Cyberpunk or Cybermonk?

Viral Video of Apple Vision Pro-wearing Worshipper at Buddhist Incense Burning Sparks Debate on Technology and Tradition

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5:46 PM HKT, Mon February 19, 2024 1 mins read

On the first day of the Lunar New Year, a video showing a young man praying and burning incense at Beijing’s Yonghe Temple while wearing an Apple Vision Pro virtual reality headset went viral on Chinese social network Xiaohongshu. Meanwhile others skipped the in-person visit and virtually performed their worshipping at home through their own headsets. One Xiaohongshu user, Luo Danming, commented below the original post “Electronic incense and accumulating cyber merit meets [Japanese virtual idol] Hatsune Miku,” succinctly highlighting how what was seen as sci-fi just half a decade ago is now a reality.

The fusion of tech and temples is not exactly a brand new phenomenon though. Many temples now offer QR codes for quick phone-based payments for virtual incense burning. However, as pointed out by financial news outlet Equator Finance on Weibo, these QR codes are often created by for-profit tourism companies, not the temples themselves. For example, the QR codes at Quanzhou’s Jingfeng Temple were created by a company represented by a certain Qiu Delian, who has over a million RMB in registered capital.

Virtual worship game

Image from Nomad Starry Sky’s ancestor worship simulation game.

As a Weibo user, Qilin Shenhou, sarcastically posted, “With temples using paid QR codes for incense burning, we might as well develop a MMO-temple game” (referring to Massively Multiplayer Online games). Ironically, such a game already exists: last year Nomad Starry Sky developed a game which lets players virtually worship their ancestors. The game allows those unable to return home in real life to perform actions such as burning incense and offering tributes.

As the Apple Vision Pro pushes virtual reality forward and AI continues to advance, we can only anticipate how technology will reshape traditions and cultural practices, not least of all with regards to how people pray and worship.

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