Senior Monk Shi Yanping discusses Buddhism in China. (Photo by Mary Kay Magistad.)

Wutaishan, in the mountains of China’s northern Shanxi province, has long been a sacred site for Buddhists.

They hike mountain paths, and visit temples dating back to the eighth century.

On one mountain path, a group of middle-aged guys hang a rainbow of prayer flags between two trees, and watch, satisfied, as they flutter in the breeze.

One declines to be interviewed. He’s a government official, and wants to keep his practice of Buddhism private. The other, former pharmaceutical salesman Zhang Jiankun, 42, is downright loquacious.

“I used to smoke, drink, gamble, fight and chase women. I used to like to do all this all day,” he said. “And then, by the time I was 30, I had money – but I also had hypertension, and liver damage from all the drinking. I’d take clients out, so I’d drink every day. And I was fat.”

Now, he says, he’s slimmed down, quit drinking, and can climb these mountains with no problem. He credits his embrace of Tibetan Buddhism 11 years ago with helping him clean up his act.

“Many people are trying to find balance, and at some point I realized that material prosperity doesn’t mean your spiritual life is rich,” he said. “I wanted freedom, but to have freedom, you need wisdom. I found that Buddhism helps you attain the wisdom to pursue freedom.”

Zhang took some of his wealth, and spent six years in Tibet, meditating and studying Buddhist scripture. By the time he came back he was calmer, kinder and nicer to his parents.

“They appreciate the way I am now,” he said. “I used to have a bad temper. I used to leave them alone and go out drinking. Now they like me, and miss me when I’m not around. They think now I’m finally acting like the head of the family, and taking care of them. This is all thanks to the mercy of Buddhism.”

Like many Chinese, Zhang believes Tibetan Buddhism is a purer form than the variety battered and eventually coopted over 60 years of Communist Party rule in the rest of China. Not that Tibetan Buddhism escaped unscathed. Under Communist Party rule, thousands of Buddhist temples in Tibet have been destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans killed – others, especially monks and nuns, have been imprisoned.

The party long considered Buddhism and other religions superstitious nonsense, and has only recently eased up.

“We were told there was no such thing as God, and that we were sort of born to be atheist. It was a very sad thing that we lost our freedom of choice,” said former journalist Lin Gu, 38. “But I guess the anxiety to seek the ultimate answer to life is always there for me. That’s why I keep searching.”

Lin is part of the generation that grew up with China’s economic boom with the notion that to get rich is glorious. As a journalist, he said, he’s seen where that’s led.

“For example, I see in today’s China, people can get easily frustrated,” he said. “I can see we have this outcry against this rampant social injustice. In a society where we can easily get angry, frustrated and depressed we need such a thing as Buddhism to find our inner harmony to regain our balance and to make us feel better equipped especially psychologically to cope with such an increasingly changing world.”

By some estimates, at least one in four Chinese actively practice Buddhism, with the upwardly mobile and creative classes increasingly embracing Tibetan Buddhism, in particular.

But not all who come in search of meaning know the essence of Buddhism. At one Wutaishan temple, a young businesswoman from Shanghai, Chu Hui, lights long incense sticks. She holds them to her forehead and bows deeply toward the temple. She said she came once before to make a wish, and had to come back, because the wish came true.

“If you make a wish and it become reality, you have to come back to offer thanks,” she said. “Otherwise, they will be some disaster – maybe.”

Chu admits she’s not actually Buddhist – just interested. Many of the visitors here are similar, said senior monk Shi Yanping.

“People are trying to find a way to connect their heart to Buddhism,” he said. “But many don’t understand Buddhism. They think burning incense, and falling on their knees and knocking their head on the ground is Buddhism. But the real practice of Buddhism it to find it in your heart.”

Shi put on a tea kettle, as he talked about how he came to Wutaishan almost 20 years ago, as a young man. He’s happy to talk about his life, and about Buddhist precepts. But ask how he, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, feels about the restrictions the Communist Party has imposed, he clams up.

“Neither Chinese nor Tibetan Buddhism face any restrictions in China,” he said. “Some people may have taken advantage of freedom of religion to make mistakes, or commit wrongdoings. But it doesn’t mean the practice of religion faces any restriction."

When asked if it’s “wrongdoing” for Tibetan Buddhists to display photos of the Dalai Lama, he says no. When asked about the Tibetan Buddhists who’ve been arrested for doing just that, he's surprised.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” he said, with a polite smile.

Most Tibetans in China couldn’t say the same. Ever since a March 2008 uprising in ethnic Tibetan parts of western China, lasting weeks, the Chinese government has cracked down. It flooded ethnic Tibetan areas with military police, tried to get monks to renounce the Dalai Lama and arrested those who showed signs of following him.

And even before the crackdown, in 2007, the government passed legislation banning Tibetan spiritual leaders from reincarnating without Chinese government permission. The government hopes to select the next generation of Tibetan Buddhist leaders. In 1995, it replaced the real Panchen Lama, a six-year-old boy recognized as the reincarnation of the previous Panchen Lama, who became disillusioned with the Communist Party. He was the second most revered Tibetan Buddhist leader, but died suddenly and prematurely.

When the Dalai Lama dies, traditionally the Panchen Lama recognizes his reincarnation. By controlling the Panchen Lama, the Chinese government hopes to control Tibetan Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama has called what the Chinese government is doing “cultural genocide.”

“The situation of Tibet — the Chinese Communist propaganda create a very rosy picture,” he said in a recent visit to Japan. “But, actually, including many Chinese from Mainland China who visit Tibet, they all have the impression, things are terrible.”

This year, at least 11 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest. The Chinese government has called this “terrorism in disguise.” It’s convinced Tibetans are scheming to separate from China – and the Dalai Lama is leading the charge.

The Dalai Lama has long said this isn’t the case. He says while Tibet used to be independent, he accepts it’s now part of China. He just wants more autonomy for Tibetans – which the Chinese government won’t allow. It has called the Dalai Lama a criminal, a separatist, and a “wolf in monk’s robes.”

And yet, growing numbers of Chinese embrace him as a spiritual leader. They must tread carefully.

Reta Dinchenpujun is a “living Buddha” – a reincarnated practitioner, back to help others attain enlightenment. He declines to answer whether he’s been asked to denounce the Dalai Lama. 

“I’m not particularly interested in politics,” he says. “No one can ask me to do or not to do something in my life. I belong to myself.” He paused and added a thought. “Of course, the Dalai Lama is a spiritual role model for all Tibetan Buddhists – as every Dalai Lama has been throughout history.”

Chinese lay practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism can be even more careful when talking about the Dalai Lama. But when it comes to talking about the transformative powers of Buddhism, they can be passionate.

“I hope Buddhism will bring a revolution to our minds in China,” Lin said. “I do think in China what we need most is love, mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation. Given a very chaotic bitter past we are carrying with, a very complicated historical legacy is on the shoulder of every one. We need Buddhism to become tolerant, to reach out to others, to say ‘I’m sorry I’m wrong’ and to say ‘I forgive you and I love you.’”

That’s his dream, anyway, he said, and he’s quit journalism to teach at a Buddhist University. Still, a little journalistic skepticism remains. Lin hopes China will move in that direction – but when he looks around at what modern life in China is like now, he has his doubts.

Related Stories