after the conference, I had the pleasure to attend a Buddhist meditation session led by Mike, who designed the session for Western newcomers to Buddhism. I can’t say that I achieved enlightenment (I guess that takes much more than one casual session), but I think got part of the cosmic flavor of Buddhism and I look forward to repeating the experience anytime.

“The Buddhist meditation techniques, as originally given and as extended over the millennia by Buddhist practitioners in different traditions, are based on a science of the mind designed for transforming the individual practitioner,” says Mike, and adds that there are many types of Buddhist meditation, some for a general purpose and some designed for specific situations.

Mike’s article includes short profiles of people who, though not all define themselves as such, can be considered as Buddhist Transhumanists. I found especially interesting the profile of Franklin Merrell-Wolff, a not very well known American mystic and a precursor of Buddhist Transhumanism. Mike argues that Merrel-Wolff was the first to use the term “transhumanism” in the first edition of “The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object,” written in 1939 but not published until 1973.

“It may be valid enough to assert thatuman consciousness qua human is always time conditioned, but that would amount merely to a partial definition of what is meant by human consciousness,” wrote Merrel-Wolff. “In that case, the consciousness that is not time conditioned would be something that is transhuman or nonhuman.” He added that it is in the power of man to transcend the limits of human consciousness, which seems a good summary of both Buddhism and Transhumanism in a nutshell.

Picture by the author.