China's prosperity inspires rising spirituality
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Amelie Yu met her guru in Qinghai Province, and says Buddhism saved her from suicide. In despair, she had traveled to Qinghai and made a vow to become a Buddhist just so she could visit Tibetan temples for free. She then planned to kill herself. But while visiting the Za Er Temple in Qinghai, she had an awakening.Skip to next paragraph
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"At first I was impure," she said of her motive for becoming a Buddhist. "But I became pure. You can't lie to yourself. Now I just want to be a good person and do something for other people. I want to try to have a better life."
That desire, along with China's new wealth, means more private donations at Buddhist temples from those looking for "spiritual promotion," says Yuan Ci.
"Twenty years ago, if you got one yuan, you'd be very happy," he said. "Five years ago, maybe 50 yuan. Now if you get a red back [about $12], that's good."
According to the Buddhist Association of China, donations have helped repair 24,000 old temples that were destroyed during Mao's Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, including thousands in Tibet, China's most vibrant center of Buddhism. In 1995, there were 13,000 Buddhist temples, according to official statistics.
In Shanghai, 30 Buddhist temples have been renovated in the last five years, mostly from private donations. Between 1993 and 2003, the Bailin Temple doubled in size due to financial support from businesspeople. One of Mountain Yoga's retreat centers outside of Beijing is a 500-year-old Ming Dynasty Temple that has recently been restored by donations from a medical company. Many of the temples are not yet active and have been restored largely for their cultural significance.
Money for China's Buddhist revival also flows in from abroad, especially from Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Taiwan, Buddhist masters have been using donations to restore temples in their hometowns on the mainland, which they were forced to flee when the Communist Party came to power in 1949.
Some charge that the influence from Taiwan promotes "religious business enterprises," according to Chiang Tsan-teng, a professor of religious studies at Taiwan's National Tsing-Hua University. People claiming to be Tibetan lamas exploit the popularity of Buddhism, for example, by selling bogus statues, prayer beads and other religious artifacts at temples. Chiang calls the trend "department store Buddhism," but adds that official control over religious activity has stemmed profiteering in the mainland.
However, new wealth in many respects has made the lifestyles of monks more secular. They carry top of the line cell-phones, drive motor scooters, and in more extreme cases, lead the lifestyle normally reserved for the wealthy.
The major exception to a more liberal environment for Buddhists is Tibet, where the religion has been subject to systematic repression since the Dalai Lama fled over the Himalayas into exile in 1959. Among other things, the government enforces "patriotic education" in Tibetan temples, which requires monks to reject Tibetan independence and the Dalai Lama, who the government calls a "splittist."
However, thousands of Tibetans and about 150 mainland Chinese were allowed to attend teachings in Dharamsala, India, by the Dalai Lama in January. It's believed that Chinese authorities eased restrictions ahead of secret talks with envoys of the Dalai Lama, most recently in February.
Yuan Ci believes the government is starting to recognize the role religion could play in striving to achieve a "harmonious society" - the ideal of an egalitarian and balanced society that China's leaders espouse. "Religion can take a part in making society peaceful," he says.