Buddhist Group Changing China (or visa versa?)

This article by Ian Johnson is from the New York Times…………………………

For most of her life, Shen Ying was disappointed by the world she saw around her. She watched China’s economic rise in this small city in the Yangtze River Valley, and she found a foothold in the new middle class, running a convenience store in a strip mall. Yet prosperity felt hollow.

She worried about losing her shop if she didn’t wine and dine and pay off the right officials. Recurring scandals about unsafe food or tainted infant formula made by once-reputable companies upset her. She recalled the values her father had tried to instill in her — honesty, thrift, righteousness — but she said there seemed no way to live by them in China today.

“You just feel disappointed at some of the dishonest conduct in society,” she said.

Then, five years ago, a Buddhist organisation from Taiwan called Fo Guang Shan, or Buddha’s Light Mountain, began building a temple in the outskirts of her city, Yixing. She began attending its meetings and studying its texts — and it changed her life.

She and her husband, a successful businessman, started living more simply. They gave up luxury goods and made donations to support poor children. And before the temple opened last year, she left her convenience store to manage a tea shop near the temple, pledging the proceeds to charity.

Across China, millions of people like Ms. Shen have begun participating in faith-based organisations like Fo Guang Shan. They aim to fill what they see as a moral vacuum left by attacks on traditional values over the past century, especially under Mao, and the nation’s embrace of a cutthroat form of capitalism.

Many want to change their country — to make it more compassionate, more civil and more just. But unlike political dissidents or other activists suppressed by the Communist Party, they hope to change Chinese society through personal piety and by working with the government instead of against it. And for the most part, the authorities have left them alone.

Fo Guang Shan is perhaps the most successful of these groups. Since coming to China more than a decade ago, it has set up cultural centres and libraries in major Chinese cities and printed and distributed millions of volumes of its books through state-controlled publishers. While the government has tightened controls on most other foreign religious organisations, Fo Guang Shan has flourished, spreading a powerful message that individual acts of charity can reshape China.

It has done so, however, by making compromises. The Chinese government is wary of spiritual activity it does not control — the Falun Gong an example — and prohibits mixing religion and politics. That has led Fo Guang Shan to play down its message of social change and even its religious content, focusing instead on promoting knowledge of traditional culture and values.

The approach has won it high-level support; President Xi Jinping is one of its backers. But its relationship with the party raises a key question: Can it still change China?

Avoiding Politics

Fo Guang Shan is led by one of modern China’s most famous religious figures, the Venerable Master Hsing Yun. I met him late last year at the temple in Yixing, in a bright room filled with his calligraphy and photos of senior Chinese leaders who have received him in Beijing. He wore tannish golden robes, and his shaved head was set off by thick eyebrows and sharp, impish lips.

At age 89, he is nearly blind, and a nun often had to repeat my questions so he could hear them. But his mind was quick, and he nimbly parried questions that the Chinese authorities might consider objectionable. When I asked him what he hoped to accomplish by spreading Buddhism — proselytising is illegal in China — his eyebrows arched in mock amusement.

“I don’t want to promote Buddhism!” he said. “I only promote Chinese culture to cleanse humanity.”

As for the Communist Party, he was unequivocal: “We Buddhists uphold whoever is in charge. Buddhists don’t get involved in politics.”

That has not been true for most of Master Hsing Yun’s life. Born outside the eastern city of Yangzhou in 1927, he was 10 when he joined a monastery that he and his mother passed by while searching for his father, who disappeared during the Japanese invasion of China.

There, he was influenced by the ideas of Humanistic Buddhism, a movement that aimed to save China through spiritual renewal. It argued that religion should be focused on this world, instead of the afterworld. It also encouraged clergy to take up the concerns of the living, and urged adherents to help change society through fairness and compassion.

After fleeing the Communist Revolution, Master Hsing Yun took that message to Taiwan and founded Fo Guang Shan in the southern port of Kaohsiung in 1967. He sought to make Buddhism more accessible to ordinary people by updating its fusty image and embracing mass-market tactics. In sports stadiums, he held lectures that owed more to Billy Graham than the sound of one hand clapping. He built a theme park with multimedia shows and slot machines that displayed dioramas of Buddhist saints.

The approach had a profound impact in Taiwan, which then resembled mainland China today: an industrialising society that worried it had cast off traditional values in its rush to modernise. Fo Guang Shan became part of a popular embrace of religious life. Many scholars say it also helped lay the foundation for the self-governing island’s evolution into a vibrant democracy by fostering a political culture committed to equality, civility and social progress.

Fo Guang Shan expanded rapidly, spending more than $1 billion on universities, community colleges, kindergartens, a publishing arm, a daily newspaper and a television station. It now counts more than 1,000 monks and nuns, and more than one million followers in 50 countries, including the United States.

Government Support

But the group declines to offer an estimate of its following in China, where the government initially viewed it with suspicion. In 1989, an official fleeing the Tiananmen massacre took refuge in its temple in Los Angeles. China retaliated by barring Master Hsing Yun from the mainland.

More than a decade later, though, Beijing began looking at Master Hsing Yun differently. Like many in Taiwan of his generation born on the mainland, he favoured unification of China and the island — a priority for Communist leaders.

In 2003, they allowed him to visit his hometown, Yangzhou. He pledged to build a library, and followed through a few years later with a 100-acre facility that now holds nearly two million books, including a 100,000-volume collection of Buddhist scriptures, one of the largest in China.

Under President Xi, who started a campaign to promote traditional Chinese faiths, especially Buddhism, as part of his program for “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” the government’s support has grown. He has met with Master Hsing Yun four times since 2012, telling him in one meeting: “I’ve read all the books that master sent me.”

While Mr. Xi’s government has tightened restrictions on Christianity and Islam, it has allowed Fo Guang Shan to open cultural centres in four cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. The organization’s students include government officials, who don gray tunics and trousers and live like monks or nuns for several days, reciting the sutras and learning about Master Hsing Yun’s philosophy.

But unlike in Taiwan, where it held special services during national crises and encouraged members to participate in public affairs, Fo Guang Shan avoids politics in China. There is no mention of civic activism, and it never criticises the party.

“We can keep the religion secondary but introduce the ideas of Buddhism into society,” said Venerable Miaoyuan, the nun who runs the library in Yangzhou. She describes the group’s work as “cultural exchange.”

“The mainland continues the ideology of ancient emperors — you can only operate there when you are firmly under its control,” said Chiang Tsan-teng, a professor at Taipei City University of Science and Technology who studies Buddhism in the region. “Fo Guang Shan can never be its own boss in the mainland.”

That limits its influence, but many Chinese express understanding given the reality of one-party rule.

“It certainly cannot promote social service and create associations,” said Hu Jia, a prominent dissident who is Buddhist. “The party certainly would not allow it, so Fo Guang Shan makes compromises. But it is still promoting Buddhism.”

A ‘Moral Standard’

Carved into two valleys of lush bamboo forest, the temple on the outskirts of Yixing features giant friezes that tell the story of Buddha, a 15-story pagoda and a gargantuan 68,000 square-foot worship hall.

Since construction started in 2006, Fo Guang Shan has spent more than $150 million on the facility, known as the Temple of Great Awakening. On a nearby hill, track hoes hack away at trees to make way for a new lecture hall and a shrine to the goddess of mercy, Guanyin. There, the group plans to feature a moving, talking, three-dimensional hologram of the deity.

Unlike most temples in China, it bans hawkers and fortunetellers, and it does not charge an entrance fee. The atmosphere is reflective and solemn, with quiet reading rooms offering books, newspapers, spaces to practice calligraphy, and tea. A stream of visitors from Yixing come for lectures, meals and camaraderie.

Last autumn, Fo Guang Shan welcomed 2,000 pilgrims at the temple to celebrate China’s National Day. Over the course of a long afternoon, they walked along a road to the temple in a slow, dignified procession: taking three steps and kowtowing, three steps and kowtowing, on and on for about two hours.

Mrs. Shen said that when she took over the tea shop she had a hard time understanding what being a good Buddhist meant. At first, she admitted, she wanted to make more money for the temple by using low-grade cooking oil.

But her husband objected. China is rife with scandals about restaurants using unsafe or cheap ingredients, and he argued that good Buddhists should set a better example.

“This made me realise that faith gives you a minimum moral standard,” Ms. Shen told me. “It helps you treat others as your equals.”

Many followers say they want a cleaner, fairer society and believe they can make a difference by changing their own lives.

Yang Jianwei, 44, a kitchenware exporter who embraced Fo Guang Shan, said he stopped attending the boozy late-night dinners that seem an unavoidable part of doing business in China. “I realise that you might lose some business this way, but it’s a better way to live,” he said.

This idealism is why the authorities support Fo Guang Shan, said Jin Xinhua, an official who helped the group secure the land for the new temple.

“Through its work, Fo Guang Shan is helping the masses,” he said. “We need that sort of thing today.”

China Embraces Buddhism to Project Power

China is rapidly developing a plan for a ‘Buddhist globalisation’ using its financial, political and marketing clout.

Unsurprisingly, President Xi Jinping is not just asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea and expanding China’s connectivity project through the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, he is also working to make China the world leader in Buddhism. Xi has had this idea for some time now – he started building a partnership between China’s communist party and the religion when he was only 29 years old, serving as a bureaucrat in provinces. The story began when he encountered Shi Youming, a Buddhist monk who was restoring ruined temples of Zhengding County in Hebei Province.

Xi was probably also influenced by his father, Xi Zhongxun, who in 1980 had warned the party in his 11,000-word report ‘Document 19’ against banning religious activity, suggesting that this would alienate too many people. In fact, one of Xi’s father’s signature lines is said to have been, “If the people have faith, the nation has hope and the country has strength.”

Nobody knows whether Xi is a practitioner himself, but he has firmly been putting Chinese Buddhism on the global stage since 2005. At the domestic level, it looks as though Xi is turning to religion not just to bolster his rule, but also to save the party from falling. He certainly sees Buddhism as useful for arresting the flagging moral values in China’s social fabric, and to prevent the angry middle class from crumbling under the weight of a deepening social crisis and economic downturn. Having felt the pains of an ageing society, the country had to abandon the Mao’s one-child policy. More importantly, Xi intends to imbibe moral ethics among party officials – deemed necessary to bring about further economic reforms.

Becoming a guardian of Buddhism is helping Xi successfully promote China as an acceptable world power with a soft image. Buddhist globalisation helps Beijing push its economic projects – religious diplomacy makes it easier for China to win economic and infrastructural projects in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal and elsewhere.

China’s Tech-Savvy, Burned-Out and Spiritually Adrift, Turn to Buddhism

This from today’s New York Times……………………………

By Javier C. Hernandez,

A view of Longquan Monastery, in the hinterlands of Beijing. In success-driven China, many people marvel at the decision of the temple’s monks to leave behind lucrative careers in the tech sector to devote themselves to Buddhist study.

BEIJING — For centuries, Buddhists seeking enlightenment made the journey to Longquan Monastery, a lonesome temple on a hilltop in the hinterlands of northwest Beijing. Under the ginkgo and cypress trees, they meditated, chanted and pored over ancient texts.

Now a new generation has arrived. They wear hoodies, watch television shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and use chat apps to trade mantras. Many, with jobs at some of China’s hottest and most demanding companies, feel burned-out and spiritually adrift, and are looking for change.

“Life in the outside world is chaotic and stressful,” said Sun Shaoxuan, 39, the chief technology officer at an education start-up. “Here, I can be at peace.”

As a spiritual revival sweeps China, Longquan has become a haven for a distinct brand of Buddhism, one that preaches connectivity instead of seclusion and that emphasises practical advice over deep philosophy.

The temple is run by what may be some of the most highly educated monks in the world: nuclear physicists, math prodigies and computer programmers who gave up lives steeped in precision to explore the ambiguities of the spiritual realm.

To build a large following, the monks have put their digital prowess to work. They have pioneered a popular series of cartoons based on Buddhist ideas like suffering and reincarnation. (“Having a bad mood can ruin one’s good luck,” a recent cartoon said.) This past spring, they introduced a two-foot-tall robot named Xian’er to field questions from visitors, the temple’s first foray into artificial intelligence.

Traditionalists worry that Longquan’s flashy high-tech tools may have muddled the teachings of the Buddha, the Dharma. They say its emphasis on practical topics like resolving family conflict and achieving success neglects more important philosophical questions.

But the leader of the monastery, the Venerable Xuecheng, who dispenses bits of wisdom every day to millions of online followers, has defended his approach, saying that Buddhism can stay relevant only by embracing modern tools. In a computer-dominated world, he has said, it is no longer realistic to expect people to attend daily lectures.

Visitors prepared to enter the meditation area at Longquan Monastery.

“Buddhism is old and traditional, but it’s also modern,” he said in an interview in March with the state-run news agency Xinhua. “We should use modern methods to spread the wisdom of Buddhism.”

On a recent Sunday morning, I stood outside Longquan’s gates, watching as hundreds of volunteers and tourists ascended to the temple. They bowed to one another and took turns sweeping cracked walkways. Some wandered through the organic vegetable garden, stopping to prop up unruly tomato plants.

The modernity of the temple was inescapable. While it was first built in 957, many of its original structures were demolished by war and, more recently, by the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese Buddhists were persecuted. Only at the turn of the century was the temple salvaged and rebuilt by a Buddhist businesswoman, Cai Qun. It reopened in 2005, and it is now equipped with fingerprint scanners, webcams and iPads for studying sutras, or Buddhist texts.

The state-run news media speaks of the temple in almost mythical terms. In success-driven China, many people marvel at the decision of the temple’s monks to leave behind lucrative careers in the tech sector to devote themselves to Buddhist study, rising at 3:55 a.m. each day for morning prayers.

“Life in the outside world is chaotic and stressful,” said Sun Shaoxuan, 39, the chief technology officer at an education start-up. “Here, I can be at peace”.

Longquan has become a favourite showpiece for the ruling Communist Party, which officially promotes atheism but has led a push in recent years to revive ancient cultural traditions. In addition to leading Longquan, the Venerable Xuecheng is the president of the Buddhist Association of China, a party-controlled supervisory organ. The temple displays the writings of President Xi Jinping, and long-term residents must submit information about their patriotism and political views.

In a kind of soft-power spiritual push, the Venerable Xuecheng has sought to turn the teachings of the monastery into a global export, translating his writings into more than a dozen languages. In July, he helped open a temple in Botswana for Chinese expatriates.

Longquan’s proximity to several of Beijing’s top universities and the city’s main science and technology hubs has made it popular among young people. Many of them are searching for deeper meaning in a society rife with materialism. Others seek an escape from gruelling schedules, and tips on relaxation.

The temple is renowned in start-up circles, in part because of a widely circulated rumour involving Zhang Xiaolong, one of the inventors of WeChat, a popular messaging app. News articles have claimed that Mr. Zhang, having hit a stumbling block, attended a retreat at the temple, after which he gained inspiration for WeChat. (Mr. Zhang, through a spokesman, denied the reports.)

A volunteer tending to the vegetable garden at the Longquan Monastery in northwest Beijing. The temple reopened in 2005 and is now equipped with fingerprint scanners, webcams and iPads for studying sutras, or Buddhist texts.

Today, young entrepreneurs make the pilgrimage to Longquan in hopes of creative epiphanies. They work at some of China’s most prominent technology companies, including JD.com, an e-commerce giant, and Xiaomi, a smartphone maker.

“Some of the people who come here may not actually be incredibly interested or believe in Buddhism,” said Rax Xie, a software developer. “But they will have a certain connection and receptiveness to the thought and culture behind Buddhism.”

On Sunday mornings, Mr. Sun, the technology entrepreneur, makes his way from his suburban apartment to Longquan. He slips on a maroon robe and begins to chant.

Mr. Sun was once a sceptic of religion. But after a spiritual awakening last year, he said he came to embrace Buddhism, eschewing meat and alcohol and persuading his wife to join him on his spiritual journey.

I met Mr. Sun at a chanting ceremony one Sunday at Longquan. The meditation hall was covered in pillows decorated with lotus flowers; a large, gleaming Buddha statue rose from the front.

A wiry man with soft, dark eyes, he sat in the first row of worshippers, a bell in his hand, and wore a golden sash reading, “Thanks to those who taught me salvation.”

After the ceremony, he told me about his transformation. As he saw it, he was once self-centred and angry, prone to barking orders at his family and co-workers. While his mother was a Buddhist, he saw the religion as “just a story.”

Then, in the fall, he attended a three-day retreat at Longquan intended for information technology workers. He was forced to give up his cellphone and passed the time by meditating, listening to lectures and working in the garden. Almost immediately, he said, his mind felt cleaner and lighter.

Mr. Sun and his wife now attend services nearly every week. In the afternoons, he performs maintenance on Longquan’s websites and helps organise workshops on back-end programming.

He said he had come to see the temple as a “small utopia, free of conflict,” in a society that could sometimes feel riddled with deception.

“When you go to the mountain, you don’t need to think: ‘Who will trick me? Who will harass me? Who will think badly of me?’” he said. “Once you have a sense of security and trust, then you will want to open up, help others and explore your beliefs.”

A Poem that I Like

“Hearing the Gibbons Call in Pa Gorge” by Wen Chao translated by Paul Hansen

As I lean
On my oar, gazing
At the cloud-line, purity
Emerges, deep and lonely,
From the Gorge.

When the mind
Doesn’t have anything
On it, there’s no sorrow
Inherent in repeated calls. They bear
The dew where every peak is distant,
Dangle in space where a slice
Of Moon shines
Bright.

Whoever
Hears it like this
Can finish a poem
By dawn.

Our Hero for 2015

I want to end the year with an uplifting story and it’s hard to find a better one than that of Yang Xiaoyun.

You may remember our story from June about the horrors of the annual Yulin dog-eating festival in China.

Well one 66 year old woman has spent over £45,000 to purchase these helpless creatures from their ruthless dealers at Yulin and bring them to her safe house at Tianjin. Last year, Mrs Yang rescued 360 dogs from the festival and to date has saved over 800.

Xiaoyun is a devout Buddhist who believes, “All lives are equal, no matter what happens, I will never give up on them.”

Her determination to save animals started when she rescued a cat that had been thrown into a ditch in Tianjin in 1995, followed by an abandoned disabled Pekingese dog. In 2002 she opened a makeshift dog shelter in the city.

Being a Chinese literature teacher and having a husband who had worked for the government, she was comfortably off. But after her husband died she sold her family’s two houses to help fund her dog-saving endeavours.

Xian’er the Robot Monk

I can give up and go home, Robo Monk is here……………………..

Longquan (Dragon Spring) Temple in Beijing has a new Buddhist monk called Xian’er. He’s a robot that stands about 50cm and is dressed in a yellow robe. The AI-enabled robot is able to sense his surroundings and engage in basic Q&A – based discussions about Buddhism.

The temple publishes its own cartoon series called Trouble, You Seek for Yourself that dispenses little nuggets of Buddhist wisdom in a way that laypeople can easily understand and the well fed-looking robot is modelled on its chief protagonist.

He even has his own account on Sina Weibo, the leading microblogging service in China.

Master Xuecheng, the abbot of Longquan Temple has founded a website in Chinese, English and Japanese, a personal blog, a personal microblog, a blog and microblog for the temple and a charity foundation blog as well as maintaining a personal Twitter account in English and instant messaging groups and microblogs on sina.com and QQ.com in eight different languages.