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Humans and technology

The robot does the hard work. Can you still attain enlightenment?

The robot mandala is a faster and—proponents argue, easier—way to create the traditional sand artwork used for Buddhist meditation.
February 21, 2020
image of robot hands creating spiral design with lotus in the middle of gears and millennial pink background mandala buddhism buddhist
image of robot hands creating spiral design with lotus in the middle of gears and millennial pink background mandala buddhism buddhistMS Tech/Getty

For six hours, a circular robot flits up and down a wall, sketching out a lotus with myriad intricate designs embedded in each petal. Four marker pens color in the designs. It looks beautiful. But as soon as it’s complete, the robot reverses course, erasing the image and leaving the wall as if it had never been there.

This is a mandala, reimagined. These complex patterns are meant to reflect the visions that monks see while meditating about virtues such as compassion, wisdom, and more, says Tenzin Priyadarshi, a Buddhist monk and the CEO of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT. To automate the elaborate process of creating and destroying them, an important tradition in Buddhism, Priyadarshi teamed up with Carlo Ratti, an MIT architect and designer of Scribit, a $500 “write and erase robot” that uses special markers to draw and erase art on a wall.

Traditional mandalas are sketched out by hand and then painstakingly filled with colored sand. Once the mandala is complete, it is destroyed, symbolizing the transience of beauty and existence. Scribit, however, isn’t so delicate, and relies on pre-programmed images. There is no sand, no meticulous sketching, no fear that the mandala could be destroyed any second. There’s also the physical relief. “It was easier on my back than creating these intricate mandalas,” Priyadarshi says of the traditional 50-hour process.

But getting a robot to sketch a design on the wall seems counterproductive. Isn’t it cheating?

Not at all, says Priyadarshi. He insists that a robot isn’t a way to bypass the hard work of meditation via mandala; rather, its mesmerizing movements help one enter a “relaxed state.”

The robot mandalas also point to an increasingly intertwined future for religion and technology. Religiosity might be on the wane for younger generations, but smartphones are ubiquitous: Muslim Pro and Siddur are smartphone apps that notify devout users of prayer time for Muslims and Jews respectively, and mindfulness apps have found a role in Buddhist practices. Priyadarshi, who calls technology a “blessing and a curse,” thinks the future of religion involves adapting technology to worship in this way.

When asked if a robotic mandala achieves the same results as a hand-drawn one, Ganden Thurman, the executive director of Tibet House, a center of study for Tibetan Buddhism, says “yes and no.” He points to flags planted in mountain passes where winds are thought to carry prayers, or prayer wheels and drums stamped with wishes for the suffering. Those are vehicles by which a person is engaging with Buddhism, Thurman says, and the robot can likewise be compared to “the intermediary of a canvas, brush, or pencil, all used with the intent to do good and be good.”

“But the robot can’t benefit from the doing of the mandala,” he explains. “The robot is not a sentient being. Buddhism is concerned with the uplift and well-being of sentient beings, the ability to move and facilitate from pain to pleasure, which happens through self-awareness.”

Still, a robot mandala can be as valuable as a human-made one in “planting a future karmic seed,” Thurman says.

To Priyadarshi, one major benefit is that a robotic mandala allows the average person to connect to religion at home, free from distraction. It also means that the person is spending less time worrying about the mandala’s intricacy and more time in contemplation—the ultimate purpose of the mandala.

It’s also an antidote to what Priyadarshi sees as an ever shrinking attention span in a busy world. “Technology can cause positive nudges in individuals so that they can learn about focus, empathy, compassion,” he says. “We’re trying to use technology as a tool to facilitate certain behavioral shifts.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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