Words of Wisdom 9
Rinpoche on Wisdom, AI, and Filmmaking
— a Dialogue with Students at the University of Hong Kong
Wisdom Must Be the Driver
Recently, Rinpoche has been emphasizing the importance of wisdom in all Buddhist conduct. He gave the analogy of wisdom, compassion, and morality taking a car ride together. Ideally, he said, wisdom should be in the driver’s seat, with compassion beside it in the passenger seat and morality in the back seat, or even in the car trunk, right at the back.
In reality, however, the situation is usually the opposite: Morality is in the driver’s seat with compassion sitting next to it, most of the time quiet, while wisdom is somewhere in the back seat, forgotten. “When that happens, I think lots of things go wrong.”
Rinpoche gave an example from the last chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra, which itself is often referred to as the Gandavyuha Sutra. In that chapter, Lord Manjushri instructs Sudhana, a very rich lay person and the main character in the sutra, to undertake a pilgrimage to seek out teachers who will instruct him in the ways of a bodhisattva. Sudhana goes on to learn from a total of 53 masters, 20 of whom are women, including a courtesan—in other words, a prostitute. And another master was a 6-year-old boy. “These sutras are really important references for us,” Rinpoche says, “and you should dig it up.”
Rinpoche quoted Shantideva, the 8th-century Indian Buddhist monk, philosopher, and scholar, who said that “All the Buddhist’s conduct, if without the wisdom, is like a blind person walking in a desert without a guide.”
The above remarks were Rinpoche’s response to a question raised during a surprise visit he paid last November to a class of 120 undergraduates at the University of Hong Kong’s Centre of Buddhist Studies. The conversation involved an interesting discussion about Rinpoche’s film Travelers and Magicians (2003) specifically, as well as on Buddhism in general. Professor Georgios T. Halkias had invited Rinpoche to meet the students from his class “Buddhist Visions in World Cinema.” Travelers and Magicians was one of the selections that the group viewed and discussed.
“Who Am I?”
On artificial intelligence, Rinpoche offered a question for the students to reflect on: “Who am I?” Rinpoche said that artificial intelligence is happening and that it will create a so-called “useless” class. However, as a Buddhist, he thinks that Buddhism is even more relevant because “from the materialist point of view, Buddhism is the most useless thing.” He feels that the advent of AI will make people look inward. Right now, we are distracted by jobs, credentials, degrees, insurance—all of which will become useless only too soon. So, “for the first time, we are asking ourselves who we really are.”
Rinpoche also expressed his joy to be meeting with a class of students with such young, vibrant energy. In regard to his filmmaking endeavors, he said, “I am not a professional filmmaker. I have different jobs. But I have a passion for and interest in making films because the movie is a very powerful medium. Although I don’t know how long this power is going to last because the way we relate to film is changing with smartphones, iPads, Netflix, and so on.
“One of the reasons I am trying to have this filmmaking journey is that I have an aspiration to make a film based on the life of the Buddha. I’ve been working on the story for a long, long time. When you’re trying to make a film about anyone who is a public iconic figure, it’s difficult. If I make a Life of the Buddha film, half of the Buddhists are going to be unhappy with me. They will say, ‘Your Buddha is too tall, too short, too thin,’ etc. But at the same time, there is the wish to present the Buddha in my way, from a very limited point of view.”
Support for Academic Excellence: The University of Hong Kong
Khyentse Foundation has been supporting the Centre of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong and the work of Professor Georgios T. Halkias for the past 7 years, and we are looking into a new round of support this academic year. We have also been giving an annual Award for Academic Excellence in Buddhist Studies since 2011. Read a letter from a 2018 recipient of the award, Ven. Pannadipa, about his experiences as a Buddhist monk and his gratitude for the support of Khyentse Foundation.