Here at Unseen Japan, we like covering religion. And we like covering technology. So naturally, we get a little hot under the collar when religion and technology cross paths.
In an article back in November, I discussed several ways that traditional religions in Japan are attempting to leverage technology to retain people’s interest. They included everything from Buddhist monks listing themselves on Amazon, to temples and shrines accepting donations via QR codes, to Buddhist temples that use drone-mounted images of bodhisattvas during ceremonies.
But the Kodai Temple (高台寺; koudai-ji) in Kyoto has taken things one step farther: it’s actually using a “sacred” android to recite scripture.
Kodai has introduced “Minder” (マインダー). Minder is modeled after Kannon, a famous bodhisattva known in India as Avalokiteshvara, and in China as Kwan Yin. Bodhisattvas are specific to Mahayana (so-called “Greater Vehicle” Buddhism), and are thought to be beings who have received enlightenment, but opted to remain on Earth instead of going to Nirvana, so that they may lead others to enlightenment. Kannon is revered as the bodhisattva of compassion across multiple sects of Japanese Buddhism, and statues to her can be found throughout Japan – the most notable perhaps being the Oofuna Kannon in Kamakura.
Minder stands 195 centimeters tall, or a looming 6’5″ – taller than your average Japanese man (1ho comes out around 170cm), and almost tall enough to star in the NBA. Minder’s head and hands are covered in silicon, but the rest of its body is exposed aluminum. The effect is like someone started building an android and, Edward Scissorhands-style, died partway through.
But Minder’s more than just a not-to-pretty face. After being unveiled at the memorial service to welcome it, Minder launched into a 25-minute sermon on the Heart Sutra (般若心経；hannya shingyou).
Kodai is a Buddhist template in the Rinzai sect, a Zen school that believes in sudden enlightenment through the practice of Zazen. The Heart Sutra is a key text in Rinzai practice, typically recited by monks prior to sitting zazen.
It will be interesting to see how far this trend goes. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Japan hasn’t been shy about using all manner of technology, not just to spice up Buddhist ceremonies, but to offset labor deficits created by a rapidly dwindling population. A recent experiment that’s drawn a lot of attention is the use of power assist suits at airports, which enable women and even the elderly to lift heavy baggage without fear of muscle strain.
However, the use of robots and androids has a few limitations. One key drawback is that robots break down and require maintenance. Indeed, the maintenance requirements proved so extreme for the robot-staffed Hen-na Hotel in Nagasaki that the hotel “laid off” half of its robot staff. Until robots can successfully and flawlessly fix other robots, the maintenance burden will be a continuing concern for any business that thinks it can go Full Automaton.
Time will tell whether Minder is more trouble than it’s worth – or whether we can expect to see temples chock full of digital monks in the near future.
(JP) Link: World’s First Android Kannon; A Move Toward Animated Buddhist Statues – Kodai Temple
I’m the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.