Shinzen Young, professional meditation instructor and geek-extraordinaire, continues his discussion with us on the unique approach he has taken to combining the best of the scientific approach with the best of the contemplative modalities of the East. The result of this combination appears to be a delivery system for enlightenment that uses an interactive and algorithmic approach to guiding a student in their practice. In short, instead of appointing a human dharma successor, he is trying to build one.
Listen in to find out more about this artificial intelligence system, which he refers to as “virtual Shinzen,” and how it might revolutionize the way that dharma teaching is done!
Shinzen: So I set myself the goal that I would see if I could create a completely modern secular vocabulary that would describe the entire path to classical enlightenment without using any of the spiritual jargon that typically is used. So that was like goal number one and I’m giving you an example of how that could be done. Then it occurred to me that, well, now I have a language for it but I have to provide people with techniques. And so how should I organize the techniques that I give people? And I figured out a framework whereby I could incorporate the essential innovations of Zen and Vajrayana. Mount that within the framework of the noting technology that’s associated with Burmese Vipassana. So I would have a way of, in essence, including all of the most important innovations in the Great Vehicle and the Diamond Vehicle. Incorporating them into a meditation procedure associated with the Small Vehicle. So it’s a fusion.
Vince: Yeah, sounds like a completed integrated system.
Shinzen: Completely. Some of the geeks in your audience if they are mathematically inclined will know the phrase ‘greedy algorithm’. There is actually such a phrase in the mathematical theory of computation. But I’m using the phrase loosely. I’ve created a greedy algorithm. I’ve created a process that loops and branches and that is greedy in the sense that it incorporates within a unified noting framework all of the major innovations that happen throughout Buddhist history such as the Zen theme of oneness of inside and outside. Or the sort of like abiding of the non doing and the just sitting that’s in some of the Zen traditions. Or the Dzogchen practice which is sort of in some ways the Tibetan version of that approach. And the absorption practices of early Buddhism; the loving kindness practice and the deconstructive insight of the Buddha – the divide and conquer: if you break self into its elements suddenly the self as a thing goes away which is the definition of stream entry or enlightenment. And the whole role of change impermanence energy. Take all of those themes and incorporate it within a unified framework of practice that I call the five ways which function as an algorithm that can implemented interactively in real time. In other words one of the things that I discovered was that the classic way of teaching meditation is: okay here is the posture, here is the technique, go off do it for a while. Come back and tell me what happened and we’ll talk about it and do it again.
Vince: That’s right, that’s where the loops and branches happen.
Shinzen: Yeah, the while could be an hour but sometimes is a day or a few weeks or whatever. So the feedback is the interaction is very sporadic, not frequent and also the guidance doesn’t tend to loop and branch it tends to just be sequential. ‘Okay well that happened but just ignore that and just keep focusing on your breath kind of thing. Oh that? Well that’s just that, just keep focusing on your breath.’ That’s just the standard sort of way to do it.
But what I discovered was if you sit down with someone like a personal coach and you in real time interact with them every few minutes. ‘ Okay do this.’ Now a couple minutes later ‘okay what happened?’ Give them a little feedback and a little encouragement and stay with the same thing and make a slight modification, interpret for them what’s going on, answer their questions. Maybe at some point change to some very different procedure. This would be a real time interactive way of guiding a person. What I found is that beginners could have a 90 minute quality unbroken practice period if they had a coach with them. Whereas if just you send them off on their own, well, you know what would happen. First of all they can’t sit for long and secondly most of the time they would be scattered or falling asleep. Or at least fuzzing out. So this way they don’t get scattered they don’t fuzz out and they have an optimally satisfying experience because they got a personal coach. Which is not that, well if you think about it it’s like ‘duh, well of course.’ If you do a nautilus cycle and you’ve got one of the staff of the YMCA there with you making sure you’re doing it right, answering your questions, encouraging you, well, you’ll have a much more productive workout and a much more satisfying work out.
So I developed this interactive way of guiding people. Now it’s very labour intensive. But it works really, really well both in terms of equipping people with techniques, in other words making sure they can do the thing and in terms of supporting them when they have to apply those techniques to real shit in the real world. Because your spiritual growth is roughly a linear function of the size of the challenge and the degree of concentration, clarity and equanimity you can bring to it. The problem is when the challenge gets big, people’s ability to bring mindfulness to it on their own usually shrinks very dramatically.
However if someone if is supporting them it won’t. They’ll be able to be at their top game with what could be a huge challenge: the death of a loved one, severe pain, etcetera. They could have their A-game if somebody is willing to give them those quality hours that they need to keep them on track.
So I’m thinking that most people in North America, they are not going to put themselves through the kind of ordeals that people go through in Asia to get enlightenment. They’re not going to sit all day and all night for a week like they do in Zen in Japan. But what is going to happen is they will get sick or something is going to happen physically or emotionally that’s going to be just as intense as anything that anybody ever put themselves through in the name of practice. If somebody is there to keep them doing the practice they will get results comparable to that industrial strength training that’s done in Asia.
My idea is create this support modality so that when the doo-doo hits the fan in the real world and they can’t have high quality practice for hours and hours and hours on their own they can have it by having somebody interact with them and giving them an interactive guided meditation. So I started to do this and it worked very well and I realized that I would change the guidance slightly or sometimes majorly depending on their experience and that optimize things. What I realized was my interactive coaching that I was giving my students was in fact an algorithm in the computer language sense, in the computer sense of: it loops and branches and reiterates until it gets the job done. But it was very labour intensive so I had to teach other people to do it.
Shinzen: So I started to train facilitators to do this interactive algorithmic coaching. But of course in order to train them I needed training materials. So I had to write down the algorithm and as I was doing that I wrote it with standard flow charting template and it just jumped off the page. It was like ‘duh, this can be automated.’
Vince: How did you do that?
Shinzen: The standard way. So you know expert systems programming, right? You interview an expert; you find out their decision process and replicate that onto software. But usually it’s keyboard entry and then you’re going to get your answer off the screen. But my idea was that it’s not going to be keyboard entry because when I work with somebody, well, I may be right in front of them but most of the time I’m not physically present. I’m in northern New England and they’re in southern California and they are going through a crisis and they called me up. And I guide them over the telephone. I am a disincarnate voice that is gathering information from them, suggesting things and then responding based on what nature shows them. So I’m a sort of midwife for liberation. Nature is pushing that person trying to create the baby called enlightenment and I know the optimal way to help that baby come out. So I get information from them and then I guide them based on that.
The human interaction I get that information by asking them questions and any question can be formulated if you really understand what the underlying logic is. You can formulate it as a binary, ternary or quaternary choice. ‘Okay when you focused on the sensation of the breath in the abdomen your concentration could be high medium or low. If it was high press or say ‘1.’ [laughter] Which could be done off of a computer or off a telephone. ‘If it was medium press or say 2. Or if it was low press or say 3.’ You press or say 3. I say ‘okay so you had difficulty concentrating. I’m going to ask you some questions about the exact nature difficulty of concentrating. Your difficulty of concentrating could be because…’ and you can see what we are doing here. So in fact if you were constrained you could do it with binary choices, yes and no. All you need is a number recognition or untrained voice recognition of yes versus no, which you can now get. And you can have either telephony or web based interactive system that gains information and gets input the way I just described it and outputs by playing audio files that are timed so perfectly that it gives you the absolute impression that you are talking to a live person who knows you.
Shinzen: In other words, I want to pass the centurion test for artificial intelligence in the way that they can’t tell the difference between: Shinzen spent half a day interactively guiding me through this crisis on the telephone or I called virtual Shinzen on a telephony program… if they could not tell which one it was.
Vince: So just a quick question: is this the Shinzen I’m talking to? Just kidding! [Laughter]
Shinzen: Error code three-point-seven. Press escape. Error code three-point-seven. Press escape. Press escape. [laughter]
Vince: Alright! End of the interview right there! [Laughter] So that’s really cool. So you have you actually developed this system? Is it working?
Shinzen: We have a prototype that works like a charm.
Vince: Ah! Wow!
Shinzen: We have proof of concept. In other words we beta tested it on a group of people. The pivotal question is: ‘is this just like listening to a guided CD or does it take to a whole new dimension?’ And the feedback was resounding: it’s a whole other dimension.
Shinzen: Both emotionally and in terms of the ability to practice and the impact on the practice. So my programmer – I don’t code, my coding days ended 20 years ago I just do the logic. And I write the scripts and record the files but my programmer says that I’m going to be the first teacher in Buddhist history that instead of appointing a Dharma successor builds it.
Shinzen: So what I’ve now got is an interactive algorithmic approach to teaching and supporting practice which can be implemented by a human teacher or it could be implemented by an interactive multimedia artificial intelligence software expert system. Now before this interview you and I were talking about Agile Development and CPI – the notion of continuous processing improvement. I mentioned to you this way this sort of greedy algorithm that incorporates within its bag of tools all of the most significant innovations in twenty five hundred years of Buddhist history. When I designed my prototype program it was not based on that architecture. It was based on a much chunkier approach to things. So I now have to rewrite all of the logic and all of the scripts to reflect this five way formulation which I know works much better than my previous iterations of which over a period of approximately 35 years of professional full time teaching I’ve probably gone through 30 iterations of how I teach.
But I pretty much have converged to the five way formulation which is described at my main website basicmindfulness.org. Pretty much converged to that and kept with that over the last couple years just with trim tab changes. So my job now which will take a year or two is to mount that system within the interactive software. We have the prototype with telephony and people used it over the telephone and it works just fine but we also want to be able to deliver it over the internet which will take some very fancy technological stuff because remember it has to be timed so that it gives you the impression that someone is really listening. So there can’t be any delays in those packets reaching a person over the internet but there are ways around it so that your computer will be sort of like you’ll have a live-in full-time personal psychospiritual exercise coach.
Shinzen: So my goals were to put the whole thing in totally modern secular language without losing any of the ability to bring people to classical enlightenment. Formulate a system of techniques that incorporates within a uniform framework all of the most important innovations that constitute the history of Buddhism. Of which there is five or six really major sort of new ideas starting several of them of course going back to the Buddha himself. Divide and conquer, replace negatives with positives, the absorption system. Those three are the three of my five ways that go directly back to the Buddha. And anyways so it goes.
Have you ever had Ken Wilber on your show?
Vince: Actually yeah, we just interviewed him about two months ago.
Shinzen: I sort of feel a kind of duality with him [laughs]. No pun intended as he’s into nonduality but duality in the mathematical sense of duality. In the sense of complementary in that he’s a professional philosopher who is attempting to create an integrated paradigm which integrates all of world mysticism conceptually. And I’m a professional meditation teacher who has attempted to create an integrated system of technique that incorporates essentially all of the world’s contemplative traditions. So we’re sort of doing similar jobs but at different ends. One is on the view and the other one is on the practice in terms of a sort of Tibetan way of looking at it. You’ve got the view and you’ve got the practice. He’s trying to integrate the view and I’m trying to integrate the practice.
Vince: Interesting, like in the west you’d have the difference between a theoretical physicist and a researched physicist.
Shinzen: Well actually I think it’s more the difference between science and technology. I’m more on the technology side.
Vince: Got it, got it. Interesting.
Shinzen: You have to have science to have technology and have a very, very deep theoretical formulation of how meditation works to create an integrated suite of meditation tools that have to span the entire world spiritual mystical tradition and it not just be a pastiche of unrelated things. The sense that he’s got an integral philosophy and I’ve got an integral technology. So now the idea is we’ve got it in the secular vocabulary so that a rational humanist can do it, a born-again Christian can do it, a Muslim can do it, a Buddhist can do it. The ‘it’ meaning get classical enlightenment. Or if you want to put it the other way discover classically that you have always been enlightened. Two ways to look at it but both of those have been incorporated in my technology.