Thursday, July 16, 2009

Revival of Buddhsim in China

Although the authoritarian religious right "First Things" recently trumpeted a coming "Catholic Moment" in China, evidently the official English language Chinese media sees things differently.

From the First Things article:

Far less often observed—and potentially more important—is the fact that this exponential growth of Christianity in China would not have been possible without the forbearance and tacit encouragement of the regime. In recent years, the Chinese government has shifted from persecution of Christians to subtle—and sometimes even open—encouragement of Christianity. Christianity never will be a state religion in China, to be sure, and the Communist party in China is still officially atheist. But it is not an exaggeration to say we are near a Constantinian moment for the Chinese Empire, as the government looks to Christianity—particularly Catholicism—for an instrument of social cohesion...

...[T]he Chinese leadership also drew from the episode [of the Falun Da FA cult] a decisive lesson. Since the discrediting of Maoism twenty years earlier, China had been living with no cohesive set of values. The Maoist model had offered a form of secular religion—a religion that had supplanted the old imperial ideology founded on Confucian civic morality and Buddhist-Taoist religious belief. The successive assault by modern Western ideas and communist ideology erased the old imperial ideology, and the collapse of the communist model left China with a spiritual vacuum.

Rushing in to fill this vacuum in the early 1980s were a variety of qigong, spiritual breathing exercises with roots in Taoism and Buddhism, of which Falun Gong was the best organized. As one senior government official told me after the crackdown in 2000, “The fact that so many people believed in this mumbo-jumbo changed the debate in the party. It proved that it was not that reforms were going too fast; the problem was that reforms were going too slowly.”

The Chinese Communist party’s belated recognition that a backward-looking traditionalist movement might overthrow its reform campaign and stop the modernization of China led some its leaders to a radical conclusion. In a now famous essay, one of the youngest important party officials, Pan Yue, argued that religion might well be the opiate of the masses but that the Communist party needs just such an opiate to keep power as it changes from a revolutionary to a ruling party. The party, he argued, needs to learn how to use religion to enhance social stability and to avert rebellions and revolutions.

The article goes on to breathlessly tout that Catholicism will "unify" Christianity in China.

However, as I noted, Chinese media sees things a bit differently:

Outside the country, too, some observers tend to define the rise in China's economy and national pride as a result of Confucianism, irrespective of whether they are ready to welcome it or not. This is reflected in the recent correspondence in The Guardian between Martin Jacques and Will Hutton, two authors who hold different views on China's rise.

It is beyond comprehension why so few cultural experts, Chinese and foreign, have not attributed the rise to Buddhism. It seems they think it is quite an archaic thing belonging only to the older generation's memory. The reality can be in stark contrast if only one spends a day (any day) visiting a Chinese temple. Of course, from an elitist point of view, much of the mass activity there, such as praying for one's kids to help them pass the college entrance exam or seeking a quick recovery for a sick relative, can be dismissed as not very serious.

But that is not all. A trip to a Chinese bookstore will show a constant supply of books to meet Buddhist interests. In fact, on, one of the largest online bookstores, a search for guoxue - national (Confucian) classics - can have 3,580 hits in the book section. And on, the Amazon outlet on the Chinese mainland, the same search can fetch 2,438 results.

In contrast, a search for "Fo" - Buddha - can generate 9,979 results in the book section. And on, the same search can score 1,739 hits.

While it would take an expert to find out why there is such wide difference between the two subjects on the sites, on the Chinese-language general search engine,, a search for guoxue can get some 8.8 million results, compared with 41.7 million results for "Fo" and 13.2 million results for "Chan" - an East Asian sect of Buddhism, called Zen in English from a transliteration of the Japanese.

Confucianism is admittedly a very important component of Chinese cultural tradition, but it is far from the only one. It has taken many forms in the past 2,000-odd years, from a set of moral teachings by the nation's first private school master to an official ideology used to unify and regulate people's thinking, and then to a tradition in cultural studies that absorbed, and at times borrowed heavily, from other sources, including Buddhism.

Indeed, it would be absurd to talk about Confucianism, especially its lasting value and chances of its renewal without talking about how it came into being in the first place - the period about 2,500 years ago of "one hundred schools contending". Through its development, Confucianism learned from Buddhism, then a foreign religion and way of life for almost 1,000 years after it was introduced in China.

This is an interesting phenomenon: Buddhism is indeed becoming more developed in China. During my recent visit to China I had the opportunity to visit "臨済 風禅寺,” or "Lin Ji Style Chan Temple," (its main hall is pictured above) which is, as you might suspect a Zen temple in the tradition of Lin Ji (Rinzai in Japanese). I spoke with one of the monks there through an interpreter: they do indeed work as you might expect in a Rinzai temple: they do lots of temple work and they engage in koan practice. They appear to be sincerely and earnestly practicing; the monk with whom I spoke had been practicing 30 years.

It is interesting to me that this temple, in northeastern China, is in a place one would not expect to find a Chan temple at all, given that the tradition more or less died out in north China - indeed when it was mentioned to me that we would go to a temple near Dandong, I immediately thought it would not be a Chan temple I'd be visiting.

What is even more interesting is that this temple, about 10 years old, had been built by the government, evidently because they get that having legit practitioners of the Dharma is less harmful than certain cults (and yes, yes Falun Da Fa, claiming faith healing powers is indeed not the best of things in which to get involved ).

Which brings up some interesting questions:

  • If the Chinese government can sponsor practitioners of the Dharma in Chan, what about the Tibetan traditions? Can they sponsor a genuine Tibetan tradition without the Dalai Lama?

  • The Chinese government does have a hard time admitting error, in my opinion. (So do most governments.) There may be a point in time and circumstance of collision between Dharma practitioners in China and the government because of the problem of the government's desiring the appearance of a monopoly on political power. Can Buddhists in China navigate practicing the Dharma skilfully beyond the government which patronized them ?

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