This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Body transformation
Lau did not mind the incense wafting through the temple since it hid the smell of burnt circuitry. She could explain the spilt oil (a container meant for refilling the lamps tipped over) or the electronic parts scattered over the floor (spare parts for robot maintenance), but anything that reminded visitors of burnt toasters got more attention. Some were possibly concerned for her, but more because the smoke and fire jolted them back to reality. Not good for prayer and meditation, they said. The temple was supposed to be a sanctuary, even this one where the monks were robots and digitized voices chanted sutras all day until Lau switched them off for the night.
Ava|_0 hovered behind her, “You should solder the red wire instead.”
Lau kept her eyes on her work. “This isn’t for the main hall.”
“What is she for, then?”
The nun paused. “How are you sure it’s a she?”
“All your creations are female.”
“Interesting.” Lau put down the soldering iron and swept a hand across the fuzz on her head. She made a mental note to shave tomorrow. In front of her, the bunched up silicon skin on the android’s back revealed a missing battery, two concentric circles exposed. Tarnished, dented on one side.
“Previously a receptionist-slash-greeter. She was going for cheap at the company auction.”
Ava|_0’s large turquoise eyes flickered, a small infra-red dot in the middle of each eye blinking once before staying on. “Model-Y. 2183 make. Acquired from another company auction. Only able to greet and give directions in five languages.”
“Are you jealous?” Lau teased.
“Emotional module not found. Suggestion: Place her at the entrance or inside the office.” Ava|_0’s saffron robe slid off its left shoulder. “Do you plan to keep the skin?”
“No. No reason for her to stand out.” She loathed discarding it but she already had enough weighing her down. “It might come in handy someday.”
“I don’t know,” Lau shrugged, turning to an empty lotus dais under a canopy bathed by moonlight.
Ava|_0 followed her gaze, and they watched in silence.
After Lau installed the new receptionist at the front desk, she had five aunties and a gardener approve of it. The ex-android had plenty of space in its data bank for extra commands, so she programmed it to retain a thousand messages, sort them by time stamp or sender, keep a database of donor accounts, and issue receipts. The temple’s workload cut by half, Lau retreated to the backroom for longer periods.
Ava|_0 dipped the spent joss sticks into a bucket of water before discarding them in a bag. In the corner of the main prayer hall, a distorted metallic chant screeched loudly. The robot shuffled to the digi-chanter and turned it off before heading to the backroom. “Digi-chanter Seven’s modulator is broken,” Ava|_0 reported, picking up a spare from a drawer in a large wooden cupboard.
Lau barely mumbled an affirmative. Her work was mostly covered under a tarp, exposing a forearm double the length of a human’s. A hand with semi-curled fingers peeked out.
The robo-nun paused, watching Lau hunched over her work. “You have restarted the project?”
“It never stopped. Just never found the right parts.” Lau stretched the silicone skin over a head nestled in between her legs. First across the forehead, then along its cheek before nodding and scribbling into a nearby notepad. “We’ll need more silicone skin. Check the receptionist for sources and I’ll do the rest.”
Ava|_0 nodded, “Noted,” but did not move.
Sensing there was more, Lau slowly turned around, raising an eyebrow.
“Will Kuan Yin be female?” Ava|_0 asked.
“Kuan Yin was once a man, yes? Can the Kuan Yin not be a male avatar?”
“We will have shorter conversations if you answer in full instead of assuming I can infer meaning from unsaid—”
“Because,” Lau sighed, “Kuan Yin is the most compassionate and merciful who alleviates all our suffering, which is everything an all-loving mother is. We call her Kuan Yin Ma because compassion is motherly, not Kuan Yin Ba, or Kuan Yin Kor. Kuan Yin is our supreme mother, no one else.” Her recitation was flawless, only marred by her eye-rolling at each word as Ava|_0 stared impassively.
“… Are we unable to have Kuan Yin reflect us, then?”
“Kuan Yin is divine. We aren’t. That’s why Kuan Yin transformed into a goddess from a mortal man.”
Ava|_0 slowly touched its chest, staring at the tiny mound protruding from its left breast. “Is this the reason?”
“If Kuan Yin cannot reflect us, are we unworthy? If we cannot be nuns because we cannot be ordained, then is my incomplete physical state a reflection of my inability to attain Nirvana, or is it a—”
“I made all the robots look like you out of spite.”
“Does Buddha not say negative feelings should be discarded upon entering these grounds?”
Lau pointed to the door. “Silicone skin, now.”
Ava|_0 bowed, its infra-red pupils leaving a trail when it turned to leave.
Once, the Goddess of Mercy stood on the dais in the courtyard. Once, it was a simple statue, one hand raised, the other cradling a child. Once, the head monk wanted to usher in the new decade and thought nothing more fitting than a living statue of Kuan Yin, an avatar of the bodhisattva come to life. Once, he imagined the devotees kneeling before Kuan Yin, and she would pat them, assuring them that she heard their pain.
Once, a nun shared the head monk’s enthusiasm and drew up plans. She toiled day and night, installing the actuator for the arms and testing the digitized voice to respond in Mandarin, English, and Sanskrit. She compared silicone and hydrogel skin to ensure Kuan Yin’s serene visage looked and felt real, so that you felt her.
Once, Kuan Yin was unveiled in a ceremony of consecration and prayers. Flowers for grace, a robe to protect from the elements. Devotees admired the technology. The head monk praised the nun for her brilliance. The monks from other temples praised the application’s usefulness, and all was well till a thunderstorm rolled by and a bolt struck where it should not.
Once, a statue of Kuan Yin was struck by lightning, the arrestors due for installation the next day. Kuan Yin opened her eyes, and they were red. She spoke, her voice masculine, twisted and sharp. Her skin, scorched by the heat of three hundred million volts. But the worst was when Kuan Yin’s thousand arms fanned out like a peacock’s feathers. A stray dog fleeing the storm that chose the wrong shelter, Kuan Yin picked it up to embrace it in her love. So strong was her compassion its suffering ended, crushed in her arms. The breaking of bones in harmony with her chanting: Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum.
Once, the devotees saw the carnage and fled, the threat only quelled with the efforts of the Robot Control Division to shut it down. Despairing from the sight of divinity gone awry, the head monk resigned and began a journey of atonement, leaving the nun to pick up the pieces of their hubris. Once, the nun said, “Never again,” and gathered the parts for a new purpose. The temple she emptied, once again alive with mechanical simulacra. They helped her atone. They helped others atone. For a while she calmed down, and it seemed she would be at peace with her sins.
Once, it seemed so, until it was not.
“When are you getting a new statue?”
Ava|_0 shuffled over to the old lady rambling to the android receptionist. “People all ask how I can go to a temple without a Kuan Yin statue. How to know this is a temple for Kuan Yin? I dunno how to answer, so embarrassing lah.” She waved her hand in front of the receptionist. “Eh, you listening or not?”
“Madam, the receptionist parses queries from selected keywords. If it does not recognize your sentence as a question, it will not reply,” Ava|_0 explained.
The old lady squinted at it. “Oh, this girl also robot?”
“Yes, she is.”
“How you know she’s a girl ah?”
“It is an extrapolation based on our maker’s response.”
A few confused blinks, and the old lady exclaimed, “Oh, you’re also a robot! Your maker very clever lah, make you answer like human!” She beckoned the robo-nun over, her jade bangle shaking against her bony wrist. “Auntie ask you instead since you’re smarter. Your maker still alive ah, or all robots only?”
“Sister Lau still serves, madam. She is just preoccupied with temple matters. I could summon her if you wish.”
“No need lah, just asking. Don’t disturb her.” Her wrinkles folded deeper when she smiled. “When she bringing new statue?”
Ava|_0 tilted its head, “Sister Lau has expressed no desire to bring it back.”
“Who’s talking about bringing back that gila robot? Just a normal statue also enough lah. Not everything must be alive.” The sound of clinking coins echoed in the donation box. “Anyway, tell Sister Lau Kuan Yin temple must have Kuan Yin statue.”
She was about to head off when Ava|_0 stopped her. “Excuse me, madam. Would you be offended if the statue was … not female?”
Her forehead furrowed. “Not female like how?”
“Perhaps a male avatar, as per historical precedent. It will defy the common perception of Kuan Yin and it may offend more traditional-minded devotees, but we are collecting opinions as a survey of—”
The old lady clicked her tongue and shook her head. “Aiyah, so long-winded, as long as Kuan Yin looks like Kuan Yin, good enough lah! You think everyone going to check underneath her dress is it?!”
“… and so she stated that it did not matter what gender the statue was as long as there was one.”
“I don’t care what an old lady thinks,” Lau replied curtly.
Ava|_0 pressed a switch on its left wrist, displaying a projection of a spreadsheet. “We are running low on alms. You require sustenance, and without donations of scrap and spare parts, we will not have enough to keep the temple running.”
Lau inspected several cells connected to a solar panel. “So far the solar cells are capable of charging our reserves up to eighty percent. If I install panels on the temple skylight or perhaps on the windows behind the digi-chanters, we should be able to collect enough to run for three days on a single charge. So—”
“You cannot keep denying mercy to the temple.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Denying? I’m not—”
“The devotees still ask about you.”
“They just want to make sure there’s a human behind all this, because god forbid robots take over. First a tiny Buddhist temple, next the world.” Lau rolled her eyes, shaking her head and rummaging for a screwdriver.
Ava|_0 picked up one at its feet and handed it over. “It does not have to move—”
“There will be no statue!”
She slapped the screwdriver out of Ava|_0’s hand, the handle bouncing off the side of the large head beside her. The CLANG echoed throughout the grimy workroom. Lau’s voice cracked, her breathing quicker and shallower. Slowly she dug her nails into her robe, twisting it into a knot. “And if they can’t see how Kuan Yin has been here with us in this temple all along, then maybe they’re better off going elsewhere!”
The robo-nun’s eyes stared at the tarp. Underneath were not a thousand hands, but five. One had no fingers. “I see,” it said. “The chanters. The receptionist. The monks and nuns. All a reflection of her.”
“And that is all that’s left. A shade.”
It pointed to the flat side of its chest, then to Lau’s chest. “Again. It need not be alive.”
She tried to smile, but only mustered a lopsided curve. “It won’t be enough.”
“Worry not.” Eight arms fanned out behind Ava|_0’s back, uncurling their fists in unison, the sun rising to shine above the pair. It kneeled to let the nearest hand pick up the screwdriver and returned it to Lau.
“What we lack, Kuan Yin will provide.”
Ava|_0’s recognized the old lady’s jade bangle. It pressed its palms together and bowed to her.
The old lady gave a thumbs-up. “Nice statue, very nice.”
“Thank you, madam. Your praise means a lot to us.”
Kuan Yin was a beacon of serenity, unperturbed by the morning breeze blowing at her silk robes, its hem spilled over the edge of the lotus dais to conceal her feet. The holographic wall behind her shimmered with the image of a thousand arms folding and unfolding, brilliant as the sun.
“Your maker did a good job!”
“Thank you, but I did not make it.” Ava|_0 and the old lady turned to Lau just as the nun patted the robot’s shoulder. “It did.”
“Robot make one ah? Wah, so clever!” She wrung her wrinkled hands, “Aiyo. If robots are so clever, then they’ll take over the world. How la.”
“Auntie, would a peaceful robot do such a thing?”
“Hmm … maybe not. You’re right. Eh, how come Kuan Yin only have one breast?” The Goddess’s robe draped over the left breast while the fabric on the right billowed, emptiness without symmetry.
Before Lau could answer, Ava|_0 did, “There is philosophical meaning behind it. It will be revealed in due time.”
The old lady nodded, seemingly convinced by the explanation. “Very meaningful. I’ll bring my friends.”
The nuns bowed, “Please do. They’ll always be welcome,” they said in unison.
Faint chanting drifted out from the main hall. Devotees of all ages, all genders, all deep in meditation and prayer. Ava|_0 pulled up its sleeve as it watched its maker smile at the clear blue sky.
Once there was hope and ambition brought low by hubris, and despair followed. Once, Kuan Yin heard that sorrow and reached out to grant succor, but sorrow blinded people to compassion and hope. But Kuan Yin did not yield. Once, Kuan Yin poured her aid into a doll and granted it her arms so it would where she could not.
Once more, she said, and all went well.