Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
I’m almost tired of saying this, but there is mounting evidence that “traditional” Asian Buddhism is more media savvy and technologically advanced than most of Western Buddhism, and presents as more Modern than we are, ‘we’ being the so-called ‘advanced’ Western convert Buddhists.
This article by Stefania Travagnin, “From Online Buddha Halls to Robot-Monks: New Developments in the Long-Term Interaction between Buddhism, Media, and Technology in Contemporary China” proves my point. The article discusses the use of robots, AI, online media, and advanced media strategies used by Buddhists in China. Moreover, it touches on the uses of many of these same media technologies in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. All of this is done in the service of finding new ways to teach and invite people into the Dharma in modern—and technologically advanced—Asian societies.
The interaction between religion and the new media has affected the perception that society has of religion, changed cardinal structures in the relationship between religious practice and religious authorities, and also transformed features and functions of the media. If we look at mainland China today, religious individuals and groups have their own WeChat and Weibo accounts, and internet websites; some believers operate solely in cyberspace and perform rituals online; and commercials often adopt religious symbols to brand nonreligious products. In other words, we find religious people or organizations that use (and even own) different media platforms as channels of communication; we also see that religious imageries are more and more put to use in the secular domain for nonreligious purposes.
This article will analyze how and why Buddhists have resorted to social and digital media and even robotics to preach the Dharma and attract potential new followers, but also to redefine their public image in the wider Chinese society. This study also will ask whether the state has directed or merely engaged with this new Dharma media-enterprise, and in what way. In addressing these questions, one section of this article will explore the creation of the robot-monk Xian’er (at the Longquan Monastery, Beijing). Xian’er’s creation will be considered in relation to similar androids, placed in dialogue with the current debate on the use of robotics in religion, and viewed from posthumanist perspectives.Keywords: artificial intelligence; digital religion; Buddhism; China; Longquan Monastery; media robot-monks; Xian’er; 人工智能; 数字宗教; 佛教; 机器僧; 中国; 龙泉寺
What do we Western Buddhists gain from continuing to perpetuate the myth that Asian Buddhists are “traditional” while Western Buddhists impose their supposed ‘scientific Modernism’ on everyone? It perpetuates the lie that the West is more ‘scientific and modern’ than Asia, and that Asian Buddhism is concerned only with preserving ‘ancient traditions’ and institutions. This is almost a laughable joke if it wasn’t so seriously xenophobic and delusional. What I’ve seen and posted in this blog is that Asian Buddhists are constantly innovating, experimenting with new media technologies and cultural forms. By comparison to current Asian Buddhists, Western Buddhists aren’t the Modern Buddhists at all—we’re the Romanticists who live in our self-constructed fantasy world of Victorian-era Buddhism. It’s time to face facts and end this distortion of Buddhist history—and also concede that today’s Asian Buddhists are more technologically advanced and Modern than we are.
YouTube videos of the Chinese Buddhist Robot Xian-‘er: