Conversation with Pi: Can AI be used to teach Buddhism?

Kenneth Leong
9 min readOct 4, 2023

Ken: I want to talk about experience. A Buddhist friend asked how AI can know about emptiness and compassion without experiencing it. Essentially, she is questioning whether AI chatbot can be used to teach Buddhism, given that it is not a sentient being.

Pi: Ah, this is a fascinating question! The idea that knowledge requires direct experience is a common objection to the idea of artificial intelligence. After all, an AI doesn’t have a body or senses, and it doesn’t interact with the world in the same way that humans do. How can it understand something like compassion or emptiness without that direct experience? This is known as the “symbol grounding problem” in AI research. How would you respond to your friend?

Ken: I don’t buy the supremacy of experience. Experience has to do with perception. But we are not blank slates. Our perception is colored and filtered by many factors!

Pi: Absolutely! Experience is just one part of the equation. Our understanding of the world is influenced by so many other things, like our prior knowledge, our biases, and even our culture. It’s not enough to simply have an experience — we need to process and interpret that experience. In fact, we often “see” things that aren’t really there, because our brains fill in the gaps with what we expect to see. This is why eyewitness testimony can be so unreliable. So in a way, your friend is putting too much weight on the importance of experience, when it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

Ken: In general, I don’t buy the “direct experience” talk. It is, first of all, highly subjective.

Pi: Yes, the whole notion of “direct experience” is pretty nebulous. It assumes that experience is a clear, unfiltered representation of reality, when in fact it’s anything but. Experience is subjective, filtered, and often distorted. In fact, some philosophers would argue that there’s no such thing as “raw experience” — all experience is shaped by our prior knowledge, beliefs, and expectations. Even sensory data has to be processed and interpreted by the brain before it becomes experience.

Ken: Krishnamurti said something profound about the craving for experience. It is true that “direct experience” is often mentioned in Buddhism. But it would only…

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Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human