Buddhism in Modern Chinese Culture Essay

Buddhism has existed for thousands of years and still has a profound influence on Chinese culture today despite the continued illegality of some religious belief and practice in China - Buddhism in Modern Chinese Culture Essay introduction. This is most profoundly represented in the existence of the Falun Gong and the communist government’s crackdown on the organization and its rising popularity. Although pronounced and dramatic in relevance to the Falun Gong there are many other aspects of Chinese society and culture that show that Buddhism and religion in general is alive and well and, in many respects, growing in influence in modern Chinese Society.

A distinct advantage of Buddhism as a religion practiced in a controlled environment such as China is that the Buddhist doctrines do not require public worship or elaborate ceremony and in fact the religious practices of Buddhism are ones which can be undertaken without being noticed at all. So as a religion it is an excellent choice for the Chinese in this respect. But it is not just the religious aspects of Buddhism that is firmly entrenched in the Chinese psyche; it is the attainment of ideals and states of mind that are inherently Chinese.

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Despite this, organizations such as the Falun Gong, whose fundamental doctrines are rooted in Buddhist belief, are targeted by the government as a cult organization and forced underground. Despite this adversity Buddhism is alive and well in China, practiced both within the accepted parameters of the Chinese government and outside of that by groups considered radical by the government. Keywords; Falun Gong, Buddhism, religion, culture Buddhism Background Information.

Buddha is considered to be the greatest of the prophets because he is the only one to have achieved pure and complete enlightenment. Thus he is as much a role model in Buddhism as he is a God-like figure. Early in Buddha’s life (his birth name is Siddhartha Gautama) an astrologer proclaimed that Buddha would be either a great king or a great religious figure. Despite his father’s efforts to create the former, Buddha ventured through the world, sought wisdom and understanding, found compassion and enlightenment and ecame the latter, a religious prophet. Buddha’s teachings are vast and complex but there are a number of his teachings and beliefs which form the fundamental doctrine of Buddhism. The first is related to karma. Buddhist’s believe that karma, which is the cycle of suffering and rebirth, will revisit us as a consequence of our actions in this or former lives. Ethical conduct of course brings good karma and unethical deeds bad karma. It is important to note that karma is based on the intent of the doer rather than the action.

Buddhists believe that every soul lives several lifetimes in a number of possible spheres including Naraka (hell), Preta (a ghost world), Animal, Human, Asura (demons), and Devas or Brahmas which is a good deity. There are other states but that is beyond the scope of this background information as a basis for understanding Buddhism in modern Chinese culture. In addition to the matters of reincarnation Buddhism also concerns itself with Four Noble Truths which essentially deal with human suffering and the path to relief.

The path to the Noble Truth is The Middle Way (or Middle Path) which promulgates a moderate path, and an explanation of Nirvana (the goal of Buddhism), and the different possible mental states of being. These different states include the state of nothingness. Nothingness is liberation from objects, stress and the things in life to which we cling. It is important to have a superficial understanding of these basic principals in order to realize how Buddhism is still relevant in modern

Chinese culture. Religion in China. The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 (Xinping, 2009), with the decree that all people in the Republic of China had freedom of thought, speech, publication, assembly, association, communication, etc… As such, religion and freedom of religious practice and freedom of speech is not technically illegal in China, a fact contradicted historically by events such as the massacre at Tiananmen Square and more commonly in the lives of the Chinese. The Chinese people are regulated by unspoken rules that require a person to swear atheism to achieve advancement in government or state agencies.

Since much of China’s employment is state operated, religion although legal, is discouraged by various means of the government (Bryan Edelman, 2005). In March 1982, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party issued policies addressing religious problems in China (Xinping, 2009). In this document the Chinese government proclaimed that in order to protect religious freedom workable laws and regulations were needed. The enactment of the document established greater religious freedom in China.

Whether this was achieved or whether this was a smokescreen for the world at a time that China wanted to open its economic doors to an international community is debatable. What is apparent is that despite the liberalization of laws relating to religion, religious practice is still a matter of government ruling and the Chinese government is guilty in this respect of coercion at least and likely oppression. There are five officially sanctioned religions in China and they are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism; these religions while legal are still subject to state suppression.

All other religions are illegal. Despite the Falun Gong’s close relationship with Buddhist and Taoist doctrine they are not perceived by the government as representing these religions. Falun Gong The Falun Gong went through several changes in leadership with the most influential of these, Li Hongzhi (born May 13, 1951, according to followers, or July 7, 1952, according to critics who contend that Li adjusted his birth date to be the same as the Buddha’s), worked in law enforcement and corporate security before becoming the full-time spiritual leader of Falun Gong in 1992.

His leadership brought the Falun Gong to the world’s attention and grew the organization to be a large and popular religious practice. Falun Gong has been called a spiritual movement or a system or beliefs and practices with principles based upon the religious principals of Buddhism and Taoist concepts but they claim, also rooted in science and Chinese history (Schechter, 2001). Its main tenets, like Buddhism are truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. Between 1992 and 1999 the movement went from a relatively small organization of around 3 million to as many as 70 million Falun Gong supporters around the world.

Today the Chinese government claims there are 3 million Falun Gong in total and the Falun Gong claim there are 100 million. The Falun Gong is notorious for their fierce official opposition to Chinese dictatorship. The speed in which the Falun Gong has gained support has been alarming to the Chinese government and is indicative of China’s desire for more religious freedom than they have had in the recent past. Chinese government criticism of the Falun Gong has been fierce and they have been accused of being unscientific, dangerous and destabilizing.

The Falun Gong has responded to these accusations with passive defiance and protest. While the Falun Gong takes their religious philosophy from several traditional Chinese religions their relationship with Buddhism is particularly close. The relevance of the Buddhist Wheel to the Falun Gong is particularly relevant. The use of meditation techniques and physical exercise to achieve good health and peace of mind has a long history in Chinese culture and religion stemming from Buddhist practices. Popular practices that can be directly attributed to Buddhism occur within the Falun Gong, for example the practice of meditation to balance good health and karma. “According to the Buddha school, bad karma accumulates from wrong-doing in this and past lifetimes, causing suffering. Falun Gong holds that the suffering of illness results from karma and that through self-cultivation this karma may be eliminated, bringing one to an illness-free and ultimately enlightened state. In Zhuan Falun, Mr. Li states, however, that cultivation depends on one’s self, and a cultivations system depends on one’s teacher.

So it is understood that through obtaining the right teachings and through self cultivation, one may not only reach and illness-free state, but enlightenment. ” (Schechter, 2001) However, practitioners in modern China present these techniques as purely secular in an effort to escape official restrictions against independent religious activity. Despite this close relationship with Buddhism which is an accepted religion of the Chinese Communist Party, in 1999 the Falun Gong was declared and evil cult by the government.

Chinese Response to the Falun Gong. Unlike many other Chinese organizations, Falun Gong has successfully responded strongly and proactively to government criticism, which has in turn prompted the Chinese government to respond with more extreme measures. The movement has been condemned and outlawed by the Chinese authorities, who identified Falun Gong as the latest of many Chinese religious societies that have combined religious assurance with political dissent. In this respect modern China has embraced the Falun Gong as the adoption of traditional Buddhist belief in a modern fashion but also as the voice of dissent to oppression.

On 25 April 1999, over ten thousand Falun Gong supporters gathered in a peaceful demonstration in Zhongnanhai which is the home of many of China’s central government leaders (Bryan Edelman, 2005). The protestors wanted the Chinese government to officially recognize the movement as a legitimate form of spirituality. In response the government officially declared the Falun Gong illegal and a cult. In July 1999, a nationwide crackdown on the Falun Gong was begun with propaganda and alleged human rights abuses ensuing.

In defence of their position the Chinese government held forth their right under laws which protect religious freedom, to stop the religious activities that were, according to their reports, disrupting public order, impairing the health of the citizenry and/or interfering with the educational system of the state. These are the claims which the government made against the Falun Gong which then gave them the right, under Chinese law, to stop the Falun Gong activity.

A Chinese Desire for Religion. In response to international demands that China allow religious freedom in a meaningful way and without reprisal to those who practice religion, the Chinese government undertook a number of initiatives to appear to honor their international commitments in terms of human rights. A professor travelling China as a representative of the United States lecturing on American politics and religion found amongst his listeners, an insatiable desire for information about religion in the United States (Hertzke, 2000).

In his travels Hertzke found that the fifty years of official atheism in China combined with the upheavals of opening China to the West and the liberalization and capitalism now presented to the Chinese, created a strong desire in the Chinese people for a stabilizing and Chinese grounding. More specifically Hertzke felt that Chinese intellectuals were grasping for moral and religious clarity. This perspective provides greater understanding as to the phenomenal success and growth of the Falun Gong and other religious movements (including the legal Islam and Christian) in China.

It is also a well known fact that an aging population is more attracted to religion. China is no different from the rest of the world in that it is experiencing a rapid aging of the general population. This is another probable reason for the resurgence of Buddhism in modern Chinese culture. As China opens its doors wider to the western world and religions like Falun Gong become ever more powerful it will be interesting to see how traditional religions in modern China develop.

The people of China are realizing their ally in the western world in terms of human rights and freedoms and will no doubt push the bounds of religious oppression even more in the future. It can be assumed therefore that traditional religion in China will find greater variety of practice and broader scope. The time when religious oppression of even the legal religions in China (as expressed by the Falun Gong the practice of Buddhism) was easy for Chinese government is passing as organizations like Falun Gong gain strength. Despite tight government controls religion is very much an integral part of Chinese culture.

Attempts to stifle certain religions by the government have sent them underground but have not silenced nor stopped banned religions in China. China’s growing exposure to religious freedom enjoyed in other parts of the world will further encourage resistance to governmental religious oppression. Buddhism is alive and well in modern China. The resurgence of religion and in particular Buddhist belief and practice is apparent in the incredible growth of the Falun Gong which represents the core tenets and beliefs of Buddhism.

The staunch resistance shown by members of the Falun Gong is indicative of the determination of the Chinese people to retain Buddhist beliefs in modern culture despite government interference and oppression. That the movement has grown to a purported 100 million followers in less than 20 years in an oppressed environment suggests that not only is Buddhism alive and well in modern Chinese culture, but that we are only at the beginning of this amazing resurgence of this ancient religion. While Buddhism is a legal religion in China the practice of it (and other religions) is very tightly controlled by the government.

Organizations like Falun Gong which are founded on Buddhist principals are still deemed illegal in China. Despite China’s international commitments to human rights, the right of religious practice and freedom of speech are offered in China in theory but not allowed in practice. Despite this state of affairs Buddhism, particularly as expressed by the Falun Gong, is a cultural phenomena of modern China. Diplomatic visitors to China have seen the desire for open religion of the Chinese people and are expressing this to the world in support of greater religious freedom of religion.

References

Benjamin A. Elman. on Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900. (2007). Franklin J. Woo , 87+. Bockover, M. I. (2003). Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. China Review International , pp. 337-339. Bryan Edelman, J. T. (2005). Imposed Limitations on Freedom of Religion in China and the Margin of Appreciation Doctrine: a Legal Analysis of the Crackdown on the Falun Gong and Other “evil Cults”. Journal of Church and State , 243-245. Feuchtwang, S. (2001). Popular Religion in China: The Imperial Metaphor. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism

Richmond: Curzon. Hertzke, A. D. (2000, March). What I Learned in China. First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , p. 64. Hodous, L. (1924). Buddhism and Buddhists in China. New York: MacMillan. Kapstein, M. T. (2002). The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press. . Schechter, D. (2001). Falun Gong’s Challenge to China. New York: Akashic Books. Xinping, Z. (2009). Religion and Rule of Law in China Today. Brigham Young University Law Review , 519+.

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