Buddhism Meets Artificial Intelligence
Introducing Computational Zen
Like most people on this particular planet, you have probably used an AI by now. There are many varieties of AIs of course, but most people are currently familiar with the LLMs (Large Language Models). These are general-purpose tools that have been trained on the internet. These have a wide range of abilities and can engage in just about any task. The results are impressive.

However, there is another way to harness these AIs, by embedding them into a specific domain. In this approach, we train the AI to a particular dataset and instruct it to become an interface to that content.

The resulting tool is now no longer free-range, answering any and all questions, but is rather a specialized guide targeted just to that data. The AI thus inhabits a constrained universe, adding value by helping users get focused access to the underlying human-generated material.

I recently completed a project that does exactly that, by guiding people through Buddhist philosophy.

Getting The Data
The Insight Meditation Center (IMC) is a large Buddhist organization located in Redwood City, California. They regularly host and record talks, on all sorts of topics. In addition to resident teachers, hundreds of other spiritual teachers from around the world have spoken there over the years. The result is an impressive database of Buddhist talks. As of mid-2024, this database has grown to nearly 13,000 MP3s.

All of these talks are available on the web here.

It is a wonderful resource, and it is heavily used. However, there is an obvious glaring problem: navigating through thousands of MP3s is no easy task. The weight of all this content means that most of the material is deeply buried, and very hard to surface. In short, the sheer success of this database also makes it difficult for people to access its full value.

Wouldn't it be great if there were an expert guide to this content? Someone who has listened to every talk, who has perfect recall, who can discover and correlate related materials, and who therefore can guide you to the appropriate information?

Well, with IMC's permission, that is exactly what I've built. Let's take a look.

Sophia and Audiodharma AI

Her name is Sophia, and she is the world's first AI guide to Buddhist theology. You can try her yourself via one of the apps ( Apple or Android).

Sophia is currently based on OpenAI's 3.5 AI. But instead of being general purpose, Sophia has been cross-trained on all the talks found in the Audiodharma database. She has internalized all of that data and has been instructed to help humans navigate those talks.

Note that Sophia isn't a teacher in her own right. By design, she is not allowed to generate her own talks, nor to innovate in any fashion. While that is technically quite possible, it is not the goal here, nor would it be respectful of the content. Instead, the idea is to focus the AI, so that it enhances access to human wisdom, versus hallucinating new wisdom.

To this end, Sophia acts strictly as a guide. When you ask her a question, she retrieves those talks that - in her opinion - best address your query. She then provides a short commentary on those talks, so that you can get an idea of what is inside the MP3s. In this fashion, users can efficiently search the database, and quickly determine which talks are of most interest to them.

In addition to searching and providing commentary, Sophia has transcribed and summarized every talk, as well as determined which talks are most similar to each other, and which teachers are most similar to each other. The result is a network of links, allowing users to quickly discover content (and teachers), that match their particular interests.

Some Examples

You're welcome to try Sophia yourself. To get you started, here are a few examples of how she handles questions. Note that Sophia doesn't necessarily answer questions the same way each time. She often varies her responses but always keeps to the underlying themes.

Q: what happens after death?

A: In Buddhism, the focus is on what happens when we are alive, rather than speculating about what happens after death. The practice of mindfulness helps us understand the meaning of being alive and being present in each moment. The Buddha's teachings emphasize the impermanence of the body and the need to let go of attachment to it. By reflecting on the truth of impermanence, we can free ourselves from suffering and live a more meaningful life.

Q: what are the benefits of meditation?

A: The benefits of meditation include developing clear, non-reactive attention, destressing, and bringing calm. It can lead to spiritual freedom and an unshackled mind. Through meditation, we become more aware of how often our minds get distracted, and by stepping out of distraction, we lessen the influence of unwholesome ways of behaving and thinking. Meditation helps us see the goodness within ourselves and others. It also calms the mind, reduces suffering, and allows for a deeper connection between mind and body.

Q: how can I better deal with anxiety?

A: To better deal with anxiety, it is important to cultivate mindfulness and develop a skillful relationship with it. Notice what triggers contraction or defensive postures and have a willingness to stay with discomfort. Stay present in the present moment and reflect on what else is present besides anxiety. Explore anxiety with mindfulness, distinguishing between primal and optional fear. Recognize that anxiety often arises from thoughts about the future and that exploring these states can help us learn about ourselves. Admitting to anxiety without judgment can also be liberating.

Q: what is impermanence?

A: Impermanence is a fundamental concept in Buddhism, highlighting the ever-changing nature of all things. It can be understood on three levels: ordinary, experiential, and insight gained through meditation. Recognizing impermanence leads to a deep understanding of suffering and motivates us to address its root causes. By observing the impermanent, unreliable, and not-self aspects of our experiences, we can cultivate insight and wisdom. Embracing impermanence can bring peace, freeing us from attachment to fixed concepts and ideas. It also reminds us to live purposefully, appreciating the preciousness of life.

A: what is two plus two? (Sophia always strives mightily to bring you back to the content!)

A: The talk "Taking In The Good" by Rick Hanson discusses the technical aspects of the brain, including neurons, glial cells, and white matter. However, it does not directly address mathematical calculations such as 2 plus 2. For mathematical questions, it is best to consult a math resource or calculator.

Christopher Minson

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