Enlightenment Beckons
Buddhism continues to be an important component of Chinese culture
By Tang Yuankai  ·  2015-12-01  ·   Source: | NO. 49 DECEMBER 3, 2015

Participants attend a meditation program at Yufo Temple in Shanghai (CFP)

On Yin Xiaotian's rearview mirror hangs a pendant with the Chinese character for Buddha. When the 44-year-old Beijing office worker adopted Buddhism, he was just hoping for luck and fortune. But the religion has taken on deeper meaning and is now an integral part of his daily life.

Yin gets up at 3:00 every morning to have classes at home, which include reading scriptures, praying to the Buddha and watching Buddhist Master Chin Kung expounding the scriptures online.

He's not alone. Half of the world's Buddhists live in China, according to a 2012 Pew Forum Report. About 18.2 percent of China's population, or 244.1 million people, practice the religion, the report said.

Pure Land Buddhism, which focuses on the teachings of the Amitabha Buddha, also known as the Buddha of Immeasurable Life and light, is the most popular branch practiced.

"The religion has had a large group of followers and a big influence on people's lives over the 2,000 years since Buddhism disseminated to China," said Li Silong, Director of the Buddhism Education Research Center at Peking University.

Buddhism came to China from India between the end of the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 8) and the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

As the religion has increased in size, so too have the monasteries housing the monks and nuns who dedicate their lives to the religion. When Yin returned to Beijing in 2003 after a stint studying in Paris, he was surprised by the increase in visitors to the monasteries he previously volunteered at, particularly the Longquan Temple on the northwestern outskirts of Beijing. The monastery is more than 1,000 years old and recently rose to fame after it converted a group of senior intellectuals and professors at renowned universities in Beijing.

"The monastery has been able to attract a large number of intellectuals because nowadays as people become better off materially, their spiritual aspirations cannot be as fulfilled proportionately as their material needs," said Fu Ruilin, President of the Buddhist Association of China.

The monasteries have also become prominent places to worship Buddhist gods and take part in Dharma assemblies for celebrations. These ceremonies have also become an important income for many of the monasteries.

"Aside from Amitabha, the Goddess of Mercy has almost permeated every aspect of people's lives. Stories of the goddess abound and the goddess can be found in almost every monastery. It's interesting that Buddhism, which originally has no god has become a religion full of gods and goddesses in China. Monasteries have become a place for the admiration of gods rather than a place for the cultivation of morality," said Li at Peking University.


Fu Ruilin (right), or Master Xuecheng, President of the Buddhist Association of China, at a religious ceremony in Fuzhou, southeast China’s Fujian Province (CFP)

Reaching common ground 

Master Chin Kung focuses on this dichotomy and spiritual vacuum in his online teachings. He believes religion is an important part of education and the highest form of cultivation.

"The teaching of Master Chin Kung transcends the boundaries of nationalities, ethnicities and religions. He holds that Buddhism is a multi-cultural social education," said Yin. "He has taught scriptures for 57 years and although he is at the ripe age of 88, he explains Buddhism classics online almost every day,"

The master tries to highlight relations between multiple cultures with Buddhist principles and encourages different religions and cultures to communicate with and understand each other. He calls for the main religions of the world to be rid of prejudice, respect each other and work together to create a new era of peace and prosperity.

"In Master Chin Kung's eyes, all higher religions in the world have a common principle, which is benevolence and philanthropy," Yin said. "The Dhamma tells us that every living thing is a Buddha. In other words, we should respect and love every living thing like we love a Buddha," Yin added.

Resurgence of culture 

Today, Buddhism has become part and parcel in the revival of traditional Chinese culture, which includes a rebirth of Confucian values. Since the dawning of the new century, the religion has been a key component in the innovation of modern-day China.

Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping remarked on the religion's place in society during a visit to UNESCO headquarters in March of last year. "In the process of the Chinese culture's revival, Buddhism has an indispensable role to play," he said.

Some argue Buddhism can help China establish a new value system, particularly in light of how materialistically focused the country has become as income levels have risen. Earlier this month, e-commerce giant Alibaba set a new record on November 11also known as Singles Day and China's most popular online shopping dayof 91.22 billion yuan ($14.4 billion) in sales.

And it's not just China that is intrinsically focused on material gain, according to Fu of the Buddhist Association of China.

"Against the backdrop of globalization, a crisis of self-identification is haunting the entire world. The contradictions between self and others, humans and nature, individuals and society are worsening. Pursuing self-benefits at the cost of others has become the norm in contemporary society. A value system upholding maximum individual benefits as the ultimate goal goes against the trend of the times and a new system aimed at the pursuit of all humans' wellbeing urgently needs to be established," he said on November 12 at Peking University at a forum on reviving traditional Chinese culture.

Traditional culture primarily constitutes a mix of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, with the latter advocating for the unity of nature and man. Buddhism teaches that life is full of suffering brought on by desire and people can end the suffering by reaching enlightenment. It also holds that events arise out of a combination of specific causes and conditions. Confucianism derives from the teachings of the 5th-century philosopher Confucius, who advocated for strong family loyalty, ancestor worship and the respect of one's elders. He also believed that peace and prosperity would be reached when all people under heaven are one family.

With the dissemination and development of Buddhism in China, it has absorbed aspects of Confucianism and influenced the development of the latter.

"As a foreign culture, Buddhism has gone through a process of adjustment when meeting with traditional Chinese thinking like Confucianism and Taoism," said Cheng Jianhua, a researcher with the Institute of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Copyedited by Jordyn Dahl

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