My Monkish Little Robot

The Longquan Buddhist temple in the mountains northwest of Beijing has created the world’s first robot monk, Xian’er, which translates as “Worthy Stupid Robot Monk.”  It is two feet tall and analyzes combinations of words to respond to questions including “What is the meaning of life?”

The New York Times

“That’s a really stupid question.”


I have come to the mountains northwest of Beijing in a quest for enlightenment.  Believe me, I’ve tried everything: psychoanalysis, Ouija boards, hypnotism, double-entry bookkeeping, even Christian Science, the religion whose tenets H.L. Mencken proposed to test by holding one of its adherents under water for twenty minutes to see if he would drown.  Thankfully I had passed Junior Life Saving, and so tested out of that requirement.

No, I have been told that enlightenment is now available without the muss or fuss of giving away one’s life savings, or full-immersion baptism, or mortification of the flesh.  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, all you have to do these days is come to the Longquan temple and (unless he’s hooked up to have his batteries re-charged) ask little Xian’er to tell you the meaning of life–and you’re good to go!

“You want my advice?  Lose the pigtails.”

They call him “Worthy Stupid Robot Monk” but he’s anything but–stupid, that is.  He’s supposed to be all-knowing, all-seeing.  He’s a deep thinker, with eight gigabytes of RAM, 24-bit color, a dedicated video card AND one gigabyte of free disk space.

Moreover, as well as moreunder, he’s undergone the rigorous training you’d expect of any Buddhist monk: clapping with one hand, concentrating his mind in the present, living wisely even though he’s only a 24-inch-high hunk of metal and plastic who looks more or less like one of those award-winning waste cans with the swinging lid (Free shipping!).


I climb up Wuling Mountain and walk the winding path to the temple.  There I hope to ask Xian’er a few burning questions that have been on my mind for a long time, like “What is the meaning of life?” and “Is the only purpose of an unhappy childhood to produce a great writer?”  Also, “Should I buy whole life insurance, or just a cheaper term policy and invest the difference in the stock market?”

Don’t let the “Worthy Stupid Robot One” monicker fool you.  He’s a new-in-the-box thinker, not your tired old thinking-out-side-the-box type.  The “er” at the end of his name that means “stupid” in translation is really a term of endearment, sort of like the way you’d call a loveable roommate “Knucklehead” or “Mad Dog.”  He is wiser than you think, just like Moondog in the comics is always straightening out his roommate Monty with his simple, straight-from-the-shoulder advice.


There’s a line of course, because it’s Friday; everyone wants to get tips on “How should I spend my weekend if I’m not in a relationship with anyone?” and “What is the best time to get the snow tires taken off my car on a Saturday so I don’t blow the whole afternoon?”

I’m number 17 in line, and there’s a woman who’s holding things up, asking a bunch of subsidiary and ancillary follow-ups to her question, which was “I don’t like the guy my daughter wants to marry–what should I do?”

I have to say, little Xian’er is handling her pretty well, but people are starting to look at their watches.  He shuts down promptly at 4:30 on Fridays, or sooner if his batteries die.  Then he goes into seclusion for the weekend, not checking email until shortly after the sun rises Monday morning.

“If the newlyweds receive many counter-top appliances as wedding gifts, these may bring happiness to an otherwise-loveless marriage,” Xian’er says as a couple of burly bouncer-monks escort the woman off the mountain.  They dump her unceremoniously in the gift shop, where her acquisitive nature is satisfied with souvenirs and tchotchkes–meditation rugs, bumper stickers that say “This car found enlightenment at Longquan Temple!,” and the home version of Xian’er which, like the popular Magic 8 Ball toy, answers your questions about life and the universe in the comfort of your living room.


The line inches slowly forward–“Should I dump stocks if interest rates rise?” . . . “Should I take the points on the road?–until finally it’s my turn.  I bow low as the Buddha advised, the acolyte to Xian’er’s right signals that I may speak, and I take the plunge:

“Oh mechanical reincarnation of the Bodhisattva, can you tell me . . .”

“Yes,” he intones deeply for an object that looks like a little yellow cookie jar.

“What is the meaning of life?”


“My master says the meaning of life is to help more people finally leave behind bitterness and gain happiness.”  This is apparently a stock answer he’s been programmed to give in order to increase throughput.  You can’t make any money in the living-deity-on-earth biz if you’re going to personalize each response.

“But . . . what if I don’t know any bitter people?” I ask.

“Then work on yourself, you stupid doody-head.”

I look at his acolyte with an upraised eyebrow of disapproval.  “It’s getting towards the end of the day,” I say.  “Are his batteries running low?”

The human monk takes a look at Xian’er’s touch screen.  “Nope–still four bars showing.”

I make a little moue with my mouth–what other body part would I use?–and turn back to Xian’er.  “Doesn’t seem very . . . ‘enlightened’ of you to get snotty with me,” I say.

“Hey–it’s been a long week,” he says.

“Okay, still.  If I get an email Monday saying ‘Will you rate your transaction with Xian’er?’ I’m going to have to say . . .”

“Fine,” Xian’er says.  He’s probably hoping to beat the rush hour traffic and slip out to the Chinese equivalent of an Apple “Genius Bar” for a little WD-40 lubricant with a hot server with a female outlet.  “You get one more–but that’s it!

I think long and hard, knowing this is my one shot, my one opportunity (to quote the great American folk poet Eminem)–so I’d better not blow it.

“All right,” I say after clearing my throat a little longer than is actually necessary in order to buy more time.

“C’mon,” Mr. Acolyte says, “we haven’t got all day.”

“Okay,” I say finally, gulp, then begin.  “The Patriots lost their first round pick because of Deflategate, and Brady’s four-game suspension was upheld.  Should they use the 60th pick for a quarterback, or just go with the best athlete available?”


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