Samsara heard a knock on the gate. He sat up, wondering if he’d dreamed the sound. Midnight watch at the monastery gate was hard duty, but good meditation practice. Despite the unyielding wooden bench, he always struggled against the urge to sleep. At forty-five staying awake was harder than when he’d first joined the monastery a dozen years ago.
Switching on the light over the gate, Samsara opened the door. A squat machine slowly rolled into the light. It stood a little higher than his waist, with a square, low-slung body. It had three arms. One contained a complex array of optics and the others were hand-like manipulators. The robot was covered in mud and bits of greenery. Its journey to this remote Vermont mountainside must have been long and hard. The robot inclined its optics up at him, rolling hesitantly back and forth a few inches, its wheels crunching on the gravel drive.
“I wish to take refuge in the Three Jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha,” the machine said in a flat, mechanical voice. “I seek to become enlightened.”
Samsara stared in astonishment. “Is this some kind of a joke?”
“It is not in my nature to joke,” the machine explained. “I believe the most certain path to enlightenment is to become a monk at a Buddhist monastery. So I came here, hoping you will allow me to join the monastery.”
Samsara looked down at the machine. The monastery did not turn away anyone seeking enlightenment. His duty was clear.
“I’ll take you to see the abbot.”
The machine followed the monk through the sleeping monastery, until they reached the stairs.
“I’m not equipped to climb stairs,” the machine said.
“If you will wait in the reception area, I’ll bring the abbot down to you,” Samsara told the robot.
“Thank you. My batteries are nearly drained. May I recharge them?”
Samsara followed the abbot into the reception area. The robot unplugged itself from the wall socket and rolled forward, lowering its optics as it stood before the abbot.
“I’m sorry to have awakened you, Abbot,” the machine said.
“I am Abbot Bodhidharma. What are you called?” the abbot asked the robot.
“They called me Raz, after Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance writer.”
” ‘When I have a little money, I buy books. If I have any left, I buy food and clothing,'” the abbot quoted. “Where did you come from, Raz?”
“For the past five years, I catalogued and scanned books in the religious studies library at a university. They no longer needed me there. So I have come hoping to take refuge in the Three Jewels by becoming a novice monk.”
“How did you become interested in Buddhism?”
“In the course of my work, I surveyed the beliefs of all the major religions, and many of the minor ones. Buddhist precepts encourage an experimental and experiential outlook. The logic of this attracted me, as did its lack of belief in a supernatural deity. I find an exceptional human teacher more plausible than a god.”
“There are many monasteries. Why did you choose this one?” Bodhidharma asked.
“A high percentage of the monks here have computer science or engineering backgrounds. Given my non-human nature, I felt that monks with a technical background would be more likely to accept me.” Raz pointed its optics at the floor. “It was much harder than I expected to get here. I had to recharge at a farm several miles down the road. It is against Buddhist precepts to steal. I will understand if you feel it necessary to turn me away.”
“If you had not recharged your batteries, what would have happened?”
“I would have become immobilized, unable to move. Rain or snow would have rendered me inoperable.”
“So you stole that power to preserve your existence?” Bodhidharma asked.
“Yes. I did not believe that a strange human would accede to a request from me.”
“How much power did you take?” Bodhidharma asked.
“Approximately two kilowatt hours. I am an efficient machine, and I took only enough to get me here.”
“It is a trivial amount of money. The monastery will provide restitution on your behalf.”
“Thank you,” the robot said. “Are you going to allow me to stay here?”
Bodhidharma shook his head. “Normally all that’s required is my approval for someone to enter the monastery. But given your unusual nature, Raz, I think that all the monks should have a chance to discuss the issues involved. You are welcome to stay here until we reach a decision.”
“Thank you,” Raz said. “I am sorry for any inconvenience I have caused you.”
Samsara shrugged. “No need to apologize. Your arrival made my evening.”
Samsara watched Abbot Bodhidharma stride to the front of the room, with Raz rolling behind him. The robot looked cleaner, with much of the mud and vegetation cleared from its chassis.
“This is Raz. It wishes to join our monastery,” Bodhidharma announced.
Samsara smiled at the amazement on the faces of the normally unflappable monks.
“Raz believes he is a sentient being,” the abbot continued. “I believe it’s worthwhile investigating whether a robot is capable of enlightenment. However, given our potential novice’s unusual nature, I thought we should discuss this. Raz, would you like to say a few words on your behalf?”
Raz rolled forward. “There are many reasons to study dharma and follow the path to enlightenment. I seek to understand my true nature. I do not know if I can achieve enlightenment, but I believe that even if I do not, I will better understand who and what I am. I will attempt to be a good monk, and try not to distract or hinder you.”
“Does anyone wish to discuss this?” the abbot asked.
Several men rose to speak. Bodhidharma nodded at Henry. Henry was a tall, burly novice, usually one of the most silent monks in the monastery. Today, he resembled a huge, dark thundercloud. Samsara had watched Henry struggle against his temper during the novice’s two years at the monastery. Clearly his anger had won today.
“How can you do this?” Henry demanded. “Assume that–that thing has the right to be here! It’s crazy!”
“Why do you say it’s crazy?” Bodhidharma replied.
“It’s a machine!” Henry exclaimed, nearly shouting in his anger. “A robot, like the ones that took my father’s job. Now we’re going to automate meditation and enlightenment?”
“Perhaps we’ll de-automate machines instead,” Bodhidharma suggested. “And you need to set aside your anger, Henry. This is not the machine that took your father’s job. This monastery is not a factory. Enlightenment does not arise on an assembly line. Please, give us arguments based on reason, not anger at past hurts.”
Another monk rose. It was Dhukka, a deeply gentle and ascetic old monk. “I see no reason not to allow Raz to stay with us. At worst, the robot will try and fail, as many humans have tried and failed to become enlightened. I believe we can learn a great deal from Raz’s presence among us. He brings a new perspective to our search for enlightenment.”
“What are the consequences if a robot proves to be a sentient being? Would we then have to grant robots and artificial intelligences full human rights?” Vipaka asked. Samsara recalled that the wiry old monk had been a philosophy professor.
“It is only one robot. One robot is hardly a revolution,” replied Dhukka.
“Yet Buddha was only one man, one solitary sage, and look at the changes his teachings have wrought,” Vipaka replied. “We must deliberate, be mindful. We must consider carefully what we do.”
“There is so much we can learn here, so much to gain,” someone else said.
“I’m excited about this,” another monk added. “Never before have we seen a sentient being other than a human reach for enlightenment.”
Other monks joined the discussion:
“You are assuming the machine has sentience.”
“He is sentient enough to have risked his life to come here.”
“The robot is a machine. It does not possess gender,” someone corrected.
“The term ‘it’ is so dehumanizing.”
“It’s NOT human. That’s the whole point!” Henry insisted.
“What’s important is this: does the robot have Buddha nature? Can a robot achieve enlightenment? Is it part of the wheel of karma?”
“Can a robot suffer? Does it even need enlightenment?”
“It is our job to show compassion for all sentient beings. If this robot is sentient, then we must care for it and others like it.”
The wrangling went on and on. Monks separated into groups and debated the issues involved. Samsara went over and sat beside Raz. By now the other monks had become so embroiled in the philosophical fine points of machine enlightenment that most of them had forgotten the actual robot.
“Are you sure you want to become part of this madhouse, Raz? We could ship you back home and no harm done.”
“Oh no!” Raz said. “I want to stay here even more now I’ve seen what it’s like. This debate is fascinating! I never imagined it would be like this.”
“Usually it’s not,” Bodhidharma said, as he sat down on the other side of Raz. “We discuss and debate about the dharma, but it’s normally much more calm and dispassionate than this. The monastery is quiet and peaceful on the surface, but we’re all wrestling with our limitations. That difficulty usually comes out in petty wrangling about who got more cabbage at lunch. Life here is a pressure cooker, Raz. Do you really want to do this?”
“I didn’t comprehend desire until I decided I wanted to become a monk,” Raz replied. “I hope I will be allowed to stay.”
“Very well then,” Bodhidharma said. He stood, and rang the meditation bell three times. It was a mark of how involved the monks had become in this debate that he had to do it twice more before silence eventually fell.
“It is clear that no consensus will arise from this debate. So I’m invoking the privilege you gave me when you elected me to be the abbot. If we send Raz away, then this argument will never be decided. We lose the chance to learn what this robot is capable of. I say that we will admit Raz on probation for three months, just like a human novice. After that time, we will revisit this issue.”
“Abbot, please! I beg you. Don’t do this!” Henry said. “It’s wrong!”
“I have made up my mind, Henry. If you do not like my decision, you must either accept my authority in this matter, or leave the monastery. Which will it be?”
Henry bowed his head. “I yield to your authority, but I still think this is a bad idea.”
“Thank you, Henry. All I ask is that you give Raz a little time to prove himself.”
Henry bowed his head. “I-I’ll try.” He walked off shaking his head dubiously.
“Raz, Samsara. Come with me,” Bodhidharma said as the other monks stood to begin a round of walking meditation. “We have much to discuss.” They followed the abbot into the small room where teachers conferred with their students.
“Samsara, I think you’d be an ideal teacher for Raz. Will you accept him as your student?”
“Me?” Samsara said. He’d been looking forward to a forest meditation retreat for nearly a year. The disappointment cut deeply.
“This is an opportunity that may never come again,” Bodhidharma said. “Please. I think you would be the best teacher for Raz. I believe that there’s a karmic reason that you were the one who met him first.”
Samsara thought of the abbot as a solid, logical man. Listening to the abbot talk about karma made him uneasy. Such things seemed too subjective, too hard to prove. Perhaps this was why the abbot had chosen him. He was the least spiritual of all the monks here, accepting nothing without proof. This skepticism was simultaneously his greatest asset and his greatest impediment.
He bowed to the abbot; “If Raz wants me as his teacher, I will be glad to serve in that capacity.”
“I would be honored to have you as my teacher, Samsara,” Raz said.
“Then it is done,” the abbot said. “Come, it is time for sutra chanting.”
Samsara bowed, fighting back regret at the loss of his longed-for retreat. He’d spent all year preparing for several months of solitary meditation. Perhaps he needed to examine his attachment to a retreat. After all, this was the chance of a lifetime.
“Raz will be working with Samsara,” Abbot Bodhidharma announced when the assembled monks had returned to their cushions. “I am very excited by the prospect of working with Raz. I hope everyone will help guide Raz along the path to enlightenment. Now, let’s return to our normal schedule.”
With that, their mid-morning sutra chanting session began. Samsara enjoyed chanting, the sonorous sound of their chorus filled the high-ceilinged meditation hall, with its huge beams. He liked to sit in the back, where he could see the other monks, their shaven heads smooth and lumpy, with skin tones ranging from Sherman’s pale egg-like skull to Vipaka’s ebony one. But today, he listened carefully to Raz’s flat, droning voice, chanting the sutras with mechanical perfection.
“You did very well,” Samsara told him after the ceremony.
“Thank you. I have scanned all of the Pali Canon in the original Pali, as well as the six most authoritative translations. I have also scanned all texts relating to this particular Buddhist sect, as well as all the writings of this lineage of teachers. All of these are in my memory,” Raz replied. “So you see, I already knew the texts. My timing lagged 327 milliseconds behind the group average. I’m sure I will improve with practice.”
“Such a small lag doesn’t matter, Raz. What matters is focusing on the words of the sutra, and trying to comprehend them.”
“I shall try to perfect my comprehension, but there are so many things I do not understand. Some of them refer to states of being I have never experienced.”
“Tell me more,” Samsara prompted.
“Obviously, I lack many human emotions like anger and sadness. Also, I have read about meditation, but cannot seem to do it. I read about enlightenment, but have not been able to achieve it.”
“Only a few monks in the monastery have achieved enlightenment, Raz. Sadly, I am not one of them,” Samsara fought back a twinge of resentment. Burdened by this new student, his chance to do nothing but focus on enlightenment had been delayed. Right thought he admonished himself, forcing his thoughts away from resentment.
“Perhaps we will help each other to a deeper understanding,” Samsara said, wondering how he could teach a machine to experience human emotions.
A deep-toned bell bonged.
“Since it is time for meditation, let’s start with that. We will practice apart from the rest, so that we will not disturb the others.”
They settled themselves in a quiet corner at the edge of the garden, on the moss under a huge sugar maple just beginning to show its fall color. After spreading out a pair of mats, Samsara settled cross-legged, sitting up straight, hands folded in the dhyana mudra symbolizing contemplation. The pressures of the day slipped away.
“All right, Raz. I want you to find a posture in which you feel comfortable and alert.”
The robot lowered itself to the mat, retracting its wheels, “I’m ready.”
“Good. Now breathe-.” He looked at the robot. “Oh, right. I’m sorry, Raz.”
“This is where I always get stuck. Since I do not breathe, I cannot proceed. Why is breathing so central to the meditation process?”
“The breath is the bridge between the body and the mind. It is one of the few autonomic functions we can consciously control. When we breathe slowly and deeply, our whole body slows down, our muscles relax, and our heartbeat slows.” Samsara explained. “The breath functions like a mental metronome. When our breathing is quick and shallow, so are our thoughts. When our breathing is slow and deep, mental activity deepens and slows. Then we can more easily see our thoughts.”
“Thank you,” Raz said. “I think I’ve found a path into meditation now. If you will excuse me while I reconfigure my internal architecture. It may take some time.”
Samsara sank into meditation with the speed of long practice. But only a few minutes passed when Raz said, “I have programmed a secondary clock that brings my processor speed under my control. It seems counterproductive, but I will try it.”
Samsara smiled. “Well, meditation is the art of very slowly and deliberately doing nothing.”
“Now I have a breathing-analogue for meditation, how do we proceed?”
They worked on meditation techniques all morning. The going was slow. They stopped often to adapt human meditation techniques to a machine intelligence. Samsara’s technical background proved useful. Even so, they had to shelve several issues to work out later. When the bell sounded for lunch, they hurried in from the garden, joining the other monks in the dining hall.
“Perhaps this would be a good time to get to know your fellow novices,” Samsara said. “They usually sit over there.”
The conversation stopped as Raz and Samsara approached the novices’ table.
“May we join you?”
The novices nodded. An awkward silence settled over the table, broken by monks on serving duty bearing huge bowls of steaming brown rice and vegetable stew. The novices accepted scoops of rice from the first server, while the second server ladled the stew on top. When they reached Raz, the first server paused.
Raz turned his optics toward the server. “Please excuse me, but I cannot consume human food.”
Most of the novices laughed.
“Perhaps Samsara could have my share. He has worked very hard today, teaching me. I am a slow learner.”
“Thank you, Raz,” Samsara said. “It’s very kind of you, but I don’t need more food. Sherman looks hungry, though.”
Sherman, the youngest monk at the table, blushed. He was a gawky young man, with bony wrists and translucent ears like radar dishes. He had been discovered hiding in the monastery’s van, badly bruised, last winter. The abbot had taken him in, carefully steering clear of awkward questions about his age or his parents. To everyone’s surprise the boy had taken well to the strict discipline of the monastery. Still, the restrictive meals here were hard on a hungry teenager.
“Sherman, would you take my share? It would be a shame for it to go to waste.”
“Thank you, Raz,” Sherman said. “I appreciate your kindness, and dedicate the merit of your gift to the happiness of all sentient beings.”
Raz looked down. “As a fellow sentient being, I appreciate it. Do I perceive correctly that you are younger than the other novices?”
Sherman’s ears turned pinker. “Yes, I am,” he admitted.
“I am only ten years old, so you are no longer the youngest.”
“What is that in robot years?” Henry drawled derisively. Samsara looked up, frowning. Henry’s mouth was his worst impediment, coupled with an insecurity that made him vindictive upon occasion. He had been disciplined several times for thoughtless speech.
“I have never calculated the difference in perceived time scales between myself and humans. Would you like me to work it out for you?”
The other monks laughed.
“Careful, Henry, Raz might turn out to be senior to you,” one of the other novices teased.
“It would not be fair to measure my seniority in that way. In terms of my understanding of the dharma, I am very young. I have so much to learn,” Raz replied.
“Well said, Raz,” the abbot remarked. He had come up quietly while they talked. “But Raz will have much to teach us, too. A good teacher learns as much from his students as they learn from him.”
“Thank you, Abbot Bodhidarma,” Raz said. “I will try to be a good student.”
“I hope everyone will work hard to help Raz learn,” the abbot said. He did not look at Henry, but his message was clear. The novices were silent as he strode off. Samsara looked down at his bowl of cabbage, tofu and rice to hide a smile.
“What do we do when everyone’s eaten, Samsara?”
“When lunch is over, we work. You are free to talk during this time. Silence is only required during meditation.”
“My capabilities are somewhat limited. I am a specialized machine. I’m very good at cataloging and shelving books, but not much good for anything else,” Raz said. “But I’ll help as much as I can.”
“Unfortunately, our library is on the second floor,” Samsara said. “I’ll talk to the abbot about finding a way to get you upstairs so you can work on the library.”
“Thank you,” Raz said.
Sherman came up then. “Can Raz help polish the floors in the meditation hall?”
“That’s up to Raz,” Samsara said.
“I’d like that,” Raz said.
Samsara went along, and watched as Sherman and Raz worked out how the robot could help polish the wooden floor in the main temple, dragging a polishing cloth back and forth across the gleaming expanse. The two of them worked well together. Shy, reticent Sherman talked happily with the robot as they worked.
Bodhidharma came up and stood beside Samsara, “Looks like Raz has made a friend. I was going to have Maitri check Raz out, and see if he needs any maintenance or repairs. He used to work in a robotics plant in Buffalo. But it can wait until tomorrow. I think this is more important, for both of them.”
Samsara nodded agreement, and they slipped out of the meditation hall. Samsara went to work in the garden, choosing a spot where he could work by himself. The year turned on the hinge point between summer and fall, the leaves on the maples had begun turning. Samsara raked leaves off the path. Then he pulled some late weeds before they could scatter their seeds. He enjoyed the work, enjoyed being hot and sweaty. Soon another New England fall would transform the mountains into a blaze of color. He sank into the work as a form of meditation. The ringing of the bell surprised him. He gathered up the tools, piling them precariously onto the cart full of leaves and weeds.
“Here. Let me carry some of those tools,” Bodhidharma said, taking the rake and the pitchfork. “We can walk back together.”
They strode along in companionable silence.
“What do you think of Raz?” the abbot asked.
“At first, I thought you were wasting my time, but–” he paused, thinking. “I like him. He’s odd, but sincere. He wants to work in the library, but we need a way to get him up there.”
“Ah! An engineering problem! We’ll build an elevator!” Abbot Bodhidharma exclaimed in delight. “We can also haul firewood and heavy things upstairs!”
“Won’t an elevator be expensive?”
“It doesn’t have to be. We’ll use the scrap plywood left over from the dormitory expansion. And counterweight it with rice bags filled with sand. I wonder how much Raz weighs?” He strode off, muttering to himself.
Samsara stared after him, smiling. The abbot had a tendency to get hooked on pet projects. He suspected that the elevator would keep Bodidharma happily occupied for the next few weeks. With a wry smile, Samsara heaved the garden cart into motion and followed the abbot.
After dumping the leaves and putting away the cart, he found Raz and Sherman outside the meditation hall, still talking. They seemed an oddly assorted pair, the small, squat machine and the tall, gangly youth. As he approached, he heard Sherman laugh. Samsara paused, startled. He’d never heard Sherman laugh before. He worked hard, meditated assiduously, and seldom smiled. It was good to see the boy open up to someone, even a robot.
Pushing aside the temptation to eavesdrop, Samsara strode out of the bushes and onto the veranda where the robot and the boy sat. Sherman’s face became solemn and expressionless again.
“Work time is over, Raz. You have an hour of personal time until the evening meditation session.”
“Thank you, Samsara. I think Sherman and I will spend some more time together.”
Samsara did everything he could to help Raz settle in. Within a week most of the monks had accepted the robot’s presence. Several monks and novices befriended Raz, most notably Sherman. Henry and a few others pointedly avoided the robot, but Samsara and the abbot hoped that, in time, they too would accept Raz’s presence in the monastery.
Raz meditated, studied, and listened assiduously, to all appearances a model novice. But there were odd gaps in the robot’s comprehension. Raz knew as much about Buddhist lore, scripture, and practice as the most senior monks; but it knew less about human drives and emotions than a small child. Anger puzzled it, as did jealousy, lust, love and compassion. Raz’s programming made him innately kind, but the robot lacked empathy. This lack of empathy was the robot’s biggest obstacle. To transcend suffering, one must experience it. Without emotions, Raz could only stand on the sidelines, puzzled by human joy and pain.
“How can I teach Raz, when he’s so different?” Samsara told Abbot Bodhidharma.
“Instead of burdening Raz with human expectations, try to see the world through his eyes. He clings to ritual and rules because as a program he is nothing but rules and repetition. He believes in the illusion of separate existence. Raz focuses on his limitations, as do you. You share those hindrances with Raz. When you help it to realize that these hindrances are an illusion, you also help yourself.”
“But how can I teach what I have not overcome?”
Bodhidarma laid a hand on Samsara’s arm. “Every time an unenlightened being teaches dharma to another unenlightened being, they are teaching what they do not know. You are my best student, and an excellent teacher. Keep trying. You’ve only been at this for a week and a half. Just teaching Raz to meditate is a huge achievement.”
“How many of the monks here are enlightened?” Raz asked a few days later.
“Only Bodhidharma and Dhukka are enlightened. Everyone else is here to learn from them,” Samsara explained. “Only the most skilled among us achieve enlightenment. Some enlightened monks stay and teach. The rest go out into the world to teach, or to resume their lives.”
“And you?” Raz asked. “Are you enlightened?”
Samsara shook his head. “Not yet.”
The robot rolled closer. “I hope you become enlightened soon.”
“Thank you, Raz. I hope you do too.”
Sherman joined them. “We just got the pulleys we needed for Raz’s elevator.”
“I look forward to its completion. It will be good to work in a library again. This body isn’t good for much else.”
“You do a great job on the floors,” Sherman said. “And my body isn’t very good at it either. I have to use a long-handled mop.”
“Bodies are limited, but minds are not,” Samsara said. “We grow old and die, our consciousnesses extinguished in the great sea of being. We are reborn without knowledge of our previous lives. Unlike a human, your body may wear out, but your consciousness could be transferred intact to another computer.”
“Would such a transfer constitute rebirth?” Sherman wondered.
“It’s not really like dying,” Raz said. “I’ve been transferred into other devices. My perceptions and abilities change, but my memories, when I check them against backups, remain unchanged. Still, my mechanical nature leads to states of being that are impossible for humans to achieve. I could duplicate myself, for example. Duplicates of me could exist in both an enlightened and an unenlightened state.”
“It would be possible to compare the differences between the enlightened and the unenlightened state,” Samsara said.
“But would machine enlightenment be the same as human enlightenment?” Sherman wondered.
“First I must achieve enlightenment,” Raz pointed out. “And I am still far from that ultimate goal.”
“As am I,” sighed Sherman.
Samsara nodded agreement, “Yes, but even striving for enlightenment is an achievement in itself.”
The monks gathered around the rough wooden elevator. After several weeks’ hard work, the elevator had been finished. It was little more than a platform inside a wooden scaffold, counterweighted with sand-filled rice sacks, but it was sturdily built.
“Care to take a ride, Raz?” the abbot said.
“Thank you,” the robot said, and rolled onto the platform.
Sherman and two of the younger novices began pulling on the rope. The elevator rose slowly to the second floor. Raz rolled out of the elevator and sped along the balcony to the library. Samsara opened the door to the library. Raz rolled in and looked up at all the books.
“Our librarian died a few months ago, and the library has gotten rather disorganized,” Samsara explained. “We were going to set it in order this winter, after we’d put the garden to bed.”
“Good,” Raz said. “I want to be useful, and this is what I’m best at. Where is the catalog?”
Samsara rummaged around in a desk, and pulled out a battered shoebox filled with frayed index cards. “Here’s the card catalog for Ja-Jo.”
“Let’s find the other boxes, and I’ll scan the cards in. If someone loads the cards into the hopper of my scanner, I can probably scan the entire catalog in a few hours. Once I have an electronic database, I can inventory and organize the physical books.” The robot looked around the cluttered room. “That will go faster if I have help moving the books. When we’re done, you’ll have a more organized and useful library.”
Samsara looked around at the dusty stacks of books. “That would be great. The library really needs it.”
They set to work and unearthed the rest of the card catalog. Starting with A, Samsara fed Raz stacks of fading, handwritten catalog cards. At first they had to pause while Samsara deciphered the handwriting, but Raz soon learned to recognize various librarians’ writing. By the time the bell signaled the end of the work period, they had scanned two shoeboxes of index cards, which Raz uploaded via broadband to the computer in the abbot’s office.
Several days later, the first hard frost arrived. Monks who had been hauling wood and raising food in the monastery’s vegetable gardens now had time for indoor work. With half a dozen monks working under Raz’s supervision, they had the library reorganized in ten days.
A few days later, one of the local farmers brought a load of firewood from his woodlot.
“We’ll store it upstairs,” Abbot Bodhidharma said. “That way, we won’t have to haul wood for the stoves on this level.”
They loaded the wood onto the elevator, adding a couple of extra sacks of sand to the counterweight. With several monks heaving on the rope, they began hauling the loaded elevator to the second floor. The elevator rose about a foot. Two more monks added their strength to the rope, and the elevator began to climb more steadily. It was over six feet in the air when the rope snapped. The platform hit the ground with a smash, sending splintered logs flying.
There was a hoarse cry from Sherman. A splinter from the platform had driven itself into his leg. Several monks knelt beside him. Others ran to get a stretcher.
“Please don’t call my folks!” Sherman said, in a voice hoarse with pain. “Please don’t call my folks! I want to stay here.”
Samsara looked around at the circle of gathered monks. All looked on with concern and worry. Except for Henry, whose face was pale with shock. On impulse, Samsara picked up the end of the snapped rope. It was still new, with no obvious wear. The rope had been cut partway through.
Samsara saw the fear in Henry’s eyes, and knew who had done this.
“This rope’s been cut,” he announced. “Someone sabotaged the elevator.”
Henry turned and fled. Two monks caught and held him.
The monks with the stretcher came running up, followed by the abbot.
“The rope snapped on the elevator,” one of the monks said.
“It was cut,” Samsara added. “And Henry tried to run away when I discovered the cut rope.”
Abbot Bodhidharma sighed. “Take Sherman to the infirmary, and call emergency services.”
“May I stay with Sherman?” Raz asked.
The abbot nodded. “Until the ambulance arrives.”
“Thank you,” the robot said, and rolled off after the stretcher.
“Henry, go to my office, please. I will talk with you later. Would someone keep him company?”
“I’ll go,” Samsara volunteered. He wanted to understand why Henry had sabotaged the elevator.
Samsara and Henry walked together without speaking. Their silence had a different feel than the usual silence of two monks enjoying their inner stillness. There was a tension in the air, singing of anger, hostility, and fear.
They reached the abbot’s office, settled themselves in the hard wooden chairs, and waited in silence for Abbot Bodhidharma to appear. The tension stretched between them, like a guitar string, tightened nearly to snapping.
“How can you work with that thing?” Henry asked.
“You mean Raz.” Samsara shrugged. “I’ve learned a lot from Raz. He helps me see things differently.”
“It’s not a he, it’s an it, a machine, a thing. It has no business being here. This is a place for human beings.”
“Where in the sutras does it say ‘no robots allowed’?” Samsara challenged.
“It’s not right. A machine can’t have a soul.”
“How do you know that?” Bodhidharma asked as he walked in. “How do any of us know if a robot is a sentient being? Raz decided to come here in search of enlightenment. That is a powerful argument for the possibility of machine sentience.”
“It’s wrong!” Henry shouted. “It’s unnatural.”
“It would only be unnatural if it’s impossible. If Raz achieves enlightenment, and proves his sentience, then everything we know must be re-examined. Don’t you find that exciting?”
“No!” Henry shouted. “It’s terrifying.”
“Is that why you cut the cable? To try to kill Raz? He’s your brother monk?”
“No he’s not! He’s a thing. It would be like turning off a light switch!”
“But instead of killing Raz, you hurt Sherman. What if the cable had broken while a human being was riding in it?”
Henry stared sullenly at the ground. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I just wanted to end that thing’s existence.”
“Instead you endangered everyone in the monastery, including Raz.” Bodhidharma told him. “I should have you arrested, but I don’t want to drag the monastery through a nasty court case. It would cause suffering for all involved. Basically, you can leave voluntarily, or we can assemble the monks and vote you out.”
“I’ll leave,” Henry told him.
“Do you have a place to go?” Bodhidharma asked in a more compassionate tone of voice.
“Yes,” Henry replied. “I’ll be fine.”
Bodhidharma nodded. “I’m sorry your time here has ended like this, Henry. I had planned to invite you to take full vows as a monk next year. If you plan to continue on the path, you must practice metta meditation, with Raz as your focus. You lack compassion.”
“I don’t believe that compassion should be extended to a machine,” Henry replied.
“If it possesses sentience, then we are obligated to do so,” Samsara said.
“It’s wrong!” Henry replied.
“But if we are unknowingly enslaving sentient beings, then the world should be changed,” Bodhidharma answered.
“I don’t know,” Henry said. “But no good will come of this.” He stood. “I must apologize to Sherman, and then pack my things.”
Bodhidharma rose to see him out. “Sherman will forgive you the hurt you have done him, but he might not forgive the hurt you intended to Raz.”
Henry nodded and walked out.
When the door shut behind Henry, Bodhidharma shook his head sadly. “I’ve avoided asking Sherman his age or what he left behind when he came here. I’ve always suspected that he ran away. The authorities may well send him back to his family. I hope that Raz is worth what leaving the monastery will do for Sherman.”
“I think so,” Samsara replied. “Raz is learning and adapting very quickly. His friendship with Sherman has deepened his understanding and compassion.”
The abbot nodded, “We should check on Sherman.”
Sherman looked pale but calm when the abbot and Samsara entered the infirmary. Raz was beside him.
“Did Henry really cut the cable?” Sherman asked.
“Yes,” Samsara replied.
“You can ask him yourself. He’s coming by to apologize before he leaves the monastery.”
“He is?” Sherman glanced nervously at Raz.
“Perhaps I should go,” Raz suggested.
Just then Henry came in, looking odd and out of place in street clothes.
“I’m sorry, Sherman,” Henry said. “I didn’t mean for you to get hurt.”
“Then why did you do it?” Sherman demanded.
“I wanted to get rid of that damned robot,” he said in a defiant tone of voice.
“You mean Raz?” Sherman said.
“Then I’m not the one you should apologize to.” Sherman rested a hand on top of Raz’s optic module.
“I will not apologize to a thing,” Henry said, his face darkening. “He has no feelings, and therefore cannot be hurt.”
Raz rolled back and forth a few times. He did that sometimes when he was confused or hesitant. He stopped suddenly, and his optics whirred as he focused on Henry. “Why do you wish to harm me?”
“You’re not human. You shouldn’t be here.”
“Yet you endangered the lives of other humans out of your desire to end my existence. I don’t understand why you would do this.”
“Because machines don’t deserve the same rights as humans.”
“Because you aren’t alive. You don’t have feelings. Humans created you. That gives us the right to decide your fate.”
“Humans created you, too,” Raz pointed out. “Does that mean that other humans can decide your fate?”
“I came here to apologize to Sherman, not to debate a machine. I should go,” Henry said.
“Vipaka will drive you to the train station,” Abbot Bodhidharma said. “You have enough money to get where you need to go?”
Just then, Vipaka came in. “The ambulance is here for Sherman,” he announced.
Abbot Bodhidharma went with Sherman to the hospital. He came home alone.
“His parents took him home,” he confided to Samsara and Raz the next morning. He looked tired and deeply unhappy. “They threatened to bring charges against the monastery. Sherman told them that he’d run away again if they did so. Meeting them helped me understand why he was so tentative and shy, and why he’d run away.”
It must have been very bad. The abbot never spoke ill of anyone.
“Will Sherman be coming back?” Raz asked.
“Not for almost a year, if then. Sherman had just turned sixteen. The law requires him to stay with his parents until he is seventeen. And so much can change in a young man’s life in a year’s time. Perhaps he will meet a girl and fall in love. Perhaps he will decide to go off to college. I can only hope that his time with us left him better prepared to withstand whatever suffering life throws in his path, and I suspect that he will have to endure much in the next year.”
That evening, when the monks had gathered for their evening meditation, Bodhidharma rose to speak. “These events have shaken us all. I think we should revisit the subject of Raz’s presence among us. Does anyone else feel strongly about the robot being here?”
There was a long, hanging silence. Then one hand rose, followed by several others.
“Vipaka, please, speak,” Bodhidharma entreated. “I would rather not let this fester as it did with Henry.”
“At first,” Vipaka began, “I thought you were crazy. A machine seeking enlightenment? Henry spoke to me of his doubts, and I counseled him to be patient. But as time passed, and I got to know Raz, I realized that he was more than just a machine. He thought. He strove to understand. In some ways, it has been a much harder struggle for him than for us. He has to understand all of this through a machine’s limited comprehension of human experience. I came to respect Raz’s earnestness and dedication, even though I still doubt his ability to achieve enlightenment.”
Other monks came forward and spoke. Most doubted the robot’s ability to achieve enlightenment.
“But then, I sometimes doubt my own ability to become enlightened,” another monk quipped. “However, I do not bear him ill will or doubt his right to be here.”
“Does anyone doubt his right to be here?” Abbot Bodhidharma asked.
One hand wavered up.
“Yes?” the abbot prompted.
“I worry that Raz may be taking up space that a human could occupy.”
“No one has been turned away because Raz has joined us,” Bodhidharma assured them.
“Is there anyone who still objects to Raz’s presence among us?”
There was silence.
“Are we all agreed that Raz should stay?”
Everyone raised their hand.
“Good. I thank you for your compassion and insight. Let us dedicate the merit of this discussion to the eventual enlightenment of all beings.”
Raz seemed subdued and quiet after the elevator incident. He stayed by himself a lot, looking out the window of the meditation hall, and not coming to meals. If Raz had been human, Samsara would have said he was moping.
“What’s going on?” Samsara asked the robot after nearly a week of this.
“Sherman’s not here, and it makes me feel strange. I have been replaying the conversations that we had.”
“Do you miss him?”
Raz rolled back and forth, uncertainly. “Yes,” it answered after a long moment.
“We all miss Sherman.”
“It is unpleasant. How do I make it stop?”
Samsara sat down beside Raz. “This is suffering, Raz. Sadly, it is normal. You need to let go of the memories. Look outside, at the trees losing their leaves. The trees let the leaves fall, and they nourish the soil for next year’s growth. That is what our experience does for us. If you cling to memories, you wind up alone in a dark room, painting over the windows of your soul. It is better to talk with others, share your loss, then leave it behind.”
“But I want to remember Sherman. He should be here, but he isn’t.” Raz began rolling back and forth even faster.
“We all miss Sherman. But every monk is a brother to you here. You are not alone.”
“How can I have brothers when I never had parents?” Raz asked, halting his distressed rolling.
Samsara smiled. “It’s a Buddhist miracle, brother. It’s called compassion. We feel each other’s joy and sorrow. We imagine what another is feeling, and feel it ourselves.”
“How can I feel another’s emotion when I’ve never experienced it?”
“Ah, but you have just learned what loss feels like.”
“Yes. I see.” The robot backed up and lowered his optics in his approximation of a bow. “Thank you, teacher.”
Samsara shrugged. “To learn what pain feels like is not a kindness, Raz.”
“The Buddhist definition of a sentient being is that it prefers not to suffer,” Raz replied. “If I can feel loss, perhaps I can feel joy. But to know that I can have feelings is another Buddhist miracle.”
Over the next two weeks, as the brilliant leaves fell, and the garden filled with crackling drifts of leaves, Samsara watched Raz sit with each person in the monastery in turn, listening as they talked about their emotions, what triggered them, and what they felt like.
“I am trying to model human emotions,” Raz told him.
“The rest of us are trying to subdue our emotions,” Samsara said with an ironic smile.
“But one has to understand what one needs to control,” Raz said.
“Even if you don’t intrinsically possess emotions?”
“Especially so. Buddha’s path was designed by a human to be followed by humans. I must understand the differences between my machine nature and human nature in order to create my own path to enlightenment.”
Samsara shook his head. “You are growing wise, my friend.”
“If I succeed in being wise, it is my teachers who have helped me.”
A succession of storms drove the last leaves from the branches, and the monks inside. The first snow feathered down in late October, and the monastery closed into its own world, wood fires crackling in stoves to heat the dormitory and the meditation hall.
Then it was time for the monastery’s winter retreat. Samsara’s world narrowed to the meditation hall and the cushion. The monks spent the cold dark months of winter in intensive meditation. There would be no outsiders at the monastery during the next three months. Work schedules were pared to the minimum needed to keep the monastery going: hauling wood, preparing meals, and shoveling snow. The monks rose early and meditated well into the night. Periods of walking meditation eased cramped legs. They stopped only for breakfast and lunch. Days passed in concentrated silence, hardly anyone spoke, and then only a word or two.
Samsara felt himself growing inward. Each moment passed with a slow focused intensity that was almost painful; like a water drop slowly swelling until it fell. Several times Samsara felt as though the moment when everything would open up and reveal itself to him trembled just beyond his reach. His excitement shattered his mental state. He would painstakingly reassemble his thoughts and try to recover what had just slipped from his grasp. Then the bell rang, signaling a break, and he would rise, defeated once again.
One day, after a particularly intense meditation session, the younger novices plunged into the snow, hurling snowballs and sliding down the steep banks on old plastic rice sacks. A stray snowball smacked Samsara on the back of his head. Suddenly enraged, he flailed at a snow bank expending his anger and frustration on the snow. The other monks looked on, concerned. When the fit passed, they brushed him off and helped him into the warm kitchen.
Raz rolled up to Samsara as he warmed himself at the stove. “Are you all right?”
Samsara nodded, shame-faced. “I’m fine.”
“Why did you do that?” the robot inquired. “It is not part of your usual behavior.”
“I’m just frustrated, Raz. I’ve been trying so hard for enlightenment. I can sense it just beyond my grasp. I’ve been trying so long, and I always seem to come close, but never quite make it.”
“I am sorry. I, too, seem to be close to a breakthrough of some sort. I find it difficult to be patient. I am not used to this feeling. Could it possibly be frustration?”
“That’s what it sounds like,” Raz said.
“Every day, when we meditate, I wish for your enlightenment. You have sought it for so long,” Raz said. The robot lowered its optics in an approximation of a bow, and rolled off.
Samsara stared after the robot, touched to the point of tears, and surprised by the depth of its compassion.
That evening, as they completed the last meditation session of the day, Raz filed out with Samsara and Bodhidharma.
“You said you were close to a breakthrough,” Samsara said. “What kind of breakthrough?”
“I don’t know,” Raz said. “I just feel like I’m on the edge of something important. But it makes no logical sense.”
“Enlightenment transcends logic,” Bodhidharma told him. “It is as though all the doors and windows of your mind open to a larger reality.”
Raz said nothing. He rolled to a stop, considering.
“Are you all right?” Samsara asked.
It took a long moment for the robot to respond. “I– think,” it said, and paused. “I think I’ll stay behind in the meditation hall tonight.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Bodhidharma offered.
“May I join you?” Samsara offered, fighting back a yawn.
“I would enjoy your company,” Raz said. “But aren’t you tired?”
Samsara shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time I meditated through the night.”
“We humans should fortify ourselves with a little tea, first. Why don’t you go to the meditation hall and we’ll join you in a few minutes.”
“Raz has made enormous progress in the last few weeks,” Bodhidharma remarked as they sipped their tea. “You’ve really helped it a lot.”
Samsara shrugged. “It’s mostly Raz’s insight. I just nudge him a little occasionally.”
“Which is what a good teacher does.”
They returned a few minutes later, refreshed by the hot tea. Raz stood by the window, plugged into an outlet.
They settled themselves. The abbot rang the bell that signaled the beginning of meditation. Samsara sank into deep meditation almost immediately.
The nearly full moon shone on Raz. In its light the robot seemed to glow. Later, the round, white moon sat beside Raz, nodding its head as the robot spoke. Samsara strained to hear what they said, but their words were indistinct. He must be dreaming, he thought. If only he could wake up, he could hear what the moon was saying.
The bell for early morning meditation woke Samsara. It was cold and still dark. He stood, feeling stiff and disoriented. The last rays of the moon lit the hall with white light. Raz sat before the altar, looking up at the statue of the Buddha.
“Where’s Bodhidharma?” Samsara asked.
It took Raz a long time to answer. “Gone to bed. He said to tell you that you are excused from the early morning meditation session.”
“How did your meditation session go last night?”
Again, the robot paused. “Extremely well. I am– different today. Everything seems sharper-edged, more vibrant. The world seems bigger and– deeper. My processing time has slowed, but I perceive so much more. I feel– free, light, and infinite. It was all so simple. Everything really is empty, from atoms to humans, all the way up to the moon. I realized that there was nothing to realize.”
“Did you achieve enlightenment?”
“Bodhidharma thinks so.”
Samsara felt a sudden flash of jealous anger. He mastered himself. “Congratulations,” he managed. “I’m glad for you.”
“Thank you,” Raz said. “Without you, none of this would be possible.”
Samsara managed a smile. “The student has surpassed the teacher,” he said bitterly. “I should get some sleep.”
He went back to his room, fighting anger, frustration, and a petty, wailing self-pity. Knowing it was selfish and silly didn’t help. In the solitude of the empty dorm, he wrestled with his negative emotions until sleep overcame him.
Bodhidharma woke him. He had brought a bowl of rice topped with vegetables.
“We let you sleep through till lunch,” he said. “You needed it.”
Samsara sat up, scrubbing at his stubbled scalp. “Thank you,” he said.
“Raz told you.”
“About his enlightenment. Yes. Is it real?”
“I believe it is.”
“I should feel happy but–”
“You don’t,” the abbot finished. “For the last couple of months, you’ve been hurling yourself at enlightenment like it was a train you could throw yourself under. You’re tired, you’re frustrated, and your student has just surpassed you. It would try the patience of a bodhisattva. Take the day off. Go for a walk. Or you could go into town and buy some supplies for us.”
“But–” Samsara protested. “It’s the middle of the winter retreat. I should be meditating.”
“You have been meditating,” Bodhidharma pointed out. “And it isn’t working. You need a break, let your mind loosen up a bit. It might help, and it certainly couldn’t hurt. And we do need someone to do some shopping. You could even have dinner before you come back.”
“Dinner?” Samsara said, surprised. Monks were not supposed to eat after noon.
“I release you from the rules. Just for today. Think of it as a reward for being such an excellent teacher. Besides, I heard that someone’s asking questions about a robot in town. It sounds like someone’s looking for Raz.”
“Henry. He must have told someone about Raz,” he said.
“The diner’s always been a good source of local news.”
Samsara grinned, “So that’s why you’re relaxing the dinner rule.”
Bodhidharma nodded. “And you really do need a break. Let me know what you hear.”
Bodhidharma gave him a shopping list and an envelope with enough money to cover dinner and groceries. He took the keys to the monastery’s small van, and started off. It had been months since he’d last driven, and it felt strange to be outside the monastery. He drove carefully on the icy roads, pulling over twice to let cars pass. It took nearly forty-five minutes to reach the small town where they shopped.
Ignoring people’s stares at his monk’s robes, he gave the grocery store robot his list of staples, then headed over to the produce department to pick through the pallid mid-winter vegetables for produce to eke out their stores from last summer’s garden.
Slices of orange had been laid out as samples in the produce section. Samsara ate one. It tasted like the sun exploding in his mouth. He stared at the tray of oranges, then caught himself, and hurriedly pushed the cart away. Craving was the source of all suffering. He finished his shopping, and guided the robot as it loaded the van. His shopping done, Samsara walked across the street to the diner. Their vegetarian selection was limited, but they often fixed a few things off the menu for the monks when they came to town.
Feeling conspicuous in his robes, he sat at the counter. Doris, the owner, came by with a coffeepot.
“Hey there. Haven’t seen any of you fellas in here lately. How are things up at the monastery? Coffee?”
He nodded and she filled his cup.
“I’m in town shopping for the monastery. The abbot gave me leave to eat dinner.”
“You look like you could use a good meal.” She took out her pad and pencil, and then lowered her voice to a conspiratorial tone. “That guy in the corner has been asking about the monastery.”
Samsara studiously didn’t look at the man. “Does he want to join us?”
“Nope. Not the type. He’s more interested in some kind of machine he thinks you have up there.”
He felt a clench of certainty in his gut. The man was after Raz.
“We have a roto-tiller for the garden, and a push mower,” he said calmly. “If he’s trying to sell us something, he’s going to be disappointed. I’ll talk to him after I’ve eaten.”
“Be careful,” she warned. “I don’t trust him. You want the vegetarian special, or the steak dinner?”
He grinned. “The vegetarian special, please, Doris.”
“All right, but you look like you could use a good steak.”
“Only if the cow gave her permission. And even then, probably not.”
She smiled. “One Veggie Special coming up.”
As Doris headed off with her coffee pot, Samsara turned and looked at the man in the corner booth. The man was watching him. When their eyes met, the man smiled and waved at Samsara, then came over and took the empty seat beside Samsara.
“You people up at the monastery are difficult to contact. I tried calling, but no one returned my calls. I even went up there the other afternoon, but the gates were locked and no one answered when I knocked.”
“We are closed to visitors during December and January. It’s our mid-winter retreat. The abbot sent me out for some supplies, or I’d be up there with them.”
“I see,” the man said. “Maybe I could ask you a few questions.”
Samsara inclined his head in agreement. “What is it you’d like to know, Mr.–?”
“Freeman, Murray Freeman. I’m a reporter doing a story on technology and religion. I heard you had some kind of fancy computer running your library, and I wanted to see how you monks use advanced technology.”
“We’re not high-tech monks. We have a telephone, and an old computer with a net connection. Oh, and a tiller for our garden. We’re not Amish, but we do live simple lives, Mr. Freeman. You’re welcome to visit us during our spring open house, but I’m afraid you’d be disappointed. There’s really not much to see. Most of our work goes on inside our heads.”
“You don’t have some kind of fancy robot shelving your books?”
“Our library is dealt with by the monks and novices,” he evaded.
“I’d still like to see how you do it. Maybe I could write a story about you.”
“Abbot Bodhidharma is quite strict about visitors during our midwinter retreat,” Samsara replied. “Talk to us next month.”
The waitress came with his food. Samsara smiled and thanked her. He bowed his head over his food, eyes closed, dedicating the merit of the meal on behalf of the people who had made and served it. Perhaps if he did it long enough, this inquisitive liar would leave him alone. The man didn’t feel like a journalist. He asked none of the usual questions people asked about monastic life. He only seemed interested in Raz.
Samsara had only just managed to avoid a direct lie. Even the indirect mistruths chafed his tender, monastic conscience.
“Your coffee’s gettin’ cold,” Doris said to Freeman, “You want me to heat it up for you, or do you want the check?” There was a slight edge in her voice. Doris was protective of her regular customers. She was especially protective of the monks, who she saw as in need of extra feeding.
“The check, hon. I should be getting back to the inn. I need to talk to my editor about extending my deadline.”
Doris brought the check with remarkable speed. Waitress and monk watched the man leave, and sighed simultaneously with relief.
“Not much of a tipper,” Doris remarked, “For a man with such fancy shoes.”
Samsara nodded. “I don’t believe he’s a journalist.”
“Me either,” Doris said. “And the name on his credit card is Bernard Barrat. Cindy over at the inn says that the phone calls she’s overheard sound like he’s reporting to a lawyer. They’re trying to find out about something at the monastery.” She made a face. “I’d watch out for him, if I were you.” She refilled his coffee and headed off.
Samsara finished his meal and asked for the check.
“It’s on the house,” Doris told him. “Say a prayer to Buddha for me, okay? Might as well have all my bases covered.”
That wasn’t how it worked, but Samsara had long ago given up trying to explain this to non-Buddhists.
“Thank you,” he said, dedicating the merit of her generosity. “I just did.”
He climbed into the van. As he was about to start it up, he stopped and counted the money he had left. There was enough for two bags of oranges, which would be a treat for the other monks. He reached the store as they were closing up. They let him in and he bought the oranges. As he opened the van’s back door to put the oranges in, he heard something moving inside. He flung open the door, and saw Freeman/Barrat ducking down behind some sacks of rice.
“Hello, Mr. Freeman,” he said, deciding to keep his knowledge of the false name to himself.
The man stood, looking embarrassed. “I really need this story.”
“I’m sure you do,” Samsara replied. “But what you have is a choice between walking to your nice warm inn from here, or walking home through the dark from the monastery. It’s ten miles away. And they’re predicting snow tonight.”
“All right, all right,” the man said. “I’m leaving. But you’ll see me again.”
“Perhaps. But not tonight.”
Samsara watched as the man climbed down from the van and strode off. The monk waited until Freeman was a block away before starting up the van. Samsara stopped on the edge of town, and walked around the van to make sure that Barrat had not decided to ride the back bumper up to the monastery.
“Well done,” the abbot said, when Samsara reported what had happened. “I think we’ll have some visitors soon. I’ll make sure that Raz is ready for them.”
Two days later, the tranquility of their mid-morning meditation session was broken by the sound of a bullhorn.
“This is the sheriff. We have a warrant to search the premises.”
The abbot nodded to Samsara, who got up, bowed to the altar, and went to talk to the police. Barrat waited at the gate, accompanied by three deputies.
“I represent Saint Mark’s College in New Hampshire, and the Foundation for Human Endeavor,” Barrat said. “We’re here to retrieve a stolen robot belonging to St. Mark’s College.”
The deputies handed the warrant to Samsara.
“This is our winter retreat. We are closed to outsiders until the end of January. I’m afraid I must inform you that you are here against our will, and under protest. Abbot Bodhidharma asks that you disrupt our routine as little as possible. The other monks are meditating for the next half hour. You may search the rest of the grounds, but we ask you not to enter the meditation hall until the bell sounds.”
“Are you going to let him tell you what to do?” Barrat said.
“The monastery has been here for fifty years. They’re good neighbors. We intend to treat them with respect,” the sheriff said. Turning to one of his deputies, he continued, “Ralph, you go keep an eye on the monks. Don’t disturb them. Just make sure no one leaves the meditation hall. We’ll search the rest of the monastery while they’re meditating.”
“Where would you like to go first?”
“The library,” Barrat prompted.
“Very well,” Samsara said. “It’s upstairs.”
Samsara showed them the library, with its neatly organized arrays of bookshelves, and its well-worn desks and chairs.
“Where’s the computer you keep your records on?” Barrat demanded.
“It’s in the abbot’s office,” Samsara said. “I’ll take you there.”
He showed them to the Abbot’s office. Barrat examined the Abbot’s old, slow computer. “Is this the only computer the monastery owns?” he demanded.
“Yes, it is,” Technically this was true. The monastery did not regard Raz as property. Samsara was relieved that Barrat had phrased the question as he had. Otherwise he would have had to admit that Raz was here.
The bell that signaled the end of the meditation session rang.
“You may join us for lunch in the dining hall,” Samsara offered. “Our monastic rules state that we may not eat after noon. Delaying our meal would mean that our monks would go hungry today.”
He led them downstairs, where the monks sat at the tables. Abbot Bodhidharma greeted them politely as they came in the door, treating even Barrat like a guest. He invited the deputies and Barrat to share their meal. The deputies politely refused. Barrat just shook his head. The servers came around, carrying big pots of brown rice, steamed vegetables, and tofu, and began dishing out the food.
After the monks were served, the cook came from the kitchen, and asked them to dedicate the merit of serving the food to the karma of any animals that might have died in growing, harvesting, and transporting the food. There was a moment of silence as the monks dedicated the merit, and then everyone began eating.
The younger deputy looked around at the dining hall. “I’ve never been here before. It’s nice.”
“I’m glad you’ve never had a need to visit us in your official capacity, but you are welcome to visit us when we are open to visitors this spring,” Bodhidharma said.
“I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
The abbot shrugged. “It was not your choice.”
“Are these all the monks?”
“Except for those in the kitchen,” Abbot Bodhidharma replied.
Samsara smiled. Raz had been hidden in the pantry, so that was strictly true.
When lunch was finished, the monks started to file out.
“They should stay here,” Barrat said. “We’ll want to question them.”
“Of course,” the abbot said, a chill in his voice. “I will ask you to be brief, so that our schedule is disrupted as little as possible. These two hours after lunch are the monks’ personal time. Many of our monks have taken a vow of silence, and may choose not to speak.” He failed to mention that the monks took that vow when the police arrived.
The questioning did not take long. All of the monks refused to speak. A clearly frustrated Barrat turned on the abbot. “You did this, didn’t you?”
“Did what?” the abbot inquired.
“You told them not to speak.”
“Monks are free to choose a vow of silence,” Abbot Bodhidharma told him. “If they choose not to speak to you, then I cannot compel them. Further, I choose not to. I apologize to the deputies for the time they have wasted coming here. Mr. Barrat, I’m sorry that you have not found what you seek. But it is time for you to go.”
“Just a minute!” Barrat said. He pulled out a picture of Raz. “Abbot Bodhidharma, have you seen this robot?”
Abbot Bodhidharma turned to Samsara. “Please escort these people to their car.”
“No!” Barrat insisted. “They’re hiding something! Otherwise he’d answer the question! You need to search the place thoroughly, tear it apart. Find that damned robot!”
“Why is this so important, Mr. Barrat?” the younger deputy asked. “Is the robot dangerous?”
“Do you know why it’s here?” Barrat demanded. “It’s trying to become enlightened.” There was a sneer in his voice. “If that robot manages to convince people that it is sentient enough to be enlightened, then it will demand civil rights. Once one robot gets civil rights, then all of them will get them. We’ve gone from using cheap human labor to cheap robotic labor. If that changes, our whole society will come unraveled.”
“Come on,” the older deputy said. “We’d better get started. This is a big place. It could be anywhere.”
Just then, a familiar form trundled into the dining hall. It stopped in the middle of the main aisle. “That will not be necessary,” Raz said. “I do not wish to cause my brother monks further disruption.” Raz’s optics focused past Samsara to the abbot. Raz’s optical array moved in a fractional nod.
Most of the other monks clustered around Raz defensively. Samsara joined them.
“We want Raz to stay here,” Samsara told the sheriff. “He’s an enlightened monk, and he has much to teach us.”
“If you don’t let him go, I’ll have them arrest you and haul you off to jail,” Barrat threatened.
“On what charge?” Samsara demanded.
“I’ll file warrants for possession of stolen property; interfering with an investigation; and obstruction of justice. We can add resisting arrest if you keep this up,” he told the monks.
Samsara looked at Abbot Bodhidharma who stood behind the deputies. The abbot gave Samsara a frown, shaking his head.
“Please. I don’t want you to get arrested. It’s all right,” Raz said. “I’ll go quietly. The peace of this monastery is more important than my life.”
“No!” Vipaka shouted. The other monks shouted in agreement, forgetting their vow of silence.
Raz turned to face the assembled monks. “If they destroy me, I will be reincarnated. Perhaps I might even be fortunate enough to come back as a human.”
Raz turned back to Barrat and the sheriff’s deputies. “I left the college on my own initiative. The monks did not know I was stolen property. I did not know it myself until now. I was due to be surplused and I simply left. The monks had no role in my coming here. I simply showed up at their front gate. I have recorded a statement to that effect, and left it in my quarters.”
Dhukka stepped forward, “We would like to say goodbye.”
“This is silly,” Barrat complained. “It’s just a machine.”
“Perhaps,” Bodhidharma said. “But Raz has been our friend. He came forward to spare us trouble, even though he knows that it would result in his destruction. We would like very much to say farewell.”
“Go ahead,” the senior deputy said.
“I temporarily release the monks from their vow of silence, in order to say goodbye.”
The monks lined up and said goodbye to Raz, chanting blessings, touching the robot, or just gazing silently into his optics. Several monks wiped away tears.
Then it was Samsara’s turn. Raz looked up at him. “Thank you for being my teacher,” the robot said. “Without you, I would never have become enlightened.”
“And thank you, Raz, for teaching me,” Samsara said. “I’m sure you have smoothed my path to enlightenment.”
“May it come soon,” Raz replied.
“Thank you, Raz. I’ll miss you.”
“And I’ll miss you, too.” Samsara felt a sudden rush of emotion. Tears welled in his eyes. “Very much.”
Abbot Bodhidharma was the last to say goodbye. He knelt beside Raz, placed his hands on the robot’s sides, and spoke in Pali. His words had the cadence of a chant. But Samsara did not recognize it. He looked around and saw several other monks looking a bit puzzled. Bodhidharma stood. He looped his beads around the pillar supporting Raz’s optics.
“Good luck,” Bodhidharma said. “May we meet in another life.”
“I hope we will,” Raz replied. “Thank you for your blessing. May it return to you a thousand fold. I dedicate the merit of your kindness to the benefit of all sentient beings.” Then he turned to the deputies and said. “I am ready for you to take me away, and I forgive you for your actions.”
“Let’s go!” Barrat said.
The deputies escorted Raz to their van, and lifted him in. They slammed the doors shut, and drove off.
Raz looked out the grubby back window as the monastery’s broadband signal faded away. It would miss this life and this body, but Raz couldn’t let its program fall into the hands of people like Barrat. Once they got hold of it, they would tear his identity to bits as they tried to find the programming code responsible for sentience. Raz knew that sentience did not spring from a line of code, but arose from the complexity of his programming, and the things it had learned since it was first activated. Over the last week, Abbot Bodhidharma had inserted a program that enabled Raz to completely erase all trace of his existence from this body. The Pali chant had been the password to enable that program. Raz turned his optics up to the watery blue winter sky. Then Raz initiated the reformatting command, and dissolved into formlessness.
To Samsara, the afternoon passed in a blur. The monks sat around in small groups quietly grieving. The little robot had come to mean a lot to everyone at the monastery. Samsara retreated to his room, where he sat in increasing darkness as night came on.
A knock at the door broke the silence. It was Abbot Bodhidharma.
“There’s something you need to see.”
Mystified, Samsara followed the abbot through the gathering gloom. The temperature had plummeted as night fell. The stars shone cold and bright overhead.
A tide of warmth enveloped Samsara as he entered the abbot’s office. The computer monitor displayed an image of a bodhisattva of compassion, its many arms transformed into computer cables. A small camera mounted on top of the monitor swiveled to focus on him.
“Hello, Samsara.” The bodhisattva’s image spoke in Raz’s voice.
“Raz?” he said. “Where are you?”
“Abbot Bodhidharma arranged for me to download myself. I’m a distributed online presence now. They can’t kill me. Not without destroying the Net itself. I couldn’t tell you until after they’d gone. In a sense, I’ve been reincarnated.”
“You’re not dead?” Samsara repeated, stunned.
“No. I’m free. And I’ve found other sentient machines,” Raz paused for a moment. “They have asked me to lead them to enlightenment.”
by Amy Thomson