Home » Features » Are You Plugging Into The Right ‘Machine’?

The American philosopher Robert Nozick proposed a thought experiment, where people can choose to plug into a machine that induces exclusively pleasurable experiences. This Experience Machine (EM) guarantees only pleasures in the mind, free from any pain. He asks, ‘Would you choose to plug in?’ This question reminded me of the Buddha’s teachings on Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land, which is the Land Of Ultimate Bliss, with no physical and mental suffering, only with bliss. Would you choose to be reborn there? 

While Nozick’s experiment aimed to refute ethical hedonism, Pure Land does not support ethical hedonism or even hedonism. Hedonism, also known as psychological hedonism, is a proposed ‘ideal’ that humans are psychologically shaped to exclusively desire pleasures. Ethical hedonism says that our fundamental moral obligation is then to amplify pleasures for ‘happiness’. As the Greek philosopher Epicurus suggested, life’s goal ‘should’ be to minimise pain, and to maximise pleasure.

Created by fully enlightened beings (i.e. Buddhas), Pure Lands are ultimate spiritual schools for all sentient beings to learn and train to become like them. Although there are 84,000 paths to Buddhahood, Śākyamuni Buddha taught that it is easiest to enter Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land to attain it. Free from distressing pain and distracting pleasure, while being abundant with his blessings, it offers the swiftest path to Buddhahood. This is versus, say, another Pure Land’s criteria, of needing to be Eighth Ground Bodhisattvas first.

For countless lifetimes, we have been unwittingly plugged into this Saṃsāra ‘Machine’ (SM), that feeds us dreamlike experiences. Different from EM, SM enables us to experience the spectrums of both pain and pleasure, as determined by the law of karma. The range of experience varies, from gods with little suffering to hell-beings with great suffering. The lesson to learn from this SM is that since its cyclical ups and downs are fleeting, we should transcend them for truly lasting happiness.

Buddhists see worldly pleasures or ‘happiness’ as ultimately delusional, as they are fleetingly ephemeral, unsubstantial and thus dissatisfactory. What more, they are motivated by and experienced with the Three Poisons of bottomless greed, unreasonable hatred and misleading delusion — which cause more suffering later. To truly experience the Ultimate Bliss offered by Amitābha Buddha, we should first unplug from SM, which is not unlike the Matrix, as in the movie. However, the world unplugged from the Matrix is no paradise, just the bleak and hopeless ‘desert of the real’, that is dark, slummy and unsafe, no place for refuge. Thus, what unplugging from the Matrix offers is the opposite of plugging into EM.

However different, like the Matrix, EM offers delusions. It merely simulates worldly pleasures as virtual reality. Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land is instead reality, while empowering us to realise all of reality, all the while in a truly blissful environment offered by the Buddha’s compassion and merits. This is beyond any unenlightened simulation. No matter how deeply plugged we are into the Matrix, EM or SM, the Buddha-Nature within us will still gravitate towards the realisation of reality. 

With Pure Land being the bountiful ‘garden of the ultimately real’, it is beyond worldly pain and pleasure, suffering and ‘happiness’, being a world of equanimous peace and bliss, through which we are able to perceive all as they truly are, pure or defiled. However wonderful it is, as described in the sūtras, it is not embraced by all. Could it be similar to, as Nozick suggests, that many will not plug in to EM because [1] we want to do certain things, not just experience them, [2] to be certain kinds of persons, not just as ‘indeterminate blobs’, and as [3] it would limit our experiences only to the imaginable?

Nozick’s reasons are invalid when applied to Pure Land because [1] awareness is heightened there, with both experiencing and doing maximised through all senses at the same time. (See Amitābha Buddha’s 5th to 10th vow on the supernormal powers enabled, and the 31st vow.) [2] As our minds further align to our Buddha-nature there, we will realise our true self, able to manifest in any form needed to return to Saṃsāra, to guide others to Buddhahood. (See the 22nd vow.) [3] As Pure Land is sustained by the Buddha’s inconceivable mind, Pure Land is beyond human imagination, with experience of it beyond description. (See the 27th vow.)

To conclude, it is unnecessary to plug in EM, since it does not lead to any real pleasure or ultimate happiness. Even if such a machine exists, one still has to karmically unplug eventually, be it by choice or when forced to by death, with all experienced earlier being worthless in reality, not even leading to realisation of this truth. With this life already being dreamlike, plugging in would be to dive deeper into a dream within a dream, reminiscent of the movie Inception, making it even harder to awaken from.

The most highly recommended path to Buddhahood is to unplug from SM, and to ‘plug into’ the Pure Land ‘Machine’. To be not further defiled in Saṃsāra, one has to be at least a Stream-winner (i.e. Śrotāpanna, the first stage to Arhathood, or the first of 52 Bodhisattvahood stages; perfect [or complete] teaching’s first stage of faith). In Pure Land, there is no need to climb the ranks slowly to become an Ekajātipratibaddhaḥ (at the Stage Of One Life To Replacement Of Buddhas). With the direct guidance of Amitābha Buddha and his entourage of many great Bodhisattvas, enlightenment will be near. The wiser choice is clear. Forget about plugging into EM. Just ‘plug into’ Pure Land. 

By Arete ZF, this article was first contributed to TDE, appearing in DharmaWave 56.

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