A Buddhist temple in Beijing is embracing technological advancement, using a robotic monk to further promote the “wisdom” of Buddhism in a contemporary way.
In an interesting fusion of religion and science, the robot is the product of a collaboration between a tech company and AI experts from China’s top universities. The bot is named after its creator, Master Xianfan, who believes “science and Buddhism are not opposing nor contradicting, and can be combined and mututally compatible.”
Standing at 2-feet tall, Xian’er sports a touch screen on his chest yet maintains a traditional look with yellow robes and a shaven head. The robot was inspired by a popular character from the temple’s 2013 cartoon series Trouble, You Seek for Yourself, created by Master Xianfan to “highlight and develop Buddhism’s connection with contemporary culture through new media.” Beyond the cartoon animations, Xianfan, Director of the Animation Center of Longquan Temple, has also produced comic anthologies and merchandise.
The robo-monk is capable of chanting Buddhist mantras, responding to voice commands, and answering 20 basic questions about Buddhism and daily life. While his popularity has exploded on social media since his public unveiling in 2013, Xian’er is rarely seen at Longquan temple, instead spending the majority of his time ‘meditating’ on an office shelf.
Despite many looking to purchase the robo-monk, Xianfan has stated Xian’er is one-of-a-kind and was not developed for commercial gain. “We are trying to communicate Buddhist doctrine in a modern way,” he says. Xianfan believes the religion “fills a gap” for people, as “something that attaches much importance to inner heart, and pays attention to the individual’s spiritual world. It is a kind of elevated culture. Speaking from this perspective, I think it can satisfy the needs of many people.”
The temple is already working on an updated version of Xian’er, which will include several new functions.