Looking at HiTech through the Lens
of the Five Moral Precepts


How Can Buddhism Help? 

What is the Buddhist antidote for the suffering of sentient beings in relation to its technological causes? Buddhist morality is rational and karma-based. It is not legislated by an all-powerful God. It transcends cultural norms (“We have always done things this way”). It focuses on understanding and being aware of the mental, emotional, and physical consequences of our actions. The Five Moral Precepts summarize the general categories of Buddhist morality. The road to great wisdom and universal compassion goes through the five precepts. Without following the five precepts we cannot develop that wisdom and compassion. Why? Non-precepted behavior clouds, distorts and limits the potentials of our minds.

Now let us take a look at how various technologies appear through the lens of each of the Five Moral Precepts.

The First Moral Precept: No killing (ahimsa) or harming of sentient life/respect for life

This moral precept encompasses more than just not physically harming and killing. It is respect for life that begins with recognition of the intrinsic value of sentient beings apart from any instrumental value they may have.

Here are a couple of core problems:

  1. What are the causes and conditions of killing? Does technology necessarily lead to massive increases in human suffering and death or is there truth in the widely heard claim that technology reduces suffering and death such as in the advances of modern medicine. Or both?—Brussel sprouts and Twinkies.
  2. You cannot have respect for life without compassion. You cannot have compassion without sympathy. You cannot have sympathy without empathy. Therefore, without empathy you cannot have tong ti da bei: What is meant by great compassion? Affirming our identity with all.

The meaning of killing is clear and easy to understand. The concept of harm is sometimes more nuanced and difficult to trace. In the Buddha’s time killing and harming of others was done using one’s own body or with very primitive weapons. Mass murder of tens of millions of humans (think Hitler, Stalin, Mao, mutual assured destruction) was unknown and inconceivable.

In high-tech society we must deal with the following technological developments that are connected with suffering and death: not only weapons of mass destruction, but also toxic environmental pollution, accidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Bhopal. In those instances the deaths and harm are clear to us. But how do we gauge the physical, mental, and spiritual harm connected with genetic engineering, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, robots, video games, and the various social media? How do we assess how these technologies not only have positive benefits but also can significantly contribute to the killing and harming of sentient beings.

One important but overlooked aspect of this is the all-too-often denial or willful ignorance of the relation between mentally breaking the precepts and physically breaking the precepts. We all know that killing other humans is wrong, yet how many of us take seriously computer games that encourage kids to kill? The French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard recently commented: “… [T]he video game that sold the most in the whole world in 2008, Grand Theft Auto IV, is incredibly violent… Since actions in video games are controlled by the player himself, his identification with the character who performs the violence is potentially stronger than when passively watching violent images on a TV or film screen.”13

Video games, in addition to nourishing a measurable predilection for violence in a significant minority of young people, have led to the dehumanizing situation in which soldiers in remote locations use video game formats to control drones that actually kill real people half way around the world.

Buddhism teaches that the karma of killing, which is the root cause of violence and war, hangs over all of us like the dark and ominous clouds of an incipient storm. Although that cloud of karma is invisible, it is nonetheless real. Its origin is thoughts/intentions of harm and killing in the minds of all sentient beings. Much of the cloud arises from the fear, resentment and hatred of those who have been killed or are about to be killed. They include not only the human victims of violence, but also the billions of animals that are victims of the explosion of meat-eating on the planet.

Two special challenges to the keeping of this first and fundamental precept are 1) the fact that our senses have become effectively obsolete in their ability to detect much of the technologically caused harm, and 2) our inability to follow the long and complicated chains of cause and effect that are ubiquitous in contemporary life. Our nervous systems evolved to detect dangers to our health and life that we might encounter in a natural environment. They still work to a certain extent to detect human caused dangers, such as visible smog and tastable harmful chemicals. Yet many of the greatest sources of harm and causes of death, caused by technology, are not detectable by our senses: invisible air pollution, much water and soil pollution, nuclear radiation, to give just a few examples. Thus technological dangers often bypass the natural alarm systems of our bodies.

And by our lack of understanding of how a wide range of individual and collective acts of pollution leads to serious and widespread consequences for humans, animals, ecosystems, and even for planet-wide self-regulating systems, we even put life on Mother Earth itself in danger of extinction through human-caused climate change.  

Not taking what is not given  

In the Buddhist time there was petty theft, war booty, and so on. Now we have organized crime on the Internet and the theft of habitat of both native peoples and animals. People are robbed of potential for livelihood not only because their jobs become technologically obsolete, but also through the lobbying of the great international corporations that leads to unfair economic policies, laws, taxes, etc. Corporate theft of the commons is rapidly destroying the latter. In all this technology plays major roles. The great recession of 2008 let the populous know about the extent of white collar organized crime on Wall Street, much of it centered on computer-based investment scams, many involving extremely complicated derivative schemes, in which the causal chains of the investments were deliberately obscured.

In traditional cultures, taking what is not given was personal and direct. Everyone could identify it and see it happening, clearly and distinctly. The complicated nature of contemporary society, with its long, twisted, and often hidden chains of cause and effect,  very often makes it difficult to identify this category of exploitation directly and personally. This is particularly true in the world of Hitech, which tends to substitute short causal chains that can easily be followed with long ones in which causes and consequences are obscured. Just contemplate for a minute the iPhone—the causes and condition of the physical thing, the economic ramifications for the owner, for Apple, and for society, and its role in the social and psychological consequences of social media. Think also of all the obsolete iPhones that become garbage or are recycled. In the latter case, they are shipped to poor countries where people and the environment are both poisoned in the process of the recycling. When the pathway from the doing of the deed to its consequences becomes muddled, and too long and circuitous to follow, the keeping of the precept becomes problematic. To give just one example, if a large corporation is effectively stealing, in either its broad or narrow sense, whether legally or illegally, from large numbers of people in some third world country on the other side of the world, what degree of involvement with that corporation is permissible? That is not an easy question from most of us to answer.

No sexual misconduct14

At the time of the Buddha sexual misconduct was thought of in terms of celibacy for the Sangha and the then current social norms for the laity. How has technological society contributed to the breakdown of traditional family notions and practices? Two major factors are oral contraceptives, which cause problems by polluting the drinking water with endocrine disruptors, and the portrayal of sex in the media in which it is often casual and without consequences. Sex also plays a large part on the Internet – most pornography is not professional but often sent between clueless teens.

In many societies of the developed world, the institution of marriage has largely broken down so that serial monogamy outside of marriage has become widely acceptable, as has childbirth outside of marriage. Divorce has become so common as to call into serious question the meaning of marriage itself. Even having and raising children is getting progressively separated from contemporary notions of marriage. All these trends are made possible by various technologies. And these changes in social attitude are strongly reinforced by the social media. We may know that sexual misconduct leads to serious negative consequences not only for those involved but also for society as a whole, but very few contemporary societies restrict or censure its being portrayed as the norm and as being without consequences. Indeed technologically driven views inevitably lead, for some, to falling in love with a computer construct of a women (the film ‘Her’ 2013) and having sex with so-called male and female robots15 (film Ex Machina 2015). In film, on video, and on the Internet, the norm has become portrayal of casual sex without mention of its dangers—including pregnancy, disease, social disruption and deep personal suffering.  And from a Buddhist perspective, we can add the dissatisfaction of continued rebirth based on ignorance.16

No wrong or harmful speech

Given recent technological developments, all sorts of deceptions have run rampant. Documents, photographs, and videos can now be easily altered in ways that are extremely difficult if not impossible to detect. People are routinely deceived and harmed by people using false identities and misrepresentations on the Internet. And identity theft is becoming widespread.

The contemporary international Internet economy runs on advertising, which is based on the artificial creation of needs for products, that is, exacerbating beyond their natural state desires for objects. In that service, wrong and harmful speech, including the blatant falsehoods commonplace in deceptive advertising, plays an important role.

In very effective ways, Facebook and other social media also encourage the distortion or misrepresentation of ourselves and our self-images. Internet social media also provides a venue for vicious attacks on others online and for the destruction of personal privacy.

No taking of intoxicants

At the time of the Buddha, intoxicants referred primarily to alcoholic beverages that depressed and clouded the mind. Thanks to the high tech pharmaceutical industry and to its dark side, illegal drug laboratories, designer drugs and prescription drugs are both widely available online. The Dark Net provides a convenient venue for those who wish to purchase illegal drugs.17 The consequence: a large increase in addiction and mental problems.

From a Buddhist ethical perspective, one of the major flaws of contemporary society is  advertisers’ pervasive manipulation of desires from early childhood (see above). In the case of the moral precept forbidding the taking of intoxicants, TV and Internet advertising and the social media inundate us with the message that any personal physical or mental unpleasantness should be alleviated by popping a pill, that is, taking a drug, whether legal or illegal. Prescription drug advertising on television is ubiquitous. A large percentage of Internet sales of prescription pain killers and tranquilizers that are taken by huge numbers of people are based on prescriptions that are not medically justified, and there is wide social acceptance of marijuana and alcohol as acceptable ways of drowning one’s sorrows. Even wholesome healing medicines must also be used wisely; otherwise when we take them inappropriately, or too often, or in too great quantities, often recommended deceptive advertising, they too poison us.

There is little recognition of the Buddhist insight that these methods of avoiding pain and suffering just cover over the real problems, lead to more suffering, and do not get at the root causes. They can only be identified and addressed through introspection, repentance, and change of one’s mental and physical habits that cause the suffering in the first place. Of course, the pains of physical illness and the aging of the body must ultimately be dealt with on a deep level of insight into the nature of our bodies and our relation to them.


Technology provides sophisticated distractions/escapes from dealing with our own internal mental states:

In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes. Moreover, in one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt. It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.18

What is the quickest and most efficient way of getting out of your own head? Hitech distractions. If we are going to follow the Path of the Bodhisattvas, then we have to go back to basics and realize the above mentioned reality of most ordinary people must be the starting point for teaching the Buddhadharma.

Where can we go from here? Here are some preliminary suggestions:

  1. Everything is made from the mind alone. The Five Moral Precepts are guidelines for purifying the mind. Most people don’t want to look directly at their minds because they don’t want to deal with all the garbage they are filled with. If the mind is not pure, then we cannot connect with the inherent compassion and wisdom of our own Buddha nature.
  2. Much of technology can be understood as the development of tools for magnifying mental states. We need to take a careful look at what we are magnifying, garbage or purity.
  3. The Four Unlimited Aspects of the Mind (altruistic non-emotional love, genuine compassion, rejoicing in the happiness of others, and impartiality) are also good yardsticks for the evaluation of technology in our lives.
  4. The Six Principles of CTTB are the guidelines that the Venerable Master left us for right living. We need to treat them with utmost seriousness. We can also apply them to our current topic: we can focus on CTTB schools as models for the right use of technology, on CTTB itself as a practice ground for using technology as a tool for compassionate living with others, and on using technology to examine the priorities of our individual lives.



13 Ricard, Altruism, pp. 364-5.

14 See also my draft paper “Using Buddhist Ethics to Teach about Sexuality.”

16 For more on the relation between sexual desire and rebirth, see the Ven. Master Hsuan Hua’s commentary on the Heart Sutra.

17 See Jamie Bartlett The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld. Melville House, 2015.

18 “No Time to Think” By KATE MURPHY, Sunday Review, NY Times, July 25, 2014.


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