Fill­ing a moral vac­uum

Is a Bud­dhist group chang­ing China? Or is China chang­ing it?

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - IAN JOHN­SON

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 or­ga­ni­za­tion from Tai­wan called Fo Guang Shan, or Bud­dha’s Light Moun­tain, be­gan build­ing a tem­ple on 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 Shen have be­gun par­tic­i­pat­ing in faith-based or­ga­ni­za­tions 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 cen­ters 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 or­ga­ni­za­tions, 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, 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?


Fo Guang Shan is led by one of mod­ern China’s most fa­mous re­li­gious fig­ures, the Ven­er­a­ble Mas­ter Hs­ing Yun.

At 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 Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties might con­sider ob­jec­tion­able. When I asked him what he hoped to ac­com­plish by spread­ing Bud­dhism — pros­e­ly­tiz­ing 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 Hs­ing’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 while search­ing for his fa­ther, who dis­ap­peared dur­ing the Ja­panese in­va­sion of China in 1937.

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, Hs­ing 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.

The ap­proach had a pro­found im­pact in Tai­wan, which then re­sem­bled main­land China to­day: an in­dus­tri­al­iz­ing so­ci­ety that wor­ried it had cast off tra­di­tional val­ues in its rush to mod­ern­ize. 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 counts more than 1,000 monks and nuns, and more than 1 mil­lion fol­low­ers in 50 coun­tries.


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 refuge An­ge­ bar­ring Squarein Chi­naits Hs­ing tem­ple mas­sacre re­tal­i­at­ed­fromin tookLos­the main­land.though, More Bei­jingthan a decade­be­gan look­ing later, at Hs­ing dif­fer­ently. Like many in Tai­wan of his gen­er­a­tion born on the main­land, he fa­vored uni­fi­ca­tion of China and the is­land — a pri­or­ity for Com­mu­nist lead­ers.

In 2003, they al­lowed him through­with to a a 100-acrevisit li­brary,a fewHe his pledgedyearsand home­town,fa­cil­ity fol­lowed­later to that mil­lion now books, holds in­clud­ingn­early 2 a 100,000-vol­ume col­lec­tion of Bud­dhist scrip­tures. Un­der 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 Hs­ing four times since 2012, telling him in one meet­ing, “I’ve read all the books that Mas­ter sent me.”

While Xi’s gov­ern­ment has tight­ened re­stric­tions on Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam, it has al­lowed Fo Guang Shan to open cul­tural cen­ters in four cities, in­clud­ing Bei­jing and Shang­hai, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s stu­dents in­clude gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

But al­though it held spe­cial ser­vices in Tai­wan dur­ing na­tional crises and en­cour­aged mem­bers there to par­tic­i­pate in pub­lic af­fairs, Fo Guang Shan avoids pol­i­tics in China. There is no men­tion of civic ac­tivism, and it never crit­i­cizes 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.”


Carved into two val­leys of lush bam­boo for­est, the tem­ple on the out­skirts of Yixing fea­tures gi­ant friezes that tell the story of the Bud­dha, a 15-story pagoda and a

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.

Last fall, 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.

When Shen took over the tea shop, she had a hard time un­der­stand­ing what be­ing a good Bud­dhist meant, she said. 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 re­al­ize that faith gives you a min­i­mum moral stan­dard,” Shen said. “It helps you treat oth­ers as your equals.”

The New York Times/GILLES SABRIE

A nun beats a drum to an­nounce the be­gin­ning of morn­ing classes at the Tem­ple of Great Awak­en­ing, built by the Fo Guang Shan Bud­dhist move­ment in Yixing, China. While the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment tight­ens its con­trol over other for­eign re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions, Fo Guang Shan has flour­ished, in part by play­ing down its mes­sage of so­cial change.

The New York Times/GILLES SABRIE

and pil­grims take part in the tem­ple’s Na­tional Day cer­e­mony.

The New York Times/GILLES SABRIE

Nuns sing dur­ing morn­ing classes at the Tem­ple of Great Awak­en­ing.

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