What will it be like to be a Buddhist in a future world where your life starts with your parents designing your genes? In addition to screening for unwanted genetic diseases, they select for sex, height, eye, hair, and skin color, and, if your parents are Buddhists, maybe even genes that allow you to sit easily in the full lotus position. Pressured by current social fads, they may also choose genes whose overall functions are not clearly understood, but are rumored to be connected with temperament, intelligence, mindfulness, and, perhaps, psychic powers. There is no longer any need to search for tulkus. They now clone themselves and are reborn in their own clones.
That future is a lot more plausible than you might think. From a Buddhist perspective, we need to analyze how current developments in genetic engineering are providing the causal seeds that will influence the world of the future. Because genetic engineering has the potential to radically transform both nature at large and human nature in particular, it poses a much greater threat than other technologies. It may also have the potential to do great good. The question is, at what price?
According to Buddhist teachings, nature as we experience it is a label for the shared karma of sentient beings on the planet; human nature is a karmic mixture of thought and emotion that has to be overcome on the path to enlightenment. Since karma—and suffering—will still be with us in the Brave New World, some have suggested that genetic engineering is not a big deal for Buddhists, that the work cut out for us now will, essentially, not change. But maybe we should take a deeper look.
What, for instance, is the relation of genetic engineering to our potential for enlightenment and its realization? The Buddhist view is that the condition of our bodies and nervous systems affects our minds, and vice versa. That is why karmic-based ethics insists on purity of both mind and body as a prerequisite for spiritual progress. For example, as we meditate, subtle changes take place in our bodies that resonate with our level of spiritual progress. Some of these changes have already been recorded in scientific research on how meditation affects brain function. The deeper our meditation, the more profound the body-mind transformation. Likewise, from the time of the Buddha, Buddhists have recognized that certain geographical locations have special natural energies that enhance progress in meditation and insight.
Genetic engineering has the potential for altering both our bodies and environments in ways that lessen their ability to support the process of personal transformation. When a person takes a drug such as marijuana or cocaine, the bodily physiology becomes altered so it becomes harder to concentrate and remain focused for an extended period of time, which makes meditation more difficult. Similarly, genetic engineering may impact our bodies in ways, as yet unknown, that will impede our progress on the path to enlightenment. Even if there is only a relatively small possibility of genetic engineering affecting progress on the spiritual path, it is a serious cause for concern. Because science deals only with the physical realm, no scientific experiment can possibly assess this kind of risk.
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