Tiny Robot Monk Joins the Fold at Beijing Buddhist Temple

Chinese Buddhist temple disseminates wisdom with robot monk Reuters

A Buddhist monastery in Beijing has found a new way to introduce its faith to the public, by building and programming a robotic monk named Xian'er.

Created by the monk Master Xianfan, the robot's goal is to spread awareness of Buddhism and engage the public. The monastery collaborated with a tech company and artificial intelligence (AI) experts from nearby universities to build Xian'er.

The cute robot stands 2 feet (61 centimeters) tall, wears the yellow robes of a novice monk and has already become popular on Chinese social media. It can respond to about two dozen simple questions about Buddhism, life and religious concepts, and move independently in a number of different ways on its wheels, as the video above shows.

Xian'er was inspired by Xianfan's 2013 cartoon creation of the same name. The temple has produced cartoon animations, published comic anthologies, and even merchandise featuring the cartoon monk.

While the idea of using modern technology in an ancient religion that emphasizes spiritual over material life may seem contradictory to Western audiences, Buddhism has often taken to new technology and devices. Using technology, say the monks, is just another way to connect with humanity.

"Buddhism is something that attaches much importance to inner heart, and pays attention to the individual's spiritual world," Xianfan tells Reuters. "It is a kind of elevated culture. Speaking from this perspective, I think it can satisfy the needs of many people."

The current Dalai Lama, a spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, has often embraced science as a way to reach people, understand the world and improve human existence. 

And Longquan Monastery itself has been at the forefront of marrying technology and religion. The monastery's abbot Master Xuecheng routinely communicates with the public via Weibo (China's Twitter equivalent) missives that are translated into nine languages, and the monastery publishes a version of the Xian'er cartoons via WeChat.

"The Internet transcends time and space, features instantaneity and interaction," Master Xuecheng writes on the monastery's website, "and can integrate the Buddha Dharma into our lives at every time and place."