That was a powerful example of how religion could survive even the repression and Maoist purges in the late 1960s and 1970s, said Prof. Potter, who was then a graduate student on a visit to China and is now the director of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia.
"The contrast was striking," he said. "Temples were closed in the Cultural Revolution, and many were destroyed in the name of a creation of a new society.
"But the minute the lid came off, and people were slightly freer, not entirely free, they were out there doing this.
"That persuaded me that the depth of Buddhist belief is quite strong and despite all the horrors of the Cultural Revolution remained strongly linked to life in China."
Mao's quest was doomed because the society could not be separated from its strong Buddhist traditions, he said.
Understanding that is vital to understanding Asia today, he said, but studying the texts, customs and ceremonies of Buddhism is only part of the puzzle.
Scholars must also examine how religion's deeply ingrained world views influence a society's values, its practices in health care, education and human development, and how it does business, he said.
To that end, UBC announced this week it would create a Buddhism and Contemporary Society program, funded by a $4-million endowment from West Vancouver businessman Robert Ho.
Mr. Ho, 73, was behind the establishment of a centre for Buddhist studies at the University of Hong Kong in 2000, and is expected to donate another $4-million to the University of Toronto to start a Buddhist studies program there.
He has also donated $25-million to Colgate University in New York State, his alma mater, to build an interdisciplinary science centre in his name, to be completed in 2008.
Mr. Ho is from one of Hong Kong's most influential families, which made its wealth from land purchase and development. His grandfather, Sir Robert Ho Tung, financed Sun Yat-sen's efforts to establish China as a republic and was knighted for his services to the British Crown.
Mr. Ho is also the president of the Tung Lin Kok Yuen Canada Society, which runs a temple on Victoria Drive in Vancouver. In 2004, he established a charitable foundation of the same name.
"Buddhism stresses the need for kindness at every level from person-to-person relations to global action," Mr. Ho said in a statement. "I believe this powerful practice fosters peace and change within ourselves and in the world."
Prof. Potter said that $3-million of Mr. Ho's donation will be used to finance the Tung Lin Kok Yuen Canada Foundation Chair. UBC is currently searching for a professor to fill the post.
The program itself will be funded by a $1-million endowment, adding new graduate seminars and undergraduate classes to UBC's slate of classes in Asian and Buddhist studies, he said. Professors will be screened beginning in March, Prof. Potter said. Possible subjects a student could look at would include how policies of water use, environment and economics are forged in the light of Buddhist teachings.
Adding to the links that UBC has created with Asia is part of the attitude that brought the Dalai Lama to UBC in 2004, he said.