The decline and fall of Chinese Buddhism: how modern politics and fast money corrupted an ancient religion
China has thousands of Buddhist clerics but no spiritual leader of international standing, say monks and academics
When filmmakers descended on China’s ancient Shaolin Monastery to make the 1986 box office hit Martial Arts of Shaolin starring Jet Li, they were shocked to find no monks.
The 1,500-year-old monastery, in the Song Mountains in Henan province, is renowned as the cradle of Chan Buddhism but decades of neglect and oppression had taken their toll.
The monastery’s reputation as a centre for kung fu had remained intact but the Buddhist practice behind the martial art had vanished, according to former Hong Kong actress Mary Jean Reimer.
“It was occupied by peasant-style security guards. Even the incense burners were sealed with boards,” said Reimer, a Buddhist devotee who was at Shaolin with her director husband Lau Kar-leung.
Reimer said the monks in the film were all played by martial arts practitioners. Many of them continued performing for temple visitors after the film became a hit, even though few, if any, of them followed any Buddhist discipline, she said.
The hollow core at the monastery reflected the appalling state of Buddhist institutions throughout the country, a decline that continues today as the centuries-old tradition is dogged by corruption scandals and a dearth of internationally recognised spiritual leaders.
But while the religion is ancient, observers say, the roots of the rot are more recent – religious oppression and political interference under communist rule.
One of the most startling alleged cases of corruption emerged just last month and centred on 52-year-old Shi Xuecheng, the head of the Buddhist Association of China and abbot of the well-known Longquan Temple in Beijing.
He stepped down amid public uproar after accusations surfaced as part of the #MeToo movement that he had sexually harassed female disciples via text messages. A 95-page document posted online also alleged that he built temples without official permits and mishandled temple funds.
The response from the authorities was swift – Shi Xuecheng faces disciplinary action from the association, the state-sanctioned religious organisation, for “violating Buddhist principles”.
Professor Zhe Ji, of the Paris-based Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, said he welcomed the prompt investigation of the abbot’s case but regretted the lack of transparent and rational discussion in getting to the causes of the chaos in Buddhism in China today.
“It involves questions about the fundamental power structure of religious authority,” Ji said.
“Officially endorsed Buddhist leaders basically control how Buddhism is organised. They are powerful politically but lack religious legitimacy among believers,” Ji said, adding that some leaders of the Buddhist Association of China, before being appointed, had not been regarded as great masters by Buddhists outside their inner circles.
“It is hard for genuinely influential religious figures to rise up when the positions of religious leaders are decided by politics,” he said.
According to official data, there are more than 240,000 Buddhist clerics in China, with more than half of them Tibetan Buddhists. About 100,000 Han Buddhist monks live in 28,000 monasteries while the rest are monks from the Theravada school, mostly living in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces in the country’s southwest.
But in recent years, mainland China has not produced Buddhist spiritual leaders of global stature known for their wisdom, benevolence and compassion.
In contrast, Taiwan has many eminent monks such as Master Hsing-Yun and Master Sheng-Yen whose teachings are influential around the world.
According to Dr Tsui Chung-hui from University of Hong Kong’s Centre of Buddhist Studies, the “transitional” problems associated with contemporary Chinese Buddhism are partly due to the legacy of oppression during the Cultural Revolution.
“Taiwan was lucky to be able to preserve the virtuous values of Confucius, Taoism and Buddhism [when the island broke away from the mainland after the civil war], giving Buddhism room to grow,” Tsui said.
That break occurred in 1949, when Buddhism and other faiths were demonised as counter-revolutionary ideologies under communist rule on the mainland.
“After 1949, Buddhism experienced a tremendous crisis on all fronts, from religious doctrine, organisation, to funding. Many of the problems today are rooted in the socialist reforms of the 1950s,” Ji said.
The oppression reached a peak during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, when there was widespread persecution of Buddhists and destruction of temples.
But while it has since eased, Chinese Buddhism has not flourished, continuously criticised for a series of problems such as commercialisation and corruption.
Observers say political interference still plays a big part in that downfall by undermining spiritual authority and stifling religious freedom.
Under President Xi Jinping, local religions such as Chinese Buddhism receive state support to promote traditional culture and faith as well as China’s soft power.
The mainland’s official religious leaders are endorsed by the party state with a mission to unite believers to be patriotic and disseminate religious teachings along core patriotic values.
All faith-based religious groups in China, including 41 Buddhism studies institutes across the nation, are also monitored by the State Administration of Religious Affairs.
In March the Communist Party further strengthened its control over religion by folding the administrative body into the United Front Work Department.
One of the centres accused of commercialisation is Shaolin, which in the past two decades has become a business empire stretching from martial arts schools and performances, to medicine, cultural programmes, tourism and food, according to a report by Prism, an online news site by tech giant Tencent.
The monastery’s abbot, Shi Yongxin, is known as the “CEO monk” and attracted national headlines when he was accused of “cashing in” on the Shaolin brand name.
In 2015 alone, the Shaolin Monastery reportedly charged more than 50 million yuan (US$7.3 million) in entrance fees plus incense offerings that cost 100 yuan each.
But Ji said the main beneficiary of this business activity was the local government.
“Less than a third of that income went to the temple. The rest went to Dengfeng city,” he said.
Like other major monasteries, Shaolin is managed by a committee made up largely of government officials.
“Even the treasurer of Shaolin is appointed by the government so spending must be approved. Temple abbots have no say over the institution’s own finances,” Ji said.
Last year mainland authorities addressed the problem by prohibiting the listing of local Buddhist and Taoist temples on the stock market and in February, amendments to the Religious Affairs Regulation also banned their commercialisation.
While the so-called commercialisation is often led by local governments, with most of the profits going to them, “the monks are always taking the blame”, Ji said.
He said many of the temples lost their land during the socialist reforms of the 1950s and should not be completely banned from seeking legal income now.
A businessman and close friend of Shi Yongxin and other senior mainland monks said the Shaolin abbot was a good example of how Buddhist leaders were compromised.
“Years ago, Shi Yongxin told me he objected to charging entrance fees at Shaolin, but was voted down by the local government. He has no say in this,” the businessman said.
Just last month, the Shaolin Temple raised eyebrows once again when its monks raised the national flag there for the first time in its 1,500-year history as part of a patriotism drive at religious establishments, including churches and mosques.
“How can this be Shi Yongxin’s own idea? To promote flag-raising in temples? Shaolin must take the lead … I know Shi Yongxin is ambitious but his limited education background often sees him easily manipulated and the joke is always on him,” the businessman said.
Further north, a monk from Shanxi province said the ongoing political interference and resulting lack of religious freedom had created a culture of silence within Chinese Buddhism, hindering the tradition’s development.
“There are many things we are not allowed to discuss. It’s too complicated and they cannot be investigated. The deeper you dig, the more unwanted details you will find and nobody likes to see that,” the monk said, refusing to reveal further details for fear of persecution.
Beijing-based writer Li Hai witnessed this first-hand. In 2004, Li spent a month studying at a remote temple in central Hunan province only to see the monks and abbot of the temple forced to quit and replaced by those hired by local religious affairs officials.
“The problem is not about Buddhism but about how it is organised … People’s demand for faith-based religion has never been stronger but the way Buddhism is organised has failed to meet their spiritual needs,” Li said.
He said religious affairs should not be dominated by atheist party members “who do not care whether Buddha’s teachings are muddled”.
“All they are concerned about is how much they can control every aspect.”
The corruption among contemporary Chinese Buddhist masters merely mirrors the problems of the contemporary Chinese Communist Party, according to East Asian studies expert Albert Welter of University of Arizona.
“Buddhist clergy are not immune from the impulses and characteristics of human nature,” Welter said, pointing out that monks in imperial China were regularly criticised for moral laxity in sexual behaviour, corruption and economic extravagances.
Welter said also that the influence of Chinese Buddhism on the mainland should be regarded as starting all over again, after the major persecutions suffered during the Cultural Revolution.
It would take time to see whether its influence could once again reach across East and Central Asia, he said.
“Much will depend on how well the Chinese Communist Party is able to manage its internationalisation, how it is conducted and what role Buddhism may be allowed to play,” Welter said.
HKU’s Tsui is optimistic. She said esteemed Buddhist masters might still be found on the mainland.
“I believe there could be many excellent hidden Buddhist talents who are quietly working without asking for fame and reputation in return that we just don’t know about yet,” she said.
Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk and Nectar Gan