I recently read an article that claimed that snakes once had full arms and legs until something caused
them to genetically mutate about 150 million years ago. There are two new studies that address the
mutation of snake DNA, specifically ZRS, or Zone of Polarizing Activity Regulatory Sequence. This is the
DNA that is responsible for limb-altering change. The first study is titled, Progressive Loss of Function in
a Limb Enhancer during Snake Evolution, published in the Journal Cell. The second is Loss and Re-
emergence of Legs in Snakes by Modular Evolution of Sonic hedgehog and HOXD Enhancers, in Current
Biology.

It is interesting that the two studies used different approaches to prove the same thing. The first study
used mice. They took mice embryos and removed their ZRS DNA and replaced it with the ZRS section
from snakes. This interchange was devastating for the mice. The mice barely grew any limbs at all. This
proves that the ZRS element is absolutely necessary for the development of limbs.
The second study differentiated two sorts of snakes. Snakes closer to the base of the snake family tree,
meaning that they were closer to ancient snakes, still have vestigial legs, or tiny bones buried within their
muscles. These snakes are represented by boas and pythons. More advanced snakes, such as the viper and
cobra, have no physical traces of limb structures. In this study, research focused on a gene called hedgehog
which is essential in embryonic development. Hedgehog is also a key in limb formation. What the
researchers discovered was that that the sonic hedgehog regulators in snakes had mutated. The researchers
validated their claims by applying a DNA editing technique called CRISPR to extract the ZRS stretch in
mice embryos and replace it with the ZRS from other animals, including that of snakes. When the mice
had ZRS DNA from other animals, including fish and humans, they developed limbs, just as any normal
mice would. But, when researchers replaced it with ZRS from pythons and cobra, the limbs of mice failed
to form. In further examination of the snakes’ ZRS, researchers discovered that there is a deletion of
seventeen base pairs. They performed another experiment in which they meticulously repaired the 17 base
pairs of snakes and inserted these into mice embryos. Astonishingly, the mice grew legs.
Both studies showed that the ZRS of the DNA chain is responsible for limb development. The ZRS
component contains the DNA instruction for making limbs in humans and other legged vertebrates. This is
interesting because it is not that snakes lack the ZRS component. Rather, it is clear that their ZRS has been
altered through evolution. That the ZRS component of differing species can be interchanged and be
functional is absolutely astonishing for me because it supports an important concept expressly taught in the
Lotus Sutra.

That snakes and people had once shared limbs supports the concept of equality as is found in Chapter
two of the Lotus Sutra. As much as we may abhor snakes, we cannot deny the above data that snakes and
humans both have the ZRS gene. The second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Hoben-pon, in essence, claims the
same thing. Hypothetically, when we disperse our bodies and minds into small bits and pieces, and analyze
them, we should be able to find components that are similar between people who we think are different
because they are of a different sex, height, weight, skin color, or demeanor. The Buddha encourages us to
see deep within people to find their commonality, thus invalidating any minor differences that we may have
on the surface.

(Rev. Eisei Ikenaga)

New Year’s Sermon – Dec. 31, 2016 & Jan. 1, 2017

The word of the year for 2016, according to the Oxford University Press, was “post-
truth”, as in “post-truth” politics. This was motivated by Britain’s decision to leave the
European Union. Most who voted to leave the EU in Britain did not believe that it would
actually come to be. In Germany, its equivalent, “postfaktisch” was the top word of 2016.
This, chosen by the Society of German Language in Wiesbaden, refers to the various
political campaigns around the world which were based on appeals to emotion rather than
facts. This has rippled across the pond, with Merriam-Webster choosing the word “surreal”
as its word of the year. Pointedly, a candidate in this country had managed to gain
momentum fueled more by passion and frenzy than truth. In the end, it did not matter that
outright lies had influenced people’s choices. People woke up one morning in a surreal
world, dumfounded by its shocking reality.

Fake news--from the pope in Rome endorsing Mr. Trump to Secretary Clinton being
responsible for empowering ISIS--could be legitimized virtually, to be made “real”, such
that competing untruths cloud our comprehension with another layer of complexity
whenever we speak of reality. A good friend of mine invited me to dinner recently where I
was asked how we may know what reality is. I responded that there can be many realities
depending on how you see them. His son is a karate expert, so I decided to explain it this
way. When a karate expert is presented with a stack of wooden boards which he is asked to
break with his bare hands, he must mentally envision his fist puncturing all the boards. In
other words, the karate expert is expected to harness and expand his capacity of mental
visualization to meet or exceed reality to heighten his physical capability to accomplish
something super-human. His capacity to re-envision reality in his mind, then, can be
assumed to surpass that of most normal people. In the meantime, the task of breaking all
the boards, however, is a reality that does not change. Though reality can be modified or
created depending on how we define them, truth itself is one. The minimum force required
to break a certain number of given boards is of a certain mass with a certain acceleration.
How we manage to accomplish this is a matter of technique.

Buddhism is a way to fine tune our ability to evaluate reality, find truth, and solve
problems as necessary. For this to happen, we must be aware of all things around us, both
in a general and in a particular way. 2017 is the year of the bird. In view of the untruths
that were spawn throughout 2016, I find hope that the new year is the year of the tori or
bird. Birds has the ability to fly. Think of a “bird’s eye view”. This is exactly what is
necessary. We must have the discipline to see things as a whole, clearly, and without bias.
Finding truth requires seeing things as they are, and in their entirety. This integrity is the
only way in which truth can be separated from falsehood. I would like everyone to fly like
a bird, soar high, and find real truth in 2017. (Eisei Ikenaga)

Feb. 12, 2017 Sermon

Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, will live to be an important day in American history. Three
federal judges of the 9th Circuit Court passed down a decision in favor of the plaintiff, the
state of Washington, in maintaining a stay on the president’s executive order to prevent
refugees from seven Arab nations to enter the United States. The significance of this appeal
is that even the president, whether it is an issue involving a matter of national security to
which the president has great latitude, cannot breach basic principles of ethnic, racial, or
religious freedom that are clearly protected in our constitution.
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson took the daunting challenge of
defying the president’s travel ban because he felt that, “the future of the Constitution [was]
at stake.” This victory for Attorney General Bob Ferguson was for everyone in the United
States at a time when the principles of democracy, and the sacredness of the rule of law had
become very fragile.

In a time when the United States is polarized, I felt that this event reconfirmed the
importance of maintaining our values and principles. This is important to me, because
whenever there is a problem, we must look to our common values, which should stand taller
than any one person or one particular group’s singular agenda. Just as the team is more
important than any one individual, there must be a common underlying spirit that acts as a
bond between people, to urge everyone to reach higher goals.

In our case, I would like to remind you that we are all in pursuit of the Buddha’s
enlightenment. We are here together because we all seek to follow the Buddha’s lofty
principles. Why? Because we all want to understand each other, live with each other, and
make our world a better place for all. While the teachings and practices of the Buddha are
readily available to each of us, it can only serve as a guiding light to find our way through a
complex and entangled world if we embrace the basic principles upon which it stands.
Problems arise when we detach ourselves from the Buddha and or his core teachings. In
other words, when we lose faith in the Buddha, we are apt to lose our direction, affecting us
in various negative ways.

Depending on the person, losing sight of one’s principles can adversely create an
imbalance of what is right or wrong. Let us take the Middle Way, for example. Veering
away from the middle way may cause one to lose their sense of moderation in their dealings
with others. Perhaps, it can result in one becoming anxious or combative. The principle of
constantly finding a compromise needs to be placed on a higher level, than something such
as your own personal agenda, for example. We each pursue the Buddha’s enlightenment
differently, but we should not lose sight of the fundamental principles of the Buddha. Just
as we, citizens of America, ought to protect and defend our core principles of democracy,
we as Buddhists must hold dear the basic principles of Buddhism. In a sense, knowing and
practicing the core of what is Buddhism is by itself an expression of faith. Upholding its
principles will eventually lead to the principles saving you. (Eisei Ikenaga)

Watching an episode of the View on Wednesday (Nov. 16, 2016), I learned that Hillary Clinton is the
first presidential candidate in American history to have uttered the words, “I’m sorry,” in her conciliatory
speech. I could not believe this. This, I thought, is a phrase that more people should feel more comfortable
using more often. I think that she said sorry not in admission of guilt, but that she had let down all her
constituents who had fought so hard and long for her. In any case, this moment of deep emotion brought on
images somehow of what I remember from reading Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.
Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is a classic 1950s science fiction novel that set the stage for issues concerning
robotics. Asimov formulated what has come to be known as the “Three Laws of Robotics”:

  1.  A robot may not injure a human being;
  2.  A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except when it would conflict with the first law;
  3.  A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or
    second law.

As you know, the story is about the confusion that these rules can cause, ultimately creating chaos for
machines and humans alike.
We have come a long way from the 1950s. Robots are no longer something of science fiction. Most of
what we buy these days are manufactured by robots. Go to a Toyota plant, and you will be amazed at the
way the production line is run. Machines are a necessary component of our lives today. In fact, Artificial
Intelligence, or the study of making machines more human-like, is now being raised to the next level.
Experts in the field are now further advancing the discussion into something called Deep Learning. That is,
machines will no longer be machines, but deep thinkers.
That is fine, but I am afraid that it will get rid of the more useful features of machines. I rely exclusively
on the clear yes-no nature of algorithms. I find myself dependent on computers because they help to cancel
my wishy washy nature by limiting the number of options that I can take. Otherwise, I would be
considering countless choices, conjecturing into oblivion.
Putting my personal worries aside for now, I wanted to let you know that I have three laws concerning
machines myself. These are thoughts brought on by my studies on the core philosophy of Buddhism. I
said laws, but they are more like doubts about machines. They are:
1. Can machines pose questions to themselves? Can machines detect their mistakes? Then, can they
contradict themselves, and change the course which they have already begun? I ask these questions
because Buddhist practice is about reflection in a virtual loop. You must constantly question yourself.
2. Can machines choose a middle way? Can machines provide a “Spockian” revelation? One that is
logical, yet emotional. This is because Buddhism is all about searching for the middle path.
3. Can machines say, “I am sorry”? I question this because improvement in Buddhism arrives if and
only if one can admit that they have erred.
If an objective of Buddhism is the betterment of oneself, then we must acknowledge one of its most
valuable teachings, which is realization. One’s betterment cannot occur without the admission that there is
something wrong. Unless one is able to detect their misgiving, there is no hope for improvement. You will
not even be able to take your first step toward improvement without realizing that you have made an error.
Oftentimes, this realization must come with the admission, “I’m sorry.” I believe that sincere reflection,
even in victory, is necessary to lead to true virtue. Having no retrospection just because you have won does
not lead to improvement--only stagnation. Modest reflection, then, is not a sign of frailty, but rather of
growth and advancement. (Eisei Ikenaga)