Mindar, the robotic version of the Kannon bodhisattva, delivers a lecture on Buddhist concepts. (Video by Suzuka Tominaga)

KYOTO--Inspired by a priest’s belief that Buddhist practices should evolve, the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy has manifested himself as a robot at a temple here.

The android edition of Kannon, also known as Kanjizai Bosatsu, talked to the audience at Kodaiji temple in Higashiyama Ward on a recent day with the hope of sharing the teachings of Buddha.

Among the audience was a monk from a different sect of Buddhism.

“I had not imagined that such a style was possible,” said Eishin Masuda, 50, a resident of Nagoya who works under the Jodo school of Buddhism, as he prayed in front of the robot.

“It teaches standard lessons, though the device may look strange,” he said. “The idea is interesting because temples can reach out to even those who formerly were not curious about Buddhism with it.”

Standing 195 centimeters tall and weighing 60 kilograms, the humanoid, dubbed Mindar, has a silicone face, shoulders and hands resembling the skin of a person, though the material is not applied to other parts of his metallic body.

The robot’s face, arms and torso can move, allowing Kannon to blink, for example. His gentle expression comes with a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.

Kannon explained about the Heart Sutra for 25 minutes using its speech synthesis system while speaking to virtual spectators projected on a wall.

Young priests from the Rinzai school’s Kenninji sect, to which Kodaiji belongs, decided what Kannon would discuss.

The idea of Mindar was suggested in 2017 after Tensho Goto, 75, the temple’s former chief steward, spoke with robot scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro, who is a professor at Osaka University.

Goto asked Ishiguro to “create a Buddhist statue via robotics,” to which the robot scientist expressed interest.

Goto believed Buddhism should be spread by flexibly changing the style in which its teachings are transmitted, such as in the stages immediately after Buddha, its founder, had been spiritually awakened in India.

Buddha’s lessons were initially orally told. They were then converted into texts.

Paintings and stone reliefs were then created. These two-dimensional representations ended up being solidified as statues.

Such statues made it easier for the public to understand Buddhist teachings, helping an increasing number of people embrace the religion.

Goto, however, said Buddhist statues have since been relied on for 2,000 years without going through significant changes.

“Modern technology has shifted to printing, the internet and AI (artificial intelligence),” Goto said. “It is high time for Buddhist statues to speak and look into people’s eyes.”

Thus, Ishiguro’s lab created an android. As Kannon is thought to transform into all kinds of objects, the robotic version of Kannon was put in place in 2019 at Kodaiji.

Miyuki Sakaguchi, 63, who lives with her 98-year-old mother-in-law and has been serving as a guide for Mindar for three years, said she has heard the humanoid’s lectures on nearly 1,000 occasions.

Sakaguchi said caring for her mother-in-law feels challenging for her at times and that Mindar’s teachings have provided her with life tips.

“I can affectionately embrace becoming increasingly older,” she said. “I have come to terms with myself both when I’m doing my best to look after her and when I can’t.”

Akio Oyagi, 61, a company employee in Hyogo Prefecture, said Mindar’s lesson struck him like lightning during his visit to the temple.

“I found myself still having a long way to go to mentally mature in some respects,” he said.

Oyagi noted he had been unable to be more flexible at his workplace, such as being incensed just by younger employees arguing with him.

“The teachings were easier to comprehend so I could concentrate on listening to them,” he said. “I felt relieved when I became aware that I should accept things as they are without being hung up on each of them.”

Goto expects Mindar to help people find salvation.

“Faith does not mean believing in Buddha, but pursuing him as an ideal,” he said. “I hope people will listen to Mindar explain such concepts as emptiness and mercy so that they can pray for others’ happiness and achieve their own psychological peace.”

Kodaiji temple was founded by Kita no Mandokoro (1548-1624), the widow of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), to mourn her husband.