In a temple outside of Beijing, a robot monk helps to attract new followers by blending religion and technology. Longquan temple, in association with a technology company and artificial intelligence experts from China’s top universities, has developed the robot Xian’er.
The 60 cm tall Xian’er can chant Buddhist mantras, can hold a conversation on the Buddhist topics displayed on his screen, and can move, responding to voice command.
Master Xianfan, Xian’er’s creator, developed the robot’s design based on a series of cartoons he drew after graduating from a Fine Arts program and joining the Longquan temple in 2011. While some may question the blending of traditional religion and technology in this way, Master Xianfan, now the abbot of Longquan temple, sees Xian’er as a reflection of innovative Buddhist spirit.
“Science and Buddhism are not opposing nor contradicting, and can be combined and mutually compatible,” said Xianfan. With his appealing design and technological integration, Xian’er is helpful in promoting Buddhism to a new generation of technologically-savvy citizens. While the Chinese Communist Party is still officially atheist, Buddhism has been making cultural inroads since the reforms began several decades ago.
Xian’er appears regularly on social media, and has more than 300,000 followers on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. He has also made appearances at robotics and innovation fairs in China including the World Robotics Exhibition in Beijing, but only rarely appears in the Longquan temple. Instead, they say, Xian’er spends most of his time meditating on a shelf in an office.
The temple has produced comic anthologies, cartoons, and merchandise featuring the robot monk. While some have offered to purchase Xian’er, Master Xianfan says the robot is not for sale. “What we do is not for commercial gain. We are trying to communicate Buddhist doctrine in a modern way, ” the abbot said.
Longquan temple is working on the next version of Xian’er, which will have more complex interactions and functions.