The decline and fall of Chinese Buddhism

Modern politics and fast money corrupted an ancient religion

When filmmakers descended on China’s ancient Shaolin Monastery to make the 1986 box office hit Martial Arts of Shaolin starring Jet Li, they were shocked to find no monks.

The 1,500-year-old monastery, in the Song Mountains in Henan province, is renowned as the cradle of Chan Buddhism but decades of neglect and oppression had taken their toll.

The monastery’s reputation as a centre for kung fu had remained intact but the Buddhist practice behind the martial art had vanished – Mary Jean Reimer, former HK actress

It was occupied by peasant-style security guards.

Even the incense burners were sealed with boards.

Monks in the film were all played by martial arts practitioners.

Many of them continued performing for temple visitors after the film became a hit, even though few, if any, of them followed any Buddhist discipline.

SCANDAL

One of the most startling alleged cases of corruption emerged just last month and centred on 52-year-old Shi Xuecheng, the head of the Buddhist Association of China and abbot of the well-known Longquan Temple in Beijing.

He stepped down amid public uproar after accusations surfaced as part of the movement that he had sexually harassed female disciples via text messages. He built temples without official permits and mishandled temple funds.

The prompt investigation of the abbot’s case is welcome, but the lack of transparent and rational discussion in getting to the causes of the chaos in Buddhism in China today, is regretted – Professor Zhe Ji, of the Paris-based Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales

It involves questions about the fundamental power structure of religious authority.

There are more than 240,000 Buddhist clerics in China.

  • More than half of them Tibetan Buddhists
  • About 100,000 Han Buddhist monks live in 28,000 monasteries
  • The rest are monks from the Theravada school, mostly living in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces in the country’s southwest

Taiwan has many eminent monks such as Master Hsing-Yun and Master Sheng-Yen whose teachings are influential around the world.

The “transitional” problems associated with contemporary Chinese Buddhism are partly due to the legacy of oppression during the Cultural Revolution – Dr Tsui Chung-hui from University of Hong Kong’s Centre of Buddhist Studies

Taiwan was lucky to be able to preserve the virtuous values of Confucius, Taoism and Buddhism [when the island broke away from the mainland after the civil war], giving Buddhism room to grow

That break occurred in 1949, when Buddhism and other faiths were demonised as counter-revolutionary ideologies under communist rule on the mainland.

After 1949, Buddhism experienced a tremendous crisis on all fronts,

  • Religious doctrine
  • Organisation
  • Funding

Many of the problems today are rooted in the socialist reforms of the 1950s.

The oppression reached a peak during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, when there was widespread persecution of Buddhists and destruction of temples.

But while it has since eased, Chinese Buddhism has not flourished, continuously criticised for a series of problems such as commercialisation and corruption.

Political interference still plays a big part in that downfall by undermining spiritual authority and stifling religious freedom.

Under President Xi Jinping, local religions such as Chinese Buddhism receive state support to promote traditional culture and faith as well as China’s soft power.

In March the Communist Party further strengthened its control over religion by folding the administrative body into the United Front Work Department.

CASHING IN

One of the centres accused of commercialisation is Shaolin, which in the past two decades has become a business empire stretching from martial arts schools and performances, to medicine, cultural programmes, tourism and food – Prism, an online news site by tech giant Tencent.

The main beneficiary of this business activity was the local government.

In 2015 alone, the Shaolin Monastery reportedly charged more than 50 million yuan (US$7.3 million) in entrance fees plus incense offerings that cost 100 yuan each, but less than a third of that income went to the temple. The rest went to Dengfeng city.

Shaolin is managed by a committee made up largely of government officials.

Last year mainland authorities addressed the problem by prohibiting the listing of local Buddhist and Taoist temples on the stock market and in February, amendments to the Religious Affairs Regulation also banned their commercialisation.

While the so-called commercialisation is often led by local governments, with most of the profits going to them, “the monks are always taking the blame.

Just last month, the Shaolin Temple raised eyebrows once again when its monks raised the national flag there for the first time in its 1,500-year history as part of a patriotism drive at religious establishments, including churches and mosques.

UNHOLY SILENCE

Further north, a monk from Shanxi province said the ongoing political interference and resulting lack of religious freedom had created a culture of silence within Chinese Buddhism, hindering the tradition’s development.

Many things we are not allowed to discuss. It’s too complicated and they cannot be investigated. The deeper you dig, the more unwanted details you will find and nobody likes to see that.

The problem is not about Buddhism but about how it is organised … People’s demand for faith-based religion has never been stronger but the way Buddhism is organised has failed to meet their spiritual needs.

The corruption among contemporary Chinese Buddhist masters merely mirrors the problems of the contemporary Chinese Communist Party –   East Asian studies expert Albert Welter of University of Arizona.

Buddhist clergy are not immune from the impulses and characteristics of human nature.

Monks in imperial China were regularly criticised for moral laxity in sexual behaviour, corruption and economic extravagances.

Influence of Chinese Buddhism on the mainland should be regarded as starting all over again, after the major persecutions suffered during the Cultural Revolution.

It would take time to see whether its influence could once again reach across East and Central Asia.

Much will depend on

  • How well the Chinese Communist Party is able to manage its internationalisation
  • How it is conducted
  • What role Buddhism may be allowed to play

There could be many excellent hidden Buddhist talents who are quietly working without asking for fame and reputation in return.

Suresh Shah, Pathfinders Enterprise

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Abridged  from the article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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