Growing numbers of Chinese are rediscovering the country’s Buddhist traditions
It is not always easy to combine Buddhist beliefs with the demands of modern life
Buddhism has a long history in China but was suppressed during the Maoist era
Five years ago, Beijinger Robert Zhao went on a trip to Tibet. What he encountered left him confused but intrigued.
A science graduate of China’s elite Tsinghua University, he had learned to distrust superstition and religion, but in the culture and devotion of the Buddhists he encountered, he found something interesting to know.
Now 25, he plans to quit his job and become a monk.
“That means I’ll have to give up everything from ordinary people,” he told CNN.
While Buddhism has a long history in China, entry via Indian missionaries under the Han dynasty, it was suppressed during the Maoist era – many monasteries and temples were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and monks were actively punished for believing in “superstition”.
But now, a growing number of Chinese are rediscovering the country’s dormant Buddhist traditions.
Some, like Zhao, seek spiritual grounding in a competitive and rapidly changing society. Others find solace in meditation and enjoy volunteering.
However, it is not always easy to combine Buddhist beliefs with the demands of modern life.
Zhao works as an assistant to the boss of an environmental company. His religion means it’s difficult to entertain customers and partners – a key part of the role.
“Not drinking, smoking or eating meat affects my socialization. So the company has to send someone else to accompany me, which creates additional expenses,” he says.
Zhao has yet to tell his family about his desire to become a monk, fearing that they will oppose it.
Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on Chinese Religion and Society at Purdue University, Indiana, says it’s hard to explain exactly why so many young people are turning to Buddhism.
Some discover it at university, where Buddhist groups are active and famous monks and lamas give lectures. Others have devout parents and grandparents.
He also says that the Chinese Communist Party’s policy has “moved towards treating Buddhism more favorably than other religions.”
Christianity has also grown in popularity in recent decades, but church leaders say there has been repression against Christians, with authorities demolishing churches and removing crosses from skylines.
In particular, it is the Tibetan strain of Buddhism, rather than the Chan (also called Zen) tradition once popular in China, that is attracting new converts, especially students, young professionals and businessmen, says- he.
“It seems that the chants and physical and spiritual practices of Tibetan Buddhism are appealing to some people,” Yang added.
How committed these new converts are to Buddhism as a religion, with its restrictions and rituals, is an open question.
A former leader of an academic Buddhist group, who declined to be named, told CNN he thinks its members are more interested in religion as a lifestyle choice.
Activities his group organized focusing on relaxation and stress relief were always more popular than reading groups and conferences that examined Buddhist scriptures, he added.
Yang of Purdue University says that for most people in China, Buddhism is treated more like a culture than a religion.
They may visit temples or read Buddhist books, but few treat it as a religion that requires serious commitment.
“Indeed, people who identify as Buddhists do many non-Buddhist spiritual things, such as believing in feng shui, consulting fortune tellers, practicing qi gong, and sampling books and practices from other religions,” he said.
On a recent weekend, more than four hundred people attended the annual gathering of the Ren Ai Foundation of Beijing, a Buddhist charity, at Longquan Monastery on the mountainous outskirts of the capital.
Zhong Ying, the group’s 32-year-old deputy general secretary, said the group’s most active volunteers were between 20 and 35 years old. Over the past five years, their number has doubled to 200.
For Geng Hui’er, a 26-year-old participant who works and lives in Beijing, Buddhism is something she rediscovered after returning from study abroad in England.
Growing up, her family raised her as a Buddhist, though she says she never really “felt” it.
She now regularly attends meditation activities in monasteries or study groups organized by volunteers.
Geng says Buddhism gave her a new outlook on life and past hardships. It has also helped her build a network of people she can talk to and socialize with.
“We sit together, sharing things that happened in our lives and how we dealt with them, which is more helpful than reading books,” she says.
For Zhao, the aspiring monk, Buddhism has been a balm while dealing with poor health, as well as work and relationship issues.
“My life has been hard for years. (Buddhism) keeps me away from negative thoughts, like a reminder that is always there, which has helped me a lot.