Japanese temple and researchers create a robotic Buddhist priest to reach new human eyes

In 2019, religion seems to be facing an existential crisis, as a surge in secularism grows. In response, churches are looking for new ways to attract modern worshippers. They are placing less emphasis on fire and brimstone, and more focus on things like social media, entertainment, and marketing the church as a “lifestyle brand.”

In Japan, Buddhist priests have known for years that their ancient tradition is facing extinction. So in response, they’ve done something that by western standards seems shocking and disturbing.

They have embraced technology and made an androgynous robot the face of the Buddhist deity of mercy, Kannon Bodhisattva. The deity transforms into different forms to help people, so why not a robot too?

According to the Washington Post:

“In Japan — where low fertility rates and an aging population are reducing religious affiliation — Buddhist priests have been warning for more than a decade that their ancient tradition risks extinction. To reverse course, a Kyoto temple has settled on a new plan for connecting with the masses, one that channels ancient wisdom through the technology of the future.”
Kano White-robed Kannon, Bodhisattva of Compassion via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Tensho Goto, a Temple Chief Steward, explained how he came up with the idea. He likes the result so much he says robots may be able to do more than the monks someday. The temple hopes that the robot will attract more followers to the Buddhist faith.

“Many Buddhist statues have been made, but they were all just Buddhist images, standing or sitting figures. I wanted to create a Buddhist statue which could speak, make eye contact, and answer questions; that people can feel closer to it.”

A robotics team from Osaka University created “Mindar,” an over 6-foot-tall robot weighing about 70 pounds with a lifelike silicone face. The project was a $1 million collaboration with the temple, and the researchers chose Kannon Bodhisattva as the deity the robot would represent.

Mindar delivers sermons in plain terms in the 400-year-old Kodaiji temple. English and Chinese translations are projected onto the walls for the audience.

“We have succeeded in creating a robotic statue that can convey messages to people interactively,” said Kohei Ogawa, from Osaka University.

One visitor to the temple said she was skeptical, thinking the robot would be scary but ended up finding the sermon “very beautiful.” (see video below)

See Mindar below from DW News:

Kannon Bodhisattva is extremely popular in Japan, with many temples bearing ‘her’ name. When Christianity was repressed and outlawed in 17th century Japan, Kannon statues carrying a child were substituted for the Virgin Mary to allow believers to continue their faith publicly. However, the deity is generally represented as male in India where the religion originated.

62 meters tall, a Dai Kannon statue of Guze Jibo Kannon at Daihonzan Naritasan Temple in Kurume, Fukuoka via Japanvisitor.com

According to Japanvisitor.com’

“One of the most common figures encountered around Japan, especially at temples, will be a slender figure either distinctly female, or somewhat androgynous, known popularly as Kannon-sama, but the proper Japanese name is Kanzeon Bosatsu, in English often called a goddess of compassion and mercy.”

Kannon is not a Buddha, but a Bodhisattva, a being who is able to achieve Nirvana but delays doing so through compassion for suffering beings, but many in Japan do not make that distinction.”

As for Mindar, the future may include more advanced artificial intelligence, although for now, the robot is not equipped with machine learning algorithms.

Kohei Ogama, an associate professor who helped make Mindar told the Post:

“In the next step, we are planning to create an autonomous function,” Ogawa said. “We are going to tackle more fundamental issues, such as, what happens if a Buddhist statue starts talking?”

“How do we define the intelligence of a Buddhist statue?” he added. “And how do people resolve the gaps between Mindar and Buddhist teachings, which are in their mind?”

One wonders how Mindar would go over in the United States. Would robotic priests alienate congregations?

It seems that Buddhism may be particularly well-suited to embracing high technology and the realm of science. For example, the Dalai Lama is well-known for an openness to the teachings of science.

“If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview,” the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

For more, watch Robot Reporters discuss Mindar the robot priest below. It’s definitely surreal!

Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube

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