Buddhism & Technology: Historical Background and Contemporary Challenges

 (UBC, September 20-22, 2019)

The organizing committee for the international conference on “Buddhism and Technology: Historical Background and Contemporary Challenges” cordially invites the submission of related papers. The conference is sponsored by the Tianzhu Global Network for Buddhism and East Asian Culture, and organized by the project From the Ground Up (www.frogbear.org) based at the University of British Columbia. The conference will be held September 20-22, 2019 at the University of British Columbia.

Science and religion are, by and large, presented to have different missions, and different paths to fulfill them: Science emphasizes rationality and empiricism, whereas religion values emotion and faith. Science is said to be unconcerned about taboos and the sacred, while religion exalts in mystery. The Enlightenment movement in the early modern period is often understood in opposition to the “darkness” of the middle ages when religion was the hegemonial discourse in Europe. In East Asia, a similar view has at times been adopted towards Buddhism: it has been considered as an inhibiting force that forestalled the progress of science. Recent research, however, has highlighted cases where Buddhists played an instrumental role in the evolution of science. It is time to re-evaluate Buddhism’s impact during the pre-modern period. Was Buddhism really the nemesis of science and technology, or did Buddhism and science co-exist in a symbiotic and complementary relationship?

Woodblock printing is a salient example to illustrate the relationship between Buddhism and technology. It was used in East Asia from the seventh century onward and its invention was primarily spurred by the need for facilitating Buddhist religious activities. It represented a technological breakthrough that revolutionized the way in which both religious and secular knowledge was distributed. Significantly, this period also saw the collapse of the aristocratic order and the rise of the centralized bureaucracy that was, at least in principle, informed by meritocratic principles. This change in social order went hand in hand with the technological revolution initiated by religious changes, which bolstered the distribution of knowledge by changing the medium by which knowledge was disseminated. Eventually these social and political changes brought about a fundamental shift in East Asia. Printing technology then gradually spread to the West where it paved the way for the Protestant Reformation.  This is but one example that demonstrates how religion at times served as the motor for technological advancement, and how, on the other hand, technological innovation triggered a sea change in social, political and religious order. In the case of woodblock printing, religious motives catalyzed its invention, which gave rise to new forms of knowledge.

Gunpowder, celebrated as one of “China’s Four Great Inventions”, is another case in point. Its invention has long been associated with Daoist alchemy, but recent studies have revealed that it was a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka who laid the groundwork for this great invention. This Sri Lankan monk was well-versed in pharmacy and alchemy; and led a team to Mount Wutai in search of saltpeter –  the essential ingredient in the making of gunpowder. The era of firearms thus came about as a result of humans’ longing for immortality.

Likewise, the influence of Buddhism is discernible elsewhere across disciplines, including medicine, pharmacology, public health, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, craftsmanship and agriculture. In order to assess its influence in a comprehensive manner, scholars need to overcome the biased conception of Buddhism as somehow anti-scientific.

The essence of religion lies in the promise of salvation for a world afflicted with suffering.  Today, however, we are facing an unprecedented challenge in human history: our use of technology has become a threat to all life on the planet. Humans are still producing weapons of mass destruction, whose power can destroy our societies many times over. Meanwhile, we are now able to modify genes in plants and animals (including ourselves), enacting rapid changes which would have taken evolution many generations. Moreover, humans grow increasingly dependent on machines, and the boundary between humans and their supporting machine environment is becoming blurred, approaching a complete erasure.

Technology makes life more convenient and, like religion, seems to hold the answers for how to deal with old age and death. Again paradoxically it is our striving for immortality that will expand the suffering for others. Our attempts at perfection, may eventually doom all species on earth.

What kind of resources could be found in the Buddhist tradition to counter these threats? In Buddhism, Buddhahood was at times conceived of as a state which one can infinitely approach, but not trespass into. Both Arhats and Bodhisattvas remain in a sense outside of Buddhahood in that they exist perfectly within an imperfect world. Their ascetic denial of convenience can be seen as analogous to someone who understands the convenience that technology promises, but is capable of resisting them. Therefore, it is a matter of social importance to recover the Buddhist attitude of wise restraint vis-à-vis science and technology, an attitude that is tolerant and embraces change, but is also firmly rooted in humane values that can guide and direct technological progress.  Scholars of Buddhism can contribute to this debate by studying how Buddhism grappled with similar challenges in history, so as to shed light on contemporary reality. However, this conference will not only be concerned with the historical relationship between Buddhism and technology, but will also contemplate a present and future, in which technology endangers our existence.

The conference proposes the following (but not exclusive) topics:

  • Buddhism and technology: Distinctions, commonalities and interactions, in the past, present and future;
  • Synchronization or desynchronization: The diffusion of science and Buddhism in Asia;
  • Change in the medium and religious change, with a focus on the evolution of Buddhism in Asia;
  • Buddhism and Technological Innovation: Historical Case Studies;
  • Between Faith and Rationality: Monk Scientists;
  • Buddhism and Technological Innovation: Ideas and Philosophy;
  • Opportunities and Threats of Artificial Intelligence, from the Perspective of Buddhist Thought.
  • Uses of Computational Methods for the Study of East Asian Buddhism.

Local transportation, meals and accommodation during the conference period, will be covered by the conference organizers, who—depending on availability of funding—may also provide a travel subsidy to selected panelists. Please email proposals and CVs to frogbear.project@ubc.ca by April 15, 2019. English and Chinese volumes with the conference proceedings will be published speedily after the conference.  Only scholars who are confident in finishing their draft papers by early September and publishable papers by the end of 2019 are encouraged to apply.