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Buddhism and Biotechnology
Ron Epstein
Research Professor, Institute for World Religions, Berkeley
Lecturer, Philosophy Department, San Francisco State University

Edited from a Talk Delivered at "Spiritual Dimensions of Our Technological Future,"
AHIMSA Sixth Annual Conference, International House, University of California at Berkeley, Oct. 3, 1998.


The topic of this panel is "Biotechnology: Boon or Bane for Spiritual Development." It has very often been said that we are on the threshold of the biotech century, and I am sure that all of you are very clearly aware that genetic engineering is going to totally reshape life on this planet in many ways: economically, politically, scientifically--particularly in terms of medicine, and also environmentally. Most important for all of us is what the relationship of this incredible technology will be to the spiritual nature of human beings. Although an enormous amount has been written on biotechnology, very little has been written about the relationship between biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering, and the human spirit.

Allow me to mention two ways in which genetic engineering is profoundly affecting all of our lives. First, at this very moment, the United States government is considering a request for medical scientists to intervene in the germ-line of human genetics, in other words, to change the human genetic structure in a way that would be transmitted to future generations. This means that human evolution in its traditional meaning is coming to an end. We will be taking over responsibility, not only for the evolution of human beings, but also for the evolution of many other forms of life on the planet, both sentient and non-sentient.

The second way in which of genetic engineering is directly touching our lives, that fortunately, insofar as we are aware, is not yet operational, is the use of genetic engineering in biowarfare. As I am speaking, many governments are actively working on the use of genetically engineered organisms in biowarfare, and presumably so too are terrorist organizations. These are two things, which are part of the "promise" of this new biotech century, that we are going to have to be dealing with in the immediate future.

Paradigms are lenses through which we see issues that aid focusing, clarifying, and perhaps also distorting how we look at issues. Professor Ted Peters and Professor Margaret McLean are both going to be talking primarily from Christian paradigms. Professor Huston Smith has already mentioned Scientism as the dominant paradigm of our culture. That still leaves a whole wide range of important paradigms. As both a Buddhist scholar and practictioner, I would like to briefly introduce some distinctive features of the Buddhist paradigm’s relation to genetic engineering.

Four aspects of the Buddhist paradigm are somewhat different than the dominant paradigm of Scientism and many of the paradigms that we find within Christian theology. The first aspect that I'd like to mention is ahimsa, which is particularly appropriate to our gathering here today. Ahimsa means non-harming; it is the principle of respect for the intrinsic value of the life of all sentient beings, not just human life. This paradigm respects sentient beings not merely for their usefulness to us as tools or means to ends. Out of this principle of respect for life comes the notion of selfless compassion as a guiding principle in our actions, so that, in terms of genetic engineering, it would exclude any instrumental use of human or non-human sentient life. If I had time, I would go into the horrific instrumental use of non-sentient life, and sometimes unfortunately human and other sentient life, in the pursuit of profit by biotech companies.

The second aspect I'd like to discuss is transcendence. Transcendence refers to the potential of all human beings for developing spiritual wisdom and liberation. Transcendence cannot be couched in scientific terms. Nor there is any way to talk meaningfully about transcendence from the point of view of Scientism.

The third aspect of the Buddhist paradigm is the understanding that the cosmos is an open system. In contradistinction, the scientific method operates within hypothesized artificial and closed systems, that are assumed to have some meaningful, but incomplete and imperfect, correspondence with the "real" world. From the viewpoint of paradigm of Buddhism, it is clear that scientific methodology cannot, because of its inherent limitations, assess the full extent of the possible effects of genetically engineered alterations on living creatures in a world that is an open system. Thus no certainty or reliable risk assessment is possible using the scientific model.

The fourth and final aspect of this paradigm that I would like to mention is its non-Cartesian nature. In other words, our minds and spirits affect our bodies, our bodies affect our minds and spirit, and body, mind, and spirit are non-dual. Ultimately, they are neither mutually distinct, nor qualitatively different. Because body, mind, and spirit interrelate with one another and affect one another, the karma-based ethics of the Buddhist paradigm stresses the importance of the purification of all three.

I hope that you have been able to follow the this explanation, which has been very brief because of our time constraints, of these four aspects the Buddhist paradigm, which is so different from the mainstream paradigms of the modern world.

Finally, I would like you all to take a moment to reflect upon the possibility, which exists because of the interrelation and ultimate non-duality of body, mind, and spirit, that genetic engineering may adversely influence the potential of sentient beings to achieve transcendence and liberation. Because science deals only with the physical realm, no scientific experiment or methodology can possibly assess this kind of risk. Even if there is only a relatively small possibility of genetic engineering having a serious effect on the nature of the human spirit and its potential for transcendence, I think many of you will agree with me that it is a very serious cause for concern.

Source: "Genetic Engineering and Its Dangers."


Updated: 3-7-2000

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