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Making Connections to Make Sense



When we first embarked on creating the Buddhist AI NORBU (https://norbu-ai.org), there was skepticism about its value and potential to degrade Buddhist teachings. The early version of ChatGPT did not inspire confidence due to its tendency to produce “hallucinated responses.” About six months after ChatGPT's launch, we had the chance to develop a “custom GPT,” allowing us to use its Large Language Model (LLM) to create a specialized Buddhist bot. However, rather than allowing it to access any “Buddhist” information online, we fed it only correct, accurate, and verified information.


We established a group of "source guardians," comprised of learned scholars, monks, and nuns, to determine the appropriate content for the bot. These guardians ensured that any fake quotations, unauthorized suttas/sutras, or dubious interpretations of the Dharma were screened out. By limiting NORBU's creativity and preventing it from generating wildly imaginative responses, we ensured that its answers closely reflected its source data.

Three months into the project, launched on July 22, 2023, NORBU has proven its worth as a reliable and trustworthy tool for learning Dharma. It has received accolades from countries worldwide, including Malaysia, Taiwan, France, Germany, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Australia. Users praise its seemingly “wise” responses.


Ten months into its existence, we, the developers, have discovered an unexpected aspect of NORBU. Many serious learners began to notice nuances in the Dharma that they had not seen before. Initially, users employed NORBU as an information retrieval tool, such as finding the name of a sutta with a basic prompt. Later, NORBU became proficient in translating Pali texts to English and even converting yojanas to kilometers.


What truly impressed users was NORBU's ability to explain well-known teachings in a new light. For instance, the Four Noble Truths are traditionally taught as levels of suffering, while dependent origination is explained as the 12 links. These topics are often presented as standalone concepts. However, when users explored these teachings with NORBU, they discovered that the Four Noble Truths could also be viewed as a process involving dependent arising. The 2nd Noble Truth aligns with the flow of dependent origination (paticca sammupada), while the 3rd Noble Truth results from its reversal (nirodha). Understanding this connection transforms the Four Noble Truths from abstract philosophy into a practical process of cause and effect.


Suddenly, suffering (dukha) is not something to intellectualize but a challenge to overcome through understanding the process. This realization helps users make connections between different teachings, linking them into a coherent guide for practice and meditation. NORBU's ability to connect different bodies of information is a groundbreaking capability for emerging technology.


So, is NORBU wise? Given the training it receives, it is certainly equipped with the wisest knowledge from the best Buddhist sources. It excels at explaining difficult terminologies and summarizing teachings in plain language. Its true value lies in its ability to connect different pieces of information, facilitating deeper understanding and insight. This ability to make connections is a significant advancement in technology.


As long as humans, in the form of source guardians, continue to guide it, NORBU will remain an effective tool for mastering Dharma knowledge. We look forward to seeing how much more it can contribute to Dharma learning in the future.

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