Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cloning the Buddha: A Buddhist Perspective

I just watched an old movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (spelling his name is quite challenging!) The title of the movie is The Sixth Day. For many religions this thing about cloning is a huge ethical issue. I think humans may be able to clone the human body, but can they clone the mind? Can any scientist clone the consciousness or reproduce it by machines or DNAs? I don't think so. So, what's all those debate and controversy about cloning? Can you clone the heavenly gods? or the asuras? or the hungry ghosts? Without the mind, the cloned body is just an inanimate object, just like a table and a chair. An empty shell, I would say. It will not be able to think and create fresh karma like other sentient beings.

When I wrote the above paragraph, I have not read about the cloning technology. Since then, I have read how the scientists have cloned some mammals and even thinking of dinosaurs (might be in some secret laboratory now still in progress), it occurs to me that scientists can indeed clone a duplicate embryo and when a wandering bardo being is attracted to this embryo, it will result in a fertilised embryo. Voila! Now you have a clone body with a mind! Scientists need not create a mind nor a soul (for other religions that believed in a soul), if the cloned embryo can attract a mind, it will potentially result in a clone.

In order for a clone to be produced, first you need a cell, which is made up of the fertilised sperm from the male and egg from the female. From this cell, the scientist will take out the original DNA of this cell and replace it with the DNA of the "creature" or "whatever being" that the scientist wants to clone. Taking out the original DNA and replacing it with the cloned DNA is not killing the cell, as the mind does not reside in the DNA itself. I say this because there are some concerns whether this process in cloning is killing or not. I don't think so. Then you put this cell or embryo into the womb of a surrogate mother, if we can call it that. The surrogate mother must be suitable to bear the cloned "being". Accoding to articles I have read, the "surrogate mother" must be as close as possible to the genes of the "being" you want to clone. This is one of the reasons why cloning a dinosaur is so difficult. You hardly can find a suitable "surrogate mother" because all dinosaurs are now extinct. And some scientists are thinking of using birds, such as the ostrict (the biggest bird on earth), to bear the "clone baby". But an ostrict is still small comparatively to dinosaurs. There is, however, a possibility of an "artificial laboratory womb".

Now, with this technology, there is huge potential in the field of medical science. There is even talk of possiblity of ending the process of aging to the human body. Cancer cells could potentially be replaced by new cloned cells from your own DNA. As such, you can potentially "cure" cancer with this cloning technology. The benefits in medical science is enormous. However, I do not agree with those that think with cloning technology, then humans can then be immortals. By hook or by crook, there will be new diseases and new ailments that will continue to affect humans and animals. There will also be more natural and human-made disasters that will wipe out many scores of people. So, what the Buddha taught us, i.e. the universal truth of impermanence, suffering and selflessness still stands despite or in spite of cloning. So, you can practically forget about achieving immortality through cloning.

And the possibility of cloning a previously dead person is much smaller than that of cloning dinosaurs. This is where the controversy lies. With all the Buddha relics around, it isn't that difficult to clone the Buddha. By Buddha, I meant Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha. Not the Sambhokaya Buddhas such as Amitabha Buddha, whose DNA is definitely impossible to get, i.e. if he even has a DNA. By the way, do heavenly gods and ghost have DNAs? I supppose only if they have a material body, then they will have a DNA. Otherwise it will not be possible for the material (or tangible) to check on the immaterial (or intangible), right? But, who knows there might be intangible DNAs and the possibility will be even more enormous. Imagine creating a cloned Jade Emperor? Too far fetched? Okay, forget it. :) Let's stick to human or animal clones, the ones we can see and touch.

Many religions see this cloning of humans as a huge ethical and moral issue. I am not sure why other religions object to it, from a religious standpoint. Do they see cloning as a challenge to God's role. In Islam, as per Wikipedia, cloning are considered "haram". How does Buddhism regard cloning humans? Let's explore the issues. First, does Gautama Buddha's DNA genome includes the enlightened wisdom of the Tathagata? I don't think so. Remember the embryo will take in another mind from a sentient being with the karma to have the DNA of the previous historical Buddha. If he grows up into an adult clone, he will look like him and behave like the Buddha and be a peace figure (such as what most of us see in the 14th Dalai Lama today). Other than that, his mind will not inherit the enlightened mind of the Buddha. Unfortunately, he has to strive for his own enlightenment. However, with the DNA of the Buddha in him, I suppose it will not be that difficult for him to achieve enlightenment swiftly. So, it looks like cloning good humans does have its positive side. But still it is not as easy as Richard Heinberg imagined it in his dream of creating a race of enlightened beings. It can result in achieving enlightenment quickly. Of course, the reverse is also true. This cloning technology must never fall into the hands of irresponsible persons for fear that they may create more terrorists or Adolf Hitler clones. It will be very frightening to imagine even one Adolf Hitler. Now, do you see the concern here?

Other than cloning "bad hats", another potential issue is how to differentiate between the original being and the clone. It is said that every person has a unique thumb print and iris/eye pupil. If you have two persons with similar thumb print, imagine the chaos it will result in the world. The clone could withdraw all your money and own all your assets legally, unless there is a way to track each and every clone with a unique code (just like the thumb print). Perhaps this can be achieved by altering the genetic make-up of the DNA, so that the thumb prints will appear different but all other features stay the same. Perhaps there are other ways. but suffice it to say that there must be a way to differentiate a clone from the original. It will be disastrous if we cannot do that. The problem is human greed. Greedy scientists can potentially manipulate even the strictest control methods.

Hence, considering these issues, cloning does have it's negative impact. I think that Buddhism will not have any issue with it, in the sense of whether it goes against any precepts or teachings of the Buddha. So long as it is used for the right purpose and with the right motivation, just as it is for all other areas of science, then it is alright for scientists to pursue cloning. By itself, there is no right or wrong in cloning. Rather it is still human greed and other delusions mentioned by the Buddha that will turn something good into something most evil that are the real problems. And everyone (including clones) will suffer the karma /consequences for which we have created. When the clone body is eventually dead, the mind of that dead clone will take rebirth somewhere else according to his/her karma.

What the cloning scientists should do is to quickly form a world governing body and issue out a code of ethics. This body should also be responsible to issue licences to any scientist who wants to perform cloning. Otherwise, any such activity carried out will be regarded as illegal. Cloning activities should be thus heavily regulated. However, within the giverning body itself, there must be check and balance so that it is not heavily dominated by any one party, with potential self-interest. I believe if done properly, the cloning technology will greatly benefit many humans and animals on Earth. Thus we need not stifle its progress on concerns of its possible dangers/risks. What's important is there must be a proper governance process to mitigate those risks.

Lastly I leave you with these thoughts. Who do you like to clone if you are given a choice besides Gautama Buddha? What about cloned Atisa? Cloned Shantideva? Cloned Padmasambhava? Hmm... who do I like to see again? One of my favorites will be Venerable Ananda ....okay...two of my favorites....and Ven. Mahakassapa. The list is endless, but if I am forced to choose one, it has to be Lama Je Tsongkhapa. How about you?

Even though there are others who have written about this topic of "cloning the Buddha" before, the ones that I know of, I think the writers may not even be a Buddhist to really be able to talk and give the viewpoint of Buddhism objectively. So, I hope people will appreciate what I have written here and for whatever it is worth, I hope it does benefit someone out there.


edited on 11 & 12 Aug 2010.

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