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Peter lived for nearly a half-decade in China, including two as a Peace Corps volunteer, and is the author of Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the (Chinese) Way. It is the intention of his blog to foster the sort of intercultural understanding necessary for long term relationships.
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The Yin and Yang of China Travel (Yang Edition)    

By Peter V
2737 Views | 4 Comments | 3/24/2013 3:13:56 PM

Where were we? Oh yes, on the island of Putuo Shan, one of the four Buddhist mountains and a well-known destination for China travel. As you may recall, I had grown rather disenchanted with what I saw as the level of spiritual hypocrisy on this allegedly Buddhist island, culminating in the cold-blooded murder at a restaurant of a cold-blooded fish right before my eyes. The values I associated with Buddhism seemed nowhere in evidence here.

But as I walked out of the restaurant, I saw her. Looming large in the distance was the statue of Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion and the enlightened being to whom this island is dedicated. Bodhisattvas are beings who pledge their numerous existences to the alleviation of the suffering of others. Not physical suffering. There’s a whole medical profession that deals with this. The bodhisattva is concerned with the spiritual sufferings most human beings undergo by virtue of our very nature. To the bodhisattva, we are like children who are trapped in a burning building and need rescuing. The building is that of our own desires. How would the bodhisattva view the vendors and restaurant hawkers? Certainly not with the contempt that I had shown. The merchants obsessed with money believe that at some point if they make enough of it they will be happy; indeed, that the more money they make, the happier they will be. The bodhisattva knows invariably the opposite case. More money merely brings more desires and hence more suffering. A bodhisattva would try to enlighten them; I could at least lay off the criticism.

And what about the masses seeking blessings at the temple? Granted, few of them were probably saying prayers for world peace. But neither, I would bet, were many of them asking to win the lottery. Indeed, if you know anything about Chinese culture, you know most were no doubt seeking some blessing for their child or the alleviation of the illness for an aged parent. Now, while this is still a form of selfish desire, to riff off of Henry Kissinger, there are selfish desires and there are selfish desires. The selfish desire that my child do well on the Gao Kao has to be relatively low on the Buddhist list of vices, especially when compared to, say, engaging in a weekend of debauchery or purchasing thousands of dollars of luxury goods. The biggest problem is that all desires are either themselves unsatisfied and cause suffering or are satisfied and cause suffering through the disappointment of fulfilled desire and/or the creation of future desires that will ultimately be unfulfilled. Here again the proper attitude is the Guanyin’s of compassion for beings who have not come to recognize this, not the disdain I had earlier demonstrated.

The more I reflected, the more I realized that Buddhism and Confucianism may not be as far apart as Han Yu had suggested. Indeed, there is a case to be made that the Chinese emphasis on the family, so much a part of life in China, does a pretty good job of achieving the Buddhist goal of limiting desires, since someone who is saving for their child’s education is probably self-limiting their own consumption and living frugally. Not to pretend that all is well for Buddhism in China. For one, China is the new worldwide leader in the purchase of luxury goods. How to square this phenomenon with the new found interest in the dharma? But of course there is nothing particularly Chinese about this situation. Indeed, while it is all over the news in China, the excesses of the moneyed class is a worldwide and history long phenomenon. Indeed, it is not at all surprising that the increased affluence China is experiencing should go hand in hand with an renewed interest in spirituality. One purchases clothes, electronics, automobiles, property, vacations—whatever one can get one’s hands on—only to find that their possession still leaves one wanting something else. After a while even the most obtuse begins to realize another product will probably not be the thing that brings them peace of mind. Such an individual is ripe to begin the path to spirituality.

This perhaps explains the Shanghai housewives. Just looking at them, you know they could afford to go anywhere in China—anywhere in the world—they want. But here they are in the early morning hours donning kneepads to crawl up a mountain. A wealthy person does not get to this stage, I think, without at least to some extent questioning the value of their wealth. These women may not understand the full spiritual meaning of the act they are about to engage in. But the very process of undertaking this journey indicates placing a value on things other than physical comfort and material privilege. So why not cut them some slack?

Finally, though, one has to admit that Han Yu was onto something when he perceived a tension between the laser-like focus on the family that lies at the core of Confucianism and the universal benevolence that Buddhism envisions as its ideal. But the conflict might be more of an historical relic than anything else. When resources are limited—as they have been throughout much of China’s history—it is only natural to devote the bulk of whatever wealth one can accumulate to the sustenance of family. But a new economic reality calls for a new spiritual reality. In an era of sustained growth, where more people have more money than any time in China’s history, the Confucian doctrine of moderation ought to remind one that even the devotion to the family ought to be tempered. The problem then becomes, once the family has been (moderately) taken care of, what to do with the excess resources?

Here is where the two systems do not clash but harmonize to produce a single, spiritual note. Buddhism tells us first that focusing on satisfying our own desires will ultimately lead to unhappiness. So this is not the place to devote our resources. Confucianism, with its focus on the family, has prepared the self to look beyond selfish interest. Buddhism completes this thought by declaring that we have an obligation to all sentient beings. This is the path, and the only one, that will lead us to the place that Buddha promised, to the cessation of suffering.

Besides being personally more fulfilling, there is evidence that the recognition of our obligation to those beyond our immediate family circle is a thought that China is particularly in need of at this time. The recent Yue Yue scandal, where a two year old girl was run over not once but twice and left to die in the street while countless cars, pedestrians and bicyclists passed by, suggests that the excessive focus on the self and one’s immediate family is not only personally unsatisfying but has devastating social consequences.

I was filled with hope that a recognition of the obligation to the human community may in the end be what results from this renewal of interest in Buddhism in China. But just in case things don’t turn out this way, I decided to go to the temple and burn some incense and pray that I don’t come back in the next life as a fish off the waters of Putuo Shan.

.

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(Showing 1 to 4 of 4) 1
#2013-03-25 19:07:09 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Religion in China is not 'mainstream' in that it has it's own characteristics...it is religion at the behest of the State. The ideological leaders are appointed by the State, and the 'acceptable practices and teachings' are also monitored for acceptance to criteria.
Expecting to find religious purity in China these days is unlikely...the monks wear soldier boots and the abbots entertain ladies...as you suggested, piousness is just in case they cannot take their money with them!

#2013-04-02 12:13:27 by anonymous5904 @anonymous5904

I believe the true believers won't find it necessary to visit such commercialized "buddha temples" or "holy sites" for a spiritual journey, as long as they look inside themselves and find their own holy sites in their hearts. So one doesn't expect to meet a true believer among the mass who flock to "religious sites" to bribe the Buddha for fullfilling their earthly needs. It has nothing to do with religion at all.

#2013-04-02 23:48:54 by sandy339 @sandy339

Chinese culture is simply not suited to Buddhism?Well it all depends on how do you think about Buddism. So you think Buddism/or any religion should be a pure spiritual thing? Or what else do you assume? As you might well know Buddism goes ups and downs in China, but I believe in Hegel's "what exists is reasonable". Just like Gareth said religions are not the mainstream in China. I think majority of Chinese don’t believe in any religion. (and I also checked the data in the internet) So what is mainstream in China nowsdays? Maybe we are money-driven more or less consciously or unconsciously?

Buddhism teaches a sort of inner calm through meditation? Haha I don’t think so, I have been temples several times, there are no certain kinds of rituals for meditaion so far as I know and expeirenced: they taught the religions books and read and sang for them? Or another branch of Buddhism we call it Zen, they do meditaion, but I never expereniced it, it is my favorite branch. What I understand about Buddism is a way of living and thinking about the world.

And for the booths, it is typical Chinese, a contrast between worldly desires and holy spiritual desires, but still we need to buy some to give to Gods? So it makes sense in this way? Haha not sure,

A new economic reality calls for a new spiritual reality, that sounds so good and not that esay, everyone is the reflection of his/ her past both culturally or personally. So I think if you are in such a society how could you become more sublime than others, since most of them are selfish and pragmatism? As an individuaI the only way is to be selfish to protect ourselves and assimilated finally? How to square this with the new found interest in the dharma? get a balance between them? Not sure… I have noticed there is a big differecne between western culture and eastern culture, ours are more selflishness, and yours are more altruism?

Haha you burned some incense and prayed that you didn’t come back in the next life as a fish off the waters of Putuo Shan? I think you might pray you are not a bicycle eithe in the next life ?

#2013-04-05 16:19:35 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@sandy339: As you can tell by the end of the essay I have changed my position on whether Chinese culture is suited ot Buddhism. But regarding meditation, the practice may not be part of Chinese Buddhism but it is part of Buddhism from the beginning, long before Zen, and is discussed in the earliest teachines of the Buddha. I take it your reference to the bicycle along with the fish is to the famous "a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."

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