Buddhist Meditation and the Ethics of Human Augmentation
Stuart Ray Sarbacker,
Oregon State University International Conference on Buddhism and Technology:
Historical Background and Contemporary Challenges University of British Columbia, September 20-22, 2019
I. Introduction Emergent technologies of “Human Engineering,” also known as “Human Augmentation” and “Human Enhancement” are rapidly changing the nature of human embodiment and have profound social and moral implications.1 Particularly noteworthy among these are technologies that enhance human physical, sensory, and cognitive capacities, from artificial limbs and visual and hearing aids that expand action and perception to wearables and implants that provide instant access to vast amounts of data and augment knowledge of, and control over, otherwise autonomous biophysical processes. A counterpoint to these technologies that aim to transform human embodiment are technologies that aim to transcend embodiment entirely, such as “uploading,” in which human consciousness is moved from the “wetware” of the human body and brain to machine-based “hardware.”2 Some technologists and enthusiasts view such augmentation as
1 Stephen Lilley, Transhumanism and Society: The Social Debate over Human Enhancement (New York: Springer, 2013), 1–12; Olle Häggström, Here Be Dragons: Science, Technology and the Future of Humanity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 38–84; Andrew Pilsch, Transhumanism: Evolutionary Futurism and the Human Technologies of Utopia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 1–24; C. Christopher Hook, “Transhumanism and Posthumanism,” in Encyclopedia of Bioethics, ed. Stephen G. Post, 3rd ed., vol. 5 (New York, NY: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004), 2517–20. 2 Fuller and Lipinska depict this as represented by the contrast between “Pelagians” and “Arians,” manifest in the visions of Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurtzweil, respectively. Steve Fuller and Veronica Lipinska, “Transhumanism,” in Ethics, Science, and Engineering: A Global Resource, ed. J. Britt Holbrook (Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2015). Ray Kurzweil is particularly associated with the conception of the “singularity,” though the concept was utilized as early as 1958. Vernor Vinge, “Technological Singularity,” in The Transhumanist Reader, ed. Max More and Natasha Vita-More (Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 366; Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Viking, 2005).
potentially ushering in the transformation of humanity itself into a different order of being—first, as “transitional humans” or “transhumans,” and second, as “posthumans” that are seen as the evolutionary successor to humanity and the harbingers of utopia.3 This paper will argue that the philosophy and practice of Buddhist meditation (Skt. dhyāna, Pāli jhāna, Ch. ch'an, Jpn. zen) or meditative cultivation (bhāvanā) provides a paradigm for understanding how Buddhist philosophy and ethics might address issues raised by the augmentation of human capacities through technology. It will also demonstrate how emergent philosophical and religious conceptions of the Transhuman and Posthuman can be critiqued and re-interpreted in light of Buddhist philosophy, particularly that of the fluidity of the cosmological boundary between the human and divine and the human being’s potential to become radically spiritually transformed as an awakened Noble Person (āryapudgala).
II. Science, Technology, and Augmentation In the study of Religion and Science, it is common to distinguish between the larger issue of the questions of “spirituality” and “transcendence,” i.e. general concerns, and the unique content of particular religious traditions (such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).4 With respect to the second aspect, Buddhism provides a distinct set of philosophical principles that
Hook argues that the name of the “Transhumanism” movement began in the 1980s with the writings of the Futurist FM-2030; whereas Fuller and Lipinska connect the term to the work of Julian Huxley in the 1950s. Hook, “Transhumanism and Posthumanism,” 2518; Fuller and Lipinska, “Transhumanism,” 410. 4 Ted Peters, “Science and Religion,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones, 2nd ed., vol. 12 (Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 8180. For further reference, see the definition of science in the Oxford English Dictionary, especially 4b.: “A branch of study that deals with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less comprehended by general laws, and incorporating trustworthy methods (now esp. those involving the scientific method and which incorporate falsifiable hypotheses) for the discovery of new truth in its own domain.” “Science, n.,” in OED Online (Oxford University Press), accessed September 8, 2019, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/172672. On technology, OED definitions 4b and 4c are useful: “The application of such knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry, manufacturing, etc.; the sphere of activity concerned with this; the mechanical arts and applied sciences collectively” and “The product of such application; technological knowledge or know-how; a technological process, method, or technique. Also: machinery, equipment, etc., developed from the practical application of scientific and technical knowledge; an example of this. Also in extended use.” “Technology, n.,” in OED Online (Oxford University Press), accessed September 8, 2019, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/198469.
position it quite differently than other religious traditions—particularly the Abrahamic family of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—including a rejection of metaphysical absolutism and the notions of an “ultimate” creator god and of a substantive self (ātman).5 On the other hand, there are parallels to be found to how Buddhism and other traditions interact with science and technology— whether that be antagonistically, cooperatively, or as distinct domains, among other possibilities.6 The recent history of Buddhism, particularly the development of Buddhist modernism and the Buddhism-informed neurosciences, point towards the active engagement of both scholars and practitioners of Buddhism and of scientists in a cooperation-based or dialogic relationship, one that seeks to frame scientific study as complementary, if not coextensive, to Buddhist endeavors.7 The scientific study of Buddhist meditation through the use of high-definition scanning technology such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), has been at the vanguard of the Buddhism-science interface, in part due to the centrality of meditation in Buddhist cosmopolitanism.8 This has, in turn, led to a more comparative approach to the Buddhism-Science conversation, one that looks to cross-cultural expressions of spirituality and focuses on the rootedness of religious experience in the body and the brain.9
For example, the notion of the danger of science and technology leading to humans becoming, out of their hubris, like “God,” or modifying nature in “unnatural” ways do not apply to Buddhist thought and practice in a symmetric and coherent way. The dialogue between Buddhism and science undoubtedly looks different from that of science and Abrahamic theism and offers a set of different trajectories. Peters, Ibid. 6 Peters, “Science and Religion,” 8186; Thomas Dixon, Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1–17. 7 Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 1–37. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has claimed that he would be willing to try “headwiring” (i.e. implantation of an electrode) if it reduced negative emotions. Leigh Hochberg and Thomas Cochrane, “Implanted Neural Interfaces: Ethics in Treatment and Research,” in Neuroethics in Practice, ed. Anjan Chatterjee and Martha J Farah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 245. The Dalai Lama has also stated publicly the willingness to abandon Buddhist claims if proven false by science. See, for example, Tenzin Gyatso, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science And Spirituality (New York: Morgan Road Books, 2005), 2–3. 8 Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed, 197–210. An early stage of the Buddhismneuroscience dialogue is documented in Robert Thurman and Daniel Goleman, eds., MindScience: An East-West Dialogue (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1991). 9 See, for example, Eugene G D’Aquili and Andrew B Newberg, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999); Andrew B. Newberg, Principles of Neurotheology (Farnham, Surrey, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Pub, 2010); Andrew B. Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation (New York: Avery, 2017).
As such, a significant aspect of the Buddhism-Science dialogue of the late 20th and early 21st century has been the observation of physiological correlates to Buddhist meditation practice, as exemplified by the pioneering work of the Mind & Life Institute and that of neuroscientists such as Richard Davidson.10 However, a new wave of emergent technologies aim to induce, support, and explore, as opposed to simply measure, the effects of contemplative practice, especially as derived from Buddhist models. These include neurofeedback devices that aim to accelerate meditation practice through the use of brainwave entraining Electroencephalogram (EEG) technology, as well as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TCMS) and transcranial electrical stimulation (TCES).11 In addition, studies being performed on the use of psychoactive agents as catalysts for therapeutic psychological transformation, such as the Johns Hopkins psilocybin study, have examined the ways in which Buddhist meditation practice facilitates “quantum change,” or dramatic self-transformation catalyzed by psychoactive drugs.12 “Nootropics,” formerly known as “smart drugs,” which are supplements intended to enhance brain function, offer another potential approach to augmenting mental capacities, and thus meditation.13 Other related technologies
See, for example, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body (New York: Avery, 2017). 11 These are increasingly available as consumer and mass production products, such as the Muse Meditation Headband EEG system, TheBrain TCES system, and the Magventure Express TCMS system. Emergent scientific literature has been growing in parallel. See, for example, Mayte Navarro Gil et al., “Efficacy of Neurofeedback on the Increase of Mindfulness-Related Capacities in Healthy Individuals: A Controlled Trial,” Mindfulness 9, no. 1 (February 1, 2018): 303–11; KaWai Leong et al., “Changes in Mindfulness Following Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for Mood Disorders,” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 58, no. 12 (December 1, 2013): 687–91; M. J. Farah, “The Unknowns of Cognitive Enhancement,” Science 350, no. 6259 (October 23, 2015): 379–80; L. C. Reteig et al., “Transcranial Electrical Stimulation as a Tool to Enhance Attention,” Journal of Cognitive Enhancement 1, no. 1 (March 1, 2017): 10–25. The impact of magnetic fields on the brain and their implications on religion is perhaps most popularly associated with Persinger’s “God Helmet,” discussed in David Biello, “Searching for God in the Brain,” Scientific American Mind 18, no. 5 (2007): 38–45. 12 Roland R Griffiths et al., “Psilocybin-Occasioned Mystical-Type Experience in Combination with Meditation and Other Spiritual Practices Produces Enduring Positive Changes in Psychological Functioning and in Trait Measures of Prosocial Attitudes and Behaviors,” Journal of Psychopharmacology 32, no. 1 (January 2018): 49–69. 13 See, for example, Anna Wexler, “The Social Context of ‘Do-It-Yourself’ Brain Stimulation: Neurohackers, Biohackers, and Lifehackers,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 11 (2017). One prominent nootropic company states “Green tea may, in fact, be the original nootropic herb — first recognized as such by Buddhist monks of the Far East,” arguing for the compatibility between meditation and nootropics. “Traditional Brain Herbs – Ancient Nootropics with a Bright Future | Mind Lab Pro®,” Mind Lab Pro, April 10, 2018, https://www.mindlabpro.com/blog/nootropics/brainherbs/.
include “technodelics”—virtual reality (VR) and other technologies that aim to induce meditative or visionary states through the constructive application of sensory stimulation or overloading.14 Unlike the earlier observation-driven models, such technologies are aimed at inducing contemplative or visionary states, and not just the measurement of them.15 Such technologies of self-transformation, or “contemplative technologies,” can be subsumed under the larger umbrella of technologies of human augmentation. Interpreters of this technological sphere often differentiate between two primary modes of intervention: therapeutic and enhancement.16 The first type of technological intervention seeks the reduction or elimination of various types of “harms” and the restoration absent or lost psychophysical capacities, and the second aims at the extension or addition of psychophysical capacities, thereby producing extraordinary modes of knowledge and action.17 Therapy is typically viewed as the less morally complicated of the two modes of intervention, though there is considerable debate over whether the distinction between therapy and enhancement is ultimately coherent.18 Other issues include the degree to which such augmentation is limited or contained, such as somatic-cell genetic engineering, versus being perpetual, such as germ-line genetic engineering.19 Conservative, or “Bioconservative,” positions on human augmentation have been expressed in terms of religiousbased critiques of “human hubris” that emphasize the sanctity of human nature or “creation” and secular philosophical and environmental critiques focused on the danger of the unintended (or
Jason Lange, “The Coming Age of Technodelics,” April 3, 2014, https://www.jasonlange.me/2014/04/coming-agetechnodelics/. A related term is this discourse is that of the oneirogenic or “dream causing.” 15 That being said, they might ultimately be seen to be complementary; with more sophisticated technologies of observation, the potential to develop technologies of catalysis based upon emulation or catalysis of particular brain states increases. 16 See, for example, Bernard Gert and Charles M. Culver, “Therapy and Enhancement,” in Ethics, Science, and Engineering: A Global Resource, ed. J. Britt Holbrook (Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2015). 17 Ibid., 360. Enhancement technologies include extraordinary sensory capacities, life-extension, “uploading,” and so forth, which provide agency beyond the limits of human biophysical existence. 18 Ibid., 361. 19 Ibid. 361-62; This can be extended to nonhuman experimentation, where the problem of unintended effects looms, for example in the production of GMOs and practices of “DIYbio.”
ignored) consequences of technology.20 Intersectionalists, particularly feminists, have expressed optimism at the positive valuation of alterity, or “otherness,” in Transhumanist thought, but also have articulated concern for the danger that augmentation technologies will only further exacerbate existing injustice and oppression, including economic and political asymmetry.21 On the other end of the spectrum from the Bioconservatives are the avowed Transhumanists and Posthumanists, especially “Technophiles,” who view the process of enhancement as a “manifest destiny” for humans to evolved into a new type or order of being.22 In this model, humanity is moving through a transitional stage towards posthumanity, in which posthumans will be evolutionarily distinct from their predecessors. A particularly visible and vocal contemporary representative of the Transhumanist movement is the community of “biohackers,” specifically “body-modders” or “grinders,” who have taken on the task of implementing the technologization of the body.23 As such, biohackers embody the notion of a “Technoscience,” the collapsing of the theoretical into applied science into a direct and visceral application to biophysical life.24 Transhumanism and Posthumanism are often millenarian and utopian in their orientation; both view human augmentation and transformation as inevitable, if not as a good in itself, as the culmination of the
Some of the more disparaging language labels for conservative opinions include “Technoluddites” or “Technophobes.” See Dale Carrico, “Technoprogressivism: Beyond Technophilia and Technophobia,” accessed August 30, 2019, https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET2/more/carrico20060812/. 21 Patricia MacCormack, “Posthuman,” in Gender: Sources, Perspectives, and Methodologies, ed. Renée C. Hoogland (Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2016), 291–303. MacCormack builds upon Donna Haraway’s work. See Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century,” in The International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006), 117–158. 22 Carrico, “Technoprogressivism: Beyond Technophilia and Technophobia.” 23 See, for example, Kara Platoni, We Have the Technology: How Biohackers, Foodies, Physicians, and Scientists Are Transforming Human Perception, One Sense at a Time (New York: Basic Books, 2015); Mark O’Connell, To Be a Machine (London: Granta Publications, 2018); Marcus Wohlsen, Biopunk: Solving Biotech’s Biggest Problems in Kitchens and Garages (New York: Current, 2014); Marc E. Vargo, The Weaponizing of Biology: Bioterrorism, Biocrime and Biohacking (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., Publishers, 2017). Platoni makes a distinction between “soft” and “hard” biohacking, the first being discursive and cultural and the second being machine-technological, which makes for an interesting comparison with contemplative techniques. Vargo discusses the bioterrorism of the Rajneesh community in Oregon, with by some estimates was a pioneering project in DIYbio. 24 Gilbert Hottois, “Technoscience,” in Ethics, Science, and Engineering: A Global Resource, ed. J. Britt Holbrook (Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2015). Indian Buddhism’s skepticism regarding “unanswerables” or “non-edifying questions” might be seen to be at parity with a technoscientific approach that is concerned with application more than with theory.
“human project.”25 Critics, on the other hand, view the Transhuman and Posthuman projects as potentially re-inscribing the faults of modernity, especially of social and environmental injustice, on the future, lending toward even greater resource disparity and injustice.26 Will the future be egalitarian and utopian, or a dystopia in which the wealthy and powerful enjoy even greater autonomy and luxury, while the rest of humanity competes for an ever-diminishing share of resources? Or might Posthumans view humanity as akin to the Neanderthals, as inferiors that should be ultimately eliminated?27 Some scholars and activists have called for a “Technoprogressivism” that negotiates between the extremes of Technophilia and Technophobia and views social and environmental justice as an essential component of any Transhumanist vision.28
III. Ascetic-Contemplative Traditions and Human Augmentation The origins of Buddhism are associated with the development of (Hindu) Brāhmaṇical Asceticism and Śramaṇa traditions in mid-first-millennium BCE India. By most scholarly estimates, this was a period of rapid transformation in the Gangetic plain, driven by the rise of an urban agricultural civilization out of the pre-urban, especially Vedic, cultures of northern India.29 The Vedic priestly (brāhmaṇa) tradition, perhaps in conversation with heterodox traditions, began to forefront and highlight ascetic and contemplative practices, idealizing the ṛṣi, the “seer,” and the muni, or “silent one,” as templates for virtuoso Brāhmaṇical asceticism. The early Vedic tradition drew inspiration
A “inevitablist” view articulated by the physicist Freeman Dyson. Hook, “Transhumanism and Posthumanism,” 2519. 26 Häggström, Here Be Dragons; MacCormack, “Posthuman.” 27 Häggström, Here Be Dragons, Ibid. 28 Carrico, “Technoprogressivism: Beyond Technophilia and Technophobia.” 29 Discussed in Patrick Olivelle, The Early Upanisads: annotated text and translation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 3–27; Richard F. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo (Routledge, 2006), 32–60. It is interesting to speculate about how, similarly, the radical transformations of the modern world, especially as brought on urbanization, industrialization, and information technology, may be a driving force in the success of Buddhism in the contemporary era.
from the soma-cult, a liturgy built around the pressing, praising, and consumption of an elixir (soma) that induced ecstasy. Scholars have wildly debated the identity of the soma plant—whether it be ephedra, cannabis, Syrian rue, poppy, the amanita muscaria mushroom, or even an ayahuasca analog—but it is nonetheless clear that a psychoactive agent was utilized to inspire ritual performance from early on in the Vedic tradition.30 In addition, a type of ascetic referred to as the Keśin, or “long haired one,” referred to with the term muni, is portrayed as ingesting an agent (viṣa) that induces extraordinary visionary states, including possession and flight. Lastly, the Vedic tradition appears to have utilized the practice of tapas (asceticism, literally “heat”) extensively, most notably the practices of fasting (vrata, abhuñjāna), breath control (prāṇāyāma), and celibacy (brahmacarya), sometimes referred to as austerities (kṛcchra), extolling them as both purifying and as empowering.31 The full flowering of ascetic-contemplative techniques of this era is most evident in the Śramaṇa, or “striver traditions,” of the era, particularly in Jainism, Buddhism, and in the Ājīvika tradition, all of which embraced varying degrees of asceticism and contemplation. Narratives of the life of the Buddha illustrate the range and depth of ascetic-contemplative techniques of the era. One aspect of this is his training with Ārāḍa Kālāma and Udraka Rāmaputra, who are said to have taught him meditation on “nothingness” (ākiṃcanyāyatana) and “neither perception nor nonperception” (naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāyatana), states of deep introversion. Gautama’s practice of self-mortification with the five ascetics (pañcabhadravargīya-bhikṣū), exemplified by the Buddha’s fasting to the brink of death encapsulates a Buddhist critique of Jain traditions of severe
On soma, see Matthew James Clark, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma, and Ayahuasca (New York: Muswell Hill Press, 2017). 31 Walter O Kaelber, Tapta Mārga: Ascetism and Initiation in Vedic India (Albany New York: State University of New York Press, 1989), 45–71.
asceticism.32 The narratives of the Buddha’s renunciation may also contain references to the utilization of immobile posture (āsana), prāṇāyāma techniques (particularly breath retention), and possibly even an analog to the yogic practice of khecarīmudrā, in which the tongue is turned back and pushed upwards behind the palate.33 These various techniques—whether of Brāhmaṇical Ascetic or Śramaṇa origin—are distant ancestors of contemporary practices of biohacking. In fact, one might argue that these early Indian ascetics, yogin-s, and yoginī-s were some of the original biohackers, who had discovered how various exogenous catalysts (such as psychoactive substances) and endogenous techniques (such as exposure, immobility, fasting, breath control, sense-withdrawal, and meditation) evoked extraordinary physical and mental states, having “unlocked” or “hacked” their biophysical systems.34 From the viewpoint of human augmentation, both therapeutic and enhancement aspects are represented in this early Indic context as well—in both narrative and philosophical contexts, it is understood that spiritual discipline (yoga) serves as a basis both for elimination of harm (freedom from duḥkha, meaning “suffering” or “dissatisfaction”) but also for the attainment of an array of extraordinary powers of perception and action (such as mind-reading, flight, and divine sight). Whether the elimination of suffering (duḥkha) is temporary or lasting in a given traditional
Johannes Bronkhorst, The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993), 1–25.; Mahāvīra’s attainment of liberation is represented in texts as occurring while food/water fasting, squatting in the midday sun. 33 James Mallinson, Khecarividya of adinatha: a critical edition and annotated translation of an early text of hathayoga (London: Routledge, 2010), 17–19. Mallinson notes that the Pāli passages indicate a pressing of the tongue against the palate, not placing it behind it, which is the case in khecarīmudrā. Many of these practices likely engage the vagal nerve system. 34 It might be noted that fasting has direct impact on the body’s mechanism for metabolism and may also engage reward (dopamine, etc.) processes; pain and stress elicits endogenous pain relief (opiod, cannabinoid, etc.) and may facilitate learning; near-death experiences may facilitate the release of endogenous DMT analogs. Though the Buddha rejected bodily mortification, he did not reject asceticism. In addition to the tradition of the dhutāṅga mode of Buddhist practice, in contemporary Buddhism there are controversies regarding the austerities of modern vipassanā practice, such as the Goenka system. With respect to meditation, discussed in detail below, Buddhist techniques are an important part of the contemporary (and popular) biohacker repertoire. See, for example, Jevan Pradas, The Awakened Ape: A Biohacker’s Guide to Evolutionary Fitness, Natural Ecstasy, and Stress-Free Living (Old Saybrook, Conn.: Tantor Media, 2016). The pervasive role of asceticism in modern culture, often “hidden in plain view,” is discussed in Evert Peeters, Leen van Molle, and Kaat Wils, Beyond Pleasure: Cultures of Modern Asceticism (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011).
context was a matter of dispute (the Buddha is repeatedly portrayed as rejecting practices due to their limited or temporary effect) and it is clear that the power resulting from ascetic and contemplative practice is morally and spiritual ambiguous, in some cases being framed an impediment to spiritual practice.35 This dynamic reaches a subtle but profound expression in practice of meditative cultivation (bhāvanā), which is said to be derived from the awakening experience of the Buddha himself, providing a template for reflecting on the augmenting of human capacities through technology.36 III. The Śamatha-Vipaśyanā Distinction and Human Augmentation One of the principal frameworks for understanding Buddhist meditation that developed in the centuries following the life of the Buddha, especially during the late centuries BCE and early centuries CE, was the distinction between serenity (śamatha) meditation and insight (vipaśyanā) meditation.37 This distinction was, in part, viewed as a systematization of the method of the historical Buddha himself, who, having abandoned the practice of austerities at the discovery of the Middle Way, is said to have taken up the practice of mental cultivation (bhāvanā), specifically meditation (dhyāna), which became a basis for his awakening experience, through his cultivation
llustrated, among other ways, in narratives of battles and competitions over psychic power. Stuart Ray Sarbacker, “The Numinous and Cessative in Modern Yoga,” in Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Mark Singleton and Jean Byrne (New York: Routledge, 2008), 166–67. 36 Whether such techniques—including meditation—are, in fact, technologies, is not the primary concern here. For a further discussion of that issue, see Ann Gleig, “#Hashtag Meditation, Cyborg Buddhas, and Enlightenment as an Epic Win: Buddhism, Technology, and the New Social Media,” in Asian Religions, Technology and Science, ed. István Keul (New York: Routledge, 2018), 186–203. A provocative representative of the term “technology” with respect to the larger context of the practice of mind-body discipline (yoga) is found in Georg Feuerstein, Yoga: The Technology of Ecstasy (Wellingborough: Crucible, 1990). A common trope in the modern era has been that of the “Science of Yoga,” which ostensibly draws upon Sanskritic notions of “Yoga Knowledge” (yoga-vidyā), but appeals to the modern, secular framing of yoga and its rhetorical power. Stuart Ray Sarbacker, “Reclaiming the Spirit through the Body: The Nascent Spirituality of Modern Postural Yoga,” Entangled Religions, no. 1 (2014): 95–114. 37 Particularly in the “Classical Śramaṇa” traditions of Buddhism, as represented in the Vimuttimagga, Visuddhimagga, and Abhidharmakośa, among other texts. Stuart Ray Sarbacker, Tracing the Path of Yoga: The History and Philosophy of Indian Mind-Body Discipline (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, Forthcoming).
of insight (vipaśyanā) into the nature of embodied existence.38 Bhāvanā, and by extension both śamatha or vipaśyanā, is understood to be the practice of mindfulness (smṛti). Dhyāna (Pāli jhāna), the hallmark of śamatha, is a deep and powerful meditative absorption achieved through the contemplation of a single meditation subject, whether a material object, the breath, the Buddha, or another physical or mental object.39 The various subjects have an “antidotal” quality, in that they counteract particular mental afflictions. Meditation on the breath, for example, is said to counter the affliction of over-rumination.40 The establishment of facility in dhyāna is said to lead to various forms of higher knowledge (abhijñā), which are five types of extraordinary capacity, including [[[psychic]]] accomplishments (ṛddhi), mind-reading (paracittajñāna), the divine ear (divyaśrotra), the divine eye (divyacakṣus), memory of former lives (pūrvanivāsānusmṛti), and the knowledge that destroys mental pollutants (āśravakṣayajñāna). Śamatha is said to lead to mental purification, calmness and focus, and extraordinary capacities, facilitating but not bringing about awakening. Vipaśyanā represents, in contrast, what is often considered uniquely Buddhist about meditative cultivation (bhāvanā), name the cultivation of liberating insight. The Buddha’s awakening experience is characterized by his attainment of śamatha and abhijñā followed by his liberating insight into the process of birth and rebirth, later conceptualized in the form of the Four Noble Truths. Vipaśyanā is represented in Indian Theravāda Buddhist traditions by the development of the Foundations of Mindfulness (smṛtyupasthāna), including body (kāya), feelings (vedanā), mind (citta), and principles (dharma). In Mahāyāna, vipaśyanā is associated with concepts such as śamathavipaśyanāyuganaddha, or the “union of calming and insight,” especially as meditation on emptiness (śūnyatā) or Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha, buddhadhātu). In this
Sarah Shaw, Buddhist meditation: an anthology of texts from the Pali canon (London; New York: Routledge, 2006), 1–20. 39 Shaw, Ibid. 40 Henepola Gunaratana, The Path of Serenity and Insight: An Explanation of the Buddhist Jhanas (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1985), 22–26.
understanding, śamatha is an instrument that supports liberating insight through vipaśyanā but is not an end in itself. It provides temporary relief through eliminating the manifest afflictions in the mind, cultivating mental composure, calmness, and concentration that support abhijñā and vipaśyanā.41 Śamatha temporarily suspends mental affliction, whereas vipaśyanā removes the roots of affliction. The cognitive states of śamatha-bhāvanā are connected to those of divine brahmā-s who dwell on the higher cosmological realms of the form (rūpa) and formless (arūpya) realms (dhatu) of existence, who, insulated from the travails of the Desire Realm kāmadhātu, are largely unmotivated to pursue liberation.42 Vipaśyanā, on the other hand, destroys the roots of affliction, leading to the achievement of awakening (bodhi) and liberation (vimukti). As the roots of affliction are destroyed, the propensity to perform unvirtuous or unskillful (akuśala) action is eliminated, transforming the worldly (laukika) practitioner into an otherworldly (alaukika) saint. Unlike the worldly brahmā-s, the āryapudgala has achieved at least a degree of liberation from saṃsāra, having achieved extinction (nirvāṇa) or cessation (nirodha). In addition, have achieved freedom, the noble person can serve others in an extraordinary capacity, especially in the pursuit of liberation, through the use of the abhijñā powers. As with the ascetic-contemplative methods of Brāhmaṇical Asceticism and the larger range of Śramaṇa practice, the practice of bhāvanā in the form of the śamatha-vipaśyanā dialectic encompasses the goals of both a therapeutic attenuation, if not removal, of mental affliction and its resultant suffering and dissatisfaction (duḥkha), and the achievement of a range of powers of perception and action that serve the process of liberation of self and the compassionate activity of
Shaw, Buddhist meditation, 18–20; Geshe Lhundub Sopa, “Śamathavipaśyanāyuganaddha: The Two Leading Principles of Buddhist Meditation,” in Mahāyāna Buddhist Meditation: Theory and Practice, ed. Minoru Kiyota (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1978), 46–65. 42 Stuart Ray Sarbacker, Samādhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga (SUNY Press, 2005), 104–8. In the Buddhacarita 2.30-34, Aśvaghoṣa likens Siddhārtha’s life of blissful ignorance in the palace to that of the experience of deities in their celestial palaces, who, caught up in sport and enjoyment, are unaware of the miseries of others in saṃsāra. Sarbacker, Tracing the Path of Yoga: The History and Philosophy of Indian Mind-Body Discipline.
the liberated noble person (āryapudgala). These parallels open the door to a uniquely Buddhist ethical view that provides a coherent technological ethic for human augmentation, anticipating on a number of levels the issues that arise from the development of new technologies. From the śamatha-vipaśyanā distinction, we can glean a set of insights into how Buddhist ethics might be utilized to evaluate technologies of human augmentation. These include 1) a recognition that technology may make humans more god-like, but that from the viewpoint of Buddhist cosmology the gods, including the brahmā-s of the rūpadhātu and arūpyadhātu, are still denizens of saṃsāra and not liberated beings; 2) that technology, like meditation, might facilitate the achievement of serenity and concentration as instruments for achieving liberating knowledge or wisdom (jñāna, prajñā), if applied skillfully; and 3) that one who has achieved liberating knowledge or wisdom might utilize technology in a manner similar to the abhijñā as a vehicle for helping free others from suffering.43 Buddhism and contemporary science are largely at parity in viewing human nature as an impermanent phenomenon. Not only is transformation of mode of human existence possible, it is, in fact, inevitable. In Buddhism, the boundary between human and divine power and agency is a fluid one, both in terms of the practice of meditation and the process of rebirth. What is of critical importance from the viewpoint of Buddhist philosophy and ethics, however, is that the divine mode of existence is coextensive with all of saṃsāra; it is a temporary state of being (though perhaps lasting eons) and is subject to suffering (duḥkha), however subtle. No permanent or lasting satisfaction or peace is to be found in the divine realms, or for that matter a technological augmentation of the human that approximates such a mode of existence. The powers afforded by the divine mode of existence provide opportunities for abuse—and Indian narrative literature
One might ask with respect to #2 if the “perpetual” mode of existence would, itself, become a form of misery and dissatisfaction (duḥkha) over such a great span of time.
offers many examples of questionable behavior on the part of ascetics and yogin-s.44 However, in Buddhist cosmology there are virtuous deities, and the Buddha himself is referred to as the “teacher of gods and men.” Lastly, the beings of the arūpyadhātu, the formless realm exist in a state of suspension that is a temporary relief from suffering, corresponding to the states of “nothingness” and “neither perception-nor-non-perception” experienced by Gautama Buddha during his renunciation.45 This being said, to the degree to which śamatha represents an instrument for achieving serenity and concentration of mind in service of the Buddhist path, it might be said that technologies that serve as a support of serenity and concentration of mind have the potential to improve the human condition. Though the development of calm through biofeedback and other contemplative technologies, for example, may not eliminate the roots of affliction, it reduces the likelihood of harm (hiṃsā) through the reduction of affliction (kleśa) and provides an opening for insight. However, this would require a relationship with technology that did not foster physical or psychological dependence; in other words, part of the value of śamatha is being able to cultivate serenity and concentration without the need for an external support. This is where the import of the skillful (kuśala) application of technology enters the picture, particularly a recognition of its benefits, limits, and pitfalls. One particularly complex example is the use of psychoactive substances, such as cannabis and psilocybin, in concert with Buddhist practice. In the United States, psychedelic use has, historically, been an important precursor to Buddhist practice, and an
A thesis explored at length in David Gordon White, Sinister Yogis (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2009). 45 Which represent profound states of absorption and the suspension of awareness, up to the peak of existence (bhavāgra), the summit of the formless realms, and of saṃsāra.W. Randolph Kloetzli, “Cosmology: Buddhist Cosmology,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones, 2nd ed., vol. 3 (Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 2026–31. These can be contrasted with the desire world (kāmadhātu) heavens, which include the abode of the “Thirty-Three” (trāyastrimśa), including Indra/Śakra. Non-returners (sakṛdāgāmin) are reborn into the “Non-young” (akaniṣṭha) heaven of the rūpadhātu.Robert E Buswell and Donald S Lopez, eds., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 25. The Bodhisattva Maitreya is said to be in the “Satisfied” (tuṣita) heaven of the kāmadhātu.
increasing number of practitioners are integrating such substances into meditative practice.46 However, the use of psychoactive substances raises questions of the degree to which they foster dependence and have the potential to distort reality.47 In some respects, the philosophical and ethical issues that arise out of the use of technology to augment Buddhist practice might be comparable to those that arose from the development of mantranaya or Vajrayāna Buddhism— particularly with respect to the issue of accelerating spiritual development through the use of extraordinary, or even dangerous, means.48 Lastly, the practice of śamatha provides another template for the use of technology by Buddhists: augmenting human capacities in order to more effectively support the liberation of others from suffering. Whereas the higher knowledges (abhijñā) might be a temptation or distraction for the unawakened, for the liberated person they become resources for inspiring faith or confidence (śraddhā) and the application of skillful means (upāya-kauśalya), i.e. helping others in the most appropriate and effective way. This might take the form of the use of communication technologies such as live-streaming and social media that provide accessible contact with a teacher from around the globe, and the potential to carefully preserve living teachings for future generations in the form of various digital media. IV. Buddhism, Transhumanism, and Posthumanism
Douglas Osto, Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 79–119, 139–74. See also Allan Hunt Badiner, Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics (Synergetic Press, 2015). It is interesting to note that the Yogasūtra (4.1) lists five sources of siddhi, namely birth (janma), herbs (auṣadhi), incantation (mantra), asceticism (tapas), and contemplation (samādhi), which are nearly identical to the sources of ṛddhi listed in the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (commentary to Abhidharmakośa 7.53). Sarbacker, Tracing the Path of Yoga: The History and Philosophy of Indian Mind-Body Discipline. 47 Osto, Altered States, 121–38. 48 On ritual, including tantra, as technology, see István Keul, “Producing Deities? Ritual as Technology,” in Asian Religions, Technology and Science, ed. István Keul (New York: Routledge, 2018), 245–54. Conscious attempts to bridge Transhumanism with tantra include Ann Weinstone, Avatar Bodies: A Tantra for Posthumanism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).
As mentioned above, śamatha meditation is connected in Buddhist cosmology to an ascension through the scale of being from the human mode to that of the deva-s and brahmā-s. This malleability of the mode of existence, and particularly the notion that humans may take on divine attributes, parallels the malleability of species characteristic of Transhumanist thought. In Buddhism, rebirth is typically expressed as a continuum of types, which are expressed on both micro- and macrocosmic scales, from the fluctuating psychological states experienced in a single life to the profound disruptions of both individual and cosmic death and re-emergence.49 As such, the notion of radical transformation of a being’s mode of existence, even within a single lifetime, is not foreign to Buddhist thought. However, from the viewpoint of Buddhist cosmology, a technologically enhanced Transhuman would 1) still be a sentient being characterized by compositional factors (saṃskāra), however subtle, and would therefore 2) still be subject to suffering or dissatisfaction (duḥkha), again, however subtle, and would 3) exist in a terminal state, i.e. one that would come to an end, due to the impermanent (anityā) nature of the compositional factors (saṃskāra), however astronomically long it might be (via bioengineering or uploading, for example). In this analysis, the Transhuman can never truly become Posthuman, to the degree to which even the Transhuman is still a being that is still bound to saṃsāra, with return to other modes of existence an inevitability.50 In Buddhist philosophy, the individual that represents a truly radical disruption of human existence—and of sentient beings in general—is the Noble Person (āryapudgala), whose liberating insight frees them, in various degrees, from the processes of saṃsāra. Whereas ordinary persons
Including rebirth as a god (deva), demigod (asura), human (manuṣya), animal (tiryañc), ghost (preta), or hell-being (naraka). 50 A counter argument to this is that a technological utopia would be more like a buddhakṣetra, what James Hughes calls a “Techno-Utopian Pure Land,” but this presumes an already-enlightened state. Likewise, he suggests the concept of “Cyborg Buddhas” who are part machine. It also begs the question if there could be an “enlightenment machine” that would engender enlightenment and not just heightened capacities. Gleig, “#Hashtag Meditation, Cyborg Buddhas, and Enlightenment as an Epic Win: Buddhism, Technology, and the New Social Media,” 196–97. Gleig argues that modern Buddhists are moving towards an “integrative” model, in which “contemplative hybrids” are at the vanguard.
(pṛthagjana) are ultimately at the mercy of their saṃskāra-construction, the āryapudgala are increasingly free of the roots of affliction and saṃskāra, duḥkha and saṃsāra as a whole.51 Buddhas, Pratyekabuddhas, Śrāvaka arhat-s, and āryabodhisattva-s have all, in principle, escaped the cycle of birth and rebirth, and are no longer subject to it in the way that ordinary people (pṛthajana) are.52 Other Śrāvakas, also considered noble (ārya), include the Stream Winner (śrotāpanna), who is on the path to liberation within seven lives, with no unfortunate rebirths along the way; the Once-Returner (sakṛdāgāmin), who is reborn as a human once more before achieving liberation; and the Non-returner (anāgāmin), who is reborn into a heavenly realm and achieves liberation there. The various types of āryapudgala represent varying degrees of otherness—trans- and posthumanism—of a spiritual sort, in that there is a mixture of cosmological ascension (i.e. becoming a deity or like one) and radical disruption (breaking the process of saṃsāra). And even within these various schema, significant differences exist between Buddhist sects—such as is evident in the degree of emphasis placed upon Gautama or Śākyamuni Buddha’s parinirvāṇa, and whether emphasis is placed on the “gone-ness” or upon the continued compassionate activity of a Buddha after physical death. This parallels the questions in Transhumanism over whether the ultimate trajectory of humanity is towards embodiment or disembodiment. Buddhist attempts to negotiate this dialectic might be said to be epitomized by the doctrine of the three bodies (trikāya) and the notion of the creation of buddha-fields (buddhakṣetra).53 Whether conceived of as a radical
First in degrees (better rebirth) and then liberation. 52 It might be noted for clarification that although the arhat is often viewed as a subordinate figure to the Bodhisattva, even within the Mahāyāna world, a group of arhat exemplars (16 or 18) serves as a common expression of embodied awakening and compassionate activity. David L. Snellgrove, “Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 1080. 53 The trikāya consisting of the truth-body (dharmakāya), enjoyment-body (saṃbhogakāya), and manifestation body (nirmāṇakāya). The latter two are sometimes subsumed under the rubric of the form body (rūpakāya). The ability to manifest, including in duplicated form, through the use of constructed minds (nirmāṇacitta) provides another example of how meditative powers and technology might be viewed as analogs. In some cases, a fourth body, the own-essence body (svābhāvikakāya) is added, particularly in Vajrayāna Buddhism.Snellgrove, “Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.” The issue of the nirmāṇacitta evokes the question of whether AIs, for example, should be viewed as distinct intelligences or as an adjunct to the mind of its creator(s). With respect to the notion of the buddhakṣetra, it might be useful to distinguish between the categories of the purified Buddha-field (pariśuddha
form of transcendence or as an extraordinary mode of embodiment, the state of Buddha represents a radically different model of the Posthuman than that found in contemporary Transhumanist movements.
V. Conclusion Indian Buddhist meditation models provide a philosophical and ethical framework for reflecting on the way in which Buddhist thought might engage with technologies of human augmentation. The śamatha-vipaśyanā dialectic implies that the transformation of human capacities, whether through meditation or technology, may make humans more like deities, but that such power is spiritually and morally ambiguous and, ultimately, temporary. Like technology, the higher knowledge (abhijñā) achieved through meditation, can serve both virtuous and unvirtuous endeavors, just as concentration might be said to serve as a tool for both the sniper and for the surgeon. Buddhist cosmological principles, deeply imbedded in Indian Buddhist meditation systems, suggest that the transformation of biotechnological Transhuman and Posthuman are ultimately limited in scope. However profound such transformations may be, they till conform to the principles of composition (saṃskāra) that drive existence in saṃsāra, which is characterized by the three marks (trilakṣaṇa) of unsatisfactoriness (duḥkha), impermanence (anitya), and nonself (anātman), and driven by the root afflictions (kleśa) or three poisons (triviṣa), namely desire (rāga), hatred (dveṣa), and delusion (moha). From the viewpoint of Indian Buddhist meditation theory, the various stages and states of the Noble Person (āryapudgala), characterized by both worldly (laukika) and otherworldly (alaukika) attainments, are far more radical in scope, hypostasizing the very notion of awakening. In this respect, Buddhist thought might be said to be
buddhakṣetra) and the unpurified Buddha-field (apariśuddha-buddhakṣetra), the latter of which would seem a more likely candidate, at best, for a technological kṣetra. On this distinction, see Fujita Kōtatsu, “Pure and Impure Lands,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones, 2nd ed., vol. 11 (Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 7502–3.
more at parity with an intersectional analysis of contemporary representations of Transhumanism and Posthumanism, in which they are, in their mundane formulations, viewed as a subtle and powerful reification of the status quo in saṃsāra, rather than either a transformation or a radical rejection of it, as characterized by the achievement of nirvāṇa.54
One way to look at this is through the lens of the technology-society dialectic. Is the nature of society driving technology (being a reflection of it) or is society being driven by technology (technological determinism)? How might this be a cyclical or dynamic process (theorized by terms such as “cultural lag” and “future shock”) explainable in terms of Buddhist causal processes? On the technology-society relationship, see Deborah G. Johnson, “Social Construction of Technology,” in Ethics, Science, and Engineering: A Global Resource, ed. J. Britt Holbrook (Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2015); Adam Briggle and Carl Mitcham, “Cultural Lag,” in Ethics, Science, and Engineering: A Global Resource, ed. J. Britt Holbrook (Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2015). Climate change is likely to become an extremely important environmental factor in the development of technology in the coming decades, again evoking the question of who will benefit the most from the technologies aimed at mitigation (i.e. how will it play out in terms of environmental justice?).
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