During the New Year 2017, 70,000 Buddhist devotees eagerly jostled in the halls and courtyards of the majestic Yonghe Temple in the heart of Beijing. The effectively unlimited access to this once imperial monument was a far cry from its ancient history as a retreat for imperial preceptors. Founded in 1694, the temple was intended as a residence for Emperor Kangxi’s fourth son, before Emperor Yongzheng converted half of the complex to a lamasery in 1722. The temple’s original purpose was to function as a center negotiation of power between Tibetan lamas and Manchu emperors – in China, religious institutions and temple spaces have often served as places of dialogue between the government and the religious elite. Religion has always played a secondary role in political art, although at different historical times it has exercised different degrees of influence.
Fast forward to the present day, and although Buddhism still has its elite circles, the majority of temples have long been accessible to casual visitors and pilgrims. The 2,000 police officers at Yonghe Temple in 2017 struggled to control the crowds of temple worshipers rushing to barge in at its entrance. Everyone wanted to be the first to offer incense to Buddha images, which is believed to bring an extra dose of luck.
Many might have been disappointed if they had paid attention to the position of the Buddhist Association of China (BAC) – the official body regulating Buddhist institutions on behalf of the Chinese government – on the supply of incense. In a brief statement, he denied the effectiveness of this ritual, stating that it was neither rooted nor encouraged by Buddhism. He brought no particular spiritual benefit and was misguided. In short, it was superstitious.
The unease over associations of Buddhism with “superstitious beliefs” gives a good clue as to what is considered legitimate Buddhism by the Chinese Buddhist Association and, by extension, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). policy that governs the country. For much of Chinese history, Buddhist intellectual classes have struggled to separate the âdoctrinalâ edifice of Buddhism from folk beliefs that flourished beyond ecclesiastical approval.
The mixture of folk beliefs (often a mixture of Taoist and Buddhist deities, as well as local spirits) and âintellectualâ or âphilosophicalâ Buddhism makes it very difficult to collect statistics on Buddhism in contemporary China. Despite the predominance of “Western” methods of defining religion, Chinese understandings of spirituality are much more dependent on the values ââone believes in. ), or that looking at the mind will help make wiser decisions (meditation or mindfulness). As noted by journalist and China watcher Ian Johnson in The souls of China: the return of religion after Mao, approaching the Chinese experience of religion (including Buddhism) through Western philosophical presuppositions is a futile, frustrating and unproductive activity. *
Furthermore, the eightfold scheme often used to describe contemporary Chinese Buddhist schools (Pure Land, Chan, Tiantai, Huayan, Sanlun, Faxiang, Vinaya, and Esoteric) is both too general and too “categorized”, for one because that there are movements within these broadly defined schools which do not have formal numbers, or which have themselves adopted the practices of other schools. There is a certain institutional fluidity of the schools which makes the âofficialâ tables difficult to paint, even if it is still easy to identify the doctrinal and institutional affiliations of a head of the family or of an individual monastic.
There are no official statistics from the Chinese government on the exact number of Buddhists in China today – on the number of registered Buddhist monasteries and temples, professed Buddhists, etc. Large monasteries such as the Temple of the White Horse (the first Buddhist structure in China according to Buddhist historiography) or the Monastery of the Great Sages of Bamboo Grove on Mount Wutai do not disclose how many people took refuge under their monks, although that it is possible to know how many monks there are in a given monastery. The Pew Research Center’s most recent survey of religions in China offered an estimate of around 245 million Buddhists, significantly higher than the official figure of 100 million traditionally given by the government and the Buddhist Association of China. If we were to take the first number, it would mean that 18% of the total national population practice some form of Buddhism. According to Pew, 21% of Chinese believe in folk traditions that incorporate Buddhist beliefs.
Regardless of school, the Buddhist institutions that endure or prosper in China are linked by common characteristics. These characteristics say a lot about Buddhist identity and how practitioners and leaders see themselves as citizens of a rapidly changing country. The main feature of our by no means complete assessment is the disdain for being associated with anything to do with superstition: this is the key point. As detailed above, to be criticized as superstitious is to be associated with inauthentic expressions of religion: to be of inferior intellectual quality and substance, to be unworthy of the dedication and commitment of the Chinese people, and therefore to be incapable. to contribute to the progress of society. This last characteristic is another key characteristic: the understanding that religions can and should support the people and provide them with comfort and meaning beyond what has been criticized as the materialistic and wealth-obsessed culture that permeates the areas. urban areas of China since the 1980s.
Of course, the situation is complex. On the mainland, figures like Master Xuecheng of Longquan Monastery (the current head of the BAC) have hundreds of thousands of devoted followers on social media, while many activities organized by major Buddhist organizations and temples go under. the radar of English-speaking websites and social networks. (for example, the World Buddhist Forum organized by the Chinese government, once in Hangzhou and Zhoushan in 2006 and twice in Wuxi, in 2009 and 2015).
The stated purpose of these forums was to highlight the impact of Buddhism on economic development, social harmony, and cultural prosperity – all of the key headings of the âChinese Dream,â the overarching theme of China’s rebirth. as a great world power and builder of a ânewâ Silk Road, advocated by President Xi Jinping. These convergences are not simple coincidences. It is not surprising that in Hong Kong, it was the Po Lin Monastery, one of the oldest temples in Hong Kong (founded in 1906) that built the famous Big Buddha, which hosted a forum of the Belt and Road initiative promoting ties between China and the Theravada-dominated region. Southeast Asian countries. Sangha is now, in its own way, part of the collective political art of China, with the government as the vanguard.
In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported a disturbing trend: âWith the exception of Buddhists, all of the world’s major religious groups are poised to experience at least some absolute growth in numbers over the next several decades. The global Buddhist population is expected to be fairly stable due to low fertility rates and aging populations in countries like China, Thailand, and Japan. Yet that fails to take into account the vast potential of a hitherto untapped youth population in China. To reach this demographic, IBC organizations promote authentic, non-superstitious and socially beneficial expressions of Buddhism. In some ways, the situation of Buddhism in China is similar to that of Buddhism in the West: it seems that many young Buddhists feel much more interested and invested in religion if they feel that it plays an active and beneficial role in it. their everyday life. .
While analysts and journalists will always be interested in the numbers, which provide insight into basic social contours on an abstract level, we should never overlook the human individuals of Chinese Buddhist history, the many diverse and unique people who make up the Chinese experience of Dharma. In this long term project, we hope to tell as many stories as possible about these people and how they are a part of the living religion of Buddhism in China today.
* See: Book reviewâThe souls of China: the return of religion after Mao (Buddhistdoor Global)
The Buddhist Association of China (only in Chinese)
Chinese Buddhist Association pours cold water on tradition of being the first to offer incense (South China Morning Post)
Religious statistics in China (ChinaSource)
Life in Purgatory: Buddhism Grows in China, But Remains in Legal Limbo (Time)
The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 (Pew Research Center)