Robot monk guides tech savvy generation of Buddhists

Contemporary route to enlightenment offered in Longquan temple outside Beijing

Master Xianfan with robot monk Xian’er: In such an avowedly materialistic society, attracting new converts to Buddhist teachings   requires  new thinking. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Master Xianfan with robot monk Xian’er: In such an avowedly materialistic society, attracting new converts to Buddhist teachings requires new thinking. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

 

Buddhism teaches that there are many paths to enlightenment but one of the more unconventional incarnations is Xian’er, a 60cm-tall robot dressed in yellow monk’s robes at a temple outside Beijing.

“Who are you?” the robot monk, who has a permanently surprised expression and carries a tablet with guidance on Buddha’s teachings, asks visitors to the Longquan temple outside Beijing.

“How old are you? Let me ask my master”.

Xian’er can also chant mantras and play Buddhist music, the Beijing News reports, and is inspired by a 2013 cartoon series called Trouble, you seek for yourself.

“We just want to take a modern approach to promote Buddhism . . . Xian’er is the first generation of robot monk,” Master Xianfan, who devised the animated monk both in the cartoon series and as a robot, told local media.

China’s ruling Communist Party is fiercely secular, but it has espoused some of the principles of Buddhism in recent years – under strict government eyes – as it is worried about the country’s rapid economic rise leading to a value-free society.

Ideological frenzy

In such an avowedly materialistic society, attracting new converts to Buddhist teachings also requires that temples get a little tech savvy.

Robots have had mixed reviews of late. A restaurant in Guizhou recently started using robot waiters but at another batch of restaurants in southern China this month, the robot staff was fired for incompetence.

According to the report, Xian’er even has his own account on China’s Twitter-like service Weibo, and the messaging app WeChat.

The monks are currently planning a second generation of robot monk, which will be “more intelligent” although it sounds like Xian’er is already quite enlightened. Asked what to do during one of the capital’s famous traffic jams, he replies: “It’s a great opportunity to recite some Buddhist scriptures.”