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Published: December 26th 2019
Contemporary China has a fascinating relationship with spirituality: as a country with historically deeply rooted traditions and practices which spread throughout the region, it is also accelerating in modernity at lightning speed. When you are here, it is hard to reconcile China’s historical traditions with its current society. I think the Jing’an Temple (photographed below) is a perfect example of the dichotomy between rich cultural practices and modernization.
Though there are a number of religions in China, including Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam consisting about 10% of the population, this blog post will be focusing on Buddhism, which is the country’s most practiced religion (15% of the population).
However, it must be prefaced that the vast majority (over 70%) of mainland Chinese are non-religious, which makes it the world’s largest non-religious population. That is a mind-blowing figure for a country of 1.4 billion people which historically had its own self-sustaining civilization for a millennium. One visit to a temple or museum here makes it clear that there were deeply rooted spiritual practices in society throughout most of its history, and perhaps the apathy towards religion coincided during the rise of modern society during the middle of last century. From my
understanding of world history, it is not uncommon for societies to turn away from religion after cultural revolutions (see also the French Revolution).
Despite that, Buddhism plays a fascinating role in society. And even within Buddhism itself, there are different schools of practice. When last here, Cheryl and I visited a Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Beijing (locally known as the Lama Temple). We learned a lot about the significance Tibetan Buddhism plays in spiritual practice.
I thought the Shanghainese also followed Tibetan Buddhism but that is not the case; they practice a more general form of the religion under the Mahayana branch. (In Buddhism, there are two main branches – Mahayana and Theravada). Although Mahayana Buddhism includes Tibetan, it is a little more nuanced in Shanghai and adherents have adopted it to fit their Chinese traditions and practices. Therefore, the Jade Buddha Temple I visited in Shanghai draws from Pure Land and Chan traditions of Mahayana Buddhism.
When I visited both the Jing’an and Jade Buddha temples, there were more adherents than tourists, which gave me a direct observation of how people worshipped. I watched them as they pulled incense from a vending machine (ever modernizing China)
or a shop, lit the incense bundle through a large raised fire pit, and bowed three times to each section of the temple – north, east, and west. Then they placed the bundle along with many others before them on the fire pit and left.
I found the (actual) Jade Buddha statue in a room towards the rear of the Temple. I was alone. When I walked up to the Jade Buddha, I paused and stared at the statue for a long time. Traditional Chinese music played softly in the background, and the room had a faint hint of incense. I closed my eyes and paused, overcome with emotion. The Buddha looked so serene in his smile and demeanor. Like he had figured out how to escape life’s suffering while still being here on earth. I reached a place like that for a fleeting moment earlier this fall when I had to come to terms with my father’s fourth heart procedure. The last one dad had did not go so well, and for the first time in a long time, I was really afraid. His scheduled operation meant I had to look fear in the eyes and not waiver.
I had to be brave. Meditation and Buddhist practices helped me through that time, and I think I have been a better person spiritually ever since.
The more I travel and encounter, the more I realize I really don’t know much of the world. And isn’t that the point of spirituality? To surrender what you think is tangible and true and live and feel with your heart.
As Buddha once said, “The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”
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