13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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Nonhuman Actants Across Buddhist Imaginaries and Modernist Concerns

By Francesca Tarocco

“What is a cyborg but a hybrid creature of excess?
A thing that exceeds the sum of its parts.
A thing that has extended its powers, enhanced, even superpowered.”
— Sun Yung Shin, Unbearable Splendor, 2016.1

The Beings of Technology and Ritual Animation

In 2016, Longquan Monastery in Beijing introduced Xian’er, a diminutive robot-monk that interacts with visitors. In 2017, Soft Bank Group developed Pepper, a robot priest that conducts Buddhist funerals. In 2019, the temple Kōdai-ji in Kyoto made history when its head priest enshrined the robot Mindar as a manifestation of the bodhisattva Kannon (or Gwaneum).2 As South Korea, Japan, and China vie to be the leading innovators in technology, some Buddhist practitioners appear to be deeply involved with contemporary discourses around technology that, ostensibly, do not bear the stamp of techno-orientalism.3 By studying the interaction of Buddhism and technology, historically and in the present, particularly in East Asia,4 I seek to contribute to the ongoing critical examination of the proliferating phenomenon of western techno-orientalism. Specifically, I consider Buddhist-inspired cosmologies and representations of nonhuman actants and automata. The old “new,” that shock of the new that constituted modernity, is no longer new. Perhaps it was never that new: technology has continuously shaped Buddhist lives. Contemporary Buddhist techno-cultures must be viewed in the context of the history of older nonhuman actants, including artefacts, hermeneutics, textual forms, infrastructures, and so on, that have long extended human capacities. For technology is also techne, an application of knowledge that connects us intersubjectively and with the material world. Besides automata, Buddhism contains many other examples of powerful nonhuman actants. For instance, the material embodiments of tantric mantras and dhāraṇī (mnemonic prayers) point to broader links to technology and material-visual culture. Pervasive in their expediency, these were regarded as powerful things in and of themselves. In an extraordinary leap of vision and inventiveness, these “texts” did not have to be necessarily written down—they could transform into light, into bodies, or other emanations. They could infiltrate and be transferred to other material bodies by the wind or water surrounding their spoken or written forms. They could potently infuse the paper and other objects on and around which they were scribed, placed, and chanted. These portentous things could be inscribed on pagodas and reliquaries, penned into vows, inserted in the cavities of statues, brushed onto paintings of deities, and printed on talismans to be carried around as people went about their daily lives.5

Pratisara Dhāraṇī (K. Sugu darani), Goryeo (12th century), woodblock print, 32.3 × 34.8 cm, enshrined in the Wooden Seated Statue Avalokitesvara of Bogwangsa Temple. Source: Cultural Heritage Administration and Research Institute of Buddhist Cultural Heritage, Seoul.

As Sinicized Buddhism and Confucianism spread beyond the borders of the dynastic states of today’s PRC and made inroads into the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese Archipelago in the second to sixth centuries of the common era, classical Chinese—enriched by so many Sanskrit terms that it is often referred to as Buddhist Hybrid Chinese—also became the lingua sacra of the whole East Asian region.

 

Automata

Automata are old. The idea that the way Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese people talk about automata, think about automata, imagine automata, and represent automata, is in some way deeply connected with their cultural environment, and that this cultural environment is rooted in a Buddhist history, forms the basis of this short article. The imagination of the future and science fiction are most often associated with modern science and technology, yet there are many genres of imaginative writing from the ancient and medieval worlds concerned with cosmology and otherworldly explorations of time and space. Miracle tales from medieval China recorded the ability of Buddhist statues to walk, speak, sweat, emit light, and feel pain. Emphasizing the corporeal agency of animated sculptures, these medieval miracle tales helped Buddhists to endow statues with life and reinforced the belief that statues had lives of their own. The hands of premodern sculptures, along with their headdresses and scarves, were often produced separately and then connected to the main body of the sculpture using different types of joints. Imbuing sculptures with aliveness may even have prompted the production of actual automata in medieval times.6 The striking giltwood, Goryeo-period icon of the bodhisattva of compassion, Gwaneum (the most popular deity in Korean Buddhism), displayed in 2020 at the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, is a sort of automaton.7 Its face and hair knot are two separate pieces attached to the torso. Each arm is composed of upper and lower units, and each leg is made of one piece of wood. Staples were used to secure body parts and to strengthen the joints of the bent arm, while long sharp nails attach the straighter arm. The icon was empowered by rituals, brought to life by the ceremonial insertion of multiple activating objects, relics, sacred texts, and other potent materials into its body.

In one of his most thought-provoking texts, renowned Korean Buddhist modernizer Han Yong-un attempted to subvert the prevalent claim of western technological superiority by finding an automaton in early China. He suggests that “Easterners” (dongyang-in, 東洋人) were comfortable with automation from an early era. Han retells a famous story, most likely of Buddhist origin, found in the Chinese classic, written between the Warring States and Late Han or Six Dynasties periods, the Liezi. In Han’s version of this very old tale, far from being foreboding or treacherous like the Irish fetch or the German Doppelgänger, the automaton can sing and dance.8 Weaving together Buddhist cosmology and modernist concerns, Han does not make any ontological distinction between automaton and human. Without an eternal “self,” humans are not seen as unique and individualized beings, but rather as momentary and impermanent expressions of karmic conditioning and consequences. Likewise, nonhuman animals and other sentient beings can manifest interchangeably, depending on the complex workings of karmic laws. All beings are subject to transmigration, and their intentions toward and interactions with other sentient beings influence their particular form of rebirth.

A photograph of Mokjo Gwaneum Bosal Jwasang(Seated Wooden Avalokitesvara), 1910s, glass, 16.4 × 21.4 cm. Source: National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

In early medieval Europe, meanwhile, authors of romances indulged their zaniest dreams for self-moving mechanisms that imitated bodies born of nature. Some of these automata took the form of animals or birds and some resembled humans, only they were better and more exciting. For historian Minsoo Kang, such uncanny creations explore essential questions about the human-as-machine. In Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination, Kang notes that the automaton is a “conceptual tool with which Western culture has meditated on both the possibilities and the consequences of the breakdown of the distinction between the normally antithetical categories of the animate and the inanimate, the natural and the artificial, the living and the dead.”9 Fast-forward to 2011, and South Korean artist Wang Ziwon is beginning to assemble electric machines in the shape of buddhas and bodhisattvas.

 

Personhood and Thaumaturgy

Buddhism is a sophisticated religion and philosophy with an extensive body of doctrines. The form of Buddhism prevalent in Korea, Japan, and China, Mahāyāna Buddhism, does not distinguish between immanent and transcendent realms. For many Mahāyāna Buddhists, it is not only sentient but also insentient beings that possess “Buddha-nature.” In other words, the Buddhist doctrinal framework in which robots such as Mindar can be perceived as manifestations of the bodhisattva Kannon/Gwaneum/Guanyin does not separate transcendence from immanence. The texts that inform Mahāyāna Buddhist thought posit that the realm of the divine and the realm of the worldly permeate each other. This non-dualist and non-essentialist thinking has permeated daily practices for centuries. As Buddhism spread from India to other parts of Eurasia over the course of the first millennium, its texts and practices were important vehicles for the cross-cultural dissemination of ideas. Crucially, Buddhist teachings contain a core precept for which there was no equivalent in native Chinese and Korean traditions: upaya or “skillful means.” This principle prompted believers to use whatever means they deemed appropriate to ensure the salvation of all kinds of living creatures. Central to the teachings of the Korean Buddhist school Hwaeom and the Chinese school of Huayan is the idea that all things have their place within the harmony of the universal order. The bodhisattva—anyone who seeks enlightenment not only for themselves but also for the sake of everyone else—reaches enlighenment by advancing through ten different stages of achievement, and acquires thaumaturgy on this journey so that she can bring the cosmos together and deliver beings from suffering. Following Buddhism’s cue, transhumanists in the West conceptualize a non-anthropocentric theory of personhood. Wherever there is personhood—in viruses or bacteria, fish or chickens—it should be respected. 

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Buddhism also emerges as a major factor in medical and health-related discourse on a global scale. Rather than being wholly replaced by biomedicine in modern Buddhist societies, rituals, meditations, and other healing practices have continued to play a significant role in health care. While Buddhist medicine was challenged by intensive modernization and secularization, in 1963, the Supreme Court of Japan ruled that Buddhist healing rites could be called upon as complements to modern biomedical treatments.10 Some Buddhist therapies—particularly meditation for alleviating ailments associated with stress—are also beginning to be taken seriously by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and by other branches of biomedicine.

 

Technologized Futures

As we theorize media and mediation, we must engage with the many modes in which technology and digital media are understood, adopted, and used vis-à-vis earlier practices. What we refer to as “religion” and “technology” can function in surprisingly intimate ways and form coherent arrangements of social and cultural practices when deliberately intertwined. They involve and mobilize epistemological and cosmological questions of the constitution of the real. In the context of cyber-Buddhism, practitioners use various media forms (visual, aural, and haptic) and refashion and filter them through a modern Buddhist sensibility. They create new senses of the self and its surrounds, both social and built. Cyber-Buddhists facilitate exchanges of religious ideas and objects, and increasingly participate in the flow of information, images, sounds, social ties, and commodities. While the fetishizing of material things for spiritual ends is not new to capitalism, this has now taken on new characteristics. Buddhists can use all manner of pious commodities—portable, wearable, and electronic—to defy discrete conceptions of materiality by constructing piety and virtue through commodification and consumption rather than outside of them. Religion and technology do not exist as two ontologically distinct spheres of knowledge and experience. On the contrary, modern communication technologies and Buddhist technologies of salvation can be combined in the realization of religious presence. For Buddhist clerics in China and Korea, the computer monitor, the internet browser window, and, above all, the smartphone screen, create novel public spaces. In China, these transformations have occurred against the backdrop of the post-Mao market transition. Regional capitalist development enabled by post-Mao reforms has largely depoliticized local faith practices. For the state, the growth of information and communication technologies and the informatization of political economy and social life are of the highest strategic importance. High-tech expansion buttresses the political dominance of the Chinese Communist Party and its project of modernity. The cyberspace of Chinese Buddhists is one part of the larger electronic infrastructure of China’s market economy. Many people have pointed out the entanglements between the materialism of contemporary China, the social dislocations caused by neoliberalism, and the moral yearnings and ethical aspirations of some urbanites. Such yearnings are reflected in the worlds of Buddhist-inspired social media that, at least for the time being, have opened up spaces and opportunities for self-making, and have granted unprecedented access to religious knowledge and monastic networks.

Image capture of the VR rendition of the activities of the Templestay program in South Korea.

The Things In-between 

In the early twentieth century, European, American, and Japanese colonial empires were pervaded by competing social evolutionary theories that explained the development of the human species, human thought, and civilization along definite self-advancing lines. After World War II, in the 1960s, a period of strong economic expansion often dubbed the “Asian Miracle” saw high economic growth in Japan and the ascent of the so-called “Four Tigers”: South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. In the early 1980s, Malaysia and Thailand caught up. China also gained momentum in the 1980s, then started to record double-digit growth after joining the World Trade Organization in the early 2000s. The successes of East and Southeast Asian capitalism caused many in the West, particularly in the US, to fear Asia was “calling western modernity into question and claiming the franchise on the future.”11 These fears contributed somewhat to the emergence of a phenomenon known as “techno-orientalism.” Epitomized by the dystopian futuristic visions of Blade Runner, techno-orientalism continues to this day to influence portrayals of East Asian cityscapes, often devoid of people. Asian urbanism seems to excite the cyberpunk imagination. If the Orient was constructed by the West to bolster the latter’s cultural identity, then the techno-Orient seems to have been invented to define the image culture and memes of information capitalism and information society. 

Of course, South Korean, Chinese, and Japanese religious practitioners, artists, and thinkers have long interrogated definitions of the human and imagined what it is to be human under the changed historical conditions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Their re-definitions have on occasion taken on what might be characterized as a posthumanist approach, in the sense of questioning the rationalist premise of humanism and challenging the division between human and animal, and between nature and culture. Posthumanism has come to assume an increasingly significant role in contemporary East Asian cultures. References to a deep history of Buddhist ideas and materialities recalibrated through contemporary technological temporalities resurface among intellectual elites and in popular culture, supporting speculation both forwards and backwards. Cyber-Buddhism and Buddhist-inspired techno-cultures therefore should be understood according to a theory that accounts for human sociality through all kinds of mediation and that allows us to connect the present lived realities of Buddhism to its history of sophisticated investment in technologies and objectification. The religious experiences of practitioners would not be meaningful outside of narratives of salvation, sense-making, and personhood. Digital scriptural repositories enable Buddhists to be only a few clicks away from the vast textual and ritual tradition of Buddhist Asia, its unique divine power compressed in their smartphones.12 Like the portentous older dhāraṇī—very much animated and alive—digital Buddhism is far from being incorporeal or ghostly.13 Religion, media, technology, and the “things in-between” are not in an antagonistic relationship, nor are they ontologically separate. What is at stake, rather, is how modern technologies and religious techniques of the body interpenetrate and inform one another in the materialization of presence. 

The increasing use of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) is often celebrated in China, South Korea, and Japan as a progressive way to supersede human shortcomings. It has also generated alarm about ceding control to nonhuman actors. Such objections may come too late when smartphones learn our friends’ birthdays and algorithms curate our online experiences; the potential scope of automated interventions into human life seems limitless. So it comes as no surprise that techno-salvationism as a mode of thinking informs the use of robots in religious contexts. Perhaps for Buddhists, as for Donna Haraway, the answer to the failures of humanity may well be the perfection of the cyborg. The wondrous hybridization of bodies and technologies in Buddhism, contemporary art practice, games, and anime opens up paths of exploration of the strategic potential of cyberfeminism and cyborg politics.14

1Sun Yung Shin, Unbearable Splendor (New York: Coffee House Press, 2016).

2The Buddhist deity Kannon is known as Gwaneum in Korea and Guanyin in China. Sigal Samuel, “Robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral, AI religion is upon us. Welcome to the future,” Vox (23 January, 2020), https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/9/9/20851753/ai-religion-robot-priest-mindar-buddhism-christianity.

3On techno-orientalism, see David Morley and Kevin Robins, The Space of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries (London: Routledge, 1995).

4The very close relationships between China and the Korean peninsula since the beginning of the common era placed Korea inextricably within the web of Sinitic civilization with a gradual infiltration of Chinese culture from the mainland. This infiltration was accelerated thanks to the missionary activities of the Buddhists, who brought novel religious teachings as well as secular Chinese cultural practices to the peninsula. To a considerable extent, it was the large body of Buddhist written scriptures that fostered literacy in written Chinese, the lingua franca of educated discourse in East Asia. In the late 19th century, the diffusion of Protestantism through China to Korea followed the same route as previous world religions (Buddhism and Confucianism)—the traditional pattern of cultural traffic in the Sinic world of East Asia.

5David Quinter, “Modest Materialities: The Social Lives and Afterlives of Sacred Things in Japan,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 45, no. 2 (2018), 309–40. See for example the contents and dedication materials of the Gwaneum bosal, Korea, Goryeo, ca. 1220–85, National Museum of Korea, Seoul, https://asia.si.edu/exhibition/sacred-dedication-a-korean-buddhist-masterpiece/. See also the contents of the reliquaries of National Treasure 126, Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea, Reliquaries from the Three-story Stone Pagoda of Bulguksa Temple.

6Michelle C. Wang, “Early Chinese Buddhist Sculptures as Animate Bodies and Living Presences,” Ars Orientalis, vol. 46 (2016), 13–38.

7“Sacred Dedication: A Korean Buddhist Masterpiece,” https://asia.si.edu/exhibition/sacred-dedication-a-korean-buddhist-masterpiece/.

8Han Yong-un, “Injo-in” in Han Yong-un Jeonjip, vol. 1 (Seoul: Singumunhwasa, 1980), 205–8. The fetch and the Doppelgänger in European folklore both represent a supernatural double or apparition of a living person.

9Minsoo Kang, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 6–7. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ‘replicants’ we see in the Blade Runner films, dangerously similar to humans but with more luminous skin, increasingly appear to be a very particular and even provincial cultural obsession of contemporary American culture.

10C.P. Salguero, “Buddhism & Medicine in East Asian History,” Religion Compass, 8, (2014), 239–50, https://doi.org/10.1111/rec3.12113.

11Charles Paulk, “Post National Cool: William Gibson’s Japan,” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 38, no. 3 (November 2011), 479.

12See http://tripitaka.cbeta.org/. In 2015, the CBETA homepage contained a QR code to download almost the entirety of the Buddhist canon via WeChat.

13Francesca Tarocco, “Technologies of Salvation: (Re)locating Chinese Buddhism in the Digital Age,” Journal of Global Buddhism, vol. 18, 155–75.

14Donna Haraway [1985], “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Routledge, 1991).

BIO

A scholar of Chinese Buddhism and visual and material culture, Francesca Tarocco is the author of The Cultural Practices of Modern Chinese Buddhism and of Altar Modern: Buddhism and Technology in the Chinese World (forthcoming). She is a frequent contributor to multiple exhibition catalogues and art magazines. Tarocco is an Associate Professor at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and NYU Shanghai.