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The Need for Chinese Buddhist Cultural Influence

The absence of a Buddhist cultural presence in mainstream UK culture still leaves me in sporadic but apoplectic rages reminiscent of Fu Manchu. We say what little we can about Buddhism, but just forget about Chinese Buddhism. “How many Chinese-British journalists, editors, pundits, or characters in drama are present in the UK’s cultural life? Too few,” lamented the actress Elizabeth Chan (11/01/2012). Despite immense Chinese geopolitical and economic influence here, contemporary Chinese Buddhist influence in the arts, activism, academia, or media is so rare I blink twice when I see an Asian-looking name on the column of, say, The Guardian or Observer.

The only time we Chinese are of any real media attention is when we’re either gossip-worthy flotsam (see the “actress” and Hugh Grant’s onetime lover Tinglan Hong. Sheer class, I assure you) or market ourselves as quirky self-esteem saviours like Gok Wan. Gok Wan, celebrity fashion consultant,  is brilliant and brings joy to countless Brits who no doubt need it. But more urgent is the need to offer an intellectual and spiritual challenge to the ways of sa?s?ra, something that any disciple, writer, academic, man of the cloth, or activist hopes to do.

Yes, there is considerable Chinese business and culinary influence in London, as an Evening Standard article pointed out some years ago (Alison Roberts, 06/08/2008). But the fact that Hutchison Whampoa owns the port of Felixstowe is not of great concern to the vast majority of Londoners. Hong Kong’s ownership of Superdrug doesn’t exactly constitute cultural clout or intellectual ammunition. If a culture is to have a genuine presence it needs a voice. It doesn’t need to be a loud voice, nor should it seek to drown out other voices. But it does need to at least begin to speak – frequently, conversationally, and with relevance. In other words, to be a dialogue partner in wider culture, Chinese Buddhism will need to offer all its richness and wisdom to everyone, not simply historians, museum buffs, scholars of China or even Buddhists. There is so much Chinese Buddhism can advise us on: can it make a case for the Government’s plans to raise money for a new Royal Yacht, or would it see it as an extravagant waste in times of austerity? How would it propose to help the disaffected youth and impoverished in the country? What about confronting institutional injustices like the hacking scandal in the British press or the Stephen Lawrence murder?

An even more edgy and fruitful discussion may be this: what if the Occupy movement took over the doorstep of a Chinese Buddhist temple? What would our response be like compared to the famous dilemma of St. Paul’s in the Square Mile?

My real question is what Chinese Buddhism can offer the UK and London. Firstly, it’s at least original. No one outside of the faith has seen anything like it and, if presented kindly and without too strong an incense smell (I hate that), it can be a real treasure trove of discovery, history and culture. I’m not saying we need to have our own time slot on the BBC, nor am I saying we need to invade The X-Factor and throw some Chinese Buddhist contestants at them. There’s two kinds of niches: the first niche is the kind of niche that we’re currently in: obscure, with little to no mainstream audience, and misunderstood. The second kind of niche is one that might still not be mainstream, but is ideal in every way: contemporary in culture and outlook, relevant, a voice for current affairs. We don’t need top ratings. We don’t even need to fill a quota. But Chinese Buddhism needs to offer more than museum artefacts and the occasional Dharma talk in London (important though they may be). We need to make a market or platform out of showing off everything Chinese Buddhism can offer: its philosophy, its music, and even its way of adapting to its rapidly changing homelands in Asia. When are we going to challenge social injustice with a Chinese Buddhist voice? When are we going to add our perspectives to the plays, movies, riots, recessions, Jubilees, and politics that are part and parcel of Albion?

This March I’ll have a review of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery published in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Online Journal. The Gallery is a beautiful selection of Buddhist sculpture, with one section devoted to East Asian aesthetics. My review will hopefully go to some lengths to celebrating its enlightening means of showcasing Buddhist art to the wider museum and tourist community. Steeped in my delusions of grandeur, I’m rubbing my palms together as our noble project progresses: Mr. Ho has tirelessly sought to bring Chinese Buddhism under the lights of more accessible cultural platforms in the West, but we’re just getting started. Chinese New Year is upon us this 2012, and I fail to see a better Gregorian New Year’s resolution than to devote time and effort to such a cause. 

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