The Dhamma in China Part 1

I’ve spent the last few weeks, in China, mostly in rural Yuyao. I thought you, dear reader, might be interested in a report on the Dhamma in rural China. It’s been 6 years since I’ve spent time here, and things have changed a lot. The villages and much more prosperous. There are cars everywhere, but there is tons of pollution. There is electricity and cell phones everywhere, but there is far more obesity. There’s good and bad. In a word, it’s samsara.

On of the unexpected changes I’ve noticed, is that there is a building boom of Buddhist temples. As you probably know, Buddhism was suppressed in Maoist China, with monks forced to disrobe, temples destroyed, and a drumbeat of education painting Buddhism as superstition. It’s always necessary for totalitarian regimes to either suppress or co-opt religion. Otherwise they form a separate, possibly countervailing power structure. Most of the totalitarian regimes that have fallen over the years have done so at least partially because of religious organizing.

But since 1989 China has become remarkably freer in most aspects. While it’s true that I can’t access Google or Facebook without using a VPN, most people most of the time are free to do and say more or less what they want. The change has been remarkable. When you hear people praise the Party for the success of China over the last few decades, please remember this: the successes have come almost entirely as the part has simply stepped out of the way. Their job now is mostly just to skim the proceeds of increased freedom.

So as I said: a boom in religious building. When I was heer 6 years ago, the temples were most tourist attractions. They were big reconstructions are “ancient” temples with walking paths, plaques, and the occasional performance of a chant. Now most of them are something different. The buildings themselves are generally smaller versions of imperial designs with huge golden (plastic) Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. They are filled with monks and older women come to practice. But they are not doing what Westerners think of as Buddhist practice.

Let me give you an example: one of the first temples I went to was doing a ceremony with about a dozen monks and 2 older women. The monks were chanting to the large golden Buddha, and the women were bowing. I was told that her husband had a successful liver surgery, and they had commissioned 3 days of chanting to thank the Buddha. I was told that the master wasn’t there, he was back at the residence. The master was surprisingly young, maybe 35. When I came to talk to him, he was dressed in a lower robe, but instead of an upper robe he wore a fake Brooks Brother’s T-shirt. He was busy making Ghost Money. Ghost Money is ceremonially burned so that the dead can use it to buy things in the afterlife. He had made a huge stack of it. He was friendly and welcoming but also confused why I was there. He told me he studied at the most famous temple in China, but he had never heard of the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path. He said he never meditated or did any spiritual practice except twice-a-day chanting. He couldn’t really tell me what the chants were about. He said that he saw the mission of the temple to serve the people by providing ceremonies, not teaching or practice. He told me that basically all of the temples in China are the same. He said there were a few meditation temples that I might try to find, but he himself wasn’t interested.

About that time the chanting ended, and the monks went back to their dorm rooms to drink, play cards, and watch TV.

I’ve since been to a number of temples and a couple of outside ceremonies. One was a Ghost Money ceremony lead by laypeople. They chanting as they minted money to the point where I’m beginning to worry about Celestial inflation rates. I also went to a Bridge Crossing ceremony where old women crossed a bridge chanting in the hopes of gaining a better rebirth. They then burned fake ancient money. I later found out the whole ceremony was lead by a sort of non-monastic spiritual entrepreneur who makes a living putting on and charging for these ceremonies.

I wasn’t really expecting to find a vibrant meditation culture here, but I can’t help but be disappointed. The resurgence of Buddhism doesn’t seem to be accompanied by a resurgence of Dhamma. I have tried to be charitable to these monks, who tell me that they are simply working to serve the people. But honestly all I’ve found so far has been businessmen and their employees profiting off old women’s superstition.

Is this too harsh an assessment?

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