Spiritual Land Rush

Buddhist temple at sunsetAs a part of “Document No. 19, the post-Mao Chinese central government’s revised policy of religious freedom, many local governments have aided religious organizations in restoring places of worship that were damaged or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution” (Fisher 2). This means that if a clergy member or lay practitioner can prove that a temple once existed in an area, then they may be granted permission by the government to reconstruct a temple in place of the previous temple of worship. This land acquisition is approved on both the national and local levels, and specifically on the local level the decision is made by officials who want to bring money into their area and gain acceptance by the community through their participation in the revival of temples. It is hard to know whether local revival has strengthened or weakened religious traditions, however, because the studies on the reconstruction of Buddhist temples in rural areas have produced varied results. For, while¬†“a significant number of recent studies on religious revival in post-Mao China have focused on the revival of local religious traditions, often centered on the restoration of community temples or churches, by local people.” Several of these studies have discussed local religious revival as re-creating traditional Topics, whereas others have suggested that the revival represents local negotiations of morality, power, and place in the face of the inadequacy or undesirability of a state that has either penetrated too far into local interests or shirked its moral and administrative responsibilities” (3).

Buddhist temple gate in concrete and goldAlthough the new Buddhist temples being built are in locations where temples once stood, their construction rarely mirrors the old temples they are meant to replace. The result is that “these new and grandiose complexes have little to do with reviving local religious pasts and relate instead to the moral, religious, and professional agendas of urban clergy and lay practitioners” (3). Fisher concludes through his findings that clergy members who practice in urban settings will construct temples in distant rural areas in order to create an environment where their ideas become central to the practice and, hence, supported. The translocal connections of clergy members have increased the ability of clergy to open temples in regions of the country they are not from. Although the Chinese Buddhist Association is not involved in the temple-building projects, and is also not a state organization, many clergy members claim an association to raise the probability that their plans to build a temple will be accepted by local officials. “For these reasons, it is best to consider the expansion of Buddhist monasteries in contemporary China as an unanticipated evolution of a translocal set of ideologies and institutions whose spread is facilitated by state agencies with which they are only indirectly connected” (12). Clergy members are attracted to the idea of building their own temples because they can then establish themselves as the temple abbots and have the security that is afforded to that position.

The clergy primarily gain financial support from a few wealthy lay practitioners and a multitude of more economically challenged practitioners. For the most part, the lay practitioners donate because they believe assisting to build new temples will add to their merit, gongde. The more money that is granted to a temple project translates into the size and scale of how grandiose the temple will be. This appearance, in turn, can then be attributed to the religious community that contributed to the raising of the funds. The size of the temple, therefore, is a demonstration of the strength of the religious community. A prime example of the centrality of money and contributions to the temples would be the Temple of Universal Rescue. In this particular temple there are over six large boxes that are marked as “merit boxes.” The funds collected from these boxes go to funding for the temple and other temple projects. In contrast, there is only one box for Project Hope and it is both smaller and unmarked. Not delineating this particular box as a “merit box” will most likely mean that practitioners will be more drawn to contribute to the other boxes from which they are, in a sense, rewarded. Fisher calls this the “cash-merit relationship” (8). The investment in, and building of, these temples is not always, or completely, motivated by self-interest, however, because both patrons and clergy believe that through helping to build Buddhist temples, they are “contributing to the spread of Buddhist teachings to those yearning for a spiritual compass” (18). The aptitude of clergy and lay practitioners for collecting money in order to build Buddhist temples has allowed these individuals to “have the power to impose their physical structures and moral agendas in many parts of China, with little consideration for the cultural or moral relevance of that space for the people who live there” (24). This may further lead some to wonder if the trend to reconstruct in a grandiose manner, irrespective of local practice, even if it does work out to be in line with local beliefs, is suggestive of the material culture that is now thought to have become an integral aspect of the Chinese experience. Using the example of the Bailin Monastery, where Master Jinghui built an “enormous ten Thousand Buddha Hall (wanfo lou), containing more than ten thousand gold-plated Buddhas,” one could speculate that there is truth behind this claim (13). For the most part, the worship of folk gods and other popular religions is not considered during the process of temple reconstruction. While the motivation of these individuals to build these temples can be demonstrated through their desire to spread Buddhist teachings and morals, they are not reflecting on the lives of the people in these temple places or the initial purposes of the temples that are being replaced through the reconstruction. Religion, specifically popular religion and combinations of what would be thought of as traditional religions, such as the Falun Gong Movement, are becoming additionally prominent and this trend should be recognized.