On Jan. 19, 2018, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) found a driver passed out in his Tesla with a very high blood alcohol content on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. The driver told CHP that he had set the car on “autopilot”. The highway patrol officer was not impressed. He arrested the driver and charged him with suspicion of driving under the influence. Apparently, the car was sent to the tow yard. To this, CHP assured everyone on Twitter that, “no, it didn’t drive itself to the tow yard.”

To have complete faith in Tesla’s autopilot sounds understandable as technology improves. But, how capable the car is in driving on its own at this point of the technology is certainly dubious. The fact, though, is that manufacturers are seriously developing self-driving cars. In some ways, machines are more reliable than humans in doing repetitive tasks. In fact, some things like landing a space shuttle can only be safely accomplished by a computer. I am sure that at some point, developers will create a car that is dependable. But, what happens when there is an accident? Is it fair to blame everything on the automobile or the auto maker? Surely, some fault will go to drivers who put their cars on autopilot, wouldn’t it?

I thought about the recent accident involving the Amtrak train carrying GOP members last on Wednesday morning, Jan. 31, 2018. House and Senate Republicans, and their families, and staff members were on their way from Washington to West Virginia where they had a retreat, when the train collided with a garbage truck. A passenger of the truck was killed, and others were injured. None of the GOP entourage was injured. Whose fault is this? It is still too early to know, but one could imagine many causes. Was the garbage truck on the track illegally? Was the traffic light faulty? Did the operator of the train fail to stop? Is it a speeding violation? Did the brakes give out? I am sure that there are many more related questions, but let us agree that the people riding the train, including the many GOP members, are merely passengers, and have little control over the train itself. Everything is left to the train operator. Passengers also ride the train with the assumption that it is well maintained. Almost all the control is left beyond one’s reach. In this sense, and though it is a bit far-fetched, can we say that the passengers have the train on autopilot? Is there someone who protects us when we are on autopilot?

As you know, our lives are impacted by what happens around us as much as we try to control it. Let me introduce a story about the Buddha. This comes from a sutra called, Kengu-kyo, and is a story about the “Lamp of a Poor Woman”. The people of a town heard that the Buddha would be visiting them in the evening to offer a sermon. This is 2500 years ago during the Buddha’s time, when there is no electricity. People used oil lamps for lighting. So, people decided to purchase and made offerings of oil lamps for the Buddha’s sermon. A variety of lamps were available. Interestingly, this ensued in a range of motivation for purchasing differing lamps. Most people bought lamps just because others did. Others were competitive, and bought ones that they thought would garner special attention from the Buddha. Still others purchased large and ornate lamps that showcased how wealthy they were. Many people bought oil lamps, which all contributed to make the lecture hall as bright as day. Finally, there was a woman who wished only to hear the Buddha’s teaching because the chance of hearing a Buddha’s teaching is extremely rare. She wanted to contribute in lighting the hall. Alas, she was very poor and could not even afford the smallest and cheapest oil lamp. Her desire to see and hear the Buddha was so strong that she decided to cut her precious long hair and sell it for some money. With this money, she was able to buy but the most meager of oil lamps. She carried her lamp into the hall and set it down among the others and lit it. She then put her hands together and prayed towards the lamp, asking forgiveness from the Buddha that her offering was so miserable. With feelings of inadequacy, she sat towards the back of room where hundreds had gathered to hear the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha was sitting with his eyes gently closed, and opened them before he began to speak. It was in the middle of his lecture that a very strong typhoon-like gust of wind blew through the room. The wind extinguished all but one of the burning oil lamps. All the while, the Buddha continued his sermon as though nothing had occurred. The one lamp that kept burning strong and bright turned out to be the smallest of all, the one that was offered by the poor women.

What can we take away from this? In the same way that the Buddha did not stop the wind from blowing out the oil lamps, it is difficult to expect that a calamity can be kept from occurring completely. One cannot expect the Buddha to completely avert a train wreck from occurring if there exist conditions where a tragic failure can occur. Similarly, it would not be a surprise if a drunken driver ended up demolishing his/her Tesla, regardless of whether the driver activated the autopilot, because it does not change the fact that s/he was under the influence of alcohol. Here, there is no effort to be responsible for what can happen. Under these circumstances, dependence upon the divine for protection can be construed as negligent and derelict, if not selfish. It is vital that one does his or her part to be responsible for one’s own affairs as best as one can before looking for blame around them. As the story of the “Lamp of the Poor Woman” displays, one must act proactively to pursue favorable, productive, and safe results. Having nothing, the poor woman sacrificed her hair to buy a lamp for the Buddha. She did the best that she could to make the greatest offering within her means.

Now, interestingly, having said this, there is a caveat. As the one remaining candle in the story teaches us, there always exists a chance that we can be saved. But, again, this divine intervention is contingent on whether our efforts mirror that of the poor woman in unselfishness, sincerity, and purity.

(Eisei Ikenaga)