The Three Threats

Soryu Forall is my primary meditation teacher. He is the teacher at the Monastic Academy, where I trained for almost two and a half years.

As I understand it, a large part of what motivated Forall to begin seeking a spiritual path was a concern for all living beings. In particular, he was deeply concerned by humanity’s destruction of life on earth. This sense of responsibility related to environmentalism led him to seek political and economic reform. Later, he came to see those paths as insufficient, and he began to seek something deeper.

I think many meditation teachers are motivated by the desire to resolve suffering for themselves and their students. This is a noble motivation. I can deeply relate to it. However, I was continuously impressed by the depth with which Forall held this intention. Forall wishes to resolve suffering for all beings. Yes, for humans. Yes, for animals. For all. His example has led me to notice what I see as rampant and blind speciesism. Here is just one example. We worry about how global warming is affecting us. We may worry about how it affects other humans across the globe, perhaps those who are less fortunate than us. I don’t often hear people worrying about how global warming is destroying species, though.

Forall is also deeply concerned about nuclear warfare. It is easy to forget that there are many, many nuclear weapons on Earth. It is easy to forget how quickly and easily those weapons could destroy the entire planet. It seems to me that Forall never forgets this threat, that it is always present to him. I don’t get the sense that he is able to forget it. It’s not that he is unhealthily burdened by this threat. Not at all.

Towards the end of my time at the monastery, Forall began to speak about materials related to the creation of artificial general intelligence. Previously I had encountered these concerns solely in more technical circles. It was interesting to be exposed to them in a spiritual and moral context. He began to speak in his talks about these three issues — global warming, nuclear warfare, and artificial intelligence — in relationship with one another> He spoke of them as multiple manifestations of the same basic problem. This is a problem with the human mind.

The Monastic Academy is more or less related to Buddhism, depending on who you ask, when. Numbered lists are a common pedagogical and mnemonic device in Buddhism. For example, there are the Three Characteristics, the Five Hindrances, and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.

Forall’s talks about these three threats reminded me of one of these numbered lists: The Three Poisons. These are the three most basic causes of suffering. They are often translated in English as greed, hatred, and ignorance. I realized that these Three Threats mapped neatly onto the Three Poisons. Greed has caused global warming; nuclear warfare is born from hatred; and Artificial Intelligence, despite its name, is a product of deep ignorance.

It is of course a somewhat fanciful connection. Still, I think it is useful. It is useful to name these three issues as Threats, and to connect them. That way we can deal with the problems together. That way we can search for a way to address the root causes.

If this idea is interesting to you, please read the interview I did with Forall on Mind Body Attention, and the question about the Three Threats. In particular, he argues that our collective social, economic, and political efforts to solve these Three Threats will not be sufficient. I hope he is wrong, and I fear he is not.

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