June 18, 2024

Venerable Dr. Yifa – Buddhism and the Search for Universal Truths

Thomas is joined by Taiwanese Buddhist nun, scholar, writer, and Founder of the Woodenfish Foundation, Venerable Dr. Yifa, PhD. They discuss the relationship between science and religion, focusing on how modern scientific advances can be viewed from a Buddhist lens, and the philosophical and ethical questions posed by new technology. Dr. Yifa shares how she chose the path of becoming a Buddhist nun, and how the discipline she learned in that process has helped her in her academic studies and life.

She and Thomas explore how both religion and science offer avenues to pursue fundamental truths and discuss how Buddhist and Taoist teachings can help us become mindful, helpful people who contribute positively to the collective karma of humanity.

Share this:

Listen Now

“If you call yourself a Buddhist and a practitioner, if you are not happy, then you’re probably on the wrong path. So you have to change, you have to examine what you have been learning.”

- Venerable Dr. Yifa

Guest Information

Venerable Dr. Yifa

Venerable Dr. Yifa, PhD is a Taiwanese Buddhist nun, scholar, and writer. Ordained in 1979, Yifa holds a law degree from the Taiwan National University, a Master's in Comparative Philosophy from the University of Hawaii, and a doctorate in religious studies from Yale University. She is the author of The Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China, published by Hawaii University Press in 2002.

Since 2006, Yifa and others have published translations of the Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Ksitigarbha Sutra, Amitabha Sutra and more. She is also the author of Safeguarding the Heart—a Buddhist Response to Suffering (reprinted as The Tender Heart) and more. She has also co-authored numerous other works.

Yifa has participated in many interfaith dialogues such as the Gethsemani Encounter, and contributed to the UNICEF South Asia's Safe Motherhood Project. She has been granted numerous awards including “the Ten Outstanding Young Persons” in Taiwan in 1997, “Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award” in 2002 bestowed by the UN in Bangkok, and 9th annual “Juliet Hollister Award” in 2006 which was granted at the United Nations New York Headquarters, for her contribution to World Peace and Interfaith Education.

Venerable Yifa now is an independent scholar. In 2002, she established the Woodenfish Project to conduct the “Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program” for college students to experience life in monasteries, as well as “Buddhism in China—Buddhist Seminars in Sacred Sites” for scholars and graduate students.

Venerable Yifa is currently affiliated with Asia Center at Harvard University as Associate Visiting Scholar to seek more collaboration with academic worlds to create education and training projects for Buddhist leaders.

Learn more at:

Notes & Resources

Key points from this episode include:

  • The spiritual value of discipline, ritual, and structure
  • Using modern scientific language to decode ancient Buddhist canon
  • How Buddhism supports the idea that if you want to help other people, you need to help yourself first
  • The principle of impermanence and how the world is constantly changing, and how we can adapt
  • The freedom in lack of attachment

Episode Transcript

Thomas Hübl: Hello and welcome. This is Point of Relation, my podcast. My name is Thomas Hubl and I’m here with Venerable Dr. Yifa. Yifa, welcome to the podcast here. I’m so happy to have you here.

Venerable Dr. Yifa: Well, thank you to having me.

Thomas: It’s so lovely. I’m very curious about our conversation, and because I think we share also the love for meditation and the spiritual practice is very dear to my heart and it’s your life. So there’s lots we can talk about. And the beginning is maybe you can tell us a little bit about your journey as a monastic, as an academic. How do these two things go together? Why did you choose to combine both? I often speak about the mystical science and science and how they have a dialogue, and in you it seems they have a strong dialogue too. So maybe you can share a little bit with us how did your path unfold?

Dr. Yifa: Okay. This is going to be a long story. If it’s too long, you have to shut me off. Yeah. I was born in Taiwan, and when I was young I always want to be a politician. I want to be the first female president in Taiwan. Of course right now we have the first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, so she already took my place.

So that’s why I went to political science. I was enrolled into National Taiwan University Law School. It’s almost like in United States would be Harvard Law School. And quite a few, you can say most of the Taiwanese presidents right now are all from this department, the [inaudible 00:04:59] National Taiwan University Law School. But when I was young, I always curious. I think this is kind of most important in my life is I always wondering that why I came to this world. That means that the purpose of existence and also what was I before I came here and what I will be after I leave this world.

I think that these are the three major questions in my life. Even though you’re kind of on the path of doing law or politics. And it was in, when I was a first year in the college, the summer and a friend just said, “Hey, why don’t you go to a temple and participate a meditation?” And at that time I personally, I did not have any religion belief for myself. Even though my family growing up in so-called folk religion, our Taoist religion as a family.

So I went up to the temple and then I think after two weeks you use Christians term like you have a calling. But for me I developed a sense of renunciation. And many people ask me, what is a renunciation experience? And I can share with you because some of the scholars, they just kind of far away from this, kind of more like a mystical experience. The sense of renunciation at that moment I experienced like I’m in a different zone with all other people. That means that the way I see, get along with the other people, I feel like everyone is like aliens to me. We call ET. Or maybe I myself is an alien, but that was kind of in my mind. So you see your parents, you see your friend, you see the people surrounding you, they are like a alien. Okay? That’s the first experience.

The second experience will be I love music and I love to sing, I love singing. But at that time, like a kind of a whirly music to me it’s just noisy. And the most important thing is your mind is so calm. Because after I became a nun and my parents, they don’t believe I will join the order. They think that, “Okay, you are in the best school, in law school. You’re going to become a politician. You have a good future. I don’t believe that you will withdraw from the world.” So I was took home by my parents and somehow kind of lock up. But during … Motorcycle.

So during this two month look up, you know what, my mind is so calm because there were so many friends, they come over, try to convince you not to join, dissuade you from join the order, but you feel at that moment you are unshakable.

So I can continue to talk about this kind of experience of what I call renunciation. And that is why because this experience, and I joined the order, I shaved my hair, I become a nun. And since then it has been 45 years and never regret. And I enjoy this life, nun’s life.

So if you want to ask me what will be kind of a continue, am I right now see most people like a alien? No more. But I still have that attitude. When one of the student asked me say, “How can you pursue your happiness?” I said, “Well, I will try to avoid unhappiness.” That means that I will try to avoid unnecessary human entanglement. That means that all kinds of trouble relationship, that’s kind of in my, right now, my life attitude. We’re still very active in propagating Dharma, share the Dharma, or create all kinds of program. But your personal life is try to avoid unnecessary and unhealthy human relationship, I call human entanglement.

And then of course after I still finished my law degree and then by some kind of accidentally I was invited to study in United States. I went to Hawaii to finish my master’s degree first and then went to Yale for my PhD. And then after that I have been helping out the temple to establish a university in Los Angeles, they call it the University of the West in California, in Rosemead.

And I have to say that ’09 or even two years before everybody say, “Oh, okay, 21st century is going to be China’s century.” So then I just pick up two luggage and I went to China and I live there 11 years. I think that’s a pretty good experience. I told myself, “I’m studying sociology but without degree,” PhD in sociology without degree to learn about during that time the China’s situation.

And it has been very interesting because I have bring the college student to China to sit in meditation for one month in summer and I brought a Buddhist scholar. We went to those holy sites and study, for example, Mountain Tiantai, we will study the Tiantai study. And I also bring the scientists from Silicon Valley from those high-tech company and we have a Buddhism science and future dialogue all happened in China.

But after 2019, especially 2020 and I came back to Boston, and also accidentally, it’s not planned at all and because the pandemic happened, then I got stuck here. Harvard is a good place to get stuck.

Thomas: Right.

Dr. Yifa: Yeah. So right now I’ve been with Harvard for four years. Right now I’m the Associate Asia Center here.

Thomas: Beautiful. So tell me a little bit why science and the deep practice of meditation? What are the two for you inside of you? How do these two different approaches to reality basically combine in you?

Dr. Yifa: For me, I think if you are on the path of religion, for me the definition is that you are on the path seeking for the truth. The truth need to be scientific. And if it’s truth, it should be the universal truth. And that means these universal truths need to be able to be examined by science.

And also, I find that many message in the canon or what we call the Buddhist teaching, those doctrine, that it’s kind of in a ancient language. But if we can use modern scientific knowledge the language to decode, the way I say decode. And indeed that’s help myself to understand what is really the message in the canon, in the doctrine. And the other one is help you share this. If you use a scientific language, you share the language with the people. So help people to understand what does mean about the universal truths we are all looking for.

That’s why I find like … And also maybe for someone were on the path to study law, the mind is very logical and it like to be reasoning. So still this kind of attitude, scientific approach, not because now you become a nun then you were just abandoned. Of course we all understand that science is not to the ultimate development. That means the scientists, they also kind of every time they will refuse or turn over what they are discovering. But the attitude it’s very important.

So for example, in Buddhism we will call the whole universe. If you ask what is the universe? Even though right now we try to say Big Bang or … it is still very limited. You will ask what is before the Big Bang, and what is the boundary before our universe or our universe is unlimited? But in Buddhism, the terminology also very vague.

For example, we come to the viewpoint of universe. In the sutra it was called literally, it called 3000 great thousand worlds. What does it mean? Well, then it give explanation is that you have a small world structure. Of course in this world there was a continent, there were ocean, there was a mountain, and this is called a small size of the world. But thousands, thousands of the small worlds it’s become the middle size world. And then thousands middle size world and become the big size of the world. So it called [foreign language 00:17:38], that means small, middle and large.

And what kind of message try to explain the view of universe? You try to say, “Well, our whole universe or cosmos indeed are multi-dimension.” And now because the Hubble’s scope, we realize that our world indeed is layer by layer. Now we can call okay earth and now we can call solar system. Now we can expand it to galaxy.

Of course some people might say, “Well, it might be farfetched,” but for me, for me that might be a better even now if we use the solar system, the galaxy to explain what that mean about multi-layer universe, it help people to understand what that mean about 3000 great thousand world. So this is one of the example. Yeah.

Thomas: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Now you spoke a little bit about meditation and science and the two voices that actually create a confluence somehow. And tell me a little bit about … So from your renunciation till now, do you have a deep life of practice and meditation? And I would be curious if you would share a few things with us that life of practice deepened or what do you feel changed in these 45 years that as a result?

Dr. Yifa: I think that sometimes people ask me, “What are you doing?” And I say, when I’m starting my PhD, “Writing dissertation is my meditation.” And if you ask me that, “What’s your daily meditation right now, Yifa?” I will say, “When I go to attend all this meeting, that’s my meditation.”

Well, I think that from my own experience, definitely the first two weeks training in the temple, that inspire me for this renunciation, that’s really a great foundation. I would say that’s kind of a minor realization, minor realization. And because that has a big force, energy to help you to change all your life or direction. Otherwise, now I’d probably become a Taiwanese politician right now. No more [foreign language 00:20:48]. That’s one.

And then the second one is in China … in Taiwan, I’m sorry, in Taiwan that the older, the temple I joined is called Buddha’s Light Mountain. That means Fo Guang Shan. And this temple is in the mainstream and it’s also one of the biggest Buddhist Sangha, Buddhist community in Taiwan.

So once when you join the order, you need to pass almost four years of fundamental training. So that mean during that time you are totally a novice and also a student, student of meditation, student of rituals, student of chanting and student of Buddhist teaching. So four years. And not only that. Later, I also myself become the dean of this seminary. And that way I’m the one who train the student doing the chanting, ritual, meditation and etiquette protocol, how you can become monks and nuns. I think those training, it’s not like what people think, the monastic life training it’s always close the eye and sit in meditation. The principle of a monastic life training, the first one is to train your self-discipline.

Once when you are in that kind of a so regular, for example four o’clock, you wake up and then you have to start to washing your face. And by certain time you have to be kind of in line and waiting to get into the main shine doing the morning chanting. So let me give it to you that the way we describe the monks and nuns life in the Chinese language is called morning bell and evening drum. Okay.

In the traditional monastic life training, in the ancient time, the temple could have over 10,000s of people. And in the seminary I have, it’s about almost 200 student at that time. That was about 1980s. And so why is called … In Buddhism monastery in the ancient time you don’t have a clock. So in the temple they use, sometimes you hear the bell, you hear the drum, you hear the wooden board. This signal, it’s kind of the signal of a schedule.

In Buddhism monastery, you don’t hear a big speaker like, “Now it’s meditation time.” You don’t have a speaker. But in the morning you will hear one person on duty hit the wooden board kak or kak-kak, or kak-kak-kak or kak-kak-ka-ka or kak-kak-kak-ka-ka. That means one, two, three, four, five. And so in the five, the hour of five in Chinese it called [Chinese 00:24:39]. Then that means that you have to get up when you hear the wooden board. And then continue with the 108, bell, the sound of the bell. And during that time you have to get up and finish your washing and put your robe and waiting in line and to get on the main shine.

Then after bell, then you hear three section of a drum. They hit the drum. That means what? The first section of drum you need to be in wherever you should be. So if you are not there, that means that you are late. So in the monastery’s life it’s training self-discipline. Nobody’s forcing you but you just hear this signal, then you know where you have to be.

And at nine, they will start with the three sections of a drum. So for example, at the 9:30 you hear the drum, they hit the drum. That means what? Okay, turn off the light, wrap up all what you were doing and then go to wash your face. So after three sections started with the 108 bell, that means what? That means that you have to sit on your bed and then doing meditation. And you have to doing the meditation after 108. And when they start to hit the wooden board, then you can lie down to sleep.

So I think that the monastery, it’s not just with the eye closed. And this is very important because I was able to finish my dissertation in six years and my advisor, Stanley Weinstein told me that, “Yifa, I think it’s because you have that self-discipline so you are able to finish your dissertation in a short period of time.” Yeah.

Self-discipline and then also be mindfulness. Of course you cannot be like every second always mindfulness, but it always raise this kind of a sense of mindfulness and to exam your daily life. I may not be sitting there like a whole day, but every time when you withdraw back your daily life and then you kind of contemplate, raise this mindfulness, what you have done today is good or bad.

For example, one of the student asked me. He say, “Oh Yifa, what’s your favorite Koan?” Koan is like a saying. Like “You’re always wondering who I am?” and “What was my original face before I was born?” or “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That’s kind of a famous one. But for me it’s every evening when my head hit the pillow, and that was the moment I start to contemplate that at the moment of my last breath, who am I? That means that at the moment when we are dying, who are you? I mean without this physical body and what’s the moment of your consciousness?

That it’s kind of … I hope that I answer your question about that.

Thomas: Beautifully. Yeah, beautifully. Thank you. So that’s really lovely and it’s also lovely to hear, to get the transmission of your monastic life experience and training. It’s lovely. Thank you.

Because you talked about the Buddhist teachings, when we look at our world today, many people start talking about the poli crisis. There are conflicts, climate change, many, many kind of disrupt potentially or already disruptive things are happening. And maybe you can tell us a little bit about how the teachings you received and that you pass on also, how can they help us in this time? So what are the foundational Buddhist teachings in such a let’s say crisis time or a time of a strong change and whatever you think is important for our listeners?

Dr. Yifa: Okay. I always tell people that if you call yourself a Buddhist and a practitioner, if you are not happy, then you’re probably on the wrong path. That’s the way I say it. So you have to change, you have to examine what you have been learning.

I think that I always tell people that before you benefit other people, you have to benefit yourself. So in Buddhism we call “自利利他”. And then, if you want to help other people, you need to help yourself. You are to make yourself healthy and happy first.

That is why it doesn’t look like it’s not selfish at all because if you are not healthy, the people surrounding you cannot sense of that positive energy. You probably give lots of negative energy to the people surrounding you and then how to make yourself? And this is just like the airplane. When we take the flight, they say, “Okay, when the oxygen mask drop, you have to put on yourself, then you can help other people.” The same reason.

And how can you make yourself healthy? I personally, I benefit from not just Buddhism but also Taoism because in Chinese we have a kind of Confucianism education, we have Taoism education and then Buddhism. So sometimes here, professor James Robertson, we always teach and he always say, “Oh Yifa, you’re going for interfaith dialogue.” Yeah.

So I think that this kind of Taoism is, for example, many people hear about Wu wei, they call non-action. It’s not really no action at all. Non-action means you have action, but without the constrived mind. That means that you should not calculating about the result, especially it’s really bad that every time you take action and you calculate it’s going to be benefit for yourself only, then that action is going to lead into bad result.

So then now you come to Buddhism called cause and effect. So when we do something, we always want to make sure that once when I put a good cause and condition, that means that your motivation is the right one. And then the path will lead into the right path.

So this is very important that non-action doesn’t mean you should not do anything. So for example, climate change or help other people, it doesn’t mean okay, wait, we had to be just laid down and doing nothing. I think that’s wrong. And that is why for these 45 years I still have been very busy. We create all kinds of international education.

But you know what? Every time when people ask me about, “Oh, Yifa, what you think that you were great achievement of your summer program, you bring the 100 student to the temple in Taiwan, in China doing meditation?” And I always answer that the great achievement is our student go home safely. That’s it. That’s what we wish for. I didn’t put like, “Okay, after you attend our program, you have to become a Buddhist.” It’s not conversion program. It’s education. Education you can share.

So this is what we call Woodenfish Monastic Life Program. And for example, this summer we are going to take the student to Korea. And the people come in. You don’t have to become a Buddhist. So in the past we have a student from Muslim and Christian. Some of our student, after they finished the program, they go back to their church and then become a pastor. I say, “Great.” I think it’s better to have lots of good people or good Christian or good Muslim or good Buddhist, whatever, and then you have a small bad kind of a evil Buddhist.

I think it’s good to have … I think this is called Buddhism and Christian and Muslim. Sometimes it could be because the terminology. You have to see your action, your practice it’s really fit into we call the religion or spiritual. A lot of people in the name of religion and they started with a murder or massacres. I don’t think that’s a religion.

And then also there’s a non-self … non-action. Of course Buddhism non-self, we will come to that later. And the other one is sometimes I feel like our society tend to think from one side. When you’re writing your dissertation, you understand you always want to make your own argument and you had to enhance all the material to help you to come to your argument, to support your argument. But you also know that there was a lot of facts there you neglect there. Yeah?

So what I’m trying to say is our world indeed is neither “good or bad”. The reason I say that is, for example, I ask people about a low population. Right now the people really have a kind of a crisis about low population. But we also try to prohibit right now the people have different kinds of create a human, for example, like a test tube baby, IVF. Many people in the past, especially in the past, they’re against this test tube baby, they think it’s unnatural. But do you know how many test tube baby like IVF in this world? Over a million, and they are just like normal people.

And then of course we also have in the future I believe it’s going to have a clone and it’s going to be even have a synthesized embryo, an AI, AI and this machine. Well, I think that people tend to be kind of denied it from the beginning. And let me come back to this low population.

So we are worried about there was kind of because people don’t … some area, some area, for example China worry about it and Japan and maybe include Taiwan, because right now the young people, they don’t want to get married or they don’t want to give birth of child. And of course for them that’s the issue. But we also worry about the global population. Remember in the ’90s always worry about a whole global is going to overpopulate so we will not have enough food.

But I think that the world has kind of back and forth. For example, right now we have all these this drone and maybe can replace a soldier to get on the battlefield. You don’t have to send the soldier to go into the battlefield, but also at the same time you also can use the drone to killing more people. So it has a good and bad.

So in Tao is a famous story that an old man that he lost a horse and the neighbor say, “Oh, I’m sorry for your loss.” He say, “Oh it’s not bad at all.” And then his own horse suddenly brought back a bunch of wild horse and the people say, “Oh great, you gain a lot. Not only you get your horse back but you also get extra more horse back.” He said, “Well, it’s neither good either.” And then when his son ride on one of the wild horse and broken his own leg and the neighbor say, “Oh, I feel sorry for you. Your son have to face this kind of a tragedy.” He said, “Well, it’s not bad either.” And then because his son broken his leg, then he was able to exempt from military service. So this is a famous Taoist story said that things are neither good or bad, and sometimes you have to see the longer spectrum and big scope as well.

I think that if individual anxious too much about these collective karmics world, then probably also create a lot of frustration, depression for yourself. So I think that starting from kind of more healthy philosophy to help our younger generation, is try not to create too much anxiety. And in order not to create too much anxiety, maybe you have to switch from the other prospect to look at this world. And for example, climate change. I think that for climate change, a lot of times we ask people, you should not do that, you should not do that. But in our personal life, many people are very wasteful, waste of food, waste clothes, buying, shopping, consumerism like buying lots of unuseful stuff and then have to throw away. Is thinking about every day when I take my garbage out, I always kind of have to repent it.

Thomas: Yeah, right.

Dr. Yifa: Okay, just one person, you create so much garbage.

So I think that the people need to be more aware of your personal life, whether there was a lot of unnecessary. And you don’t just go out to participate these protests in a movement. One time I have a student and he claimed that he was working for environmentalist, climate change issue. And I was very happy that young people, such engagement. But at the end of the program when we were in a sacred mountain and we’re going to leave the Airbnb and the owner took one luggage and full of uniform, full of all … because that was our last day of the program. And then the owner of Airbnb, “Oh, someone dropped the luggage.” And so we asked who’s it? And these kids, they say, “Oh, that’s mine, but that’s garbage. I’m going to throw away.” But inside there was full of uniform clothes, all kinds of … Basically it’s his whole luggage.

So at that time I was really, and I’m sorry I shouldn’t say that, I shout at him. I said, “You claim you are the environmentalist but you create such garbage, and this garbage is still very useful and you create garbage for the Airbnb, create lots of inconvenience too.”

So I think, and our whole universe change. And in Buddhism that it says if we look at our world when condition is there, it come to be. Okay? And then it stay flourishing but it will decline, and finally extinguished. Buddhist teaching said that is the principle of everything. This is called impermanence. Oh, we come to be and flourishing and decline and extinction. [foreign language 00:44:13].

So just like a person, we were born and we become aging and we died of some kind of a disease or age and then sickness and die as a human being. Of course right now we try to be kind of a prolong the life. For a certain extent it worked.

So individually, if we kind of use this attitude to check this universe, so it will now create all kinds of anxiety. That’s what I mean. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t take action at all, but you also realize that is the reality, that’s the fact. And of course we also understand what cause and effect. Cause and condition and lead into the effect. So you need to put a good condition and good cause there. And then naturally the principle were leading to to the good result. And of course we also have to understand our whole world is collective karma, the collective action. So it’s very important.

I also feel like education, education is very important because education it’s on this kind of education on the collective karma. And still, I still believe we have to keep yourself healthy. In 45 years now, especially right now, I feel like when people ask me, said, “Do you have a worry?” And I will ask them. I say, “What should I worry? I don’t have a car. I don’t have a house. But I have enough food. I rent an apartment, enough, life it’s enough.” And thank America that if I really ends up homeless, I think that America have a good benefit, a good benefit.

And especially relationship. I’m not worried. There was nobody in this world I have an attachment. So relationship, property, material, and I don’t know, in Korea I’m doing what I’m doing.

Thomas: That’s very …

Dr. Yifa: Yeah.

Thomas: It’s very beautiful. It’s lovely to listen to you. I’m enjoying this very much to listen to your wisdom. You said something before I want to come back to. You said your exploration also with AI and prolonging life. And let’s speak a little bit about wisdom and AI because that’s something that’s up right now everywhere. So Buddhist teachings, your practice and AI, maybe you can speak a little bit how you’re looking at the current development.

Dr. Yifa: Of course. You know what? The hottest term in this year, especially 2024 is AI. And it looks like if you are not talking about AI, you are obsolete, you’re out of date. And it’s not just because that. I think that for me it’s more like, for example, when I work on my PhD, I have to bring a 100 volume of a cannon. That means the whole world will be all these printing the cannon, it called [foreign language 00:48:29]. And then, see around ’90, especially ’20, just for we think these 20 years, and then all the cannons right now it’s online. And not just online. It’s on my cell phone, a app.

So can you believe that just within these 20 years that I used to have to bring the 100 volumes of cannon. Right now I just need a cell phone. So this is a big leap. And I think that AI definitely, this just a reality. It’s going to change our lifestyle. We just need to face it.

Personally, I myself is you can call AI optimistic. I think that I have a more kind of open attitude and want to face the AI. What will be the reality that AI will bring into our life? So first thing I always ask, “What will AI impact on religion?”

The first one, for example, in the Chinese canon we have 100 volume. And in there Buddhism is not like the Christianity, you maybe only have a certain the text. But in Buddhism, the Buddhist Sutra, just in Han, in the Chinese language, over thousand, over thousands texts. And right now we have probably over hundreds translated into English. Can you imagine that in the future that if we are able to fit the AI, this LLM lots of this more like a Buddhist terminology, then in the future that AI can help. We translate the whole 100 volume of the sutra. This would be great, a great outcome from AI.

And the second, I also not just think about just these 20, 30 years. I have a YouTube lecture on should Buddhism become a vegetarian, and that was over 60,000 viewer. But think about it, if I view a temple, I give that lecture. If I have 60 people come over, I would be really happy. And not to mention about it’s going to 60,000 and people view it, and even longer. So I think that in 1990s I always say that my temple is a what? It’s iTemple. And so your temple is in the sky, in the cloud, in the cloud. And this is really happened.

So I think that AI will be replace a lot of physical temple. Whether that’s good or bad, I think that I would still appreciate a more physical, what do you call, the architecture’s building like a temple or a church. But we also have to face the reality. Fewer and fewer people will go to the church and the temple.

But the other interesting thing, it’s a more philosophical or metaphysical question will be where is the human’s consciousness come from and how far is the human’s consciousness and artificial intelligence, how far? If we say the artificial intelligence is kind of a semi-human’s neural network, it’s imitated, imitated human’s brain, the neural network, that means closer. If we are able in the future to dissect the human’s consciousness, maybe become zero and one and maybe even our emotion will be dissect, become just kind of a signal, a zero and one. I don’t know how to call that. And then that means that it’s impossible.

AI is going to closer to human being. Oh, even stronger. That’s the prediction. And you know what? I was at the Harvard Kennedy School and there was a conference called Lab Embryos: Nature and Synthesized. And you know what? They invite a scientist from Israel in Tel Aviv, maybe I should find out for you to see. They are developing synthesized embryo. Up to 14 days when they have a scan it’s exactly the same with the natural. And they probably take a mouse, the cell and they call feeding and shaking. They feed the embryo, the cell, the nutrition, and then also like a machine shaking. So feeding and shaking, and up to 14 days exactly the same like nature or even certain part even stronger.

Some people probably and of course this face a lot of ethical issue. But I emphasize that the first one that in Western religion we have a so-called the God create the world, create life. But in Buddhism we don’t have such teaching that the God create the world. So now when we question whether a human should create a life or not, the Buddhist answer, Buddhism’s answer will be: As long as there was a condition is there and then things will come to be.

So whenever there were existence of cause and conditions and then you can precede the effect. And that allowed the science to make it anything is possible, and that also fixed to what Buddhism is teaching. So in Buddhism come to this issue, it will not say it’s good or bad, but it will just tell you that it’s going to happen. If you have right components, everything is possible.

And of course the evil or good and evil will be decided by the motivation how you utilize this tool or how to utilize this life. And so now the definition … So in Buddhism good and evil, it’s defined as if you hurt yourself, you hurt other people, then it’s unwholesome. But the best result is you are not hurt yourself, you’ll not hurt other people. But if you hurt yourself and hurt other people, then it’s evil. And of course you also have a Bodhisattva, you will sacrifice yourself to help other people, but that is also more kind of exam. Your sacrifice is justified or not. So that’s an even longer argument behind how to help other people and help yourself. I mean what is the Bodhisattva.

So then I come to the AI. I think that it’s going to change a lot of on the sutra scriptures compilation and maybe structure of the temple. And of course we’re going to have more Yifa to spread the Dharma than just one.

Thomas: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. You’ll have many, many AI animations of Yifa all around the world.

Dr. Yifa: Yeah. But the issue, I don’t mind many Yifa, but the issue is now we’ve come to the ethic, is if this a manifestation of Yifa. That’s why in Buddhism we have a Buddha and Bodhisattva have lots of manifestation. So I think that these technology or these AI things, it’s going to be kind more like a manifestation. But the issue is of course, maybe not all the Yifa will be the same. You make sure that you can teach them, just like you teach the kids, should not do anything to harm other people.

And the other one is I think that you will face the other issue is whether you have attachment. I think that the AI is going to become another species, a special species. Right now look at it that we have dog and cat at home. It’s become, right now it’s become our member, family member.

So if a dog or cat die, it’s just like one family member die. And so if in the future that AI plus robot, the robot AI working with you and also have all kinds of emotion, that probably you’re going to grow kind of a feeling, attachment. So for example, if I have a Yifa AI and someday I feel like, “Okay, I don’t need you anymore,” and I want to unplug the battery, and in my mind whether that will create the killing karma.

So that’s kind of what we have to think about the ethical issue. So for the world is, we have to educate. I mean everybody is worried about AI is going to hurting people. Well, if you choose to give up just like we have some bad children, maybe we have people commit murder. But we human never decided not to give birth of a child, isn’t it?

Thomas: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Yifa: Just need to give a education. So if you know that the AI it’s going to carry out some kind of a evil mission, but right now you also can educate them. So it’s depend on what kind of data, information, the thought, the teaching to teach the AI. So that’s what we have to do. Right now we still have to limit the negative violence and kind of harmful language, material, data, information into this LLM, like a large language model.

Thomas: That’s right.

Dr. Yifa: You don’t want to feed them the unhealthy food to the AI. It’s an education too. Yeah?

Thomas: Yifa, it’s so amazing. We can go into all kinds of subjects. They’re all super interesting. I saw the time. Time flew by like nothing, like click. We are here more than an hour. So thank you so much. I know we could go in so many others. I have so many more questions now. But first of all, so lovely to see you and feel you and listen and learn from you. So thank you very much. And I’m sure-

Dr. Yifa: Well, thank you for your patience. You just listened to me. Thank you. You just allowed me.

Thomas: Of course. I want to listen to you. That’s why I’m here. And yeah, it was very enriching and I would love to stay in contact. It was really lovely. Thank you very much.

Dr. Yifa: Please. Please. And whenever you come to Boston, make sure we should meet in person.

Thomas: Yes. We will do that. We will do that. Thank you.

Dr. Yifa: Okay. Thank you.