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China’s Buddhist Pride: Consolidation and Custodianship of the Blessed One’s Heritage

Luohan at the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery, V&A Museum, London.

The Buddhist faith, despite coming from the Indic heartland is often seen as a ‘traditional’ faith in China. This has both negative and positive connotations. The worst of perceptions (mis)construe Buddhism as a relic of an antiquated past and way of thinking, a rotting edifice that cannot match secular or Christian thinking. This attitude, of course, is not only narrow-minded, but also factually incorrect; a projection of usually colonialist fantasies or extremist revolutionary thought that characterized a neurotic hatred for anything in Chinese culture with some degree of antiquity. Buddhism certainly would not have been safe from this condemnation, since it boasts a chronology of at least two millennia and a half. Furthermore, those who accuse Buddhism of being somehow “superstitious” probably know little about its lofty bodhisattva ideal, which is one of the most inspiring and challenging proposals extended to humanity, or its nuanced philosophical perspectives about epistemology, metaphysics, or the sentient mind.

Yet it is true that Buddhism has had to match the rapidly modernizing patterns of secularism and ideologies that now dominate even traditionally Buddhist, Christian and some Muslim countries. But it would still be a mistake to assume that “officially atheist” China maintains a malignant stance towards Buddhism as opposed to a benevolent one. This is a false dichotomy because real life is always more complex than this or that. There are good news but there are also bad news. It is heartening when one can report on the good news (amidst all the attention-grabbing-yet-depressing headlines on the main pages). In a landmark move that was also blessed by the Chinese government, the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation has launched an initiative to raise funds to regenerate Lumbini as a “Mecca” for Buddhists through modernizing infrastructure, providing accessible transport and promoting its importance for all pilgrims. I have been to Lumbini, and such a proposal could not have come at a timelier moment. As a holy site that bore witness to the appearance of our world-system’s Enlightened One, it is in dire need of rejuvenation and restoration. I would personally add that like Bodhgaya, Varanasi and Kushinagara, considerable and rapid progress needs to be made to improve the impoverished lives of the people who subsist around those hallowed locations, but this is perhaps another story better left to the experts on poverty, social justice and development.

Recent years have seen philanthropic and pious Chinese Buddhists, such as Xiao Wunan (executive vice president of the aforementioned foundation), giving generously to support projects concerning the promotion or preservation of the Dharma. Chinese evaluations about Buddhism have been constantly shifting throughout its thousands-years history, but one opinion that has justifiably remained in circulation is that it is a religion of culture, a cultivated spirituality and philosophy ideal for gentlemen, scholars, gentry, and in the old days, aristocrats. Literary, artistic and sectarian prestige no doubt played their varying parts. The story is different in the globalized age. These days, lay Chinese people like businessmen, statesmen, religious youth, scholars and writers who ally themselves with the Buddhist heritage can be confident in belonging to a dispensation that lasted 2,500 years and continues to persist. That it survived (and in some cases thrives) in China after so many upheavals and national traumas is clear evidence of its tenacity, which was also tested to its fullest extent during the Muslim invasions of India.

Last week I had the chance to visit the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery at the V&A Museum, perhaps one of my favourite art museums given its long history and diverse and stunning collections. Mr. Ho’s thorough and discerning passion for Buddhist art is reflected in the collection at this museum, which showcases Buddhist culture across the global spectrum. From Hellenistic Gandh?ran friezes to Nepalese art to Buddhist paintings from the 1900’s, there are few voices of the Dharma that are left unheard. Best of all, it is extremely accessible, located on the ground floor beside the courtyard and towards the restaurant wing of the museum. As a more personal contribution (Mr. Ho’s generosity as a Buddhist donor is evident in the Chinese sculptures that serve as the flagship displays for the exhibit), the Gallery does not occupy the same incredible space as Raphael and his Cartoons. But this is the whole point: it is a personal gift from a Chinese lay gentleman and his Foundation, not a display of a great artist from the past. It serves a different – a Dharmic purpose – and heralds a transnational aesthetic rather than the expertise of a single genius. It would be magnificent if a spiritual aesthetic were hammered out in art across cultural boundaries, just as it was in the great Ku???a Empire during the first few centuries of the Common Era. It would be superb if this were the future of Chinese Buddhism in the modern and future world. There are few like Mr. Ho, however, so believers and art connoisseurs alike will have to be patient.

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