(Infinite) Extension of Human Lifespan – What Would a Buddhist Say?

I have just returned from Rotterdam where the World Congress of Bioethics was held. It is a big event, with almost 1,000 participants coming from all over the world. The names of the participants look almost an international Who’s Who in bioethics, a broad field that comprises philosophy, sociology, law, medicine and many others. Among the many sessions at the congress were quite a few on the ethics of lifespan extension. This is a new phenomenon at the World Congress of Bioethics because aging and lifespan extension issues have not figured this prominently. Perhaps this is a reflection of the time. When the technology is there, or somehow promises to be there, bioethicists will surely take it up and talk about it.

At this World Congress Aubrey de Grey, one of the most famous advocates of technology of lifespan extension presented his view on the topic. De Grey is very well known for his championing the cause, and he would like us to believe that the technology that could potentially extend human lifespan significantly is on the horizon. Not only that, but the kind of technology that could eliminate all causes of aging is no longer a fantasy. Before too long, according to him, we would have the means to eliminate aging from our life, with the result that each of us could, potentially, stop of age, so to speak, and decide whether we can stay at the age of our own choosing. One might choose to stay 24 for a very, very long period of time; or one might choose to remain 36. The bottom line is that, once the biological and pathological causes of aging are eliminated, then human beings can stay young for as long as they like, and there is nothing in principle to hold us back from becoming, say, 1,000 years old or more. De Grey is more of a scientist by training, but he presents his talk to the group of bioethicists by saying that all this is a good thing. We human beings are standing on the threshold of a huge transformation that promises to bring very long lifespan, if not immortality itself, to ourselves.

De Grey giving the talk

De Grey giving the talk

This demands a response from a Buddhist. What de Grey is talking is nothing less than the promise that technology could well realize immortality for us humans! Immortality. No less. Humans have dreamed about immortality for a long time. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, was well known for his attempt to become immortalized by searching for the elixir of life, but ironically what he thought to be the elixir in fact shorted his life considerably because it contained a very high amount of mercury. People have come to believe that all human life is limited. Death is always upon us. There is no escaping it. But de Grey came all the way from Britain to tell us that we humans can actually become immortal. It is rather hard to believe. Furthermore, when he says that we should all celebrate the likelihood that we will be able to expand our lifespan very considerably, I myself feel a bit uneasy, not only because it runs directly against my Buddhist sentiment, but also because of the confidence that he shows and his total belief that this possibility of very long lifespan extension is upon us.

According to Buddhism, as is well known, all created things undergo birth, decay and dissolution. Every thing has its own time limit. The limit can be long or short, but it is always finite. This is the fate of all created things, human beings included. So when de Grey came in and delivered this talk that humans could in the near future achieve something like the beginning of immortality, this was shocking to say the least. So this demands a response.

I will not talk about the scientific or technical aspect of the technology of lifespan extension here. Let us grant that what de Grey is talking about is true, that technologies will shortly be developed that will eliminate all causes of aging and can rejuvenate our bodies in the same way as certain species of jellyfish do. Let us suppose that humans can really become immortal. Now the question is: What would a Buddhist say to all this? Is it a good, or bad thing?

We have to admit that there are no immortal creatures in Buddhist cosmology. The longest living samsaric creature, Brahmas, live for a very large number of aeons, but still they die. If humans really do become immortal, they would certainly disrupt the system of rebirths and reincarnations. So this situation does have no precedence in Buddhism. If humans do in fact become immortal, we cannot find any case in Buddhist cosmology to use as an example. There is just no immortal creature in all of samsara. So we have to do some interpretation here.

However, one might object that even in de Grey’s most optimistic scenario, people die anyway. Some may die of accidents (being run by a truck – de Grey’s own example) or being murdered, or committing suicide, for example. So at least some of de Grey’s immortal creatures do actually die. But in principle if one avoids these causes one can stay on forever. Is that a good thing? Many participants at the conference believe so. Some say that the increased lfiespan brings them more chance to do whatever they wanted to do and did not have a chance. But I think that if you have an infinite lifespan, all things that you wanted to do because you did not have a chance would then become rather tedious. Things have value to us because they are hard to get, and the fact that we have a limited time in this world shows that we have to make a choice, an irreversible choice. This is important. The fact that our choice is irreversible makes the choice a meaningful one. The choice will stick with us throughout our lifetime. There is no way for us to go back in time and change it. But if our lifespan becomes infinite as de Grey says, no choice of ours will be really irreversible. We would be in the situation of someone with an infinite amount of money to spend who is in the midst of a very large shopping mall with all the goodies that a human being can possibly want. With an infinite amount of space and time, we might delude ourselves thinking that all the choices — all those things that we want but could not get — will be finally available. But the value of things diminish the easier they come by to us. And if infinitely many things are available for us through an infinite amount of time we have, those things will cease to be valuable. They will just look and feel the same. What makes we think that those things we could not get now are valuable is our expection and our desire for them — it is the fact that they are not there for us that makes it desirable. But if everything is there for our taking and picking, then certainly we will lose interest. And I am afraid that this will be our lot should we really become immortal. I would perhaps prefer a life situation where there is a frame, a clear demarcation of the beginning and the end. This somehow gives me a sense of a meaningful life.

There is quite a bit of Buddhism in the idea above, but this is not unique to Buddhism at all. I have more points to discuss, but this is too long already. So those points have to wait.



Last week my son Ken and I went to see a play at the Faculty. This is the first time I took my son to a drama performance. The play was an unusual one in that there was a robot acting as one of the main characters. Yes a real robot.

The title of the play was “Sa-yo-na-ra” which is Japanese for “good-bye” and it is a story of a conversation between a young girl who is suffering from a terminal illness and an android robot. The show was sponsored by the Japan Foundation and there is a news story here. The robot was designed in the play to talk and interact verbally with humans, especially those who suffer from these illnesses. Presumably these patients need someone to talk to and to cheer them up, so a robot was designed for this purpose. (As to the reason why a human being was not needed to talk to the patients, I don’t know. Perhaps a robot is a better talker?)

So the play centers around these two characters. The android, who I learned later was named “Geminoid” because she was purposely built as an exact replica of an existing woman, knows a lot of poetry in her memory and can recite any of them on command. The suffering girl asks the robot to recite some poems and they exchange viewpoints about them. The robot recites a Japanese poem and a German poem and discusses the differences among the two.

The picture you see on your left is the robot. She can blink her eyes, nod and move her lips. But she can’t talk on her own, so when she talks during the play there has to be someone behind the scene to do it, just like in the old days where there was a talker behind a marionette play. However, the android was programmed in such a way that she autonomously moves her head and blink her eyes when she talks. Watching the play, one almost lost the sense that the suffering girl was talking to a robot or a machine. The understanding that the robot displays about the poems she is reciting and the lifelike way she behaves did result in myself suspending the belief for a time that there was a robot on stage. The audience, I think, lost this sense for some time, totally sympathizing with the suffering girl and with the android herself.

This raises a profound question in both philosophy and spirituality. In what sense do we suspend our beliefs in robots and actually become immersed in the play? Even though the voice was from a real human being, the performance of Geminoid, her looks, her eyes and her hand movements and so on, did convince me unconsciously that she was a real human being. When she said to the suffering girl that she was an android and that some of her kind were destroyed by the humans the audience sympathized with her quite a great deal. How could this delicate creature be destroyed in cold blood? We can think of someone destroying, throwing away old fridges and the like, but we do not feel the same way with Geminoid. She is not something to be destroyed because she displays some very human characteristics.

So the question in philosophy is: Does Geminoid have a mind? The answer, of course, is no because Geminoid has been developed specifically for performing on stage. She can’t stand up or walk around. She can only sit and blink her eyes and nod. But are these relevant for having mind? Not really. She cannot talk, but the most important thing is that she can “convince” us in the same way as an actor can convince us that he is Romeo courting Juliet, and so on. This is no small feat. But we can’t help thinking that, if the development for androids such as Geminoid were to go on further and further, there might be a time when a robot and a human become indistinguishable. If that is the case, then should we say that a robot actually does have a right? If the robot or the android (I am using the two terms interchangeably here) were to be totally indistinguishable from humans, then are they really humans? According to Leibniz’s Law, if two things are totally indistinguishable, then they are one and the same. We don’t need to go that far; we can only say that if they are indistinguishable, then they are of one and the same kind. This is more than enough.

But is the android conscious? Well, we still have the problem of being absolutely certain whether someone next to us is conscious or not, or whether they are zombies. Perhaps we can come closer and look closer into Geminoid’s eyes, then we can decide.

As for spirituality, the question is whether Geminoid has a soul, spark of life that is given by God perhaps. Here Buddhism does not have much of a problem. If Geminoid is indistinguishable from us, then she will be subject to the law of karma and other things that befall us humans too. She will have to be born again and it is conceivable that someone will have to be born as an android. This may be either good or bad karmas depending on the quality of life of this or that particular android. But this would mean that the android would have to be “sentient.” He or she needs to be capable of feeling pain and pleasure. But if the androids are totally indistinguishable from us, then they have to be able to feel pain. Then the androids will know what suffering is. And if they have cognitive powers, they can develop themselves so that they can come to understand the underlying nature of things. They can practice meditation and realize finally that all things are empty of their inherent nature. In a word, an android can, eventually, become a Buddha.

Journey of Life and Mind

Public Talks on “Journey of Life and Mind”


The foundation invites the general public to attend  a conference/seminar on “Journey of Life and Mind” at Room 105 Mahachulalongkorn Building, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

There will be two public talks by Latri Khenpo Geshe Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche on “Samsara…Journey of Life and Mind” and “Life’s Last Journey”. There will also be an introduction of Rinpoche’s book “Opening the Door to Bon” in the occasion of  its being translated into Thai.


Program of Rinpoche’s Talks in English (with Thai translations)

Saturday 11 February 2012

9.10-10.15 hrs: Samsara…Journey of Life and Mind

10.15-10.30 hrs: Refreshments

10.30-11.30 hrs: Opening the Door to Bon. An introduction to Tibetan ancient wisdom

Sunday 12 February 2012

13.00-14.30 hrs: Life’s Last Journey

14.30-15.00 hrs: Refreshments

15.00-16.00 hrs: Discussion

For registration, please email us at 1000tara@gmail.com. There are no registration fees. Donation to support the activities are welcome.


Life of the Buddha

This video contains very beautiful and moving chant in Sinhala, the language of Sri Lanka. The video depicts the life story of the Buddha himself, from the time his mother conceived of him until his death. It’s a moving story and one never gets tired of listening or seeing it depicted again and again. Even if you don’t understand Sinhala, you can see and appreciate the Buddha’s life and how he continued to teach his students tirelessly until the end of his life.

Flowers and Cats around my House

I have got a new mobile phone, which has the capability of taking pictures and sending files via Bluetooth. These are not new technologies, but I just got them on my phone and have been trying them out. So it’s very interesting. Now I don’t need to carry both a camera and a phone because my phone can also double as a camera. It’s really convenient.

So I am sharing with you some of the pictures I have taken around home. Here is one:

Image0001This is the orchid in front of my house that is now blooming. Really beautiful, isn’t it? It’s quite amazing that we can get orchids to bloom considering that we do not pay them any attention they deserve. To all intent and purposes they are being cared for by “the gods,” meaning of course they are left to fend for themselves. We only water them from time to time. This particular one is very durable because this is about the second of third time that it blooms, giving us very beautiful purple catleya right at the gate.

So here is the second picture:

Image0005This is our newest cat, whose nmae is “Dakchung Sering”, but we call her just “Dakchung.” Her name means “Little Tiger, Long Life.” Kris named her this way because of her tiger stripes. She is the darling of the house because of her youth and playfulness. The other cats in the house are really old and they don’t play around that much any more.

My son Ken got Dakchung from his school. At that time she was just a poor looking stray cat looking for food and affection around his school. He had been playing with them for several days before his teachers suggested that he take her home. Which he did, and we allowed that of course. What a lovely cat.

And here is another cat. This one is rather special because she was not a city cat at all, but was born in the forest at Khadiravana. She had been playing and jumping around to catch insects at the place and then we took her home. She is a bit older than Dakchung. But since the two are about the same age they usually play with each other. Her name is “Dunga Lhamo,” meaning “White Conch, Goddess.” I forgot to say that these names are Tibetan, and Tibetans surely know how to give beautiful names!

So here is Dunga:

Image0006She is lying on top of my car. This is her favorite place. She used to stay inside hte house before we got Dakchung but after Dakchung arrived she felt more like staying outside more.

Here is another picture of Dunga:


So these are something I would like to share with you. Perhaps there will be more soon. :-)

Ethics and Contexts, or Is Killing Permissible in Some Way?

One of the interesting topics discussed during the plenary panel last Saturday at the IABU Conference in Wang Noi was on the question whether it is all right in Buddhism to do something that looks really bad but with the right intention, so that the action is not totally bad after all. This came up among the discussion by Jose Cabezon, who holds the Mahayana posiiton, and Asanga Tilakaratne and Somparn Promta, who are Theravadins.The other panelist, Damien Keown, seemed a bit neutral to me.

A question was posed to the panelists about the foundation of Buddhist ethics — whether there exists in Buddhist ethics something invariable that provides a foundation for objectivity in ethical judgment. Before the panel discussion, Asanga Tilakaratne had given a keynote talk where he said that there was a distinction between behaving according to the social convention and according to the nature of reality. For him the former is changeable, while the latter is not. Killing, for example, is always bad and will always incurs negative karmic results. This is because it runs against the nature of reality. On the other hand, not taking off your shoes when entering a temple is a matter of social convention and can be all right in some contexts and not in others. However, Cabezon raised this typical Mahayana point that it is the intention that governs everything here, so if the intention is a good and wholesome one then the action becomes good and wholesome, and this includes killing.

This kind of raised the temperature during the discussion to at least several degrees. What I particularly don’t want to hear is another Theravada-Mahayana debate; this has gone on for centuries and the content of the debate is utterly predictable. Nonetheless this was what happened during the panel discussion on Saturday. Fortunately the moderator changed to another topic after a while.

What Cabezon said was quite well known. Any act that is performed out of good intention is a good one, and an act is a good one if it is totally devoid of any trace of egoistic trace. That is, you do the act totally out of the wish for the happiness of all sentient beings, and not at all for yourself. Suppose there is a madman who is running to press down a button that wil detonate a nuclear bomb, and the only way to stop him is to shoot him, would it be morally permissible to do that? Suppose he is really mad and does not listen to any warnings. So it is possible that, out of the altruistic intention to save thousands of lives, it is necessary to shoot this mad person to stop him from pushing the button. This will not only save the lives, but more poignantly this will also save the mad persom himself from doing a very seriously negative karma. (But Cabezon did not talk about the possibility of shooting just to stop the guy from moving and not to kill him, but then harming and injuring someone typically incurs bad karmas too.)

Usually a harmful act, such as killing and shooting someone, is done out of dosa, or anger in Pali and Sanskrit. One has dosa when one is attached to one’s self and when one feels that one’s own self is threatened then one acts out in anger, or dosa. But the point is that it is possible for such an act to be performed without any trace of anger, but out of compassion! This idea can be found more in the Mahayana tradition but I would like to say that this is common to all Buddhism as a whole. It is the quality of mind that is of paramount importance, not the very nature of an act itself.

There is a story of Tilopa, an Indian master some centuries ago, who was eventually the teacher of the great scholar Naropa. At first when Naropa saw Tilopa for the first time, he was shocked. Tilopa did not look like a great Buddhist master, but an unkempt fisherman who cared nothing about convention or the world. Tilopa was fishing and killing a lot of fish. And you must know that in medieval India killing and eating flesh was not only a bad thing to do, it was also looked down upon very much socially, and only the lower castes resorted to doing something like that, and never a scholar or a brahmin. However, what Naropa later realized was that Tilopa was not actually doing the same thing as any fishermen did, but he was performing th Phowa or transference of consciousness to the fish so that they are born again in higher states. This was a pure act of compassion which those whose eyes were defiled by attachments did not see.

I am not saying this to sanction killing. This would be an anathema. And I am not saying that Buddhism endorses killing. This is totally wrong. However, the point is that when we talk about ethics and contexts, the Buddhist perspective is that everything is contextual, since everything is interdependent. You incur bad karmas if you kill. That is for sure. But if you are a realized being who have already attained nirvana or enlightenment, then you always act out of compassion and not out of egoistic desires, then if it is necessary for you to kill or harm in order to perform the compassionate act, then you do it. A bodhisattva is one who is willing to go even to hell if that is necessary for saving sentient beings from sufferings.

In the end, one has to realize, I think, that in Buddhism every saying, every statement, is ultimately an upaya, or a skillful means. The Buddha never said anything categorically, but always for the purpose of leading his listener to realize the Truth. Thus he may appear to say one thing to one kind of person, and another thing another kind of person. This may seem contradictory on the surface, but in fact they always lead to the same result. So for someone he may say that killing is wrong (and that is for all of us unenlightened beings), but the non-categorical nature of his sayings means that for some, i.e., those already enlightened, killing out of compassion is all right. But that is NOT to be performed at home by any of us :-)

Mind and Life

The conference on “Mind and Life: Perspectives from Science and Buddhism” took place last weekend and it was a great success. More than two hundred people attended the opening session on Saturday and stayed on to listen to great talks by leading scholars and scientists in the country. There was a lively discussion session afterwards.

The key theme in the conference is, of course, the mind. Buddhism has a lot to say about it, as do the sciences. That is why we organized this event. The morning sessions consisted of two talks by Charas Suwanwela and Prasarn Tangjai. Charas is now Chairperson of the Chulalongkorn University Council and one of the leading neurosurgeons in Thailand, and Prasarn is a well respected scholar who is knowledgeable is just about anything.

In the afternoon session on Saturday there was a panel discussion on “Mind, Body and Self.” Three panellists were invited — Somparn Promta, Anand Srikiatkhajorn and Vuthipong Priebjariyawat. Somparn is a Buddhist scholar, while Anand is a neurophysiologist and a medical doctor, and Vuthipong is both an economist and an engineer. The topic was a very interesting one, and we discussed a number of deep questions in both science and Buddhism.

Among the questions was whether there is a ‘seat’ of the sense of the self in an individual person. That is, whether the feeling or the consciousness that there is a ‘self’ can be located somewhere exactly inside the brain or not. Those who are familiar with Buddhism is immediately reminded of the challenge that Buddhist masters give to their students to search for the self. Look inside your body, so the challenge goes, and find where exactly is your self. Is your self at the heart, or is it inside the brain? Or is the self not physical at all? For those who believe that the self might be in some way physical, the challenge then is directed to finding any physiological evidence of that. Being the moderator of this session, I asked Dr. Anand this question and he answered that it was not possible to locate any particular region of the brain that is responsible for the sense of the self, but somehow the sense emerges as a result of a normal working brain that relates all of its episodes together to form a coherent whole. This is supported by an analysis of those who suffer from disassociative type of mental disorder, or schizophrenia, where the personality is split. There might be a physiological or genetic cause to that, which shows that shizophrenia is physiological and not purely mental. But since schizophrenia is a symptom of perhaps the brain’s failure to form a coherent picture of the personality, then this shows that the sense of self — our sense of who we actually are — is something emerging from a normally working brain that relates all its mental episodes together so that there is such a coherent picture.

This seems to go along with Buddhism. The doctrine of No-Self states that what we understand as our *selves* is a result of some kind of action that relates or binds together certain number of mental and physical episodes together. Buddhism does not deny that there is a sefl. To say that would be certainly absurd. On the contrary, Buddhism says that what is actually conceived of as someone’s self is a construction, a result of conceptual imputation, or ‘fabrication’ that naturally arises. Suffering then arises for those who do not fully realize this truth. For such people, they believe that their *selves* are real. That is why when they feel that their selves are threatened, they react out of fear or anger. This is a natural mechanism of the body to protect itself. What the Buddha did was then very revolutionary, for he denies that such mechanism (which we normally feel as an instinctive belief that there is a self) really exists. This is because whatever we take to be the self is always composed of mental and physical episodes and the binding mechanism itself that must be in place for a normal sense of self to emerge can also be analyzed so that they are also nothing more than the brain’s attempt to create a coherent picture that would enable the person to function normally.

In Buddhist terms, the sense of self arises out of avidya, or ignorance. Those who fully realize the truth, that is, those who fully destroys ignorance, know that the self is only a projection, much like a hologram picture. It functions as what is referred to when our names are called, or when we refer to ourselves using the first-person pronoun, for example. But that is only something constructed, something emerging out of assmbling of various episodes. Since all sufferings arise because of this false belief in the self, then when one realizes this truth, there is no suffering. Remember that ‘suffering’ is here an awkward attempt to provide an English equivalent of ‘duhkha‘ in Sanskrit; some translated this as ‘stress’ to point out that even when we are not normally speaking suffering we also suffers from duhkha.

This is only a part of the talks during the past two days. I’ll try to report further in the next posts.

Is this me?

Is this me?