I got disinvited from a workshop at Berkeley on Buddhism and AI

I’ve mentioned this to a few folks, so I thought I’d post it here in the interests of openness and clarity.

Note: I removed the mention of specific numbers of people who were invited, as it doesn’t affect the main point. Sebastian was kind enough to point out that my memory may have been hazy on those details.

Later in the year, the good folks of the Numata Center for Buddhist Studies at Berkeley Uni are holding a conference on Buddhism and AI. I’ve been somewhat associated with some of the people there over the past few years, as they’re using our data for training. They were kind enough to invite me to speak.

I noticed that almost everyone speaking was a white man. This is an extremely common problem.

I encounter this imbalance, I am not exaggerating, almost every time I am invited to speak at a panel or conference. And every time, I reach out to the organizers to urge them to do better. And also, every time, I have got a reasonable reply, and often some measure of success.

So this time, as is my wont, I reached out to @SebastianN , who I have met through his work with Ven @Vimala on BuddhaNexus, and who has recently moved to Berkeley. We had a nice long chat, during which he reassured me that they encouraged diverse and critical voices.

The next day I get a message from Bob Sharf, a senior faculty member, who acknowledged my “strong concerns”, and told me that he “understands my concerns and completely understands”. I don’t know about you, but reading that gives me the distinct impression that he really doesn’t. He reassured me that I no longer had to worry, as I was no longer invited.

Look, I know nothing about how academia works. So I reached out to a number of friends, asking whether I was being a diva to be upset with this. They assured me I was not, saying things like, “wow!”, “dodged a bullet”, and “completely unprofessional”. A number of respondents indicated that they too had had distressing encounters along similar lines.

A conference of almost entirely white men doesn’t just miss out on the different perspectives of diverse voices, it lacks humanity. It’s just … boring. The same things, again and again. You know, I helped organize my first environmental conference in Perth in about 1985. In those days, Perth was hardly a beacon of diversity. But in organizing the conference I worked with a trans woman, and with an aboriginal Nyoongar elder (Ken Colbung). I can’t really remember much from the conference, but I still remember what I learned from those two.

Which brings up the lack of racial diversity. I mean, come on: this is Berkeley. One Asian guy, seriously? In a religion that has been Asian for 2,500 years? I understand that this is the norm in American Buddhism, but it really shouldn’t be.

It’s also valid to consider the presence of Sangha. We are the traditional custodians of these texts. We created them, edited them, recited them, wrote them down, and maintained them for 2,500 years. We did so because these texts are sacred to us. In modern times, we gladly gifted our scriptures to academics at the Pali Text Society and elsewhere, honored that they took an interest. We raised funds for them to start their centers and to print their books. And we have been thrilled to see the Buddhist texts take their rightful place among the world’s great spiritual literatures.

But we are still the custodians of scriptures. Any Buddhist culture will tell you that. How our texts are used, what happens to them, we deserve a say. Not that I, or anyone else, can represent the entire Sangha. But at least there should be something.

Since disinviting me, they subsequently invited two women to speak, Meghan Howard and Xiaoming Hou. My best wishes for both of them! :pray:

Meghan entered the chat with her response to an earlier announcement about AI translation programs, which she addressed to her academic peers. I’ll end here with her words, with which I am in full agreement, and which she has expressed so eloquently:

As a Buddhist, I feel that machine translations are a violation of the sacredness of the Buddha’s words that rightfully live in the hearts and on the tongues of Buddhist faithful. Sacred scriptures are not a commodity to be harvested by machines, even if they have been treated as such by modern scholars for some time. How many Buddhists are even aware of these developments? Should they not have a say in the fate of their holy texts? You raise the question of potential merit attached to this project. Have you also considered the possibility of sin and suffering?

As a humanist, I am dismayed that ethical considerations—which should be the starting point for an endeavor of this magnitude—seem to have been something of an afterthought. The points you raise in your announcement are insufficient for the gravity of the matter and, moreover, put the cart before the horse. I would ask the members of this list, Do we scholars of the humanities really want to lead the way in displacing the human? On an individual level, do we really want to become “gleaners and cleaners”? Might such a sharp restriction in the scope of our discipline seed its demise? I know I would not have entered graduate school with this future in sight. As a point of comparison, has the era of digital texts produced better scholars than those who came of age reading printed pages?

As a human being who hopes to live a few more decades on this planet and, more importantly, hopes her children will live several more, I despair in the face of this Brave New World in which a small number of people can unilaterally push humanity across yet one more Rubicon, colonizing ever more private recesses of human lives with their insatiable technology. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should, and we are running out of time to even ask the question.


Very interesting. I do wonder why… Must admit my first thought was about this post. Since, as you say, your data is the foundation for much of their work, that’s a bit… awkward. While one would think that that would be all the more reason to meet up and discuss the issues in person… without any legal recourse (already public domain) it’s certainly more convenient for them to just sweep the issue of appropriation under the rug along with the rest of the history of academia.

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As this is flashing up in my inbox I feel the need to react:

  1. Its not true that only one woman was invited (and I have conveyed that in the call with Bhante as well): They had invited three women, of which one had declined (she was busy) and the other was not inclined to come, which brings the number back to 3 with the two new invites. The original mail written by Bob didn’t include those people that already agreed/declined by that time, so this could be a bit misleading. There is a communication issue here and I feel sorry if things where not clear enough.

  2. This event is organized by the Numata Center at UC Berkeley, which is not doing any machine learning or AI research in general at all. Neither Bob Scharf nor any other professor of the humanities/Buddhist Studies is involved in our work, which happens at the BAIR (Berkeley AI Research Lab) under the guidance of Kurt Keutzer, who is going to speak on this event, but it is not his funding and not his department that hosts this. So there is, strictly speaking, no connection between SuttaCentral’s training data and this event, apart from the fact that both Kurt and I are on friendly terms with Bob Scharf and Alex and will talk about technical progress on machine learning for Buddhist Studies at this event. We have different funding, and we do our best to serve the interest of Buddhism here.

I feel sorry that Bhante got disinvited here, but at the same time, the situation is also a bit more nuanced than it might appear.


Thanks for the information. Any clarity on why Bhante was disinvited? I mean, if there’s a good reason, surely those that made the decision would be happy to share it?

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Hi Bhante,
It seems particularly strange that you would be considered too difficult for Berkeley… :rofl:
The conferences I’ve been involved in organising over the last couple of decades have made real efforts to have diversity of invited presenters. Not aways easy in the quantum/spectroscopy/materials area. The good thing is that when we think harder we get more interesting talks and more early career presenters…


Well, there was a clear deadline communicated by the organizers, and this wasn’t met by Bhante. I understand that making such decisions isn’t easy and takes time, we are all busy and Bhante is probably very very busy which I fully get but if there is no feedback at all by a given time, its reasonable to assume that the person is not clearly set on attending.

Needless to say, I’d have loved to have Bhante speak in this workshop. I value his oppinion very highly, and I can only emphasize that his (and SuttaCentral’s) contribution to making the Dhamma approachable for a larger audience cannot be underestimated.

And yes, we use SuttaCentral’s data for the creation of translation models for Buddhism. This work started with the support of Ven. Vimala in the Linguae Dharmae project (which is discontinued) and that slowly morphed into dharmamitra when we got support by the engineering wing of UC Berkeley. If there are concerns about training machine learning systems with SuttaCentral data, I am more than happy to discuss this!


Ah, thanks for that. I can definitely believe that Bhante Sujato is capable of missing an appointment :face_with_hand_over_mouth: :heart: Unfortunate that this was lost in communication, but happy to hear there isn’t so serious a rift as the OP made it sound :heart: :blush:


Bhante @sujato, I am sorry this happened to you.

Taking up the topic of Buddhism and AI, I’ve had reservations about the use of AI and LLM in general, and I would not use LLM on the suttas, tempted though I may be sometimes. I’ve used LLM in the past, in a consulting gig with a client, so I am reasonably aware of what they are and how they work.

However, I want to retain an open mind. I do understand there may be practical applications of AI in general and LLM in particular in analysing texts, so I won’t automatically dismiss those who genuinely are researching in this area, provided they are aware of the spiritual and ethical dangers of relying on these models. Perhaps this is something you can speak about in the future, along the lines of your post.

Recently, the university that I am associated with gained access to a “protected” version of CoPilot (ie. anything we feed into it won’t get leaked to the public model). I used it to summarise a textbook on Buddhism. I must say I am both impressed and less than impressed with the results.

It did better than I thought. It made a valiant attempt summarising the key points of each chapter, but I felt it missed the major thesis of the book, which connected all the chapters together, and missed the author’s key points. If I was marking this attempt, I would say it’s a pass, but not even a credit or higher. So I would say it’s still work in progress. And this is a book written in English, not the actual texts.

But LLMs are evolving fast, and some say in a dangerous uncontrolled direction. Nobody knows what the true capabilities of these models are, and whether they will achieve sentience (Artificial General Intelligence).

Till then, I think I will continue to rely on my unreliable brain. I much prefer to study the texts using my faulty knowledge of Pali and draw my own conclusions.

Best wishes, and hope the issue regarding your invitation (or disinvitation) will get resolved.

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I feel I have some experience with the issues surrounding wrongly interpreted intentions.

But first, I’ll say, this is a loss to the Buddhist community. Your knowledge and insight would have likely been valuable to the AI project. I understand you are likely feeing hurt because you had good intentions when drawing attention to a lack of cultural diversity within the research group.

This is how I interpret their reaction based on having been in a similar situation.

With any inquiry like this, people, especially people who are already culturally sensitive, can get offended. And that, in short, is how I imagine the head of this research team reacted when you pointed out a lack of cultural diversity on the team.

I have some advice. Far be it from me to advise a Bhikkhu, but none the less … Here’s some personal context on my part first.

I was on a four day journey to Machu Picchu. It was an incredibly difficult hike for me. But together with two of my brothers and a mutual friend we endeavoured our way up the summits.

Our troop on the journey was an interesting mix of both young and old men and women from all over the world - Canada, USA, UK, Belarus, etc.

I fell to the back of the group and pushed up the mountain. I met a woman from Texas who just so happened to be African-American. And we hit it off immediately. In fact, her company on the hike proved invaluable to me in terms of pure morale. For instance, I would take the lead, venture 30 seconds of hiking, stop, breathe, hydrate and continue on like this for another ten hours. And when I got sick of being in the lead, she would take the lead, and so forth. And we became well acquainted and shared more than a few laughs.

She had a strong American accent and for whatever reason I felt comfortable picking up on slight nuances of the accent which I felt already existed in some form with my own Canadian accent. And so we travelled up this mountain while conveying our feelings about the hike as well as becoming acquainted. End of story.

Except … when we reached Machu Picchu, in fact after reaching the goal (which had taken four days) - we caught a bus down to the base of the mountains which took about an hour and then hopped a train out of the Sacred Valley back into Cusco.

I shared the train ride with the Texan I’d met on the mountain, a friend of hers who was also from Texas, and a member of my own party (the mutual friend). As usual, we all talked and had a good time. Unbeknownst to me, I had taken up too much of a linguistic affectation to my speech patterns and had found myself emulating the Texan accent. The mutual friend then later accused me of both cultural appropriation and straigh- up racism. This turned into a horrible blowout with my brothers, and the lasting effect of the accusation is now that I feel ostracized from my family and can no longer interact with them under the umbrella conviction on their part that I am a racist.

Luckily, after the accusation came out, I was able to defend my self.

Us Canadians and Texans met up for coffee in Cusco. I was unusually quiet, having been utterly shaken as to what I was now able to say out loud and exactly how I was permitted to say it. God forbid, I should accentuate the end of a sentence in a way that was natural to me, but also distinctly American in certain respects.

After the coffee, my Texan friend asked me to go shopping with her in the city. I felt this was good in the sense that at least my accusers would be confused as to their presumptions. I got a chance to ask her if I had offended her or had come off as racist. She told me specifically, “I’m from Texas. I know what racism is. That wasn’t racism.”

In that sense, I felt vindicated. But her sentiment was never passed to my brothers and I remain a pariah to this day.

What really would have helped was if the mutual friend could have confirmed his suspicions with the Texan. In fact, had he been a bigger man, and had he really suspected racism on the train, then he could have addressed it right then and there.

Now, I understand what his intentions were. And he had good intentions. So, I don’t begrudge the guy for taking a stand on what he thought was a valid concern. What really hurts is that I had no intention of malicious cultural appropriation. In fact I was so oblivious to how much accentuation there was in my speech that it came as an utter shock to me. Anyway.

Bhante, your intentions were good. And the most likely explanation for them taking offence is that their intentions were also good. This is just a case of misunderstanding. They likely assumed some things about you and found your inquiry into cultural diversity “presumptuous”. That’s not your fault and the bottom line here is that both parties had good intentions. The downside is that you’ve been excluded from what is an important development in Buddhism (under the modern context of AI advancements).

If I were you, I would use the fact that the team has created a more culturally diverse environment to reply by saying that you are 1) happy to see the improvement 2) sorry for whatever insinuation may have come across 3) would still be interested in working on the project.

The truth of my personal story was revealed to me by the person who was alleged to have been victimized by me. However, I have never been apologized to by my brothers or the mutual friend and I have never received a formal acknowledgment that I am not, in fact, a racist. That is a wound that has yet to heal in many respects. I hope you can resolve your differences with the Berkeley team, and I hope that through that reconciliation you can be a part of this research into AI.

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Sorry, Sebastian, I don’t recall this at all.

A deadline not mentioned by you in our long conversation, nor mentioned by Bob Sharf in his email.

Bob Sharf made it crystal clear that he was disinviting me because of the “strong concerns” that i raised with you, and no other reason was given. Let us please not start rewriting history.

What are you talking about? I wanted to raise my concerns in the most sensitive way possible, so I took the time to arrange for us to speak in a context where we could establish trust and freely exchange ideas. We spoke for over an hour, and you assured me that my perspective was valued.

My friend, no-one is blaming you. But someone is to blame, and it isn’t me.

And why is Ven Vimala no longer involved?

Thanks Christie!

Again, to be clear, I spoke with Sebastian for over an hour and had an agreeable discussion. This is not unique. I’m going to Taipei next month for a conference—where I’ll meet Sebastian in person—and I raised the same concerns with them. I’ve done a series of webinars with a Sri Lankan group, and I have raised the same concerns with them, repeatedly. I raised the same concerns at the recent Mettalympics conference in Sydney. And so it goes. Every time, people have had a sane discussion.

This sounds horrible, and I am so sorry this happened to you.

It’s notable how people with no knowledge of the situation are like, “well probably both sides”, whereas when I contacted people familiar with the institution and people, they said, “you know what, me too”.


[Edited out the names, I think the point was understood]

… But mentioned in the very invite email. Its not my job to run behind deadlines that are clearly communicated to everybody. I wasn’t CCd in your communication with Bob here and I don’t want to second-guess what happened in your communication, that is between you and Bob. I know that the disinvite came after the deadline was over, and I also recall a growing concern during the planing stage about the people that didn’t reply (either positively or negatively) timely.

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Okay, sorry if I misremember. These details are not really essential anyway, so I’ll just remove them from the OP.

This happens literally every event. You send a reminder email.

[edited out, this is off topic]

In that case, good on you for standing up for visible minorities within Western academic and Buddhist circles. By the sounds of it, it needs to be done. I’m sorry you’ve been met with this kind of response. As many have already told you, “it’s their loss”. Other than that … can’t change a tiger’s stripes overnight, I suppose.

It really was. It turned what was an incredibly satisfying, once in a lifetime vacation and adventure with deep levels of bonding between brothers into an utter chasm of disappointment on all sides.

For my brothers, their kid brother was now a confirmed racist who ruined the trip. For me, just disbelief … and a total sense of loss … mainly in how to act around these people. Do I say this? Can I say that? If I make this joke, will I be labelled as such?

And these are the closest people in my life. I’ve removed them from Facebook as I don’t even feel comfortable expressing my self on any platform where I’ll be evaluated according to their standard.

I digress. I hope you continue to fight for inclusiveness and I hope you win.


With all due respect, discsussions on racism – including how white people (like myself) process it – is this not a separate topic for its own thread? I’m willing to jump in there, but not here, on your post.

As the suttas do not explicitly address the modern situation, we would have to be quite creative. Nevertheless…

Thank you

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Appears quixotic to me.

The applicable issue is danger of bias in training models, and here, algorithmic design expertise would be desirable.

It is the act and nature of the Red Line drawn* that pollutes the outcome, not the characteristics of the modelers.

I’ve made an analogy between

A. conference participants positive contribution to conferences

B. ML modelers positive contributions to AI outcomes
… in order to address the question of what “racism” (predudice) might have, specifically, to do with this AI conference.

*Redlining: using race as a predictor of mortgage risk, is the case used to think about how bias in a complex “manual” system can “creep” into AI modeling.

Interesting :thinking: Thanks for clarifying, Bhante.

I’m genuinely curious why that would be so triggering for him. He doesn’t like people questioning his authority? He doesn’t want “woke” leftists participating?

Perhaps, the shoe is on the other foot.

(If you mean, by shoe on wrong foot, that the idea that the organizer is triggered / territorial - may be misplaced, then…) Agreed, but in this case, Ajahn S IS a subject matter expert and, as such, one could assume positive contribution to the conference.

I think the other foot might have shot itself.

Sarcastic Suttas:
King Bimbo: “Hey old pal, take a seat!”
DaBudda: “Sooooo… ya still killin’ people?”

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