Buddhism thrives as China relaxes religious policy

By Robert J. Saiget, AFP, July 7, 2009

WUTAISHAN, China -- Temples thrive, monks travel far and wide in search of enlightenment, the faithful fill the halls of worship -- after decades of atheist policies, Buddhism is making a huge comeback in China.

<< A buddhist nun performs her morning chore of sweeping the floor at Wutaishan, literally "Five Plateau Mountain"

Nowhere is this revival more apparent than at Wutaishan, the most important of China's four holy mountains and home to a sprawling complex of temples, 300 kilometres (180 miles) southwest of Beijing.

"I have come to study at Wutaishan because Zen Buddhism, Han Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, all the different schools from different places, are represented here and mixed together," itinerant monk Master Shi told AFP.

"This is the Buddhist holy land. Buddhist monks and nuns from all over China want to come here to study."

Shi, sporting a shaved head and wearing a grey robe, has visited temples throughout China in search of Buddhist knowledge, repeating a pilgrimage undertaken by generations of monks before him.

Besides studying Tibetan Buddhism in Lhasa, he has visited the Hongfa Temple in Guangdong, south China, and been to the White Horse Temple -- China's oldest Buddhist place of worship -- in Henan province in the center of the country.

Interest in Buddhism has grown dramatically since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, a period when religion was largely banned, the clergy persecuted and many temples and monasteries destroyed.

In stark contrast to this era, during the opening and reform era of the last 30 years, the state has largely allowed religion to develop, albeit within strict parameters.

For decades, the communist-run State Administration for Religious Affairs has said there were only about 100 million religious believers in China, but state press reports have recently said that number has grown to 300 million.

In late June, Wutaishan was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nation's cultural arm UNESCO, a move expected to bring more visitors to this holy shrine that houses some of China's oldest Buddhist manuscripts.

Currently 53 temples house monks and nuns, while the ruins of more than 150 temples are scattered around hillside terraces or isolated on remote mountain tops.

The earliest temples date back to the first century when Buddhism first arrived to China from India.

"Twenty years ago, as we started recovering from the Cultural Revolution, the total number of monks here was just a few hundred," said Yi Bo, spokesman for the Wutaishan Buddhist Association.

"Since then Buddhism has not stopped developing. More and more monks have come. The numbers hit 1,000, then 2,000, then 3,000. Three years ago we hit 5,000."

At that time the government stepped in and began restricting the number of monks who could study here, he said.

Meanwhile, 2.8 million visitors came to Wutaishan in 2008, bringing in 1.4 billion yuan (206 million dollars) in tourist revenues, according to government figures. This year more than 3.1 million visitors are expected.

"The government supports us mainly with policy, but funding for our growth mainly comes from donations from the Buddhist faithful," said Miao Yi, a nun at the Buddhist Institute at the Pushou Temple, China's largest convent.

More than 600 nuns are studying in the Buddhist Institute which has received generous funding from Buddhists in Hong Kong and Taiwan, she said.

Still the government remains wary over religion and monks here refused to discuss Tibetan Buddhism or its spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who once asked communist leaders if he could make a pilgrimage to Wutaishan's 10 Lama temples.

"We must work to support patriotism and national unity. We must embrace the leaders of the Communist Party and the socialist system," Gen Tong, a senior Buddhist leader said on the occasion of 50th anniversary of the Wutaishan Buddhist Association in late 2007.

"In the past, (the rulers) of different dynasties were all impressive emperors and were all devout Buddhists," said association spokesman Yi Bo.

If Chinese communist leaders were allowed to publicly adhere to Buddhism, he said, "for sure it would bring a huge benefit to us," he said.