With all the coverage of a new, $1 million robot preacher at the Kodaiji Zen temple in Kyoto, I thought it would be cool to share some thoughts on how AI can help us progress on our spiritual paths. This op-ed I wrote for Lion’s Roar magazine gave me a good opportunity to think about whether androids and AI-driven robots could replace the enlightened Buddhist teacher. It was a fun time.
Writing this also gave me a chance to offer an oblique critique of the West’s very conceptual approach to Buddhism. :-)
Since arriving at Chozen-ji, where we approach Zen through the body, I’ve been surprised by how literally the body telegraphs our mental habits and emotions. I’ve been enthralled, as well, by how moving through the world with the right posture, breathing low and slow, and seeing 180 degrees can significantly impact how we feel—and how we make others feel.
There’s something about meditating with your eyes closed in order to understand the workings of the mind (as in Insight meditation) that can start to cut off our connection to our bodies and our environments. Zen master Suzuki Shosan critiqued it strongly, saying that it would erode one’s vitality. I did it for 12 years and derived a lot of benefit from it, so I’m not knocking it completely. But I’m now starting to wonder if there aren’t some unintended consequences of widespread adoption of Mindfulness and other Theravadan and Theravadan-derived kinds of meditation.
This emphasis on understanding the mind through Buddhism dovetails with Western Buddhism’s emphasis on concepts, ideas and words. The words, as my Twitter friend and AI ethicist John C. Havens recently pointed out, are only supposed to be the medium. But they’ve taken on more importance than that. And then, at the same time, the physical aspects of training are misunderstood as ritual when they’re, in fact, wholly functional means to train the body and the mind together.
These are thoughts for another time and a future article sparked by Mindar, Kodaiji’s robot preacher. I’d love to hear what thoughts my writing sparks for you!