Chat Bots and the Changing Face of Dharma Learning

by Kooi F. Lim, The Buddhist Channel, 22 August 2023

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Dharma learning has always been synonymous with knowledgeable individuals imparting wisdom to eager learners. In murals portraying the turning of the Dharma wheel (Dhammacakkapavatana), one typically observes a seated Buddha teaching His initial five disciples.

Across the Himalayas, in numerous dzongkas and gompas, as well as in the wats scattered across the flat padi fields of Thailand, this style of "vertical learning" – where knowledge flows from teacher to student or master to novice – is a prevalent practice in much of Asia.

There are fundamentally two approaches to learning and knowledge acquisition, particularly in the realm of education and skill development: "horizontal" and "vertical" learning. In essence, horizontal learning pertains to breadth and inclusivity, whereas vertical learning relates to depth and specialization.

Horizontal Learning

Horizontal learning signifies learning that transpires among peers, devoid of the intervention of an instructor or other authoritative figure. It's characterized by the exchange of ideas and experiences, along with a willingness to learn from one another.

In the realm of Buddhist studies, horizontal learning pertains to the exploration of various Buddhist traditions, such as Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. This form of learning aids students in obtaining a comprehensive comprehension of the diverse ways Buddhism has been practiced and interpreted over time.

In this context, horizontal learning also functions as a means of broadening the mind to the myriad ways in which Buddhism has been both practiced and understood.

Here are some advantages of horizontal learning in relation to religious texts:
  • It fosters a more democratic and egalitarian learning environment where each individual's voice is esteemed.
  • It nurtures critical thinking and independent inquiry, as students are prompted to delve into the texts themselves rather than merely accepting prescribed beliefs.
  • It stimulates creativity and innovation, as students devise novel interpretations of the texts.
  • It cultivates a sense of community and collaborative learning, as students educate one another and establish relationships.
  • It nurtures the development of students' communication and interpersonal skills, as they engage in discussions and debates centered on religious concepts.
Horizontal learning, however, is not devoid of its challenges. Locating peers who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences can prove challenging. Managing group dynamics and ensuring equitable participation can also pose difficulties. Nonetheless, the merits of horizontal learning overshadow these challenges, rendering it a valuable method for learning and personal growth.

Vertical Learning

Vertical learning, conversely, entails knowledge transmission from an instructor or authoritative figure to a student. It predominantly involves one-way knowledge dissemination and emphasizes obedience and reverence for the teacher.

Within Buddhist studies, vertical learning pertains to in-depth exploration of a specific Buddhist tradition. This form of learning equips students with a profound understanding of the historical, philosophical, and practical facets of a particular tradition.

Here are several benefits of vertical learning concerning religious texts:
  • It provides students with access to expert knowledge and interpretations of the texts.
  • It instills in students a respect for authority and tradition.
  • It enhances students' comprehension of the historical and cultural contexts surrounding the texts.
  • It prepares students for further scholarly pursuits of the texts within a more formal educational context.

Integration of Both Approaches

Both horizontal and vertical learning hold significance within the realm of Buddhist studies. However, the optimal approach to Buddhist studies varies based on the individual student's interests and objectives.

Horizontal learning enables students to recognize the diversity inherent in Buddhist thought and practice, while vertical learning empowers students to delve deeply into specific traditions.

Ultimately, a holistic understanding of Buddhism is best achieved by integrating both horizontal and vertical learning. This dual approach allows students to gain a comprehensive view of the tradition as a whole, while also fostering an in-depth comprehension of specific aspects.

The Role of AI Bots in This Context

As AI bots progressively evolve, their role becomes increasingly crucial in both vertical and horizontal learning. Bots have the capacity to provide tailored instruction, address queries, facilitate peer-based learning, and more. Consequently, they serve as invaluable tools for learners spanning all age groups and levels of expertise.

A pertinent example is NORBU, the recently developed Buddhist AI Chat Bot (, which commenced operation on July 22, 2023. In a short span, NORBU has effectively showcased the ability to amalgamate the advantages of both vertical and horizontal learning.

With NORBU's training encompassing Buddhist texts from the three primary traditions, it draws upon accurate, correct, and verified data sources. Utilizing its language model (LM) engine, NORBU generates dialogues founded on these data sources.

Learners can seek insights about Buddhist scriptures, such as locating a specific sutta in the Tipitaka, or request simplifications of certain sutras. This exemplifies vertical learning.

However, given its nature as a bot, learners also regard NORBU as a form of assistant, thereby presenting more pragmatic queries, such as those concerning day-to-day challenges like navigating office politics.

Employing its "Buddhist-trained" expertise, NORBU infuses its responses to such queries with terms like "mindfulness" and might recommend meditative practices such as the "anapanasati" method. If the learner is unfamiliar with these concepts, they can seek clarifications from NORBU, demonstrating the potential for horizontal learning. The bot could not only expound on these terms' meanings but also suggest steps on how to meditate.

This style of learning proves effective because answers emerge in response to genuine inquiries that impact the learner. As they delve deeper into the responses, they gain a perspective on how Buddha Dharma can genuinely be applied to their lives.

Consequently, learners are liberated from the linear learning approach they are accustomed to. Linear learning, typified by solitary consumption of knowledge from books, videos, talks, or brief meditation classes where interaction is limited, contrasts with bot-driven Dharma learning. In this new paradigm, horizontal and vertical learning intersect, entwined with the learner's decision-making. This capacity to connect seemingly disparate facts enables learners to perceive situations from entirely novel angles.

This, in essence, marks the genesis of awakening. Nevertheless, these early stages require further interactions to assess the bot's impact on the vertical and horizontal learning models. Additional exploration is needed to fully uncover this uncharted potential.
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For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

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Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

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On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

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