The Universal Quest for Meaning, Purpose, and Spiritual Growth
The View from ChatGPT4, plus cross cultural commentary
OpenAI’s ChatGPT4 reached 100 million users in just two months and created a humongous media buzz throughout much of the world. Scraping information off the entire internet and making an unimaginably huge knowledgebase accessible to so many users is a groundbreaking stellar accomplishment. Knowledgeable experts have likened this variously to: 1 creation of the wheel; 2 the Copernican revolution about the sun as the center of our solar system; 3 the industrial revolution’s steam engine; 4 the internet; and 5 the smart phone. The up- and down-sides of this breakthrough are being discussed and debated across the globe, ranging from the looming development of AGI [Artificial General Intelligence] to massive job losses, especially for knowledge workers, and the risks posed by malevolent actors.
There is currently an important difference between Google searches that bring millions of hits and their sources from a single search query, versus ChatGPT4’s capacity to reply to a series of connected queries, called prompts. These replies can yield cogent answers integrating related content across multiple domains.
An interesting question arises about how ChatGPT4 might be used to smooth the bumps and grinds of an individual’s life journey, mitigate individual and collective suffering and guide the evolution of consciousness toward happiness. It can be useful to consider the eastern spiritual traditions of Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism. They offer a distinctly different view of an individual’s life journey than what is common in the west.
So, what does ChatGPT4 say about these three wisdom traditions from the east? Its responses to a series of three prompts are italicized below. This is accompanied by commentary from ib, the intermittently clueless dharma wanderer:
Prompt 1: What is the commonality across Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism?
Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are three distinct spiritual traditions with unique beliefs, practices, and philosophies. However, they share some commonalities that reflect their shared cultural and historical contexts, as well as their exploration of the human condition and the nature of reality. Some of these commonalities include:
Emphasis on inner transformation and self-cultivation: All three traditions encourage personal development and self-cultivation through various practices such as meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. The goal is to attain spiritual growth, inner peace, and ultimately, liberation from suffering or realization of a higher state of consciousness.
While financial security and eventual wealth is commonly encouraged as a primary goal for many in the west, it can often be the case that such accomplishment neither ends suffering nor brings enduring happiness. The accomplished ego inevitably grasps and strives for more, thereby creating more suffering.
Interconnectedness and interdependence: Each tradition recognizes the interconnectedness of all beings and the interdependence of all phenomena. In Buddhism, this is expressed through the concept of dependent origination; in Taoism, through the interplay of Yin and Yang and the harmony of the Tao; and in Hinduism, through the unity of Brahman and Atman, and the interplay of the three gunas (fundamental qualities of nature).
The view from the west is that observed phenomena are separate and distinct. While systems level holistic thinking emerged decades ago, it has not taken root in western culture. This has been attributed to mainstream media’s focus on negative news, the judgmental criticism of mainstream pundits, and social media’s cultivation of outrage and the reinforcement of ego through selfies. The deeper interconnectedness of all phenomena, such as that expressed by peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, is not discussed in the mainstream media.
Rejection of materialism and focus on spiritual values: All three traditions emphasize the importance of focusing on spiritual values rather than material pursuits, highlighting the impermanence and illusory nature of worldly pleasures.
The contrary view from the west has often been that material wealth is the paramount accomplishment to seek as the pinnacle of success. Spiritual values are given little to no attention, with the rare exception of a few authors and columnists, such as David Brooks.
Cyclical view of time and the concept of rebirth: Each tradition shares a cyclical view of time, which involves the belief in cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. In Buddhism, this is called samsara; in Hinduism, the cycle of reincarnation is connected to the law of karma; and in Taoism, the concept of continuous change and transformation is central to its cosmology.
The truth of inevitable impermanence is rarely given any credence in the western media, while chaotic turbulence and violent change is covered widely, thereby promoting anxiety, apprehension and fear. Practices for personal transformation via secular mindfulness training occasionally receive some attention.
Ethical principles and moral values: Each tradition promotes ethical behavior and moral values, such as compassion, nonviolence, truthfulness, and self-discipline. These values are considered essential for personal growth and spiritual development.
Jack Kornfield, a nationally recognized Buddhist teacher, has been quoted at a Wisdom 2.0 conference as saying, “When love meets suffering, it becomes compassion.” The tragic increase of gun violence in the US is well recognized and publicized, but there have been no effective solutions implemented for its prevention or mitigation.
The existence of a spiritual path or practices: All three traditions offer a variety of practices and teachings to guide individuals on their spiritual journey. In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path is a key guide; in Hinduism, various paths like Bhakti Yoga (devotion), Jnana Yoga (knowledge), and Karma Yoga (action) are prominent; and in Taoism, practices like meditation, Tai Chi, and adherence to the Tao are essential.
While Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are distinct spiritual traditions with their own unique beliefs and practices, they share certain common themes and values, such as the pursuit of inner transformation, interconnectedness, and ethical living. These commonalities reflect the shared human experience and the universal quest for meaning, purpose, and spiritual growth.
Prompt 2: What is the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism?
The Noble Eightfold Path is a central teaching in Buddhism that outlines the path to the cessation of suffering and the attainment of enlightenment. It consists of eight interconnected steps or practices that are considered essential for achieving liberation from suffering. These steps are:
Right Understanding: The first step is to develop a clear and accurate understanding of the nature of reality, including the Four Noble Truths, the law of karma, and the interconnectedness of all things.
Right Intention: The second step is to cultivate wholesome and compassionate intentions, including the intention to cultivate wisdom, kindness, and renunciation.
Right Speech: The third step is to use speech that is truthful, kind, and helpful, and to avoid speech that is harmful, divisive, or untruthful.
Right Action: The fourth step is to behave in ways that are wholesome and compassionate, including abstaining from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
Right Livelihood: The fifth step is to engage in work that is ethical and does not cause harm to oneself or others.
Right Effort: The sixth step is to cultivate the effort required to develop wholesome states of mind, including mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.
Right Mindfulness: The seventh step is to develop mindfulness, or awareness, of the body, feelings, thoughts, and other phenomena as they arise in the present moment.
Right Concentration: The eighth and final step is to develop deep concentration and focus, which can lead to the development of wisdom and liberation from suffering.
Together, these eight steps form a comprehensive framework for the development of wholesome qualities of mind and the attainment of liberation from suffering.
Prompt 3: What is the meaning of wisdom in the Buddhist tradition and how might a practioner cultivate it?
In the Buddhist tradition, wisdom is one of the two primary qualities that are cultivated in the path to enlightenment, the other being compassion. Wisdom is the ability to see things as they really are, beyond our usual conceptualizations and biases. It involves a deep understanding of the nature of reality, including the impermanence, dissatisfaction, and interconnectedness of all things.
To cultivate wisdom, a practitioner may engage in various practices, including:
Developing insight: Insight meditation, or vipassana, is a practice that involves observing the body, feelings, thoughts, and other phenomena as they arise and pass away in the present moment. This can help to develop a deep understanding of the nature of reality and the interdependence of all phenomena.
Studying the Buddhist teachings: The Buddhist teachings, including the sutras and commentaries, provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the nature of reality and the path to liberation. By studying these texts and reflecting on their meaning, practitioners can develop a deeper understanding of the teachings and how they apply to their own lives.
Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness is a practice that involves paying attention to the present moment with a non-judgmental and open awareness. By cultivating mindfulness, practitioners can develop greater clarity and insight into their own minds and the nature of reality.
Engaging in inquiry: Inquiry involves questioning our assumptions and beliefs and examining them with an open and curious mind. By investigating the nature of our own experiences, we can gain insight into the nature of reality and develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
Overall, cultivating wisdom requires a combination of study, reflection, meditation, and inquiry, as well as a willingness to question our assumptions and preconceptions. Through these practices, practitioners can develop a deeper understanding of the nature of reality and the path to liberation from suffering.
ChaptGPT4’s replies to the above three prompts offer a testable and actionable framework for the dissolution of suffering and the cultivation of happiness. Simply engaging in mindfulness vipassana meditation will yield enhanced awareness, but progress toward liberation from suffering will likely be gradual and slow. Incorporating the essential principles of the eightfold path is likely to improve results with a commensurate reduction of suffering, even though that is still said to be a gradual path.
The development of wisdom about the nature of one’s experience of reality can be both simple and complex. The more practitioners are able to simply accept their experience of reality without emotion or resistance, as it is, this equanimity is said to accelerate progress. The more practitioners are able to develop compassion and cultivate states of emptiness, this is said to more likely bring forth wisdom arising in the present moment.
In this manner, practitioners can enter into a deepening journey of awakening that can yield unexpected delight, while still providing thumps and bumps to stimulate further awakening when the path has become obscured. Obscurations arise from ego, grasping, attachment, emotionality and a failure to sustain equanimity.
Responsibilities must still be met. Duties must still be carried out. Tasks performed. Even so, as one’s consciousness and spirit are cleansed of faulty habits and egoic intentions, one’s life journey becomes lighter and less burdensome. Opportunities arise for deep learning, as well as discovery and moments of bliss. Happiness about being alive can morph into experiencing joyful moments as a blessing for the precious human life that is underway.
Following a transformational experience with a vertical beam of white light, the dharma wanderer’s personal journey was kick started in the 1970’s by the American psychologist and folk guru, Ram Dass. Further study on Buddhism increased his awareness and practice of insight/vipassana meditation and attempts to align with the eightfold path. Without a personal teacher, he evolved his own personal practice of meditative movement to support progress toward what were important secular goals as his journey unfolded. This had the inevitable impact of increasing egoic striving, with commensurate suffering as the result. He was spiritually isolated for two decades in China as he focused on business with his life partner while refining the meditative movement practice.
After he returned to the US, a knowledgeable, sensitive and kind-hearted teacher of Tibetan Buddhism provided helpful guidance for expanding the dharma wanderer’s variety of practices. These practices have cultivated increases in equanimity, as well as insights about causes of personal suffering and deeper states of meditative awareness and emptiness.
Reflecting on progress has heightened the risk of egoic arrogance, which has become a mind state to be observed and dissolved as it arises. Documenting reflections in writing continues to be a worthwhile practice for the dharma wanderer’s journey.
May this be of benefit for all beings and the world.