And Finally

Generation zen

What’s inside China’s most high-tech temple


Xian’er offers robotic wisdom

Longquan Monastery is an unusual sanctuary albeit one that was set up on the outskirts of Beijing more than a thousand years ago.

The man who launched Longquan into the modern era is the monastery’s abbot, the Venerable Xuecheng, who opened a Sina Weibo microblog account in 2006. He wants Buddhism to stay relevant by embracing the modern world and the temple has since established a reputation for blending the old and the new, taking the dharma to the digital era with teaching platforms compatible with Android and iOS.

Longquan grabbed more media attention when a math genius at Peking University gave up his scholarship to MIT to become a monk there and since then it has welcomed PhDs and tech sector burnouts ready to give up their temporal lives in search of something more spiritual.

Legend even has it that Zhang Xialong, the Tencent executive responsible for launching WeChat, found inspiration at Longquan while he was developing China’s killer social media app.

Zhang is said to deny the story but a stream of student volunteers are still sufficiently inspired to visit Longquan most weekends, working at the temple’s organic farm and helping out with maintenance and construction. Other visitors turn up for Longquan’s ‘IT Training plus Zen’ meditation camps.

According to news portal Sohu, more and more IT professionals and highly educated individuals are looking to become a monk at Longquan but to be ordained there is a challenge “much more difficult than the gaokao [China’s highly competitive college entrance exam]”.

Supporters of the monastery champion its simplicity more than its modernity, saying that Longquan rejects the commercialism that blights some of the country’s other orders (the Shaolin Temple, for example, has been particularly controversial, see WiC273).

Probably the best-known monk at Longquan is Xian’er, a robot first unveiled to the public in 2015. Happiest chanting mantras and responding to spiritual enquiries, he has 1.4 million fans on social media and conducts daily exchanges in Chinese and English with 100,000 people on WeChat, Xinhua reports.

Yet the quest for battery-powered enlightenment is a lengthy one and the monastery’s AI team announced last month that their social media star is going to get a upgrade. It has signed a deal to develop the next-generation Xian’er: iFlytek will help to improve his AI ability while Tencent will boost his data processing power.

The temple has always denied that Xian’er has been developed for commercial benefit, saying that they want to use him only to spread Buddhist teachings. And this was confirmed again during discussion of the next-generation model: the temple says that its conversational style will be based on the thoughts of Abbot Xuecheng and that the robot will share its wisdom with any who seeks it.

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