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March 9, 2006

China's Prosperity Inspires Rising Spirituality

By R. Scott Macintosh


BEIJING-- Ming Zhaung is never without a place to sleep, food to eat, or ink for his brush. The Zen master of the Bailin Temple in Hebei Province is constantly cared for by his devotees - now more than 1,000 students, most of whom started attending his lectures last summer.

"I am always traveling to spread the Dharma," says Mr. Ming, who makes a circuit of homes and meeting places throughout China. "Everything is provided by my students."

As China becomes more wealthy and worldly, it's also experiencing a growing interest in spirituality. Chinese are emerging with "more time and freedom to think," says Yuan Ci, a monk who works with the Buddhist Association of China in Beijing. In doing so, they are helping to revive China's venerable religions, like Buddhism.

In urban areas, China's new Buddhists are young, college-educated, and upwardly mobile. They are looking not only for purpose in their lives, analysts say, but for a way to cope with the pressures of modernization and high expectations.

Spirituality is "the peach orchard outside the world," says Gyan Giri, director of the Mountain Yoga retreat center in Beijing, citing a Chinese saying. "It's finding an Eden or a utopia where people can lead a better life."

China's market economy, Yang Fenggang, a sociologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., wrote in an academic paper, is "accompanied by widespread moral corruption, which prompts many individuals to seek a theodicy, or a religious worldview, to put the seemingly chaotic universe into order."

With roughly 100 million followers, Buddhism is the largest religion in China, according to government statistics. It also is the most favored. Senior officials have been known to seek Buddhist masters for guidance - and many turn a blind eye when Buddhist masters disregard laws that prohibit teaching in private settings, something that can result in punishment for Christian leaders of "home churches."

"Exceptions to the regulations are often made in regard to Buddhism," says Mr. Yang. "You can buy Buddhist scriptures at public bookstores, but the Christian Bible is not allowed to be sold. Of course, if you ask for it in sincerity, some bookstore manager might find a copy for you under a hidden cabinet."

Still, other religions are gaining followers as well. Yoga is attracting more practitioners, ironically because of its image as a fashionable Western trend. And Protestant Christianity is the fastest growing religion in China, according to Yang, who notes an increase of young converts in recent years. Academics estimate that there are 50 to 80 million Protestants in China. Often, Chinese will move back and forth between religions, according to their needs.

"The Chinese have traditionally been religious opportunists," said Gene Cooper, a professor in anthropology at the University of Southern California. "But if you've had success getting your prayers answered at the Daoist Temple, then that's the one you go back to."

Because of the leeway given to Buddhism, its revival has been more evident. This April, for example, the Buddhist Association of China, the official supervisory organ, will launch the first World Buddhist Forum to "find out how Buddhists can take action to make a peaceful world," says Yuan Ci.

"Unlike Christianity and Falun Gong, which authorities view as 'alien' and intrusive, the government has adopted a fairly loose reaction to the reemergence of local 'popular' religion, which is experiencing a renaissance," says Professor Cooper.

To reach his followers, Ming ignores the rules on home teaching. On Sundays, his students pack a Beijing apartment, sitting cross-legged on the floor to listen to lectures on Zen philosophy. "In Buddhism, there is destiny," says Fang Fang of how she became one of Ming Zhuang's students. "One day in 2004, I realized that I must find a teacher in Buddhism. So I prayed for it. Last year, I met my teacher."

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