Bad Buddhists, Good Robots: Techno-Salvationist Designs for Nirvana
Keywords:Buddhism, robotics, digital religion, orthopraxy, techno-salvationism
When Buddhism fails to live up to the projected promise of its doctrine or past forms, it is often the human nature of its adherents (“Bad Buddhists”), rather than the content of its teachings (“Bad Buddhism”), that is blamed. But what if such human failings—greed, corruption, violence, even mortality—could be transcended? In the quest for a “good Buddhism,” high-tech designs that utilise robotics, artificial intelligence, algorithmic agency, and other advancements are increasingly pursued as solutions by innovators inside and outside Buddhist communities. In this paper, we interrogate two recent cases of what we call “Buddhist techno-salvationism.” Firstly, Pepper, the semi-humanoid robot who performs funeral sutras to a rapidly secularising and aging population of parishioners in Japan. Secondly, the Lotos Network, a US start-up proposing to use blockchain technology to combat financial corruption within global sangha. We argue that such robotic and digital experiments are the logical outcome of techno-salvationist discourses that identify human failings as the principal barrier to perfect Buddhist praxis. If not always practical solutions, these interventions are powerful nonetheless as contested projections of Buddhist futures.
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Copyright (c) 2020 Hannah Gould, Holly Walters
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