Teraverse, a project based at Kyoto University’s Institute for the Future of Human Society (IFOHS), aims to bring Buddhism to the forthcoming “metaverse,” an initiative heralded by Mark Zuckerberg of Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook Inc.) as the future of the internet. The Teraverse project will bring Buddhist art, philosophy, ritual, and practice to a globally available online community in the metaverse.
Associate professor of Buddhist Studies and Tibetan Studies at Kyoto University, Seiji Kumagai explained: “With the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukrainian-Russian war, more and more people are feeling the pressure of the real world.” He noted that the Buddhist metaverse was aimed at offering “new ways to blend traditional knowledge and science. As an option in today’s diversified society, we hope they can bring understanding and enjoyment to people, creating new vitality and hope, and building a more vibrant society.” (Sora News 24)
While Japan has long been home to vibrant Buddhist traditions, many have seen steep declines in attendance numbers in recent years. As BDG reported in 2017:
There have been recent warnings that Buddhism may be approaching something of a crisis point in Japan, with 27,000 of the country’s 77,000 Buddhist temples forecast to close over the next 25 years, reflecting shrinking populations in small rural communities and a loss of faith in organized religion among the country’s population as a whole. A survey carried out in 2015 by The Asahi Shimbun newspaper indicated that 12,065 Buddhist temples in Japan were without resident monks, representing 16 per cent of temples affiliated with the 10 most popular schools of Buddhism in the country. The survey also found that 434 temples from nine major denominations had closed completely in the past decade.*
The prefix “tera” can refer to the Japanese term for temple, as the space aims to provide an online platform for temples to reach new people. The term also refers to the Greek-derived term for trillion used in the metric system, such as in “terabyte.” As such, the Teraverse may also refer to the vastness of the forthcoming Buddhist digital landscape.
A precursor to the Teraverse can be found in another project led by Kumagai, the “Buddhabot,” which utilizes artificial intelligence (AI) to interact with users. In its current version, Buddhabot can offer 1,000 answers to users’ questions, drawing from Buddhist wisdom. Using augmented reality (AR) technology, the bot appears on a user’s mobile device screen overlaid on their actual surroundings as captured by the device’s back-facing camera.
Kumagai commented: “Buddhist circles face a harsh reality with the income of temples waning, while people’s anxiety and suffering are growing amid the coronavirus pandemic and other crises. We’d like to respond to both challenges by combining traditional wisdom with AI and the metaverse.” (The Mainichi)
While Buddhabot offers users an augmented reality experience, much like the popular Pokemon Go game, the Teraverse promises a fully immersive digital world. For now, Buddhabot is available for trial use at events and other limited occasions. Developers are being careful to ensure that the software and its use of a Buddha image are executed respectfully as they plan further releases of the system.
Both projects are the output of the Institute for the Future of Human Society (IFOHS). According to Kyoto University: “IFOHS aims to promote interdisciplinary research, pioneer new research areas, strengthen communication of research findings with a view to contributing to the harmonious well-being of the world using knowledge and insight from humanities and social sciences.” (Kyoto University)
The metaverse, advertised as an online virtual space project, was announced in 2021 and is still under development. The metaverse has been hailed as a bold new extension of the social networking capability of Facebook, offering opportunities for digital travel, business meetings, immersive education, games, and more.
Buddhist metaverse “Teraverse” in development at Kyoto University, includes AI Buddha (Sora News 24)
Teraverse, the Buddhist metaverse with a digital Buddha (Tech Game World)
Seiji Kumagai (Kyoto University)
Fund for Kyoto University Institute for the Future of Human Society established within KUF (Kyoto University)
Latest AI ‘Buddhabot’ allows users to ‘chat’ with Buddha image about their worries (The Mainichi)
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