From near extinction, Buddhism has been on a path of renewal in China since the 1980s and has been growing to the extent of now being the religion with most adherents in China—at least 100 million, according to reports by several scholars in an issue of Social Compass on “Social Implications of Buddhist Revival in China” (Dec. 2011).
According to official statistics, there are now more than 20,000 registered Buddhist monasteries in China, possibly with more than 200,000 monks and nuns. Numbers could, however, hide the considerable diversity of Buddhism in China, stresses Sun Yanfei (Columbia University Society of Fellows), ranging from state-recognized institutions to groups having a precarious relationship with the state or outside of institutional Buddhism.
The second type is linked to Buddhist teachers outside China and the third one includes groups mixing Buddhism with popular religion, as well as religious sects with Buddhist references. Due to their links with official institutions in charge of registration of religious groups, recognized Buddhist groups can play an important role either in supporting Buddhist imports or in denying them access. Benefitting from China’s booming economy, the recognized temples have sometimes become quite wealthy, but do not always manage to handle this sudden prosperity judiciously, since the renewal is recent and they lack highly qualified people.
Teachings from abroad is making inroads, including through regular media channels due to the more dynamic environment that exists today in China. Some of them are welcomed by local officials when they bring foreign capital for rebuilding temples or establishing centers, boosting local economies. But the absence of full legal status limits their growth. Syncretist sects tend to be opposed both by the Buddhist establishment and the government. In case of popular religion, this can encourage a process of Buddhification that is sometimes superficial, but allows temples linked to popular religious practices to come under the aegis of state-sanctioned religion through adopting Buddhist externals (such as Buddha statues and services), although it leads to a dilution of their identity.
Research by Gareth Fisher (Syracuse University) shows how lay Buddhist believers in Beijing are attempting to transform museified temples in the Chinese capital into zones of living religiosity: they challenge admission fees to these tourist spots on the ground that they are believers and participate in religious activities inside tourist temples. Ji Zhe (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris) suggests that there is also an attitude of adjustment to the new interest for Buddhism in the form of a summer camp for young people organized by the Bailin Temple (Hebei Province). Traditional rituals are important, if only for the legitimacy of Buddhist temples, but Buddhist festivals, based on the lunar calendar, no longer overlap with the calendar followed by modern Chinese people.
Targeting urban educated youth, the temple has launched summer camps since 1993 for socializing young people into Buddhist practices, presenting them as adjustable to the life environment of contemporary people. The camps are not meant for already active Buddhist believers and there are few requirements: many have little knowledge of Buddhist practices and come because they are curious to learn more about Buddhism. A conversion ritual takes place on the fifth day for those who want to become Buddhists, but a significant percentage does not choose to take that step. Other monasteries have started to organize such camps, seen as a valuable approach for reconciling Buddhism with youth.
Finally, Alison Denton Jones (Harvard University) pays attention to the phenomenon of ethnic Han Chinese adopting Tibetan Buddhism as part of a “proliferation of old, new, and hybrid ways of practicing Buddhism.” There are both cases of Han Chinese converting to Tibetan Buddhism and of Chinese Buddhists incorporating Tibetan practices. There had already been such trends in earlier decades, but this was repressed by the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), along with other religious practices. Due to the politicization of the Tibetan issue, the state is uncomfortable with Han Chinese adopting Tibetan Buddhism.
Where there are few Tibetan Buddhist temples, lamas from Tibetan areas come as itinerant teachers. The fact that established Han Buddhist temples are not well prepared to serve lay populations in urban areas leaves niches in the Buddhist market: Tibetan teachers are able to provide a systematic introduction to Buddhist doctrine as well as a teacher-disciple relationship. Tibetan lamas act as “spiritual entrepreneurs” for spreading the dharma, or specifically Tibetan teachings, not forgetting an economic motivation in some cases. Believers following Tibetan Buddhism perceive it as more powerful and efficacious—which is helped by Tibet’s exoticism. They also feel that Tibetan monks abide by higher standards than their Han Buddhist counterparts. Moreover, they consider Tibetan Buddhism as authentic, systematic and rational.
(Social Compass, L2.08.13, Place Montesquieu, 1348 Louvain la Neuve, Belgium; published by SAGE Publications, http://scp.sagepub.com)