by Paul Andrew Powell
My new book, Zen and Artificial Intelligence and Other Philosophical Musings by a Student of Zen Buddhism, is an anthology of six, first-person, scholarly essays based on personal insights from my study and practice of Zen Buddhism. There are countless books on how to meditate, Zen wisdom, loving kindness, etc. This is not one of them. Instead, I explore in these essays how the living Buddha Dharma is an unrecognized subtext running throughout the entire story of the secular West.
The story of the modern, secular west is arguably as much, and in important ways possibly more, Buddhist than Christian. The three essays in section one considers aspects of the secular west (technology, a work of literature, academic pedagogy) through the lens of my study and practice of Zen. The three essays in section two explore phenomena traditionally perceived as supernatural, or inexplicable—for example: the after-life, free will, the nature of consciousness, the existence of God—and offer highly speculative yet, I think, plausible explanations for these supernatural or inexplicable phenomena based on Complexity science and Semiotics—explanations that do not necessarily conflict with Zen Buddhist teachings, and that may even affirm them.
In this sense, my approach to Zen in this book is similar to secular Buddhists’ efforts to make relevant the Buddha’s insights to the challenges and issues of our contemporary society.
I purposefully use the phrase student of Zen throughout the book to avoid mistaken assumptions that I am in any position to be offering spiritual advice or insights (though as you will see, I can’t help myself from time-to-time. Take it or leave it, please). Yes, I meditate, and I also practice Ta’i chi, but my approach in this anthology is more philosophical and intellectual, more as a student of Zen, and as a student by nature, than as any enlightened sage teaching Zen wisdom. Any number of family, friends and acquaintances will tell you that I am no wise man! I have been and remain “human, all too human”.
Also, like many secular Buddhists, I do not strictly identify as a Buddhist or any other religion for that matter, nearly all of which are, by degree, nondemocratic, top-down hierarchies; which, as history shows, are susceptible to dysfunctional power arrangements, belligerence toward the ‘other’, corruption, abuses, group-think, subservience, and much else, on-and-on; and are categorically adverse to Zen’s core teaching, which is unequivocally personal and gleefully deconstructive of hierarchical arrangements both societal and within the human mind.
Moreover, I am recently disturbed by the actions of Myanmar’s radicalized Buddhist monks and their anti-Muslim messages resulting in terrorism that has left dozens of Rohingya dead. And more recently the Sinhalese Buddhists nationalists in Sri Lanka, and their sorry part in the history of violence there. It would be easy to dismiss these radical monks as no more representative of Buddhism than the Klu Klux Klan’s lynching mobs and cross-burners are representative of Christianity. But I cannot be an apologist for the appalling horrors of either, as both the Buddhist terrorists and the terrorists of the Klan are a product of their particular groups’ ideological groupthink: nationalist and racists identities, respectively, certainly not to the way of Zen, or Christ, for that matter. But these are only two examples in history of religions’ potential for hate and violence in the guise of spirituality.
When I say that I do not identify with any religion, I am saying, more specifically, that I reject power arrangements that ultimately shift attachment from the individual ego to the group ego, and/or its cult of personalities, real and imaginary. Let’s just say that I consider my sangha to be all of humankind. “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!” the Zen adage insists (but spare the Dalai Lama!).
Overall, in this book you’ll find controversial ideas about the afterlife, the nature of consciousness, and much else, including both Buddhist and Christian metaphysics, consciousness and artificial intelligence, Hobbits as Buddhists, infinite games, free will and the authentic moral self, all concocted from a range of disciplines and offered in the spirit of playful engagement with some key issues of our time.
Zen and Artificial Intelligence and Other Philosophical Musings by a Student of Zen Buddhism, by Paul Andrew Powell, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, available 1 July 2021, on the publisher’s website, Amazon, and other outlets: hardcopy (58.99 BPS), paperback (25.99 BPS), and Kindle ($9.99) editions.