Blending of Science and Buddhism at Chinese Temple
“Buddhism is old and traditional, but it’s also modern. We should use modern methods to spread the wisdom of Buddhism.” – The Venerable Xuecheng
A lonesome temple on a hilltop in northwest Beijing, Longquan Monastery has been the destination for many Buddhists seeking enlightenment for centuries. It was firstly built in Liao Dynasty in 957 AD and has undergone vast changes and transformations since its inception. With the rapid economic growth and technological advancement in China, the new generation of Buddhists is using all sorts of modern digital media to communicate mantras. As the pressure piles up for those who work at hottest start-ups and technology companies, many people feel burned-out and spiritually adrift and start to look for a change by turning to places like Longquan Monastery, which is conveniently located near Beijing.
(Ven. Master Xuecheng (middle) with Master Xianqi (right) and Master Xianjian (left), showing the deep affection between master and students. Source: chinascenic.com)
Besides convenient location, what distinguishes Longquan Monastery from the other traditional monastery is highly educated monks and Longquan’s embracing of modern technology. Many of the monks came from backgrounds such as nuclear physicists, math prodigies and computer programmers.
In order to increase the follower base, Longquan has adopted a very modern technological approach. They pioneered a popular series of cartoons based on Buddhist ideas. The cartoons were first developed in print media. The temple later assembled a team of engineers from monks and volunteers to create the flash version of the cartoons, which can be accessed through their websites. Both the books and the flash cartoons were very well received. The Longquan website is very actively managed and is available in five languages including Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean and Russian. The leader of the monastery, Master Xuecheng maintained his blog in Chinese, English, French and ten other languages discussing Dharma targeting at younger, tech savvy followers.
(Fingerprint control – Source: chinascenic.com)
Many of the daily operations at the temple are digitalized as well. One of the monks, Master Xianxing is a master of Linux and Mongodb, and manages all temple affairs using software that he develops. The temple maintains a database system that digitized all of its scriptures and books. When meditating, the monks are said to use electronic tablets instead of regular prayer books. One might be surprised to find out that the access control system of the temple has adopted the fingerprint recognition system.
Longquan Monastery went even further into natural language processing and is in a process of developing the Buddhist version of Siri, hoping to further broadcast Dharma to followers around the globe. They just finished with their first version of Chatbot, Xian’er, who can engage in small talks with a tinge of spirituality.
(Meditation room – Source: chinascenic.com)
With the digital transformation and close proximity to Beijing’s top university and main science and technology hubs, Longquan Monastery has attracted many young people who are searching for deeper meaning in life and relaxation.
Despite the innovative way of operation at Longquan Monastery, people worry that this technological approach might actually muddle the teaching of Buddhism. Others hold the view that these technological innovations may only serve as an advertising purpose for the temple in order to build a large following since the major income of temples in China is from donations. Since the temple attracted many technological minds, there are also people who visited the temple, not so much for the learning of Buddhism but rather for the network within the entrepreneur community. However, Master Xuecheng believes in a computer-driven world, it is no longer realistic for people to attend daily lectures at the temple, which makes digitalization the key of communicating Dharma.
(Lunch with food from organic farm – Source: chinascenic.com)
Even though these are concerns about the digitalization, we can see the approach that Longquan Monastery adopted help attract more people to learn about the preaching of Buddhism. There are potentially challenges ahead regarding how much technology is too much in a religious setting, but this is definitely a good start from the temple’s perspective to reach a broader audience.
Hernández, Javier. “China’S Tech-Savvy, Burned-Out And Spiritually Adrift, Turn To Buddhism”. Nytimes.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
“Magazine | China Scenic”. Chinascenic.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
“Robot Monk Blends Science And Buddhism At Chinese Temple”. Reuters. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
“Voice Of Longquan”. Eng.longquanzs.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
“Buddhist Robo-Monk Mixes Religion And Technology”. Fox News. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
Student comments on Blending of Science and Buddhism at Chinese Temple
Thanks for the highly interesting post! I would have never thought of Buddhist monasteries as centers of modernity and technology but Longquan has certainly done it. I’m most impressed by their ability to fund all this innovation–I imagine implementing all this technology has been expensive. Have they had to improve their donation solicitation strategy as well–perhaps with more online donations or targeting the wealthy in the technology industry? On the other end of the P&L, have they had to cut back the typical charitable work that monasteries do in order to fund the technological development of the monastery itself?
In the long run I’m curious if there is enough of a market to digitize additional monasteries–there may be a bit of a first-mover advantage in that the first technologically advanced monastery gets a disproportionate amount of mindshare and donation dollars, raising the bar for subsequent followers.
This is something about which I had absolutely no idea, so thank you for the eye-opening post. The mix of modern technology and Buddhist monks is completely incongruous to my mind, but Longquan seems to be making it work. I must imagine, though, that there has been pushback from the wider Buddhist community, something you allude to at the end of your post. Have there been any open rebukes against the temple from the wider community, or is it mostly rumblings and questions? It can become easy to question their motives as they serve as a networking hub and place of spiritual discovery at the same time, and I’ll be curious to see how the monks at Longquan strike that delicate balance going forward.
I actually question why there would be strong push-back to incorporating technologically advanced elements into religious life. Historically monks were knowledge keepers and forward thinkers (think Mendel’s peas). Given that religions were also historically centers of power, based upon followership, it makes sense that in China’s new social media universe Budhism would recruit in a technology forward manner. Perhaps Longquan will be a point of entry for a younger followership, while more traditional practices remain in more rural areas of the country.
Really interesting post, thanks! I would be curious to learn about the nature (socioeconomic, age, etc.) of those whom Longquan Monastery has been attracting through technological outreach. I wonder how the Longquan Monastery community perceives these demographic shifts in terms of community impact.