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Buddhism in China Today: An Adaptable Present, a Hopeful Future

Devotees burn joss sticks at a Buddhist temple. From
Devotees burn joss sticks at a Buddhist temple. From

During the New Year of 2017, 70,000 Buddhist devotees impatiently jostled against each other in the halls and courtyards of the majestic Yonghe Temple, in the heart of Beijing. The effectively unrestricted access to this once-imperial landmark was a far cry from its early history as a retreat for the imperial preceptors. Founded in 1694, the temple was designed as a residence for the Kangxi Emperor’s fourth son, before the Yongzheng Emperor converted half of the complex into a lamasery in 1722. The temple’s original purpose was to function as a center for power broking 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 statecraft, although at different historical junctures it has exercised differing degrees of influence.

Fast forward to the present day, and even though Buddhism might still have its elite circles, the majority of temples have long been accessible to casual visitors and pilgrims. The 2,000 police officers present at Yonghe Temple in 2017 struggled to control the crowd of temple devotees scrumming to burst past its entrance. All of them wanted to be the first to offer incense to the Buddha images, which supposedly brings an extra dose of good luck.

Many might have been disappointed, had they paid attention to the stance of the Buddhist Association of China (BAC)—the official organ regulating Buddhist institutions on behalf of the Chinese government—on the offering of incense. In a short statement, it denied the efficacy of this ritual, stating that it was neither rooted in, nor encouraged by Buddhism. It carried no special spiritual benefits and was misguided. In short, it was superstitious.

Yonghe temple in Beijing. From
Yonghe temple in Beijing. From

The uneasiness with associations of Buddhism with “superstitious belief” provides a good hint about what is considered legitimate Buddhism by the Buddhist Association of China, and by extension by the Communist Party of China (CPC), the political party that governs the country. For much of Chinese history, the Buddhist intellectual classes have struggled to separate the “doctrinal” edifice of Buddhism from the folkloric beliefs that have flourished beyond ecclesiastic approval.

The mixing of folkloric beliefs (often a mix of Daoist and Buddhist deities, along with local spirits) and “intellectual” or “philosophical” Buddhism makes gathering statistics on Buddhism in contemporary China very difficult. Despite the dominance of “Western” methods of defining religion, Chinese understandings of spirituality are much more dependent on the values one believes in. They are framed around questions, whether a person believes that good will be repaid with good and bad with bad (karma), or that watching the mind will help one to make wiser decisions (meditation or mindfulness). As journalist and China watcher Ian Johnson notes in The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, to approach the Chinese experience of religion (including Buddhism) through Western philosophical presuppositions is a futile, frustrating, and unproductive activity.*

In addition, the eightfold schema often used to describe the contemporary Chinese Buddhist schools (Pure Land, Chan, Tiantai, Huayan, Sanlun, Faxiang, Vinaya, and Esoteric) is at once too general yet also too “categorized,” for one because there are movements within these broadly defined schools that do not have formal numbers, or have themselves taken on the practices of other schools. There is a certain institutional fluidity of the schools that makes “official” pictures hard to paint, even if it is still easy to identify the doctrinal and institutional affiliations of an individual householder or monastic. 

Monks at Tsz Shan Monastery in Hong Kong. Image courtesy of author
Monks at Tsz Shan Monastery in Hong Kong. Image courtesy of author

There are no official statistics from the Chinese government on exact Buddhist numbers in China today—on the number of registered Buddhist monasteries and temples, professed Buddhists, and so on. Major monasteries such as the White Horse Temple (the earliest Buddhist structure in China according to Buddhist historiography), or Great Sage Monastery of Bamboo Grove on Mount Wutai do not disclose how many people have taken refuge under their monks, although it might be possible to find out 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 about 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 former number, it would mean that 18 per cent of the total national population practice some form of Buddhism. Another 21 per cent of Chinese people, according to Pew, believe in folk traditions that incorporate Buddhist beliefs.

Regardless of school, the Buddhist institutions that endure or thrive in China are bound together by some common characteristics. These characteristics say a good deal about Buddhist self-identity, and how practitioners and leaders see themselves as citizenry of a rapidly changing country. From our by-no-means-complete assessment, the primary characteristic is a 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 Chinese people’s devotion and commitment, and therefore to be incapable of contributing to the progress of Chinese society. The latter is another key characteristic: an understanding that religions can and should support the people and offer them comfort and meaning beyond what has been criticized as the materialistic, wealth-obsessed culture that has pervaded the urban areas of China since the 1980s.

The situation is complex, to be sure. On the mainland, figures like Master Xuecheng of Longquan Monastery (the current leader of the BAC) have hundreds of thousands of devoted social media followers, while plenty of activities hosted by major Buddhist organizations and temples pass under the radar of Anglophone websites and social media (for example, the World Buddhist Forum hosted by the Chinese government, once at Hangzhou and Zhoushan in 2006 and twice at Wuxi, in 2009 and 2015). 

Buddhist temple in the ancient city of Ping Yao. From
Buddhist temple in the ancient city of Ping Yao. From

The ostensible objective of these forums have been to highlight Buddhism’s impact on economic development, social harmony, and cultural prosperity—all key rubrics of the “Chinese Dream,” the broad theme of China’s renaissance as a major world power and builder of a “new” Silk Road, advocated by President Xi Jinping. These convergences are not mere coincidence. It is no surprise that in Hong Kong, it was Po Lin Monastery, one of Hong Kong’s oldest temples (founded in 1906) that famously built the scenic Big Buddha, which hosted a Belt and Road Initiative forum promoting ties between China and Theravada-dominated countries in Southeast Asia. The sangha is now, in its own way, part of the collective statecraft of China, with the government as the vanguard.

In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported a worrying trend: “With the exception of Buddhists, all of the world’s major religious groups are poised for at least some growth in absolute numbers in the coming decades. The global Buddhist population is expected to be fairly stable because of low fertility rates and aging populations in countries such as China, Thailand, and Japan.” Yet this does not take into account the vast potential of a hitherto untapped population of young people in China. To reach out to this demographic, organizations under the BAC promote authentic, non-superstitious, and socially beneficial expressions of Buddhism. In some ways, the situation of Buddhism in China is similar Buddhism in the West: it seems that many young Buddhists feel much more interested and invested in the religion if they feel it plays an active and beneficial role in their day-to-day lives.

While analysts and journalists will always be interested in numbers, which give some insight into the basic social contours at an abstract level, we must never neglect the human individuals of the Chinese Buddhist story, the many diverse and unique people that compose the Chinese experience of the Dharma. In this long-term project we hope to tell as many stories as possible about these people, and how they form part of the living religion of Buddhism in China today.

* See: Book Review—The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao (Buddhistdoor Global)

See more

The Buddhist Association of China (Chinese only)
Chinese Buddhist Association pours cold water on tradition of being first to offer incense (South China Morning Post)
Religious Statistics in China (ChinaSource)
Life in Purgatory: Buddhism Is Growing in China, But Remains in Legal Limbo (Time)
The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 (Pew Research Center)

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