Yesterday was Buddha’s birthday. Who knew? Certainly not most of the materialistic masses who trod the streets of Shanghai – that least spiritual of cities – on the big day. Even Hong Kong took it as a public holiday; Shanghai hardly noticed.
But not 100km away at Chongyuan Temple, on the shores of Lake Yangcheng, the young monk Miaoci was up by 4:30am, eager to begin celebrating the Buddhist equivalent of Christmas. He and 100 fellow monks were about halfway through their pre-dawn devotions when a group of men in suits and women in office attire hastily took up their places at the back of the temple.
They hardly fitted the stereotype of temple devotees in this part of China, many of whom are old, female and more rural than urban. Elderly ladies in traditional areas near here will sometimes hire a bus to take them off for a spot of temple tourism, hitting five or six local temples on the same day.
But these people were not members of a travelling “taitaituan”, or Buddhist wives’ group. They were staff of one of China’s largest insurance companies, on an office outing to celebrate the birth of baby Buddha. “The boss is a Buddhist,” says the monk Miaoci with a shrug. He points out that, these days, more and more of China’s rich and famous are taking to Buddhism.
Almost a third of the mainland’s wealthiest people now claim to be Buddhist, according to the Hurun Report, chronicler of all things rich and Chinesehttp://up.hurun.net/Humaz/201312/20131218155026428.pdf. And Global Times, controlled by the Communist party mouthpiece People’s Daily, said last month that there was nothing more trendy these days than proclaiming oneself a Buddhist – especially of the Tibetan variety.
Under the headline “Young Han Chinese turn to Tibetan Buddhism amid worldly frustration”, the paper quoted a young Beijing white-collar worker saying “everyone is talking about Tibetan Buddhism now. Pop stars are talking about it, my friends are talking about it, it’s cool. It’s even cooler to sing Tibetan prayers in hip-hop!” http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90882/8607798.html Academics quoted by the paper say that as many young Chinese lead “very stressed and uptight” lives they are turning to religion in search of balance.
Miaoci is not a Tibetan Buddhist. The Chongyuan Temple belongs to a different sect, Pureland Buddhism. But he too is cool and trying to start a trend. He says he wants to change stereotypes of monks as being dour, cut off from the world, and people who are somehow damaged emotionally. He embodies the new face of Chinese monkdom. “I am a happy monk,” he says, adding “I want to demonstrate a more lively, cheerful and energetic kind of Buddhism,” so that the religion can attract more younger followers. Miaoci asked for my mobile phone so that he could scan the QR matrix barcode on my WeChat app – the most popular group messaging software in China. And his favourite television show is The Big Bang Theory. He’s that kind of cleric.
Miaoci became a monk almost by accident. As a very naughty teenager his father gave him a choice: the People’s Liberation Army or Buddhism. He chose the latter and says it helps him “find his heart” (a quest that the PLA might not have seen as central to its mission).
Most of the 300-odd Buddhists who came to Chongyuan Temple yesterday to bathe baby Buddha in rosewater were not in their 20s like Miaoci, but in their 60s or above. And they were not exactly the new face of Chinese Buddhism. Apart from one young woman dressed in white platform heels and a shocking pink minidress, most were old ladies, with some dressed in the traditional blue tunic and quilted headscarf of local fishing villages.
That may not mean much, since it was a workday and anyone whose boss is not a Buddhist presumably had to turn up at the office. Besides, bathing baby Buddha may not be what young Chinese want from religion. Even Miaoci, a wonderful advert for the joys of temple life, says he is not that keen on the formalism of these ceremonies. He is aiming for a more modern image.
There are no reliable statistics to show how that is going. But at the back of the procession carrying the newly cleansed Buddha stood a group of young Buddhists clad in the uniform of the new Chinese middle class: fleeces and sweatpants, jeans and running shoes. They are the second generation of China’s wealth – and like heirs the world over, they often hanker for more than just money. Heaven knows, China needs something to ease its middle-class stress levels. Surely Buddhism is better than Benzodiazepine.
胡润百富榜（Hurun Report，该榜单是一部记录中国富豪的编年史）的数据显示，目前中国内地有将近三分之一的顶级富豪自称是佛教徒。中共喉舌《人民日报》(People's Daily)下属的《环球时报》(Global Times)上月指出，如今没有什么事情比自称信奉佛教、特别是藏传佛教更加时髦了。
在这篇题为《汉族青年遭遇世俗挫折后转向藏传佛教》(Young Han Chinese turn to Tibetan Buddhism amid worldly frustration)的文章中，《环球时报》援引北京一名年轻白领的话称：“现在每个人都在谈论藏传佛教。流行歌星在谈，我的朋友们也在谈。它很酷。如果用嘻哈风格来吟唱藏语的祷文，就更酷了！”该报还援引学者的话称，由于很多中国年轻人过着“非常有压力和紧张的”生活，他们正在转向宗教以寻求心灵的平衡。
妙慈不是藏传佛教徒。重元寺属于佛教中的另一派，即净土宗。但他同样是一个很酷的人，并且正在尝试开启一股新潮流。他表示，自己想改变和尚的典型形象——和尚常被看成是一群闷闷不乐、与世隔绝、在感情上受过某种创伤的人。妙慈代表了中国僧人的新形象。他说，“我是一个开心的和尚”，然后又说，“我想展现一种更加活泼开朗、充满活力的佛教”，使它能够吸引到更多年轻的信徒。妙慈要了我的手机，来扫我的微信(WeChat)应用中的二维码——微信是中国最受欢迎的聊天应用。他最喜欢的电视节目是《生活大爆炸》(The Big Bang Theory)。他就是这种类型的宗教人士。
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