These founding principles set out basic beliefs and values that guide my life and that I’ve found to be beneficial. By setting these out at the beginning, you can understand the ethics that guide Digital Wisdom and get a sense for how we might unfold. If these principles resonate with you, you can add your strength to this community and help define what it might become. From these seeds, a community will gradually emerge that can bring benefit to society. Digital Wisdom is a secular community open to everyone regardless of beliefs. But I am greatly influenced by the Buddhist tradition. In the spirit of transparency, this article explains those influences. Feel free to share your comments, questions, and suggestions. - Andrew Davis
Teachings and Practices
There are three practices of Digital Wisdom: ethics, meditation, and wisdom. All the teachings and practices of Digital Wisdom can be integrated into these three.
Ethics can be summarized in the statement, “learn to do good, cease to do harm, control your mind, and benefit others. This is the teaching of Buddha.” Ceasing harm means stopping actions that directly or indirectly harm others, and also abiding by any promises or commitments we’ve made. The purpose of ethics is to build a strong mind that can oppose the immense power of our own deluded tendencies.
Meditation is the practice of stabilizing the mind and focusing it on what makes us more peaceful. Meditation is infinitely diverse, since there are infinite objects that can make our mind more peaceful. Meditation can become progressively deeper with practice, leading us to profound states of peace and bliss. Meditation is a deeply personal experience, where our inner sense of peace is our most powerful guide. Nevertheless there are many practices we can learn that have proven their impact over time.
Wisdom means developing insight into ourself and our world. There are many types of wisdom, but the deepest wisdom is the wisdom of dependent relationship. All phenomena are dependent-related on their causes, their parts, and imputation by mind. There is no phenomenon that is not dependent-related. Nevertheless this is not how we see the world naturally. We perceive phenomena to exist independently. In reality, all phenomena are empty of this independent existence.
- I will never intentionally teach anything that contradicts Buddhism
- I will never teach anything that can’t be justified by modern experience and reasoning
- I will never use these teachings for personal or business profit
- I will never intentionally harm others
- I will be honest and transparent about my views, motivations, and actions
Questions that might arise
These teachings are Buddhism without Buddhism. Buddhism is the only religion I’m aware of that was designed to deconstruct itself. Digital Wisdom is Buddhism deconstructed and reconstructed for the modern world, without religion, and in a way that meets the needs and aims of modern people.
Having acknowledged this, these classes are not teaching Buddhism. These classes are an entirely new secular presentation that combine insights from the technology and business communities. If you’re interested in learning Buddhism, there are many great teachers I can recommend.
Modern people live in a multicultural world. Religion is closely tied to our personal, family and community identities. Our identity (religious or otherwise) normally creates a sense of self and other. We then naturally feel close to those with the same identity and distant from those with a different identity. This sense of separation between self and other can make it difficult to work together in a business or social setting. And this sense of separation is the fundamental problem these teachings are seeking to resolve. While it’s wonderful to become part of a community and to adopt a new shared identity, every new identity implies a new sense of “other”. There’s a strong tendency to develop arrogance towards others, to denigrate their experience and beliefs, and to feel a sense of distance and lack of trust.
Also adopting a religion generally feels like a binary decision that implies the need to abandon our previous religion. Abandoning a religion can feel like a violation of the trust and connection with our family and community. We may also have had very precious personal faith experiences. Abandoning a religion can feel like devaluing those precious experiences.
Religions have also developed layer upon layer of beliefs that may actually increase our confusion. Religious beliefs generally reflect the experience or imagination of past practitioners. These beliefs may attempt to convey a sense of how extraordinary a set of teachings are. But we generally understand and hold onto these beliefs without understanding how they were constructed. We may feel pressure to deny our direct experience, scientific understanding, or the teachings of other religions. Thus religious beliefs can interfere with our search for wisdom if we’re not careful.
Participants should be respectful of and patient with each other. We all come from different backgrounds and it takes time to build trust and connection. We are operating remotely with limited interaction, thus we can’t benefit from some of the normal ways humans build trust and connection.
Society is changing rapidly, and this community is combining a variety of ideas both traditional and modern. Thus as we share and combine what has influenced and inspired us, we’re drawing on vastly different sources. We should all remain humble and curious.
There are a huge variety of spiritual traditions as well as modern ways of working with the mind. They each have distinctive terminology and beliefs. The Digital Wisdom community is seeking to find a middle way where we can draw benefit from traditional practices without introducing beliefs that would not be accepted by mainstream science. We should be conservative in introducing ideas that might be difficult for rationalists to accept.
I taught Buddhism under the authority of a traditional Buddhist organization for ten years, and was a well-respected ordained member of that Buddhist community for fifteen years. In 2014, I broke my ordination vows and left the community.
In 2020, in response to the COVID pandemic, I resumed teaching. My motivation is to share the insights that I’ve gained through this practice have brought me enormous peace and clarity. To not share these teachings would be to withhold benefit from those who need it.
I do not have the authorization or backing of any organization. But I have a good motivation, clear understanding, and strong ethics. Therefore I hold the lineage of Buddha’s teachings and, by virtue of that, have authority to teach.
Similar to modern professional associations, Buddhist traditions provide an important role in authorizing teachers. They can assess the quality of a person’s teachings and behavior, and give or revoke the authority to teach. This can help prevent abuses of power.
In the absence of such a control, it falls to the community itself to assess the quality of a teacher’s behavior and teachings. I am optimistic that the Digital Wisdom community has the wisdom and perceptiveness to police itself, and prevent wrong teachings and any abuses of power.
This section is a bit technical and subtle, but I wanted to state this explicitly from the outset. This is something we can contemplate carefully over time. My goal is for every teaching I give to be verifiable according to these two standards.
There are two standards we should use to ensure the reliability of teachings: the scientific standard and the Buddhist standard.
The Scientific Standard of Belief
The most influential philosopher of science in the modern era was Karl Popper. He established a clear and simple standard that any belief must be characterized by: it must be falsifiable. This means that we should only believe things that could actually be proven false. We believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, but that’s actually a falsifiable belief. If, for whatever reason, the sun didn’t rise then we could prove that belief false.
Scientific research is progressive - it is subject to refutation and to continuous improvement. Science proceeds in an evolutionary way, by layering beliefs one on another based on observation and inference. But all of those beliefs are conditional and should be dropped if they are eventually shown to be false. They are “strong convictions weakly held”.
Most of our beliefs are unexamined; we hold beliefs but don’t question them. It takes intellectually honesty and humility to be willing to question and abandon beliefs if they are shown to be false.
Most religious teachings are not falsifiable, and so don’t meet Popper’s test for validity. If I claim that a particular deity exists, you have no way to prove that it does not. Buddhist practitioners also generally hold many beliefs that can’t be falsified, such as the belief in past and future lives, and the belief in different deities. Those beliefs may be very beneficial for practitioners, but they don’t meet the standard for scientific knowledge.
The Buddhist Standard of Belief
But Buddhism is an unusually nuanced belief system. The Buddhist view is that everything is created by the mind. While you might not be able to prove or disprove the existence of a particular deity, you can prove or disprove the existence of the belief in that deity. Faith exists, regardless of whether the objects of faith exist. And faith has a function in our minds. Although Buddhism is a vast body of beliefs, the oldest core of teachings are remarkably simple and straightforward. They explain the philosophy and psychology of how our mind creates our world. And they explain how we can change our world just by changing the mind, without changing other things.
Like Popper’s standard, Buddhism also recognizes the need to verify which teachings are authentic and reliable. According to the Buddhist tradition, an authentic teaching is qualified by four seals, similar to the tamper-resistant seal on a bottle of medicine. An authentic Buddhist teaching will never contradict these four basic principles:
- Impermanence: all produced phenomena are momentarily impermanent. Everything is ceasing moment by moment. We believe the world consists of nouns, but in fact everything is a verb, a process of continual unfolding.
- Suffering: all contaminated phenomena are the nature of suffering. If you have motor oil on your hands, everything you touch will become contaminated. In the same way, when our mind is contaminated by ignorance, all phenomena that we see are contaminated by our view. As mentioned above, our minds are normally ignorant of impermanence, but on a deeper level, they’re also ignorant of dependent-relationship. Things are dependent on their causes, their parts, and on the mind that perceives them. But normally when we perceive objects they simply appear to “be there”. When we think in this way, suffering naturally arises. We develop attachment to things that appear attractive, aversion to things that appear unattractive, and ignorance towards everything else. These states of mind disturb our inner peace and cause us to act in ways that cause suffering for ourself and others.
- Empty: all phenomena are the nature of emptiness. Emptiness is known as the great seal. Emptiness means that although things appear to exist, they do not actually exist. Our minds perceive things, and these things appear to exist independently of the mind perceiving them. But things do not exist separately from the mind that perceives them. This is the emptiness of things.
- Nirvana: only nirvana is real peace. Nirvana is the real nature of our mind. Our mind itself is a dependent-arising. In modern terms, our human mind depends principally on our brain, which in turn depends on countless interconnected neurons, each with its own metabolism. Our clarity ebbs and flows throughout our life, but all of our awareness depends on this underlying neurology. We think that we see reality, but what we see is a reflection of the mind with which we see. And this mind in turn is empty, it is a dependent relationship. When we realize the real nature of our mind directly, we attain nirvana. Every being already possesses a natural state of nirvana, in that all of our minds are empty. However we don’t realize the true nature of our mind. Instead, we operate under the horrible bad habit of ignorance, becoming a victim of a world of our own creation that appears to have a life of its own. Without attaining nirvana we will always remain a victim of our own ignorance. Only the attainment of nirvana is real peace.
Popper’s view aligns perfectly with the core teaching of Buddhism. According to Buddhism, all phenomena are mere conceptions, beliefs created by the mind itself. For as long as those beliefs accord with our experience they are useful and we can hold them. But these beliefs are constructs that we need to be willing to examine and abandon if they are counterproductive.
The modern world is moving strongly away from religious beliefs. But our minds are still largely superstitious. Our beliefs reflect our networks of trust. Who we trust will gradually influence how we think.
We cannot possibly “know everything” because knowledge is a creation of human minds, and there is endless creative thinking generating more and more knowledge. But we can know whether our own minds are leading in the direction of greater inner and outer peace and harmony. The most powerful path to peace is knowing directly how our mind itself generates our awareness.
My main Buddhist teacher since I was 22 is Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. I’d recommend his books and teachings wholeheartedly. He’s a traditionally trained Tibetan monk who learned English, created a modern presentation of the teachings, and built a global community of meditation centers. He swam upstream against the rest of the Tibetan community in training Westerners and establishing a spiritually and politically independent community. His mental strength is indomitable, and the clarity of his mind and teachings has been a principal influence in my life.
More recently, I’ve learned and benefitted from the teachings of Thai Forest monks like Ajahn Sucitto, Ajahn Sona, and Ajahn Amaro. I’d recommend all of their teachings very highly.
My wife, Ashley, has made a strong connection with Professor Jung-pyo Lee, founder of https://buddhanara.or.kr, and I find his mind and teachings to be breathtakingly wise. As the teachings are in Korean, I rely on Ashley as my translator. Her translations are excellent and we intend to help Professor Lee with English translations of his texts.
On a professional level, I’ve been deeply moved by those helping draw out the human side of technology work. Gene Kim and Jez Humble are principal influences. They in turn draw on some of the giants in twentieth century business thought: W. Edwards Deming, Eli Goldratt, Peter Drucker and Chris Argyris among others.
Other teachers and authors who’ve moved my mind include Adam Grant, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, James Clear (whose book Atomic Habits I’d strongly recommend), Geoffrey West, and Dave Snowden.
Recently I’ve become inspired by The Center for Humane Technology and the work of Tristan Harris and Daniel Schmachtenberger
Everything decays over time and requires resources to be sustained. Food, energy, space, and other resources are all scarce, thus we use money to allocate them. I have enough money to donate my time and cover our expenses. Everything I have is dedicated to public benefit and I have no wish to use my resources for personal gain.
But over time, if we want to scale we may need to pay for web services, advertising, and eventually real estate. We may involve other people who don’t have their own funds and need some kind of compensation. Therefore we should build a funding model that we can gradually scale.
Our initial funding model is to invite people to subscribe monthly or annually. We have a free plan, a fixed-fee plan, and a pay-what-you-choose plan. People contribute to the mission of the organization just by learning and participating. Our founding members have contributed enormously just through their presence and encouragement.
We’re open to non-conventional funding models including social enterprises, and want to ensure that people always give freely without any sense of manipulation or coercion. This is an evolving topic and I welcome feedback and ideas.
Money is information; it is a representation of value that you can do math on. Money reflects scarcity, and forces people to make decisions about the relative value of things. We live in the wealthiest society in the history of the world, therefore if we have a good purpose and the ability to execute on that purpose money will come if we need it.
Early on in the Buddhist community, Buddha established a rule that his ordained community (the Sangha) should never even touch money, and should live in dependence on the lay community. He did this so that the lay and ordained communities could appreciate the value of living in accordance with the teachings. Wisdom itself allows us to remain peaceful and content in the face of difficulties. Contentment is the best wealth, and other realizations such as ethics and wisdom are also an inner wealth. Ordained people were sustained by these inner wealths, and lay people could then appreciate that the ordained were not driven motivations.
The ordained community provided inspiration, teachings, and a good example. And in return, the lay community offered them food and periodically other requisites such as cloth for robes. Where Buddhist communities have flourished, the ordained community have lived humbly and focused their energy on the study and practice of Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma), and the lay community has received tremendous value from their teachings, example, and inspiration.
There are very admirable communities of pure practitioners like the Thai Forest Tradition that still live in this way. Sadly, there are also communities where the discipline of the Sangha has broken down and they misuse the teachings for personal profit. There are also many examples that follow a middle way. For example, the ordination vows I had taken were more flexible, permitting me to carry money and receive a small stipend that I could use to buy food and so forth.
The modern world is characterized by scale and speed. The organizations with the greatest influence are not necessarily those with the best motivation or greatest wisdom. Generally, it’s the opposite. People who deeply crave money tend to accumulate more money, and with that they have the ability to dramatically change the natural world, influence public perception, and influence laws and society.
Money is a potentially corrupting influence. But money is also an important technology for enabling the exchange of resources. It can be a powerful protection from sufferings such as hunger and disease. Money is also a critically important tool for influencing society. Without influencing society in a beneficial way, the voices of wisdom in our society will have little power. Over time, it will be beneficial for the Digital Wisdom organization to accumulate money, as long as there are careful controls in place to ensure it is being used to bring maximum benefit and not being misused.
In accordance with the commitment to never use these teachings for business or personal profit, we will eventually incorporate as a 501(c)3 or equivalent organization dedicated to the public benefit, and fully accountable to the public.