Filling a moral vacuum
Is a Buddhist group changing China? Or is China changing it?
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 Square massacre took refuge in its temple in Los Angeles. China retaliated by barring Hsing from the mainland.
More than a decade later, though, Beijing began looking 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 to visit his hometown, Yangzhou. He pledged to build a library, and followed through a few years later with a 100-acre facility that now holds nearly 2 million books, including 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.”
A ‘MORAL STANDARD’
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.”
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.
Hundreds of nuns and pilgrims take part in the temple’s National Day ceremony.
Nuns sing during morning classes at the Temple of Great Awakening.