Podcast Discusses Buddhist Ethics With the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi

Author: Tech Ethics Lab

closeup of the Tech on Earth podcast logo--which features the title over an image of the Earth criss-crossed by digital signals--and the words Episode 1

“I think what Buddhism is constantly reminding us is, uncertainty is reality.”

Those are the words of the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, founding president and CEO of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was the guest for the first episode of Tech on Earth, the Notre Dame-IBM Tech Ethics Lab podcast aimed at bringing a practical lens to tech ethics around the globe.

A Buddhist monk, Venerable Tenzin described Buddhist ethics as “not just a normative approach” but also as didactic and reflexive.

“So the idea is not that, let's just abide by certain rules and regulations that [are] created by a certain group of people, but sort of an ongoing, healthy conversation about what ethical imagination is … reminding us of the fact of the complexity of the world that we live in, that not everything that is legal may be ethical.”

In the course of his conversation with host Elizabeth Renieris, the Lab’s founding director, Venerable Tenzin offered a primer on Buddhist ethics generally and what they mean in the context of technology specifically. This included a discussion of our increasingly virtual lives during COVID as well as a principle he calls “ethics by design.”

“One of the key issues is that if we ramp up things so fast, the negative cost of it on our society is perhaps so expansive that it's difficult to get back, it's difficult to ramp back, meaning you cannot really undo certain kinds of deployments,” Venerable Tenzin said. “And so part of my push was that why can't we have the conversation around ethical framing at the design stage? Meaning rather than just having engineers in the room or marketing psychologists in the room, why not also have certain kinds of individuals who can at least inform us creatively as to what could go wrong?”

The episode covered how Venerable Tenzin would apply Buddhist ethical framing to case studies involving technology in the automotive, healthcare, and defense industries and the role of educational institutions in preparing students to be ethical leaders.

“We have to recognize, as educators, that learning ethics is not magic,” he said. “You know, learning ethics is not genetics, so to speak, that you will have certain individuals who would wake up one day and become ethical all of a sudden. And it is the responsibility of education institutions to pay ... attention to ethical learning as much as we are paying attention to business leadership and tech leadership and designing products, either for consumer orientation or for [the] military and so on.”

In addition to his current role leading The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, Venerable Tenzin has served as director of the ethics initiative at the MIT Media Lab and as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He is also the founding director and president of the Prajnopaya Institute and Foundation, a worldwide humanitarian organization which provides care for all regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender by developing innovative health, education, and social welfare programs.

He entered a Buddhist monastery at the age of 10, studying traditional Indo-Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism. He was ordained by His Holiness The Dalai Lama, who is his spiritual mentor.

You can listen to the episode with Venerable Tenzin by using the player below, visiting the podcast’s homepage at techethicslab.nd.edu/tech-on-earth (includes a written transcript), or finding Tech on Earth in your favorite podcast app.


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