Tokyo Report

An Ancient Japanese Shrine Debuts a Buddhist Robot 

A high-tech twist hopes to offer Buddhist wisdom that’s easily understood by younger generations in Japan.

Thisanka Siripala
An Ancient Japanese Shrine Debuts a Buddhist Robot 
Credit: Flickr/ bethom33

Kyoto, Japan’s ancient former capital, is home to temples, shrines, and imperial gardens. As the birthplace of Japanese tradition, the city attracts some 53 million tourists every year.

Recently, the famed 400-year old Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto unveiled a modern makeover. The world’s first sutra-chanting android deity, modelled after Kannon the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, was introduced to the public last week. Kannon is worshiped by thousands of temples in Japan as a deity who helps people in distress; now the country’s fascination with robotics has made its way into that worship.

Kodaiji Temple Administrator Tensho Goto wanted to spread the word of Buddhism to a younger generation losing touch with the tradition. He enlisted the help of pioneer Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, head of intelligent robotics at Osaka University, who has made a name for himself in robotic research on the world stage.

http://www.kodaiji.com/mindar/index.html

A promotional photo of Mindar from the Kodaiji Temple.

The resulting android version of Kannon, named “Mindar,” stands on a pedestal at 195 centimeters tall (6 feet, 4 inches), weighs 60 kilograms, and is made with silicon and aluminum. Like many of Ishiguro’s popular telenoid robots, Mindar takes a gender-neutral human form. The appearance is kept to a bare minimum — almost like a naked robot. But as an android embodying the Goddess of Mercy, Mindar had special features designed to evoke both feminine and masculine qualities. With an open head of exposed aluminum wires and a mechanical lower half, Mindar might not be how some would picture a robotic Kannon. However, the plain facial features give room for visitors to use their own imagination in how they’d like the deity to appear.

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Kohei Ogawa is Associate Professor of Intelligent Robotics at the University of Osaka and worked on the inception of Mindar with Ishiguro. He says the images of deities that we see from relics and statues today have been set in stone by the imagination of different generations of monks in the past. But a new generation of monks sees robotics as a way to diversify how people see and worship these household deities.

“Everything depends on the person who is watching the robot,” Ogawa explains. “If someone wants to treat the android as a man, there will be some elements that represent a male form and vice versa.”

Ogawa says an android deity isn’t a normal experience for the Japanese and is still an alien concept. But Japanese people don’t carry stereotypical thinking when it comes to robots and don’t hold any prejudices. “They just think ‘oh, what’s happened here’ and then just accept it,” he laughs.

The unique joint collaboration cost a cool 100 million yen ($909,090). Ogawa says not everyone high up within the Kodaiji Temple ranks approves of the latest technology. Nonetheless, monks gathered at the opening ceremony to introduce android Kannon to the media with a traditional ceremony of chanting, bowing, drumming, and the ringing of bells.

To imitate a “natural” dialogue Mindar can move its eyes, hands, and torso, make human-like gestures during its speech, and bring its hands together in prayer. A camera implanted in the left eye to focus on a subject gives the impression of eye contact.

Mindar’s 25 minute pre-programmed sermon is based on the deeply philosophical religious text called the Heart Sutra, which is well known in Japan and Asia. But Ogawa says the meaning behind the important text is barely understood by anyone; even monks merely chant and recite the sutra without engaging in its contents. “Monks don’t discuss the true meaning of the Heart Sutra to worshippers; they just read it like poetry,” he says. “But this doesn’t work. The monks are like robots.”

The project has adopted for the first time an interactive 3D projection mapping, where visitors in the room are projected in 3D through an omnidirectional projector. On the wall behind Mindar, a projected pre-programmed person asks the android questions about the Heart Sutra text. Mindar answers in simple and plain Japanese, with English and Chinese subtitles displayed on the wall.

The “Kannon android can convey very complicated messages to visitors, which makes it easier for them to listen to the message,” Ogawa explains. “Visitors feel as if the robot and the person projected on the screen are making a real-time interaction.”

“The Heart Sutra should encourage people to solve problems on their own and give people the opportunity to think about what the problem is. We can give visitors the chance to start reflecting on themselves,” he adds

Mindar is not open to the public until March 8. The android is being displayed on a trial run until May, when Ogawa will analyze data to tweak any necessary updates. Already there are ambitions to enhance Mindar to be able to respond to visitors’ questions and diverse personal problems.