Renewal of Buddhism in Mainland China and its Interaction with the Government Featured

by on Saturday, 12 July 2014 Comments

Since the reform and opening up policy ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, Buddhism in mainland China is experiencing a dramatic revival. Out of the five major religions in China, it is in fact the one which has taken the most advantage of the conditions created by the government. Millions of tourists, Chinese or foreign, who take trips in China each year can attest to the fact that a large majority of the most popular sites are Buddhist shrines, constructed, or rebuilt within thirty-odd years. Almost entirely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the religion of Buddha Sakhyamuni rises from its ashes today with a surprising vitality, which shows his willingness to take his place in contemporary Chinese society and, as in the past - even more perhaps than in the past - to play a leading role in the modernization of the country.


According to official statistics, there are now more than13,000 buddhist temples in China, and about 200,000 monks and nuns. There are more than 3,000 temples and monasteries for Tibetan-language Buddhism, that is to say, lamaism, with 7 million faithful belonging to various ethnic groups, mainly Tibetans and Mongols, and about 120,000 monks and nuns. Pali-language Buddhism, mainly practised among various ethicities in south and south-west Yunnan, has around 1.5 million practitioners, with 8,000 monks and nuns in more than 1,000 temples and monasteries. The temples and monasteries of the Han nationality, which constitutes the main body of the Chinese nation, number around 9,000, with more than 70,000 monks and nuns.


Another sign of vitality is that several buddhist studies institutes have been also set up or reopened, with a view to training an elite class of monks and nuns with a deep spiritual life combined with a high level of education. This has resulted in many monks and nuns having a good knowledge of their religion and of modern sciences and they have already started to contribute to the propagation of Buddhism and to its dynamic integration in the socialist Chinese society of the 21st century. The first one was the China Buddhist Institute, reopened in Beijing, at the Fayuan Si (法源寺) in 1980.

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All these achievements, and many others, have been possible only with the help and under the control of the government. The majority of temples, monasteries, and institutes which have been restored or rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution have received a substantial amount of financial support from state organisms, and the various activities which take place in them are subjected to the approval of the authorities, just like the other religions in the country. The extraordinary revival of Buddhism observed presently in China shows that the government is itself directly interested in the progress of a religion which, in the past, has played a decisive role in chinese history and civilization.

To better understand this interaction between Buddhism and the Chinese government, it may be useful to look back on the two thousand year history of Buddhism in China. It appears clear from the outset that the religion that came from India could take root and grow in the Middle Kingdom only with the support of civil authorities. This is clearly recognized by Master Dao An (道 安) (312-385) , a renowned translator and interpreter of Buddhist Scriptures of the Eastern Jin dynasty, which laid down the principle that "without the support of the leaders of the country, the affairs of the Dharma are not on solid ground." This principle, which somehow summarizes the history of the establishment of Buddhism in China, is also a kind of axiom that defines the line adopted over the centuries by the Sangha. The fate of the temples, their prosperity or decline depends on good relations with the state. What we read in the Annals of the Guoqing temple (國清寺) (Zhejiang) can be said of the vast majority of temples: "Over the centuries, the Guoqing Temple flourished and widely spread the Dharma thanks to the magnanimity of princes and emperors; wars and the contempt of the powerful led to Buddhism's decline. The Buddhsit tradition has continued uninterrupted - from profliferation to decadence and from decadence to profliferation - such is the characteristic of the history of the age-old development of the Guoqing Si". Zanning (贊寧) (919-1001), a Buddhist Master and author of Biographies of eminent monks of the Song Dynasty said one day: "Buddha entrusted the Dharma to kings and ministers." He was probably referring to two sutras now considered apocryphal, but which had throughout the history of China a decisive influence on the attitude of the princes towards Buddhism: the Humane King Sutra1 and the Golden Light Sutra2. In "entrusting the Dharma to kings and ministers," Buddha not only entrusted to them the protection of religion, but by this very fact gave them an authority allowing them to exercise direct control over the Sangha. The history of the temples shows that they are the ones who allowed the construction of monasteries, and often provided at least part of the funding; they also gave the temples their official names by the gift of an inscription together with an official seal, thereby giving it right to exist; they, also, were the who appointed the priors (fangzhang) of the main temples and give them the title of "national master" or "imperial master."


In short, the existence and activities of monasteries depended on their goodwill. They also often depended on their generosity, for princes and emperors like to be magnanimous and to give lavish donations: liturgical instruments, paintings, calligraphy, poems, precious objects, Tripitaka and so on, which make and enrich the cultural patrimony of the temples.

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Naturally, the rulers of China's history were not all in favor of Buddhism, as evidenced by the great persecutions of the religion at various times, especially in the time of Emperor Wuzong (武宗) (841-845) of the Tang dynasty. But we can mention here, by way of illustration, the names of some of them who exerted the most positive influence on the development of Buddhism:

  • Liang Wudi (梁武帝) (502-549) He was the most fervent and the most liberal of the sovereigns of the Southern Dynasties, who were all favourable to Buddhism. A great supporter of the Sangha, he was nicknamed " the Bodhisattva Emperor"; leading his subjects to observe the Precepts, he entered himself on several occasions in a monastery, and built numerous temples, including the Kaishan Si (開山寺, now Linggu Si 靈谷寺), in Nanjing, to honour the memory of his favourite adviser, the Monk Bao Zhi (寶志).
  • Wu Zetian (武則天) (684-704) considered herself as the mother of Buddha, and the incarnation of Maitreya. Having formerly spent three years in a convent of Bikkhunis, she showed a special fondness for Wutaishan, where she built several temples and pagodas, donating to the mountain's collection of books, statues and valuables.
  • Kubilay Khan (1214–1294) From Kubilay (Shizong世宗), the founder, to Shundi (順帝), the last of the dynasty, the rulers of the Yuan dynasty were all fervent supporters of Buddhism, on which they lavished presents and favors. The number of temples increased, and the monastic population grew in a spectacular way. The most famous Lama was Basiba (八思巴), whom Kubilay named an imperial Master and his Prime Minister; he gave him the imperial seal and appointed him Great Pontiff of the Central Plain, enjoying authority over all Buddhists in the Empire. Basiba created the written language which bears his name; it entered common usage in 1269, and was the official language throughout the whole Yuan dynasty.
  • Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) (1368-1398), the founder of the Ming dynasty had been a monk during his youth, and showed a great interest in Buddhism, both in terms of his personal convictions and for political motives. He helped it develop and organize, drawing up strict rules for admission to the Sangha and for monastic discipline.
  • Kangxi (康熙) (1662-1722) considered himself as the incarnation of the Wuliangshou Buddha (Buddha of Infinite Life, i.e. Amithaba). He visited the sacred mountain of Wutaishan five times; among other significant gestures, he conferred on the Great Lama of the Pusa Ding lamasery the seal of Governor, and ordered all the Authorities of Shanxi, including the Governor of the province and the General commandant of Datong, to pay him tribute. He had the great halls of the temple covered with glazed yellow tiles, a colour normally reserved for the buildings of the imperial family.
  • Qianlong 乾隆 (1736–96) considered himself the incarnation of the bodhisattva Guanyin. He visited Wutaishan six times, each time leaving laudatory signs of his passage, in the form of poems and calligraphy. At the death of Yong Zheng, he transformed the former Palace of the latter, the Yong He Gong, into a lamasery with imperial colours, conferring to Tibetan Buddhism one of the most prominent and most envied position in the heart of the Capital.
  • Cixi 慈喜 (1835-1908) also considered himself the incarnation of the bodhisattva Guanyin. She liked to be called "Laofoye" (老佛爷), meaning the old Buddha.

These examples and many others in the two thousand year history of Buddhism in China, show that when he "entrusted the Dharma to kings and ministers," the Buddha Sakyamuni actually secured the establishment and development of the religion in the Middle Kingdom.

The support of the princes demanded that Buddhists of the country made a commitment to promote national prosperity, security and stability. This responsibility was assumed largely by those of the members of the Sangha to whom was conferred the honorary title of "national master" 國師 or "imperial master" 帝師. Advisors to the sovereigns, they controlled the organization of monastic communities on the ground, and with their prestige and influence, contributed to the legitimacy of the central power. This was the case, for example, of Fo Tudeng (佛圖澄) (232-348), senior adviser to Emperor Shile (石勒) of the Zhao, thanks to whom Buddhism became the official religion of the kingdom3; of the national Master Kumarajiva (鳩摩羅什) (343-413?) whose unmatched quality of translations' ensured Buddhism a leading position); of Xuanzang (玄奘) (ca 600-664), who, without having the official title of national master, enjoyed the exceptional favor of the emperor, and made Buddhism in China a privileged religion; of the national master Amoghavajra, also known as Bukong (不 空) (705-774), who was one of the most powerful monks politically in the history of China, whose great religious authority consolidated the power of the leaders and promoted the prosperity of the country; of the national Master Chengguan (澄觀) (738-838), the fourth patriarch of Huayanzong, the School of the Flower Garland, who was the spiritual master of seven successive emperors; of Basiba 八思巴 (1235-1280), national then imperial master under Kubilay Khan, who worked efficiently for the political rallying of Tibetans; of Yishan Yining (一山一寧) (1247-1317), who was made responsible for restoring Sino-Japanese relations that had been broken off after the attempted invasions of Japan by Kublai Khan, in 1274 and 1281; and of many others. Besides the influence of these "national " or "imperial" masters, the inculturation of Buddhism on Chinese soil, and its uneven but continuous development for two millennia, were obviously also due to many other monks and lay Buddhists whose moral authority and writings were equally, if not more, critical, and whose action developed also in the framework of bilateral relations with the authorities.

This interaction of Buddhism with the civil and political power has been a constant phenomenon in the history of China. It explains both the success of the religion of Buddha Sakhyamuni in the Middle Kingdom, and the interest, as a whole, that princes and emperors granted it. During the celebration of the two thousandth anniversary of the introduction of Buddhism in China in 1998, Ven. Jing Hui (凈慧), vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association, could declare without fear of being contradicted: "Buddhism was introduced to China two thousand years ago. During these two thousand years, Buddhism has always played an obvious role of purification of the heart, it has raised the moral level, ensured the peace and the stability of the country, favoured national unity, protected the environment, assisted the poor and the needy. It has exerted a very deep influence on the politics, the economy, the culture and the popular customs of our country..."

The spectacular revival accomplished by Buddhism since the reform and opening up policy of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, shows notable similarities with the past in the process of the interaction between the religion of the Buddha and the country's leaders. Different as it is from the feudal dynasties, the socialist system of the People's Republic of China exerts on Buddhism, like on all religions in the country, a similar function of support and control, while the Buddhist communities, for their part, are invited to help with promoting national stability, unity and prosperity. The axiom formulated by Master Dao An in the 4th century is still true today, implicitely, the relations of Buddhism with the government: "without the support of the country's leaders, the affairs of the Dharma are not on solid ground."

The government's support and control effect change today through the Buddhist Association of China, whose objectives are clearly defined in the statutes: "The aims of B.A.C. are to assist the government to implement the policy on freedom of religious affairs , to protect the legitimate rights and interests of Buddhist circles, to propagate Buddhist teachings, to develop Buddhism under its traditions, to unite Buddhists nationwide, to work for the happiness of people as well as the prosperity of the country, to make contributions for the unity of the motherland as well as world peace." With the exception of Tibet, these objectives seem to meet no opposition in the country, and have actually favored the extraordinary revival made by Buddhism in the limited space of about thirty years. Thus can we make a connection between the role formerly entrusted by the rulers to their "national " or "imperial masters" and the institutional role assigned today by the government of the People's Republic of China to the Buddhist Association of China. The high-ranking officials in this association, exercise a moral and political authority that make them resemble the "national masters" of the past, and enjoy, both in China and abroad, a reputation that greatly favors the interests of Buddhism on the national and international levels, as well as the growing influence of traditional Chinese culture in the world.

In an important speech at the UNESCO on March 27, Xi Jinping (習近平), the President of the People's Republic of China, stressed the need to promote exchanges and mutual sharing of knowledge among civilizations. This speech, the first of a Chinese head of state before this organization of the United Nations, puts focus clearly as never before on the value and meaning of traditional Chinese civilization, to the extent of being called the manifesto of the renaissance of Chinese civilization:


"Having gone through over 5,000 years of vicissitudes, the Chinese civilization has always kept to its original roots. Unique in representing China spiritually, it contains some most profound pursuits of the Chinese nation and provides it with abundant nourishment for existence and development. Though born on the soil of China, it has come to its present form through constant exchanges and mutual learning with other civilizations..."


Buddhism originated in ancient India. After it was introduced into China, the religion went through an extended period of integrated development with indigenous Confucianism and Taoism and finally became the Buddhism with Chinese characteristics, thus making a deep impact on religious belief, philosophy, literature, art, etiquette and customs of the Chinese people.

It goes without saying that, for the president of the People's Republic of China, this interaction of Buddhism with the Chinese people means also interaction with the leaders of the nation. On behalf of the whole country, Xi Jinping points clearly to a certain direction:

"the Chinese civilization, together with the rich and colorful civilizations created by the people of other countries, will provide mankind with the right cultural guidance and strong motivation".

Thus, among all the world's civilizations, the thousand years old Chinese civilization appears to be a rich and potentially most effective partner. A civilization that encompasses traditional religions and philosophies, especially Buddhism, which has become over the centuries an essential component of Chinese culture. While showing, as we have just seen, the direction to be taken, the president of the People's Republic of China also expresses the hope placed by the Chinese people and their leaders in the Buddhist religion to promote the international role of China on the cultural level. The interaction between Buddhism and the Chinese authorities will from now, more than anywhere else, manifest itself in the traditional civilization "going out" beyond the frontiers in order to exert, within the alliance of civilizations of mankind, an influence commensurate to its thousand years old history.

Echoing the keynote speech of Xi Jinping at UNESCO, Buddhist circles are now committing themselves in turn to promote Chinese culture internationally. Ven. Xue Cheng (學誠), vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association of China, and one of the most prominent personalities of the Sangha, likes to emphasize the fact that Buddhism is, of the three religious components of China, the one which has had and will have the greatest influence. After being propagated in East and South East Asia. Buddhism has now extended its reach to Europe and the USA, and acts as a powerful vehicle for the revival of Chinese culture.

"If we hope to see Chinese culture, including Buddhist culture advance in the world", said Ven. Xue Cheng, "if we hope to see the civilization of China make an even greater contribution to the civilizations of mankind, we must above all 'go out' , go into all regions of the world, learn languages and understand the cultures of different countries, and in a process of continual self-improvement, allow the Chinese culture to bring happiness to men, and Buddhist culture, by the spiritual quality of compassion, bring freshness in the world."

This is also the conviction of Ven. Yong Xin (永信), abbot of Shaolin Temple (少林寺) and renowned vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association of China. The Shaolin Temple, by touring martial arts in the world, not only makes known the essence of traditional culture, but still more spreads this culture outside of China, helping China's culture "go out" into the world, expand its influence, and strengthen exchanges with other countries. Thjis is the crucial role that Shaolin Temple wants to play under the dynamic leadership of its abbot.

In "going out" of China, Chinese Buddhist culture will help expand the influence of Chinese civilization in the world, while the international rise of China, which is on the way to becoming a major economic and political power, will promote the extension of Buddhism in many countries. The interaction between the religion of the Buddha and the Chinese authorities, which has proven itself for two thousand years, takes on now a new dimension, at the global level.

Christian Cochini s.j.
Hongkong, June 19, 2014

 

For the original French please click here


1 仁王經, Ren wang jing. Its full name is the Prajnaparamita Sutra for Humane Kings Who Protect their Country. In some Chinese temples, this sutra is used today during prayers on behalf of the government and the country.
2 金光明經, Jinguang ming jing. It is a very important Mahayana sutra, and one of the most popular Mahayana sutras of all times.
3 The successor of Shile, emperor Shihu, promulgated an edict making Fo Tudeng a « national treasure » and granted him many privileges.

Christian Cochini

Fr. Cochini is a French Jesuit priest who has been involved for several years in inter-religious dialogue in China. He is the author of a Guide to the Main Buddhist Temples in China.

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