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Where Buddhism and Kursweil intersect

A couple days ago I read the latest h+ Ray Kurzweil interview (pdf), and one part of it stood out for me.

RUS: I think when most people think of utopia, they probably just think about everybody being happy and feeling good.

RK: I really don‘t think that‘s the goal. I think the goal has been demonstrated by the multi-billion-year history of biological evolution and the multi-thousand-year history of technological evolution. The goal is to be creative and create entities of beauty, of insight, that solve problems. I mean, for myself as an inventor, that‘s what makes me happy. But it‘s not a state that you would seek to be in at all times, because it‘s fleeting. It‘s momentary.

To sit around being happy all the time is not the goal. In fact, that‘s kind of a downside. Because if we were to just stimulate our pleasure centers and sit around in a morphine high at all times — that‘s been recognized as a downside and it ultimately leads to a profound unhappiness. We can identify things that make us unhappy. If we have diseases that rob our faculties or cause physical or emotional pain — that makes us unhappy and prevents us from having these moments of connection with another person, or a connection with an idea, then we should solve that. But happiness is not the right goal. I think it represents the cutting edge of the evolutionary condition to seek greater horizons and to always want to transcend whatever our limitations are at the time. And so it‘s not our nature just to sit back and be happy.

I really identified with that bit… just seeking “to be happy” was not the goal one should strive for, as that journey rarely leads to anything fulfilling. I find creativity solving problems one of the most fulfilling things I do, and it makes me happy to see my solutions actually in place and doing their thing.

Later that day I saw Wade Davis’ talk on belief and ritual. At 6 minutes in, he discusses a conversation he had with a Buddhist priest about the 4 noble truths of Buddhism. I’ve heard of the 4 noble truths before, and everything I’d ever heard had never been so clear and concise as how Wade put it;

1) All life is suffering – That doesn’t mean all life is negative, it means “things happen”

2) The cause of suffering is ignorance – By that, the Buddhist did not mean stupidity, he meant clinging to the illusion that life is static and predictable

3) Ignorance can be overcome

4) The delineation of a contemplative practice that not only had the possibility of a transformation of the human heart, but had 2500 years of empirical evidence that such a transformation was a certainty.

The thing that really blew me away was the description of the 2nd noble truth; “clinging to the illusion that life is static and predictable“. I’ve always heard it described as “attachment” or “permanence” that Buddhists try to withdrawal from. The problem with those simple descriptions is they lack context and support.

As an American ingrained with the incredibly vague, yet very powerful concept of “The American Dream”, I’ve lived my life working hard toward something… but what exactly?

The American Dream

It’s almost as if I was operating under the assumption that there was some kind of finish line (other than death) that I was able to cross which somehow gave my life of some value in the universe, a legacy of some kind that would endure forever. Even though we all know that’s impossible, this idea of permanence holds some kind of sway over just about everyone.

The term “clinging” imbues a sense of helplessness and futility to the way people live by this illusion. I hear things like “seize the day”, “live in the now” and “you can’t take it with you”… but every single one of those maxims falls to pieces, broken on the altar of my conscious mind. They seem like powerful statements, but they carry no meaning because there is nothing postulating them outside the realm of my attachment, and so they simply become part of it. For me that was so much the case that “seizing the day” and “living in the now” became goals, things could work toward to help me achieve this ambiguous and illusory endgame I’ve been vigorously playing.

Dealing with things like loss, or even worrying about loss, is ultimately pointless. When I used to try to plan my life, it used to be in an attempt to control, confine, and define change… Arrogantly I assumed I knew how tomorrow would turn out, and that I could somehow ensure tomorrow would turn out a certain way. When change invariably arose that drove events contrary to my expectations, frustration and suffering occurred. We all seem to think all of our plans and efforts are like a dam in the river, directing the flow of life where and how we want it to go… when in reality all of our strife equates to nothing but a gentle breeze across the water. We make little waves on the surface, but the current is ultimately uncontrollable.

The important thing for me is that I can achieve a sense of calm in an otherwise busy, whirlwind life. Mainly, I realized that suffering by sacrificing my happiness for something, simply to build toward some vague endgame, isn’t necessary. By that I mean I have a new, more realistic way of looking at the things I do. The attitude adjustment you get by understanding that ultimately everything you do is evanescent and inconsequential allows some measure of freedom to explore your options with an odd sense of impunity.

I guess what I’m saying is, by not buying into the illusion that I can simply work hard to stack accomplishment on accomplishment until they create something of permanence and everlasting meaning to the universe, I free myself to truly live in the now… free to do what I love regardless of outcome… free to truly be happy.

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One Response to “Where Buddhism and Kursweil intersect”

  1. Black Bloke says:

    While I’m not really down with the whole Buddhism thing, I found this post interesting. I was led here while searching for .pdf files related to Ray Kurzweil and found your uploading of the H+ Magazine interview. This inspired me to upload the version that could be found in the magazine:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/26109649/H-Magazine-Ray-Kurzweil-Interview-Winter-2009

    It’s pretty great quality, but it’s also ~10x the size of your version.

    Enjoy ;-)

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