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In a First for BCA, AI Generates Dharma Message at MVBT

In the heart of Silicon Valley, a recent Dharma talk at the Mountain View Buddhist Temple (MVBT) became the first in the BCA to be generated by artificial intelligence (AI).


ChatGPT, which stands for Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer, was the AI chatbot used for the June 1 message. ChatGPT, developed by San Francisco-based OpenAI and launched on Nov. 30, 2022, enables users to refine a conversation to a desired length, format, style, detail, and language.


BCA Vice President John Arima, a Minister’s Assistant at Mountain View, worked with MVBT Resident Minister Rev. Yushi Mukojima on the AI Dharma talk on June 1.


The AI Dharma talk began with a passage from Shinran Shonin’s “Kyogyoshinsho”:


“Entrusting oneself to Amida Buddha is the most important act of the Pure Land Path, and the most difficult to realize. It is through the power of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow that we are able to attain liberation from suffering and attain birth in the Pure Land.”


Excerpts from the Dharma talk follow:


“Today, I would like to speak about the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, which is a central teaching of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.


“The Primal Vow is the vow that Amida Buddha made in the remote past to save all sentient beings from suffering by leading them to his Pure Land. This vow expresses Amida Buddha’s infinite compassion and his desire to help all beings, regardless of their background or abilities.


“The Primal Vow is based on the understanding that human beings are limited in their ability to attain enlightenment on their own. We are all subject to the cycle of birth, old age, sickness, and death, and we often struggle with our desires and attachments. The Primal Vow is a way of overcoming these limitations by relying on the power of Amida Buddha’s vow.


“In Jodo Shinshu, the act of entrusting oneself to Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow is known as ‘shinjin.’ Shinjin is the most important practice for Jodo Shinshu followers because it is the means by which we receive the benefits of Amida Buddha’s vow.


“Shinjin is not something that we can achieve through our own efforts or merits. It is a gift from Amida Buddha, which we receive when we sincerely entrust ourselves to his vow. When we entrust ourselves to Amida Buddha, we let go of our own efforts and place our trust in his infinite compassion.


“The Primal Vow is freely available to all beings, regardless of their background or abilities. It is not limited by time, space, or individual differences. All we need to do is entrust ourselves to Amida Buddha with a sincere and open heart.


“In Jodo Shinshu, we do not emphasize elaborate rituals or strict moral codes. Instead, we emphasize the importance of entrusting ourselves to Amida Buddha’s vow with a pure heart. We try to live a compassionate and ethical life, not to earn merit, but as a way of expressing our gratitude to Amida Buddha for his infinite compassion.


“In conclusion, the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha is a powerful expression of his infinite compassion and his desire to help all beings achieve enlightenment. It is a central teaching of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and serves as a source of comfort and hope for its followers. By entrusting ourselves to Amida Buddha’s vow, we can overcome our limitations and attain liberation from suffering. May we all entrust ourselves to Amida Buddha with a sincere and open heart. Thank you.”


‘Pretty Good Talk’


Arima said: “That was a pretty good Dharma talk. It fulfilled the basic format and requirements that Minister’s Assistants are taught to do for a Dharma talk.”


He said those requirements included:


  • Opening with a quote meaningful to the subject of the talk.

  • A lesson about the Primal Vow, shinjin, Other Power/Self Power, or the Pure Land.

  • The teachings of Shinran Shonin and the seven masters are followed through the course of the talk.


Why ChatGPT?


“You might be asking yourself, ‘Why present a Dharma talk written by ChatGPT?’” Arima said. “When I thought of seeing how ChatGPT would write a Dharma talk, I was wondering how it would turn out. It was surprisingly simple to have a ‘conversation’ with the AI about Jodo Shinshu to start the process.”


After his initial conversation with AI, Arima said he asked the AI more questions, feeding it prompts to narrow down the information that it should be searching for and processing to create the Dharma talk.”


He said it took only a few minutes for ChatGPT to write the Dharma talk, and said he was “very surprised by the result. I thought it would take a lot longer and a lot more prompts to get a decent Dharma talk from the AI.”


Arima wondered if AI-generated Dharma talks would replace talks by ministers.


“To look for an answer to this, I went back to the AI and asked, ‘How does one attain shinjin?’ As you can see, a lot of what is in the answer is the same points that were covered in the AI’s Dharma talk. However, toward the end of the answer to my question, ChatGPT talks about ‘practice.’”


AI’s Limitations


He said the AI began mentioning practicing various forms of mindfulness and listing things such as Nembutsu recitation, listening to the Dharma, and reflecting on the Dharma as mindfulness ‘practices.’


“Here is where I feel the role of ministers and other teachers becomes clearer,” Arima said. “These ‘practices’ are not meant to build merit or enable enlightenment through self-power. These ‘practices’ are how we can hope to build trust in something we cannot understand.”


Arima said: “Something that the AI was not able to explain was the unexplainable; the inconceivable wisdom and inconceivable compassion of Amida Buddha.


“As arrogant human beings, it is in our nature to want to be able to explain everything, to have the answers to everything and maybe this is why the AI tries to answer all the questions; because it was made by people to be ‘intelligent’ in the egocentric way we define ‘intelligent,’” he continued. “To truly and completely entrust in Amida’s Primal Vow means that you must release your attachment to self-power and trust the Other Power of Amida’s Primal Vow.


“Helping evil-minded people like me to accept the unexplainable and inconceivable is something that ministers and other Dharma teachers do that AI may not be able to do,” Arima said. “If AI is built by humans to ‘think’ like humans, then AI will have the same arrogance to have to find the answer to every question — just like Skynet in the Terminator movies!


“What I found interesting about seeing how the ChatGPT AI would write a Dharma talk was that it was able to hit all the ‘textbook’ points, but it was not able to convey the concept of entrusting without turning the focus back towards ourselves,” Arima said.

“The more you reflect on what ChatGPT says, the more it seems to say that you need to use your self-power to get the benefit of Other Power,” he said.


Rev. Mukojima also assessed the AI Dharma talk and concluded:


“This is not what is meant by shinjin because if we can understand the unexplainable, then Amida Buddha is no longer the Buddha of immeasurable life and light. Seeing the paradox of what the AI said helps us see and understand our own limitations.”


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