Buddhists turn to robotic costume for help on religious pilgrimage

ZENTSUJI, Kagawa Prefecture – Buddhist pilgrims now have two reassuring companions who make their difficult journey easier: the spirit of a former Buddhist saint and a high-tech robotic exoskeleton.

In mid-December, a man climbed a slope with ease while generating a gentle mechanical hum. The sight of his robotic exoskeleton elicited praise and amazement from the television crew filming it.

“The scene was cool and looked like something ‘RoboCop’,” said a cameraman.

The hiker was fitted with a control device on his back and motors on his shoulders and waist. He wore a conical straw hat, though the traditional headdress clashed with the futuristic robotic suit.

It was part of an experiment to see how the machine would cope with supporting religious pilgrims in difficult terrain. They made the “henro” pilgrimage to the Shikoku region to follow in the footsteps of Kukai (774-835), a Buddhist priest, also known as Daishi or Kobo Daishi.

After the test was completed, a woman in her 50s who climbed a 500-meter slope between two temples with her husband called the technology “wonderful.”

“I was worried about my weak right knee, but I was able to walk like healthy people do,” she said.

A man in his sixties also expressed his surprise and admiration.

“I was able to walk smoothly without wheezing thanks to the power of this machine. “

The robotic equipment, called the Walk Mate, was developed by the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

According to Yoshihiro Miyake, a biophysics professor at the institute that created the mechanical exoskeleton, Walk Mate can add power to a person’s limbs in sync with their pace and gait.

“When people walk with others, they subconsciously try to keep pace with their companions,” Miyake said. “The same idea was incorporated into the robotic suit.”

While Walk Mate has been in use in medical centers and elsewhere for physiotherapy since 2018, it was only tested for outdoor use for the first time in this recent verification trial.

The experience took place in Zentsuji, where Kukai is from. The test used a sloping road that connects the Mandaraji and Shusshakaji temples, which are the 72nd and 73rd destinations along the pilgrimage route.

When asked why the Shikoku henro route was chosen as the first test site, Miyake brought up the notion of “dogyo ninin” (two journeys together), in which Kukai is supposed to accompany pilgrims on their journey, no matter what. the temple they are visiting.

“The robot helps users move at their own pace,” Miyake said. “I would like users to feel like they are traveling with Daishi. “

Some devout followers of Buddhism may worry about whether temples would frown on substituting a robotic costume for Kukai. But he has already been recognized by Zentsuji Temple, Kukai’s birthplace, as an official “dogyo ninin robot”.

“It is said that Daishi dwells inside the canes of pilgrims on henro,” said Chijun Suga, chief priest of Zentsuji Temple. “This robot is just a modern technological version of the walking stick.”

When the experiment was over, Suga affixed a sticker to the robot that read “dogyo ninin”, in accordance with the traditional practice of writing this phrase on pilgrims’ headdresses or other clothing.

All Nippon Airways Co. provided support for the design and advertising of the test. The company plans to offer sightseeing tours in the future so that people with weak legs can easily walk this path, with the help of a robotic suit like Walk Mate.