Friday, 03 April 2015 16:23

Is Confucius in hell? – Why Answers to the Question Matter

Is Confucius in hell? Post Vatican II Catholics may think that we have definitely moved beyond such a question after the promulgation of Lumen Gentium (1964) which no longer excludes from salvation those "who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience" (Article 16). But the case is far from settled and can still lead to passionate debates among Chinese Protestants of different stripes.

Oversea Chinese Protestant churches and Protestant "house churches" in China are generally considered evangelical or fundamentalist. The morphology itself can present myriad challenges. It is not easy to theoretically distinguish those two terms in the Chinese context, as both groups may appear to be fundamentalist in terms of doctrine, and ordinary believers, who simply consider themselves Christians, may not even recognize such labels. One major difference is evangelicals tend to hold increasingly more assertive political and social agendas following the American religious conservative model. However, a strong fundamentalist tendency exists overall among Chinese Protestants, to the point that the word "fundamentalism" has two translations: when referring to Islamic fundamentalism, it is usually translated as yuanjiaozhi zhuyi (原教旨主义), which has a strong negative connotation; when used with Protestants, it is commonly translated as jiyao zhuyi (基要主义), a more neutral or even laudatory term for self-proclaimed fundamentalists who equate it with steadfast adherence to biblical truths. Theologically speaking, Chinese Protestants tend to be more conservative than American evangelicals such as Billy Graham, whom some consider a heretic due to his interfaith initiatives.

Those who declare that Confucius is in hell base their belief on biblical passages. Among the most frequently cited are John 14: 6 (Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me"), and Acts Chapter 4: 12 (Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved). The bar for salvation for Confucius is thus set very high, requiring the chronologically impossible explicit belief in Jesus. For those who think that it is not fair to damn righteous people who were prevented from knowing Jesus by chronology, the answer is that humans are all sinners and none of us deserves God's grace anyway, Confucius no more than anybody else, because "there is no one righteous, not even one" (Roman 3:10). The most critical of them think it is a heresy even to claim that one is not sure whether or not Confucius is in hell, because it is so clear that he is, based on the correct reading of the Bible.

Some Chinese Protestants have managed to find other biblical passages that make it possible for Confucius to be saved, especially Peter 4:6 (For this is the reason the Gospel was preached even to those who are now dead), or John 5:25 (I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live). The hopeful interpretation is that since the Gospel can be preached to the dead, Confucius would have had a chance to be saved. Given that he so eagerly sought truth during his lifetime, he would have undoubtedly accepted Jesus' teachings. This view was refuted because Gandhi, a virtuous man who knew about Jesus, did not become a believer. Among people who think that Confucius has been saved, some are pious fundamentalists who adhere to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy like their detractors, but they tend to be older and culturally more attached to Confucianism. Some Protestants, especially some but not all "cultural Christians", agree with the way Matteo Ricci and his fellow Jesuits in late Ming and early Qing dynasties read the Chinese classics: Confucius and ancient Chinese, as descendants of Noah, knew the true God; they were neither idolatrous nor atheist. But the church-going Protestants mostly either do not know or do not care about what Catholic missionaries have written, when they do not view it with suspicion.

More cautious people refrain from judging, leaving it to God's grace and wisdom. They even allow that Confucius might be saved, but the lesson to take home is since the only sure way to salvation is through Jesus, we should preach the Gospel to as many people as possible. Why would such a question even matter? They ask. Well, it is not just about Confucius. The question translates a deep unease among Chinese non-believers or religious seekers, who find it unfair that, righteous people born before Jesus lived or was known in their locality, should be condemned to hell, while faith constitutes the sole requirement for salvation, regardless of any other personal merits. Chinese Protestants agree on the inerrancy of the Bible, but in regard to its specific interpretations, those who accuse others of heresy have not come up with coherent criteria. Some refer to the principles of five "Solas": by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, and glory to God alone. But how do those principles apply to specific cases, such as whether or not Confucius is saved? Who is to decide?

For the Chinese, whether or not Confucius is in hell is not an obscure theological question. On one hand, many Protestants aim to play a more assertive role in the public sphere. Some of them declare unsatisfactory Taiwan's model of religious freedom because Protestants there have failed to become a formidable political force in its democratic process. They also deem European democratic model too secular, and aspire instead to American political ideal as defined by American religious conservatives who believe that the country was founded on Protestant Christian idea. On the other hand, even though a significant number of Chinese have become indifferent to Confucius as a result of the May 4th Movement and especially the Cultural Revolution, most people still revere him and consider Confucianism an important part of Chinese cultural heritage. In such a context, what people think about Confucius' salvation status rightfully belongs to the public sphere.

Illustration by Bendu


Thursday, 08 January 2015 17:18

A Curious Puzzle: Americans’ Chilly to Lukewarm Perceptions of Buddhists

When Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell discuss how Americans view various religious groups in their critically acclaimed book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010), they reported that the three most "unpopular" groups are Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims. Based on a "feeling thermometer" from 0 (coldest) to 100 (warmest), all three were ranked in the 40s, below the overall mean of 55 degree and the neutral point of 50. One may wonder how Buddhists could have received such a chilly reception in the US in absence of any typical factors that make a religion unpopular to others, such as negative media attention, social behaviors that run counter to laws or ethic codes of the larger society, historical or ongoing conflicts, and proselytizing competition for converts.

The number puzzles me, especially in comparison with the positive way Buddhists are perceived in France. As reported in a Figaro article in 2013, Buddhism is ranked by Tilder et l'Institut Montaigne as the religion most favorably viewed by the French: 87% of them have a good image of Buddhism, followed by 76% for Protestantism, 69% for Catholicism, 64% for Judaism, and 26% for Islam. Even if we take the exact numbers with a grain of salt, the "warm" feeling the French have for Buddhism can be corroborated by numerous other studies, surveys and newspaper or magazine articles.

It is certainly not the first time the French and Americans so sharply disagree, but the contrast makes it obvious that Americans' negative view of Buddhism may not have much to do with its place outside of Judeo-Christian framework. Putnam and Campbell believe that Americans' religious tolerance stems mainly from the fact that most of them "are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths." As a result, since there are so few Buddhists and Muslims, most Americans are not closely acquainted with anyone of them, preventing "religious bridging". The thesis makes a lot of sense in many regards, but it does not explain, for instance, why American Jews gave Buddhists a warm score of 64, the highest of what they gave to any religious groups other than themselves (Catholics received the same score).

If the condition for Buddhists to be viewed warmly in the US is for a large number of other Americans to be "intimately acquainted" with them, we may wait for a very long time. In a well-researched book, My Freshman Year (2005), anthropologist Rebekah Nathan (pseudonym) observes that college students, whom we might expect to be most dynamic and open-minded, tend to socialize in homogenous groups with those who resemble themselves in appearances and backgrounds. Yes, they are usually polite and civil, but display a surprising level of indifference towards unfamiliar cultures, bitterly felt by international students. Perhaps one of the deepest problems in the US is a pervasive lack of curiosity for difference or unfamiliarity, which is reflected in an overwhelming need to feel comfortable, and to find others "relatable" before willing to be associated with them. Living in the same neighborhood does not mean genuine friendship would result from such proximity, because neighbors seldom socialize with each other. Robert Putnam's bestselling Bowling Alone (2000) depicts precisely an America where people became increasingly disconnected from one another.

It is well-noted that divisions tend to run along racial lines, even in places of worship. In a fascinating article in Huffington Post, "Buddhism's Race Problem: Buddhist 'People of Color Sanghas'", Jaweed Kaleem reports on emerging exclusive Buddhist meditation groups where whites are not allowed, because minority practitioners feel judged and unwelcome in established meditation centers where members are almost entirely white. It may seem odd that Buddhism, a religion that teaches detachment from the self and appearances, cannot bridge the believers' racial division, but we need to take into account America's long history of racial segregation. It was only in 1967 that the US Supreme Court outlawed the so-called "anti-miscegenation laws".

Putnam and Campbell's book was based on Faith Matters Surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007. When Pew Research Center conducted a new survey in July 2014, Americans' "feeling temperature" for Buddhism has increased to 53 degree, still lukewarm but a noticeable improvement, warmer than 48 for Mormons and 40 for Muslims. What has changed? The survey offers various clues. Younger Americans give Buddhist significantly higher marks than older ones: 18 to 29 year-olds, a significant proportion of whom were too young to be included in the previous surveys, rate them at 58 degree, while those 65 and older give them a tepid 47. In addition, there seems to be a correlation with politics: Democrats view Buddhists much more favorably than Mormons (57 versus 44), while Republicans rate them slightly lower (49 versus 52). Does knowing someone from a religious group result in a more positive view? It definitely does, but not to the same degree. Buddhists receive the largest boost, from 48 to 70, the highest mark, but only 23% of Americans know anyone of them.

How do we interpret such statistics? How come Buddhists benefit so much more from familiarity than other religions? For what reasons some religious groups view Buddhists much more favorably than others do? Why do Democrats have a significantly more positive view of Buddhists than Republicans? To what extent those diverse perceptions are related to the specific teachings of Buddhism? Numbers do not lie, as the saying goes, but neither do they tell the whole story.

Photo By Aaron Logan (from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php) [CC BY 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Saturday, 12 July 2014 00:00

Renewal of Buddhism in Mainland China and its Interaction with the Government

Since the reform and opening up policy ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, Buddhism in mainland China is experiencing a dramatic revival. Out of the five major religions in China, it is in fact the one which has taken the most advantage of the conditions created by the government. Millions of tourists, Chinese or foreign, who take trips in China each year can attest to the fact that a large majority of the most popular sites are Buddhist shrines, constructed, or rebuilt within thirty-odd years. Almost entirely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the religion of Buddha Sakhyamuni rises from its ashes today with a surprising vitality, which shows his willingness to take his place in contemporary Chinese society and, as in the past - even more perhaps than in the past - to play a leading role in the modernization of the country.


According to official statistics, there are now more than13,000 buddhist temples in China, and about 200,000 monks and nuns. There are more than 3,000 temples and monasteries for Tibetan-language Buddhism, that is to say, lamaism, with 7 million faithful belonging to various ethnic groups, mainly Tibetans and Mongols, and about 120,000 monks and nuns. Pali-language Buddhism, mainly practised among various ethicities in south and south-west Yunnan, has around 1.5 million practitioners, with 8,000 monks and nuns in more than 1,000 temples and monasteries. The temples and monasteries of the Han nationality, which constitutes the main body of the Chinese nation, number around 9,000, with more than 70,000 monks and nuns.


Another sign of vitality is that several buddhist studies institutes have been also set up or reopened, with a view to training an elite class of monks and nuns with a deep spiritual life combined with a high level of education. This has resulted in many monks and nuns having a good knowledge of their religion and of modern sciences and they have already started to contribute to the propagation of Buddhism and to its dynamic integration in the socialist Chinese society of the 21st century. The first one was the China Buddhist Institute, reopened in Beijing, at the Fayuan Si (法源寺) in 1980.

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All these achievements, and many others, have been possible only with the help and under the control of the government. The majority of temples, monasteries, and institutes which have been restored or rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution have received a substantial amount of financial support from state organisms, and the various activities which take place in them are subjected to the approval of the authorities, just like the other religions in the country. The extraordinary revival of Buddhism observed presently in China shows that the government is itself directly interested in the progress of a religion which, in the past, has played a decisive role in chinese history and civilization.

To better understand this interaction between Buddhism and the Chinese government, it may be useful to look back on the two thousand year history of Buddhism in China. It appears clear from the outset that the religion that came from India could take root and grow in the Middle Kingdom only with the support of civil authorities. This is clearly recognized by Master Dao An (道 安) (312-385) , a renowned translator and interpreter of Buddhist Scriptures of the Eastern Jin dynasty, which laid down the principle that "without the support of the leaders of the country, the affairs of the Dharma are not on solid ground." This principle, which somehow summarizes the history of the establishment of Buddhism in China, is also a kind of axiom that defines the line adopted over the centuries by the Sangha. The fate of the temples, their prosperity or decline depends on good relations with the state. What we read in the Annals of the Guoqing temple (國清寺) (Zhejiang) can be said of the vast majority of temples: "Over the centuries, the Guoqing Temple flourished and widely spread the Dharma thanks to the magnanimity of princes and emperors; wars and the contempt of the powerful led to Buddhism's decline. The Buddhsit tradition has continued uninterrupted - from profliferation to decadence and from decadence to profliferation - such is the characteristic of the history of the age-old development of the Guoqing Si". Zanning (贊寧) (919-1001), a Buddhist Master and author of Biographies of eminent monks of the Song Dynasty said one day: "Buddha entrusted the Dharma to kings and ministers." He was probably referring to two sutras now considered apocryphal, but which had throughout the history of China a decisive influence on the attitude of the princes towards Buddhism: the Humane King Sutra1 and the Golden Light Sutra2. In "entrusting the Dharma to kings and ministers," Buddha not only entrusted to them the protection of religion, but by this very fact gave them an authority allowing them to exercise direct control over the Sangha. The history of the temples shows that they are the ones who allowed the construction of monasteries, and often provided at least part of the funding; they also gave the temples their official names by the gift of an inscription together with an official seal, thereby giving it right to exist; they, also, were the who appointed the priors (fangzhang) of the main temples and give them the title of "national master" or "imperial master."


In short, the existence and activities of monasteries depended on their goodwill. They also often depended on their generosity, for princes and emperors like to be magnanimous and to give lavish donations: liturgical instruments, paintings, calligraphy, poems, precious objects, Tripitaka and so on, which make and enrich the cultural patrimony of the temples.

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Naturally, the rulers of China's history were not all in favor of Buddhism, as evidenced by the great persecutions of the religion at various times, especially in the time of Emperor Wuzong (武宗) (841-845) of the Tang dynasty. But we can mention here, by way of illustration, the names of some of them who exerted the most positive influence on the development of Buddhism:

  • Liang Wudi (梁武帝) (502-549) He was the most fervent and the most liberal of the sovereigns of the Southern Dynasties, who were all favourable to Buddhism. A great supporter of the Sangha, he was nicknamed " the Bodhisattva Emperor"; leading his subjects to observe the Precepts, he entered himself on several occasions in a monastery, and built numerous temples, including the Kaishan Si (開山寺, now Linggu Si 靈谷寺), in Nanjing, to honour the memory of his favourite adviser, the Monk Bao Zhi (寶志).
  • Wu Zetian (武則天) (684-704) considered herself as the mother of Buddha, and the incarnation of Maitreya. Having formerly spent three years in a convent of Bikkhunis, she showed a special fondness for Wutaishan, where she built several temples and pagodas, donating to the mountain's collection of books, statues and valuables.
  • Kubilay Khan (1214–1294) From Kubilay (Shizong世宗), the founder, to Shundi (順帝), the last of the dynasty, the rulers of the Yuan dynasty were all fervent supporters of Buddhism, on which they lavished presents and favors. The number of temples increased, and the monastic population grew in a spectacular way. The most famous Lama was Basiba (八思巴), whom Kubilay named an imperial Master and his Prime Minister; he gave him the imperial seal and appointed him Great Pontiff of the Central Plain, enjoying authority over all Buddhists in the Empire. Basiba created the written language which bears his name; it entered common usage in 1269, and was the official language throughout the whole Yuan dynasty.
  • Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) (1368-1398), the founder of the Ming dynasty had been a monk during his youth, and showed a great interest in Buddhism, both in terms of his personal convictions and for political motives. He helped it develop and organize, drawing up strict rules for admission to the Sangha and for monastic discipline.
  • Kangxi (康熙) (1662-1722) considered himself as the incarnation of the Wuliangshou Buddha (Buddha of Infinite Life, i.e. Amithaba). He visited the sacred mountain of Wutaishan five times; among other significant gestures, he conferred on the Great Lama of the Pusa Ding lamasery the seal of Governor, and ordered all the Authorities of Shanxi, including the Governor of the province and the General commandant of Datong, to pay him tribute. He had the great halls of the temple covered with glazed yellow tiles, a colour normally reserved for the buildings of the imperial family.
  • Qianlong 乾隆 (1736–96) considered himself the incarnation of the bodhisattva Guanyin. He visited Wutaishan six times, each time leaving laudatory signs of his passage, in the form of poems and calligraphy. At the death of Yong Zheng, he transformed the former Palace of the latter, the Yong He Gong, into a lamasery with imperial colours, conferring to Tibetan Buddhism one of the most prominent and most envied position in the heart of the Capital.
  • Cixi 慈喜 (1835-1908) also considered himself the incarnation of the bodhisattva Guanyin. She liked to be called "Laofoye" (老佛爷), meaning the old Buddha.

These examples and many others in the two thousand year history of Buddhism in China, show that when he "entrusted the Dharma to kings and ministers," the Buddha Sakyamuni actually secured the establishment and development of the religion in the Middle Kingdom.

The support of the princes demanded that Buddhists of the country made a commitment to promote national prosperity, security and stability. This responsibility was assumed largely by those of the members of the Sangha to whom was conferred the honorary title of "national master" 國師 or "imperial master" 帝師. Advisors to the sovereigns, they controlled the organization of monastic communities on the ground, and with their prestige and influence, contributed to the legitimacy of the central power. This was the case, for example, of Fo Tudeng (佛圖澄) (232-348), senior adviser to Emperor Shile (石勒) of the Zhao, thanks to whom Buddhism became the official religion of the kingdom3; of the national Master Kumarajiva (鳩摩羅什) (343-413?) whose unmatched quality of translations' ensured Buddhism a leading position); of Xuanzang (玄奘) (ca 600-664), who, without having the official title of national master, enjoyed the exceptional favor of the emperor, and made Buddhism in China a privileged religion; of the national master Amoghavajra, also known as Bukong (不 空) (705-774), who was one of the most powerful monks politically in the history of China, whose great religious authority consolidated the power of the leaders and promoted the prosperity of the country; of the national Master Chengguan (澄觀) (738-838), the fourth patriarch of Huayanzong, the School of the Flower Garland, who was the spiritual master of seven successive emperors; of Basiba 八思巴 (1235-1280), national then imperial master under Kubilay Khan, who worked efficiently for the political rallying of Tibetans; of Yishan Yining (一山一寧) (1247-1317), who was made responsible for restoring Sino-Japanese relations that had been broken off after the attempted invasions of Japan by Kublai Khan, in 1274 and 1281; and of many others. Besides the influence of these "national " or "imperial" masters, the inculturation of Buddhism on Chinese soil, and its uneven but continuous development for two millennia, were obviously also due to many other monks and lay Buddhists whose moral authority and writings were equally, if not more, critical, and whose action developed also in the framework of bilateral relations with the authorities.

This interaction of Buddhism with the civil and political power has been a constant phenomenon in the history of China. It explains both the success of the religion of Buddha Sakhyamuni in the Middle Kingdom, and the interest, as a whole, that princes and emperors granted it. During the celebration of the two thousandth anniversary of the introduction of Buddhism in China in 1998, Ven. Jing Hui (凈慧), vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association, could declare without fear of being contradicted: "Buddhism was introduced to China two thousand years ago. During these two thousand years, Buddhism has always played an obvious role of purification of the heart, it has raised the moral level, ensured the peace and the stability of the country, favoured national unity, protected the environment, assisted the poor and the needy. It has exerted a very deep influence on the politics, the economy, the culture and the popular customs of our country..."

The spectacular revival accomplished by Buddhism since the reform and opening up policy of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, shows notable similarities with the past in the process of the interaction between the religion of the Buddha and the country's leaders. Different as it is from the feudal dynasties, the socialist system of the People's Republic of China exerts on Buddhism, like on all religions in the country, a similar function of support and control, while the Buddhist communities, for their part, are invited to help with promoting national stability, unity and prosperity. The axiom formulated by Master Dao An in the 4th century is still true today, implicitely, the relations of Buddhism with the government: "without the support of the country's leaders, the affairs of the Dharma are not on solid ground."

The government's support and control effect change today through the Buddhist Association of China, whose objectives are clearly defined in the statutes: "The aims of B.A.C. are to assist the government to implement the policy on freedom of religious affairs , to protect the legitimate rights and interests of Buddhist circles, to propagate Buddhist teachings, to develop Buddhism under its traditions, to unite Buddhists nationwide, to work for the happiness of people as well as the prosperity of the country, to make contributions for the unity of the motherland as well as world peace." With the exception of Tibet, these objectives seem to meet no opposition in the country, and have actually favored the extraordinary revival made by Buddhism in the limited space of about thirty years. Thus can we make a connection between the role formerly entrusted by the rulers to their "national " or "imperial masters" and the institutional role assigned today by the government of the People's Republic of China to the Buddhist Association of China. The high-ranking officials in this association, exercise a moral and political authority that make them resemble the "national masters" of the past, and enjoy, both in China and abroad, a reputation that greatly favors the interests of Buddhism on the national and international levels, as well as the growing influence of traditional Chinese culture in the world.

In an important speech at the UNESCO on March 27, Xi Jinping (習近平), the President of the People's Republic of China, stressed the need to promote exchanges and mutual sharing of knowledge among civilizations. This speech, the first of a Chinese head of state before this organization of the United Nations, puts focus clearly as never before on the value and meaning of traditional Chinese civilization, to the extent of being called the manifesto of the renaissance of Chinese civilization:


"Having gone through over 5,000 years of vicissitudes, the Chinese civilization has always kept to its original roots. Unique in representing China spiritually, it contains some most profound pursuits of the Chinese nation and provides it with abundant nourishment for existence and development. Though born on the soil of China, it has come to its present form through constant exchanges and mutual learning with other civilizations..."


Buddhism originated in ancient India. After it was introduced into China, the religion went through an extended period of integrated development with indigenous Confucianism and Taoism and finally became the Buddhism with Chinese characteristics, thus making a deep impact on religious belief, philosophy, literature, art, etiquette and customs of the Chinese people.

It goes without saying that, for the president of the People's Republic of China, this interaction of Buddhism with the Chinese people means also interaction with the leaders of the nation. On behalf of the whole country, Xi Jinping points clearly to a certain direction:

"the Chinese civilization, together with the rich and colorful civilizations created by the people of other countries, will provide mankind with the right cultural guidance and strong motivation".

Thus, among all the world's civilizations, the thousand years old Chinese civilization appears to be a rich and potentially most effective partner. A civilization that encompasses traditional religions and philosophies, especially Buddhism, which has become over the centuries an essential component of Chinese culture. While showing, as we have just seen, the direction to be taken, the president of the People's Republic of China also expresses the hope placed by the Chinese people and their leaders in the Buddhist religion to promote the international role of China on the cultural level. The interaction between Buddhism and the Chinese authorities will from now, more than anywhere else, manifest itself in the traditional civilization "going out" beyond the frontiers in order to exert, within the alliance of civilizations of mankind, an influence commensurate to its thousand years old history.

Echoing the keynote speech of Xi Jinping at UNESCO, Buddhist circles are now committing themselves in turn to promote Chinese culture internationally. Ven. Xue Cheng (學誠), vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association of China, and one of the most prominent personalities of the Sangha, likes to emphasize the fact that Buddhism is, of the three religious components of China, the one which has had and will have the greatest influence. After being propagated in East and South East Asia. Buddhism has now extended its reach to Europe and the USA, and acts as a powerful vehicle for the revival of Chinese culture.

"If we hope to see Chinese culture, including Buddhist culture advance in the world", said Ven. Xue Cheng, "if we hope to see the civilization of China make an even greater contribution to the civilizations of mankind, we must above all 'go out' , go into all regions of the world, learn languages and understand the cultures of different countries, and in a process of continual self-improvement, allow the Chinese culture to bring happiness to men, and Buddhist culture, by the spiritual quality of compassion, bring freshness in the world."

This is also the conviction of Ven. Yong Xin (永信), abbot of Shaolin Temple (少林寺) and renowned vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association of China. The Shaolin Temple, by touring martial arts in the world, not only makes known the essence of traditional culture, but still more spreads this culture outside of China, helping China's culture "go out" into the world, expand its influence, and strengthen exchanges with other countries. Thjis is the crucial role that Shaolin Temple wants to play under the dynamic leadership of its abbot.

In "going out" of China, Chinese Buddhist culture will help expand the influence of Chinese civilization in the world, while the international rise of China, which is on the way to becoming a major economic and political power, will promote the extension of Buddhism in many countries. The interaction between the religion of the Buddha and the Chinese authorities, which has proven itself for two thousand years, takes on now a new dimension, at the global level.

Christian Cochini s.j.
Hongkong, June 19, 2014

 

For the original French please click here


1 仁王經, Ren wang jing. Its full name is the Prajnaparamita Sutra for Humane Kings Who Protect their Country. In some Chinese temples, this sutra is used today during prayers on behalf of the government and the country.
2 金光明經, Jinguang ming jing. It is a very important Mahayana sutra, and one of the most popular Mahayana sutras of all times.
3 The successor of Shile, emperor Shihu, promulgated an edict making Fo Tudeng a « national treasure » and granted him many privileges.


Tuesday, 30 July 2013 16:34

In Search of Lost Faith

Photography by Liz Hingley

Few would deny that the modern world is facing a spiritual crisis today. This observation was met with consensus in the beginning of the 20th century and continues on today.

As late as the Renaissance, Western civilization was dominated by Christianity. As scientific knowledge and methodology evolved, they started to chip away at the foundations of the Western theological worldview, starting with the findings of scientists such as Galileo Galilei and reaching an apex with the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species in 1859. Nowadays, most people do not buy in to the idea that our lives are governed by a certain deity (or deities). Neither do they believe that our world was created by some supernatural force. Science has apparently won the battle over religion, and many of us would pride ourselves as enlightened, intelligent modern human beings, free from the superstitious beliefs that dimmed the minds of our ancestors.

However, the proliferation of New Age theosophy and the increasingly complex discourse on astrology proves otherwise; thanks to the evolution of the technological industry, you can now receive complex astrolabes that can not only tell you your traditional astrological sign but also your moon sign and your ascending sign, and so on ad nauseum, which each have their own meanings and are supposed to influence you in different arenas of your life. What's more, the attraction of astrology is immune to scientific scrutiny and it’s not unusual to find PhD science graduates indulging in the guilty pleasures of astrology and feng shui. Clearly, the Promethean wisdom of science is not sufficient to quench our thirst for other-worldly meaning.

Max Weber, in his 1918 lecture "Science as Vocation" quotes Tolstoy’s concise explanation of why science cannot satisfy our spiritual appetite: "Science is meaningless because it gives no answers to our questions, the only questions of import to us: "What shall we do and how shall we live?"" Of course, as one who took up science as a vocation, Weber is not one to agree too quickly with the statement that "science is meaningless," but he does agree that the presupposition of a complete, wholesome theological metanarrative projects a stable theological subject, while the lack of such creates an alienated, self-centered individual, unsure of what to make out of the world or what to make out of himself. Weber further concludes that "natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we must do if we wish to master life technically. It leaves quite aside, or assumes for its purposes, whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so."

Noting this sense of spiritual lack and the impotency of science, many people in the contemporary world have returned to their churches and their temples, in order to find spiritual peace. It is easy to imagine, however, that this is by no means an easier route. What has been undone by science cannot be remedied so easily. A couple of months ago, eRenlai presented a focus entitled "My God?" that explored the discovery, loss and rediscovery of faith. Interviewees included followers of Buddhism, Catholicism and Christianity. A Buddhist interviewee mentioned how difficult it was to completely commit to her faith, as in the modern world people are often jaded and guarded against religion. Even after several years of Buddhist practice, her Master doubts whether she has even reached the minimum requirement of becoming a true Buddhist.

The problem of committing to religious beliefs that are unscientific does not only exist in Buddhism. In order to avoid awkward encounters with scientific knowledge, such as the theory of evolution, the majority of Christian teachings nowadays mostly take a symbolist approach to the Scriptures. Those who embrace the fundamentalist approach and deny every scientific statement that opposes the propositions of the Bible are extremely scarce and are often viewed as misfits in contemporary society. However, though the symbolist approach is accepted in modern society, it is not a satisfying method, in that the authority to interpret sacred texts is then granted to humans and it gives the whole process a political spin. Who gets to decide the specific meaning of each text, and does that make the interpretation infallible? How do we know whether such an interoperation is not simply a guise for manipulation by vested interests? It is these doubts that constitute the core canon of literature on religious doubt such as A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man or The Way of All Flesh. It is thus easy to see how difficult it is to maintain a steadfast religious conviction in modern society, despite the fact that science itself offers nothing better.

So what do we do now? For those who wish to remain religious, Max Weber suggests an "intellectual sacrifice," similar to a fideistic leap of faith, though this is no easy task, as demonstrated by the example of our Buddhist interviewee. For the non-believer, he has to search for the answer himself, to determine who is his God and who is his devil. Science works only insofar as it becomes a tool for the modern man to clarify his ideas. Either path he chooses, concludes Weber, the most important thing is to maintain his integrity. If one is faced with doubts about one's beliefs, one should have the courage to face these doubts head on, and not simply rush to the nearest exit.


Wednesday, 09 January 2013 15:28

The Width and Depth of the Ocean within Me: In Memory of Yves Raguin

In 2012, we celebrated the centenary of the birth of Father Yves Raguin, founder of the Taipei Ricci Institute. Born in November 1912, Father Raguin died in December 1998 at Tien Educational Center in Taipei. After having studied theology in Paris and Sinology at Harvard, Yves Raguin lived in China, Vietnam, The Philippines and, for most of his career, Taiwan. He was a prolific author, mainly but not solely on comparative spirituality, and also a lexicographer who for many years directed the Ricci Dictionary project – the largest Chinese –foreign language dictionary in the world – and a beloved spiritual director.


The connection between his centenary anniversary and Pacific studies may seem an odd one, but there are several reasons for associating the Pacific with Fr Raguin's life and spirituality. First, there is the creation of the Taipei Ricci Institute in 1964-1966: Fr Raguin made the Institute a place of encounter, research and creativity till he left its direction in 1996 – and it is because of fidelity to his inspiration that the Institute later on shifted its focus towards Pacific studies. Second, Fr Raguin himself was no stranger to the Pacific world. Not only did his long stays in Vietnam and Taiwan make him a man of the Asia Pacific, but he also directed spiritual retreats and gave courses in The Philippines, Canada or Papua New Guinea among other places.


The main connection between the celebration of his birth and Pacific studies is that Yves Raguin focused all of his life on the quest for resonance and encounters between the different spiritual experiences that humankind has engaged in – and the spiritual style he slowly developed has oceanic undertones; pondering over his experiences may help us integrate the melodies and resonances we are gathering these days into the polyphony of world spirituality. I still remember Yves Raguin telling me one day, shortly before his death, how much he had always desired to see Chinese spiritual resources "fully integrated into humankind's spiritual computer." Yves Raguin used a typewriter all his life and never browsed the Internet. He had only a vague understanding of what a computer was like, but knew well enough the point relevant for his metaphor: a computer was a machine processing the data entered into it as an integrated whole, in which connections could be drawn in all directions.


Yves Raguin always placed the virtue of attentiveness at the core of any spiritual adventure. In "Contemplation East and West" he writes:


Contemplation is not a means of attention towards things beyond this world but rather an attention to things as they are. All things possess within themselves a mystery, and the more knowledge we have of these things, the more we realize the depth of the mystery within them. (...) If I practice what is called in Confucianism, investigation of things ge wu , I will be facing a mystery of things and I will be taken in by a kind of contemplation. It is the concrete awareness of the essential nature of things which puts me in silence before the mystery of this same nature. It is this essential nature of reality that science cannot grasp. This deep inner attitude described by the two terms serenity and a quiet being together with all things, has always been what wise women and men have been searching for in all parts of the world."

Elsewhere he notes:

Prayer is nothing but a simple awareness that in the beginning can be very painful. (The soul) feels cutoff from her normal activity and so, from herself. This barely perceptible presence forces the soul into deep solitude. She has no felt support outside this presence that draws her attention.

It seems to me that the primal role given to the "attention to the mystery of things' in spiritual development is what anchors Yves Raguin's spirituality within a multifaceted tradition open to what the writer Romain Rolland, in his correspondence with Sigmund Freud, called the "Oceanic feeling." Through this expression he was trying to encapsulate a feeling of infinity that palpitates beyond all structured religious belief. Nowadays, Rolland's "Oceanic feeling" has become no more than a footnote in the history of religious psychology. Freud was not very appreciative: "How foreign to me are the worlds in which you move! Mystique is as closed to me as music" he wrote to Rolland – who replied," I can hardly believe that mysticism and music are foreign to you. I rather think that you are afraid of them, as you wish to keep the instrument of critical reason unblemished."

Going one step beyond Rolland, one may say that, for the one who through attentiveness enters into the mystery of things as they are, the presence of the ultimate mystery in the soul is like the triumphant sound of the waves - and this "like" means two things at once: first, it speaks of the universal character of spiritual experience; and secondly, it recognizes the fact that no comparison can account for the way this mystery makes itself present within the depths of man. What the Oceanic feeling helps us understand is that joy arises in our soul always as something nascent. The joy that comes from the light of the day within the darkness of our depths is sung and evoked by the movement of an ocean everlasting and yet nascent, by the rhythm of the waves engraving and erasing their writings on the sand with a finger trembling and yet assured. Eventually, the Oceanic feeling makes us glimpse at the mystery of the birth of the divine within the soul: a gift eternally offered – and always new.

As an example of Yves coming into contact with this "oceanic experience", let us look at this passage from his spiritual diary in February 1979:

My internal being was enlightened, and an intimate touch of softness was entering into me. It was like a tenderness that was invading and attracting me, but without uprooting me from my humaneness. On the contrary, it was like the constant realization within me of a new incarnation. (...) Departing from Paris on January 5, I have given retreats in Thailand and in Papua New Guinea. I am now in the Philippines and in a few weeks I will be again in Taiwan. I can only say 'thanks" for all the love shown to me by the Lord during this trip around the world started in June. Everything has become very simple. This love of the Lord asks simply from me to be myself so as to let him be himself within me.

The deceiving simplicity of this paragraph should not hide the depth of meaning it opens: a given spiritual tradition – here, the western mystical tradition, with undertones coming from St Bernard, Meister Eckardt and St Ignatius - becomes somehow "globalized' by an operation of "rarefaction" or "distillation" that connects it not only to so-called Eastern spiritualities but to spiritual experiences as lived in many tongues, many customs and many settings. The experience here related is about the realization of what one is really called to be, in one's given tradition and calling, so as to let one's particularity become the creative humus in which other people will learn to similarly recognize what they are themselves called to be. Universality is not an "essence", but rather a process, awakened by the creative fidelity to what I come from and to what I am called to be. The ocean on which Yves Raguin tirelessly traveled was certainly that of the infinity of god – emptiness and plenitude – dwelling within our limited self; it was at the same time the ocean of the astounding variety of our human spiritual experiences, scattered like islands among the Sea of Unknowing. In his view, these two immensities were revealed and illuminated by one another. His writings and his example still encourage us to explore both the width and the depth of the Ocean that gave us birth and carries us beyond even our dreams.

Excerpt of a speech pronounced during the 2012 International Austronesian Conference in Taipei, November 27th


Friday, 22 June 2012 15:17

Taiwanese spirituality in photography

Photographing people's spirituality is not an easy task - first you need to gain trust of the people you want to photograph and often even that will not be enough, as spiritual practices are for many something too personal, or sometimes sacred, to be shown. I attempted nevertheless and made a collection that shows diversity of Taiwanese spiritual and religious life, and although it is not even close to fully show the abundance of spirituality on the island, it does provide a glimpse of it. I omitted some of the biggest religious groups in Taiwan in order to show spirituality in Taiwan in a new light. Further, I treat this collection as a beginning of a bigger and long lasting project of photographing religious and spiritual life in Taiwan.

02

Dada Kaladharananda showing a yoga posture in Ananda Marga center in Taipei

 

03
Professor Shi Mingzong – coach of Shida basketball team talks to his players
during a yoga session in Ananda Marga center in Taipei. His son also participates in exercises

  

04
Shida basketball team doing yoga exercises

 

05
Shida basketball team doing yoga exercises

 

06
Muslims during prayer time in Grand Mosque in Taipei

 

07
Fridays are the only days when muslims can come to the Grand Mosque
to buy halal meat imported from Australia and New Zeland

 

08
The canteen in Grand Mosque also offers halal zongzi

 

09
Relaxing in the mosque after prayer

 

10
Pilgrims to Baishatun kneeling for hours to receive Mazu’s blessing

 

11
Early morning during Baishatun Mazu pilgrimage

 

12
Mourners watch how a coffin with their deceased relative is being cremated. With assistance of a buddhist monk

 

13
A collection of flower essence in a New Age bookstore next to NTU main gate

 

14
A todler with his grandmother on the grounds of the neat Mormon temple in Taipei

 

15
Postcards with pictures from the LDS temple sold in a shop near the temple in Taipei

 

16
Wednesday bible reading and experience sharing group
in the Catholic Sacred Heart Church in Taipei - lead by American nun and the parish priest

17
Bible in front of one of the members of the Wednesday group

 

18

Eclectic public cemetery in Taipei

 

19
Jay Caffin – a spiritual healer who now lives and practices in Kaohsiung

 

Photography and editing by Witold Chudy (Photo no.1: Graves of Italian missionaries to Yunnan)

Photo no. 13 (flower essence) by Cerise Phiv


Wednesday, 29 February 2012 16:19

From self-exploration and reflection to community: The Baishatun Mazu Pilgrimage

For over a century devotees of the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu (媽祖 lit. Mother Ancestor), from the Gongtian Temple in Baishatun, Miaoli County have flocked to Beigang’s Chaotian Temple in Yunlin County for an annual 400-plus km pilgrimage in the 2nd Lunar month of the year. They participate for the blessings, protection and fortune afforded by Mother Mazu, who was said to protect the fisherman and sailors on the high seas when she was a living human, known as Lin Moniang. As I lived by the seaside growing up myself I was moved by this significance. This year, as I tracked my way back from my Chinese New Year holiday to urban life in Taipei, I decided to join the devotees on the return leg of their 9-day journey, hoping to find in the ritual space, time and an opportunity for reflection.

The Mazu Pilgrimage (媽祖進香), which literally means an offering of incense, involved more than one thousand pilgrims following by foot Mazu’s jiao(轎)or palanquin, on her journey to the sacred first Mazu temple in Taiwan. While not shunning modern technology - A GPS informs followers of where Mazu is at any point in time – the deity nonetheless has an erratic and unpredictable personality in deciding her path. No one knows which route the unpredictable goddess will take and what locations or occurrences will draw her attention along the way, in fact, the only certainty is that the goddess will arrive at the ancestral temple and will find her way back to her hometown temple. One year Mazu even guided her followers through the cold currents of the Zhuoshui River rather than taking the rather more practical Xiluo Bridge. Mazu indicates the direction she wants to go by leaning and putting more weight on a particular corner of her palanquin, which is held aloft by devotees on their shoulders. The Baishatun Mazu is also fiercely incorruptible by modern politics and etiquette. She is a chaotic force for good, oblivious to any rules that would be imposed upon her. While politics often plagues other religious processions such as the most famous Dajia Mazu, the Baishatun Mazu avoids many of these problems with her anarchical mode of existence. Mazu’s uncontrollable free spirit, nonetheless, seems to give respect to local knowledge, with considerations of geography, the cultural map and mythology of the people and prevailing conditions during the journey.

The Council of Cultural Affairs is now promoting the Baishatun pilgrimage as a distinctive peculiarity of the island's native culture and identity; arguably this may be a strategy to bring this religious activity more closely in line with the needs of the state. But this tradition and community cannot be defined and imposed upon by state ideology. This Mazu pilgrimage is a grassroots, bottom up culture which develops spontaneously in dialogue with the local land and people. It has a thousand different interpretations, and a thousand different truths.

mazu_witek_nick2

With her sometimes cruel sense of humour Mazu mocks state control and rules implemented by faraway experts and institutions. In this festival of passionate religious expression, all the repressions that normally apply to earthly beings are broken or sidestepped. The police seem more like spectators, sighing as Mazu decides to divert troublesomely on to the motorway, or guide her followers through private property bumbling, or a movement I could only describe as 'bianging', aggressively through whatever stands in her path. Throughout the pilgrimage local residents light a barrage of fireworks on the roads, in theory an illegal activity, leaving the pilgrims engulfed in a constant cloud of smoke and the police look on impotently as the palanquin barges on through. This freedom of religious expression and creativity is severely lacking in Mazu’s homeland of southern China, where the government’s tight policy of control of religion leaves little space for such crowd-inducing rituals which are viewed with great suspicion, cutting the local populations off from these potentially de-alienating rituals and connection with the land. What I saw on this pilgrimage showed me that a lack of central control on the body and mind stimulates colour, contrasts and distinctive flavours whilst opening the doors for creative problem solving.

What sets the incorruptible Baishatun Mazu apart from other Mazu pilgrimages is the lack of shackles placed upon the followers forcing them to follow a strict temple doctrine; the space allowed for creativity, is inspiring to its followers without being repressive. Those in good health will follow the whole journey on foot as suixiangtuan, but for those who can’t walk long distances they will follow as jinxiangtuan in their car or a coach, stopping off to pray as Mazu sets off in the early morning. By throwing divination blocks, temple representatives will ask Mazu at what time they will set off in the morning which in my experience ranged from 2am to the early afternoon. This disorganized state allows for diverse interpretations and truths and encourages creativity and innovation. All along the journey individual worshippers happily spend their time and money practically, forcing upon you endless cups of green, red and ginger tea, sports drinks, and cans of Mr Brown coffee, also rarely did an hour pass by without being served lashings of thick soup, sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaf or mantou steamed bread. Many people even go extra lengths to create their own special dishes, such as one man who had been raising fish eggs which he combined with a delicious salmon sauce; each passer-by was treated to one deluxe mouth-watering bite served on a lone potato chip. Almost every house along the way seemed delighted to provide free accommodation to the pilgrims and discuss past stories and inquire as to how Mazu’s mood had been this year. Also known as the Silent Maiden, her mood could only be guessed by each devotee based on observing her interactions with the land and the people.

Each devotee’s belief in Mazu’s powers seems to stem from a different story based on their own personal experience and enlightenment, merely taking part in this year’s walk I encountered a host of different stories which is why I thoroughly recommend readers take part in the procession themselves.

I first heard about this Mazu pilgrimage due to my explorations into the world of performance arts and theatre, more specifically in the year I spent with Sannyas Meditation Theatre, which gets its inspiration from the Butoh tradition and the late Kazuo Ohno. The works of experimental theatre pioneer Jerzy Grotowski inspired a generation of performers to take part in local rituals, in order to make their performance more seamlessly connected to their inner self and local conditions, parenthesizing the alienating performance training they had received, thus making their performance more natural, truer. For me, asides from unfettered curiosity, taking part in the pilgrimage was a chance to enter a very pure state stemming directly from the connection between body and land and to explore how I would develop naturally on from this.

I kicked off my journey in a characteristically inauspicious way. As I was waiting to meet up with a fellow member of the Sannyas Theatre in the sacred Chaotiangong temple in Beigang, I was found to be leaning unawares on Mazu’s palanquin and was quickly exhorted and shuffled away by her stewards. I commenced the walk over-relishing the physical challenge and was perhaps even a little bit competitive. Jogging sections and even giving a friend a piggy back ride, left my knees and ankles suffering heavily over the last few days. I also found myself slightly overindulging in the free food offerings. Perhaps Mazu sensed that I had not yet entered a pure mind while following her as a couple of nights later Mazu appeared twice in my dreams, staring at me sternly and leaving me waking up damp and sweaty. It was not until later that I realised I had started the pilgrimage more as an observer, outsider than a full participant and seamless member of the community. I had heard a thousand different truths and meanings of peoples own experiences of the Mazu procession but I was still in the process of discovering my own, truthful only if based on the personal experience of my body and soul in dialogue with the community.

Photos by Witek Chudy

See the complete photostory by Witek


Monday, 31 October 2011 14:41

Microblogs with Macro Reach: Spirituality Online In China

Sina Weibo is big in China right now. Essentially a microblogging service, it has elements of Facebook and Twitter, both of which (along with YouTube) are banned on the Mainland. With over 400 million users1, Sina Weibo is definitely a hit, and is likely to remain so as long as it does not become a vehicle for dissent and upset or threaten the government. Like all social media, Sina Weibo is overflowing with minutiae. Triumphs and tragedies, love and loathing, it is there for all to see. I enjoyed reading one of my Chinese namesakes wax lyrical about his newly rounded eyes (via eyelid cosmetic surgery). Body modification aside, the communication possibilities that Sina Weibo has generated are proving attractive to many in China, including those in the religious and spiritual spheres.

As I have written before, religion is a constantly evolving and fascinating phenomenon2, even in China where regulations continue to be more restrictive than in other countries in the region3. Here I will profile some of the various characters taking advantage of the enormous opportunity to promote their personalities, organisations and messages through Sina Weibo.

Taiwan’s Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山) is a large Buddhist organisation that uses its Sina Weibo account4 to share quotations of spiritual inspiration and considered reflection - “What is self?” and “Success is a beautiful result, failure is a beautiful experience” are two recent thought provoking and decidedly non-menacing examples.

Xing Yun (星云) is a monk who fled China decades ago and has built a massive international Buddhist organisation based at Foguangshan (佛光山) in southern Taiwan. On Sina Weibo he has garnered an impressive 327,593 followers5. Like Dharma Drum Mountain, Xing Yun reaches out to his followers with a stream of short and poignant pieces of Buddhist wisdom. For many years Xing Yun and the late founder of Dharma Drum Mountain, Sheng-yen (聖嚴), would have dreamed about having such direct access to Buddhists in the land of their birth. Sina Weibo now gives them unprecedented reach. However, it is in the less orthodox bloggers that we can find even more innovative examples.

Terry Hu (胡茵夢) is a Taiwanese movie star turned author6. Her works are spiritual in nature, and include a translation of the biography of the 20th century Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. Currently promoting her autobiography, Hu is tapping into her network of Sina Weibo followers to drum up publicity by holding competitions. Those who forward details of her book onto three friends have the opportunity to win more books and the writers of the five most outstanding comments will also win a book. Several hundred bloggers have participated in this marketing ploy.

Another Taiwanese author writing and translating in the ‘body, mind, spirit’ genre (身心靈) is Tiffany Chang (張德芬)7 . Prior to her career as a spiritual figure, Chang was a news anchor on Taiwan’s TTV channel. Aside from writing her own books (Meeting the Unknown Self) and translating popular foreign authors, such as Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth), Chang has produced a short series of videos where she reviews books8 and has assisted Taipei’s Huan-ting zen in Taiwan and China. Demonstrating considerable web savvy, Chang operates a China-based body, mind, spirit website called ‘Inner Space’9. She uses her Sina Weibo account to distribute news of updates on Inner Space to her followers, who number just under 100,000.

Perhaps the most interesting religious figure using Sina Weibo is the young Buddhist monk, Shi Daoxin (釋道心)10. Having accumulated over 189,000 followers, he uses Sina Weibo in a way that some might more associate with a self-absorbed and self-promoting youth. I have never seen a monk demonstrate such fashion sense; Shi Daoxin has a knack for matching his robes with his (often gaudily coloured) glasses. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, scroll down his blog and you will see a fantastic variety of photos.

Shi Daoxin pouting. Shi Daoxin posing wistfully outside a temple. Shi Daoxin rendered as a cartoon. Shi Daoxin meditating. Shi Daoxin meditating next to a naked babe.

The photo of Shi Daoxin meditating behind a penitent-looking female nude is particularly interesting. Apparently the winner of the Virginia Photo Exhibition in the USA, this photo is titled “Mind without obscuration” (心無罣礙) and is re-blogged with a quote from the Heart Sutra: “form is emptiness” (色即是空).

Besides his own manifold images, Shi Daoxin also uses Sina Weibo to disseminate Buddhist teachings, including videos from more established teachers, such as Xing Yun. He has also circulated several of his music videos, including one karaoke-friendly ditty where he sings a Buddhist song while wandering around a temple garden and market. The suitably devout chorus is “Amitabha Buddha, please protect me” (阿彌陀佛,呵護著我). Shi Daoxin has achieved some degree of celebrity, having participated in the TV dating show “The Whole City is Madly in Love” (全城熱戀) and was interviewed on China’s top daytime TV talk show “A Date with Luyu” (魯豫有約).

If there is one thing that this brief survey shows, it is that each of these bloggers is attempting to make religious ideas relevant to life in contemporary China. Methods vary greatly—orthodox or radical, commercial or benevolent—but the bloggers are linked by the common goal of seeking to share a spiritual message with the widest possible audience. Doing so via Sina Weibo does not necessarily dilute the potency of their messages. Writing on religious innovation in contemporary China, the Cambridge anthropologist Adam Yuet Chau recently wrote that

Modern technologies and other non-traditional elements can often be effortlessly incorporated into the framework of traditional idioms and practices, which in turn reveals the dynamic innovability of the traditions themselves11.

Sina Weibo is an ideal example of this innovability. Even the more ‘traditional’ bloggers discussed here, such as Dharma Drum Mountain and Xing Yun, have made a concerted effort over many decades to revitalise Buddhism so it is more relevant to life in the contemporary world. Microblogs are just another stage in the evolution of this process. Not surprisingly, Shi Daoxin also claims to be a disseminator of modern Buddhist culture and art, albeit in his own unique way. For the time being, Shi Daoxin et al will continue to be able to encourage, inspire, question and interact with their followers through Sina Weibo. And when Sina Weibo loses its lustre or is blocked, then I’m sure they will be among the early adopters of the next web platform, whatever it may be.

(Photo courtesy of www.weibo.com/shidaoxin)

 


 

1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/8851585/China-fights-to-silence-the-social-network.html

2.http://bit.ly/rC0vpY

3. http://bit.ly/uVZTtH

4. http://weibo.com/ddmbascc

5. http://weibo.com/1861268640

6. http://weibo.com/1243683297

7. http://weibo.com/1759168351

8. http://www.youtube.com/user/BOOKLIFE1313

9. http://www.innerspace.com.cn/f/index

10. http://weibo.com/shidaoxin

11. Adam Yuet Chau. Religion in Contemporary China: Revitalization and Innovation, Taylor and Francis, 2011, page 20.

 

 


Thursday, 07 July 2011 00:00

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: The Sequel

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, written in the 14th century, is the most popular Chinese historical novel, based on the tumultuous history of the country during the second and third centuries. A cultural icon, it has lost nothing of its evocative power, revived through TV series, mangas and videogames. Throughout the centuries, its over-complex plot has also provided the Chinese political scene with endless analogies, helping politicians and commentators to assess power relationships, strategies and claims to legitimacy.

No wonder that the “Three Kingdoms” metaphor is still in use. And it serves today to describe the somehow subdued battle going on between the three main ideological forces that divide the Chinese intellectual spectrum, all of them trying to define policy making and future institutional transformations. Roughly speaking, the “Three Kingdoms” are now referred to as Confucianism, Christianity and a populist form of Maoist revival.

Let us start with the latter “Kingdom”: Bo Xilai (薄熙来), Party secretary of Chongqing Special Municipality and a scion of a prominent Communist family, has built up his popularity on the eradication of local mafias (or its substitution by new factions), the building of scores of social housing, and the chanting in group and on TV of revolutionary songs of the past. He has somehow reshaped a “spiritual civilization” based (a) on the comfort of small groups fostering mutual support through chanting together and participating in community activities, (b) on nostalgia for less corrupt times, and (c) on the reassertion of the quasi-religious nature of the Party.  Strangely enough, the model has proven effective, and is now embraced by a growing number of national and local cadres, making the ones who embrace the revival of the Party and the enshrinement its history leading contenders in the political battles to come. For sure, the ultimate motivations behind Bo’s launching of the “Red songs campaign” remain unclear, but it any case it has initiated a movement that has implications going beyond his personal political future. Current dissatisfactions as to inflation and unemployment may give more impetus to this peculiar form of populism.

Confucianism fits better the mind of the leaders and intellectuals who envision the future of China as a continuation and refinement of the current model: meritocracy is the core value, a meritocracy mainly based on technical and administrative expertise; virtue is to be extolled, along with obedience and sense of order; “scientific development” associates with uncritical reverence for China’s long past (while the Populist-Maoist model relies more on generational nostalgia and short-term memory); caution and wisdom anchored into the ruminating of Chinese classics have to predominate over daring attempts at change, so prone is the country to disorder and division.

Finally, “Christianity” is fostered by the rapid growth of Christian churches, joined by people aspiring to a spiritual experience anchored in both personal and community life; at the same time, it clearly posses political undertones as it goes with aspiration to personal freedom and rights understood in the Western sense; such aspiration ultimately implies to relax or even to overcome the Party-State’s overall control on society. “Christians’ are thus often assimilated to people aspiring towards a Western-leaning model, and such people can also be found in leading circles. An example is the one provided by the economist Zhao Xiao (赵晓), who has equaled the historical achievement of the West with its adhesion to Christian beliefs and has converted to Christianity. During the last few years and months, spiritual and political values have been more clearly associated than was the case at the beginning of the “religious fever’ tide, with tensions and debates consequently growing.

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is characterized by the intricacy of its plot and the innumerable changes of alliances and fortune that occur. It would thus be unwise to see in the three “Kingdoms” now emerging the sole actors of an ever-evolving drama. But the understanding of the Characters who appear on the stage at a given moment of time might help all observers to better follow the plot yet to unfold.

Photo: C.P.


Monday, 25 April 2011 12:04

Religions and Charities in China

The religious growth that China currently experiences is leading towards a most interesting trend: the organization of faith-based charities.  For sure, such trend is still hampered by a number of factors, but it does express the growing assertiveness of China’s civil society and of its religious groups.


Monday, 31 January 2011 12:17

Going on a Pacific island 'holyday'

When discussing Taiwan’s links with the Pacific islands, it is well worth considering the religious dimension.  I have previously written about the connection that Taiwanese religious groups, in particular New Religious Movements, are seeking to forge with Mainland China[1].  However if we look in the other direction, from the gritty megacities of China to the lightly populated islands of the Pacific Ocean, we can see another current of religiosity that is circulating belief, culture and innovation.

The New Testament Church (NTC) is a small charismatic Protestant Church based at Mount Zion in Kaohsiung County in southern Taiwan. It was founded by a Hong Kong movie star in 1963 and has managed to survive leadership disputes, struggles with the Taiwanese government and natural disasters to now be in its fifth decade.  No small feat for a modestly sized and socially marginalized group. You can watch me give a brief introduction to the NTC here and here.

The NTC believes that God has chosen Taiwan’s Mount Zion instead of the traditional and better-known Mount Zion in Israel.  The mountain serves the important roles of not only being God’s home, but also the venue for the impending Tribulation (when Jesus will descend to Mount Zion and members of the NTC will ascend to heaven).  The NTC has developed Mount Zion into a community of around 300 adherents, complete with agricultural and educational facilities.

Furthermore, the NTC is a passionate and dedicated exponent of organic agriculture.  The rationale behind choosing organic farming over conventional (that is, pesticide-based) farming is that it is the ‘God-based’ way to farm. The NTC equates God’s law of creation, as outlined in the bible, with the natural method of farming.  As the bible does not contain any directive to use chemicals, the church therefore refrains from doing so.  In avoiding such pollutants, the NTC can more easily recreate their ideal of a holy and “Edenic” environment.  It seeks to do this on Mount Zion and at its properties abroad.

Mount Zion is an interesting place for tourists to visit, and one of utmost spiritual importance to the NTC.  However the spiritual power of the mountain is not limited to the peak in Taiwan – other places around the world also share in it.

The NTC has developed a series of ‘Offshoots of Zion’ around the world.  These rural properties are places where the NTC’s international adherents live, worship and farm.  Mostly scattered around Malaysia and the Pacific Rim, there are also two Offshoots of Zion on Pacific Islands – Eden Isle (伊甸島) on Tikehau, Polynesia and Mount Tabor (他泊山) on Tahiti.

Just as in Taiwan, the NTC’s community in the Pacific developed out of the Assemblies of God church. Having established Mount Tabor in 1985, the NTC has around 300 “exclusively Chinese” adherents in Tahiti[2]. The church has not limited itself to one island though, expanding elsewhere in the region.

Inhabited by the NTC since 1993, Eden Isle is a small island where the NTC has an organic farm and open-air church.  Based on reports by visiting sailors, the number of people living on Eden Isle seems to vary between 5 and 10.  This number can swell exponentially when international members of the NTC arrive for religious celebrations and various types of exchange programs.  There are a number of online reports from sailors passing by Tikehau who have been welcomed in by the NTC and given tours of the island[3].

In considering these two Pacific island spiritual centres, Mount Zion in Taiwan, and the NTC that binds them, we can get a glimpse of the dynamics between the two regions.  The main temple on Mount Zion was rebuilt in the late 1980s using indigenous Taiwanese techniques and designs.  In turn, the venues of worship on Eden Isle and Mount Tabor reflect the style of Mount Zion’s temple. Mount Tabor’s temple appears to be an almost perfect copy of Mount Zion’s temple. The Eden Isle temple is smaller and more open than that of Mount Tabor, yet remains true to the form of the temple on Mount Zion.  Yet it is not only a temple template that the NTC has imported.

Representatives of the NTC have been keen to point out to me the work that the church has done in the Pacific with regard to organic farming, particularly innovations in composting methods.  Indeed, the French Polynesian government has even engaged the NTC to provide consultancy services and training in organic farming techniques [4].

However, the flow of knowledge and religious concepts is not simply one-way.  Children from the NTC’s ‘Eden Homestead’ school system spend time in the Pacific centres learning about agriculture, in both its practical and spiritual dimensions.  These children are not just from Taiwan and Malaysia, but also Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA.  In this sense, Eden Isle and Mount Tabor have become the metaphorical hub of a trans-Pacific ‘spiritual wheel’, circulating the beliefs of the NTC around the Pacific Rim.

The traditional costumes and accoutrements of the Pacific islands have also made their way back to Mount Zion. For instance, whereas once couples were married at Mount Zion wearing western-style wedding outfits, now they dress in more simple outfits that demonstrate a Pacific influence (through accessories such as floral garlands, shell belt buckles and bare feet)[5].  Alternatively, dressing like this could also reflect Taiwan’s own indigenous traditions.  Either way, it contrasts starkly with the modern wedding traditions that are so popular in Taiwan.

The New Testament Church is only small and has a fledgling presence in the Pacific. Nevertheless, it is a pertinent example of how a decidedly non-mainstream Taiwanese organization has created a presence in there. The NTC's exchange of ideas – be they religious, agricultural or cultural – is multifaceted and of use to us when trying to conceive how Taiwan sits in relation to its Pacific Island neighbours.

Photo: P.F.

[1] http://www.erenlai.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3982:an-overview-of-religious-life-in-modern-taiwan&catid=688:october-2010&Itemid=331&lang=en

[2] http://chinaperspectives.revues.org/1118#tocto2n3

[3] http://www.thebigvoyage.com/the-pacific/tikehau-day-2-lagoon-excursion/

[4] http://tahitipresse.pf/2009/12/le-bio-une-voie-davenir-pour-lagriculture-polynesienne/

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeFTDGwo8sA


Monday, 13 December 2010 22:33

New Religions in China

An Italian translation of this article appeared in the December 2010 edition of popoli and is a continuation of some ideas raised in eRenlai's October 2010 Focus on religious innovation in East Asia.

To recap, the term 'new religious movement' was originally coined as a less loaded alternative to 'cult'.  It represents an attempt to classify new religious groups that are either a brand new conception of reality, a reinterpretation of an existing belief system or transplanted beliefs in a foreign land. Such groups are continuously evolving all over the world, and China is no exception.


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