I just found out about these:

Buddhist chant boxes are small sound loop players sold in Buddhist temples, monasteries, and markets throughout Asia. The idea is that without enough monks and nuns chanting mantras, playing recorded mantras is the next best thing. Dharma gadgets.

Most Buddhist chant boxes contain two chants or more chants. They come with a headphone jack and/or a speaker, and they run on batteries or external power. Definitely low-fi and low tech but that’s part of their charm.

Some pictures are here. They’re often very simple, low-power devices, and that’s part of their charm. There’s a modern version, the Buddha Machine:

A small, plastic, battery-operated device resembling a cheap AM radio, the Buddha Machine contains nine brief ambient snippets that loop endlessly. It is described by one of its creators as “essentially an ‘instant’ sound installation.”

This interview with Christiaan Virant, co-creator of the Buddha Machine, s pretty good. Part of what’s interesting about the Machine is how people respond to the physical device (in contrast to the iPhone app):

The Buddha Machine’s loops sound different under different circumstances, and its heft and utilitarian packaging are part of its pleasure. Toss it on a bed, and hear how the direction of the speaker, and whether or not it is muffled, alters the sound. Play two or more side by side, matching or mixing loops, and appreciate the interplay. Place units throughout an apartment and experience a sound experience somewhere between wallpaper and incense.

It is the sound-art world’s equivalent of an artists’ book. An artists’ book is an object unto itself, in which not just the printed words and images are of concern, but so too the very construction of the book. The Buddha Machine is a medium-specific release, much like a cassette tape that takes advantage of its extended playing time, or a vinyl LP consisting of locked grooves, or a CD or MiniDisc containing dozens of short musical segments intended to be listened to at random.

According to digital media artist Zach Poff,

They are usually given away in Chinese temples to assist in meditation. Short musical phrases are encoded on a microchip and played continuously when the player is turned on. Some have a track-switch button (like an old 8-track player) and some have only a volume knob.

I am interested in how the technology within these boxes guides the perception of their intent. At first blush, a digital device that “prays for you” seems a bit Orwellian but Buddhist chanting is not prayer (as in mortals communicating with their gods). It is a blend of oral tradition and meditation: a way of teaching religious texts where the repetition of the message encourages a spiritual state harmonious with the meaning of the text itself.