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In China, Dharma Confronts the Dollar

by Chi-Chu Tschang, BusinessWeek, August 16, 2007

Zhejiang Province, China -- For more than 1,000 years, the Shengshou Temple nestled in the Fulong Mountains in eastern China's Zhejiang province has been a sanctuary where Buddhist monks could retreat from worldly desires and dwell on spiritual issues. However, this summer, the temple's two resident monks are also attending to more secular matters.

<< Xiangguo Si: A typical Buddhist temple in China

Over 80 tourists, mostly retirees from the nearby city of Yiwu, are paying $43 a month to rent rooms at a new two-story hostel the temple built next door. "We don't receive any money from the government. We are self-reliant," says Lou Zhongyou, assistant director of the Shengshou management office. "Any money we get, we invest it to add more rooms."

China's booming economic growth is proving to be a double-edged sword for Buddhist centers like Shengshou. Temples have generally benefited from an expanding middle-class population looking for more meaning from life than a bigger paycheck. Chinese Buddhists are donating more money to their local temples in exchange for gongde or merit.

Commercialization Is Common

Many temples destroyed during the Cultural Revolution have now been rebuilt using donations. At the same time, China's march towards a market economy has also driven many Buddhist temples to focus on ways to boost revenue. "The commercialization of Buddhism has already become quite common, and this is causing a great deal of concern for a lot of people because it goes against the function of Buddhism as a religion," says Xuan Fang, a professor at Renmin University's Institute for Studies of Buddhism & Religious Theory in Beijing.

China's Buddhists historically have not been averse to commerce. Since the Tang Dynasty, temples have operated hostels or vegetarian restaurants to supplement their traditional sources of revenues such as donations and sales of incense. Nowadays some Buddhist temples have come up with more creative ways to get more money from lay Buddhists, such as asking them to sponsor miniature gold Buddhas, halls, or roof tiles. One temple is selling one stick of incense for $790, according to Chinese media reports.

Buddhist leaders in China complain about dishonest monks who have absconded with their temple's donation box in the middle of the night and con artists who don robes to beg for alms. "There are now 600 fake monks in Yiwu from Anhui province and Sichuan province," claims Shi Daohui, a 52-year-old Buddhist monk in Yiwu.

Government Officials Push For Cash

Like most Chinese, a number of Buddhist temples and clergy in China have succumbed to the pervasive "to get rich is glorious" mentality. "Chinese Buddhist money-raising reflects the values of the society that's around it, and we should not believe that it can escape from this," says Gareth Fisher, a lecturer at the University of Richmond's Sociology and Anthropology Dept. who has researched the boom in Buddhist temple construction in contemporary China.

Moreover, many Buddhist temples are now under pressure from local authorities to raise more money than ever before. A number of local authorities tend to view Buddhist temples in their jurisdiction more as cash cows than as places of worship. "The religious affairs bureaus and government authorities want to milk these temples for money basically. These temples are big tourist draws," says David Wank, director of Sophia University's Graduate Program of Global Studies in Japan, who published a paper last year on the revival of Buddhism in Southeast China.

Temple Destroyed In Great Leap Forward

That's certainly the case in Yiwu. Local authorities last year levied a $790 "management fee" on all temples including Shengshou Temple. The local authorities have also been given the green light to build more temples in rural villages around the city, expanding their revenue base. There are now 43 temples in the area, compared with just 11 a decade ago.

In the mid-1990s, the local authorities decided to resurrect the Shuanglin Temple as part of a plan to promote tourism in Yiwu, which is more famous for being the site of the world's largest wholesale mall than for ancient Chinese temples. Shuanglin Temple was originally built near Yiwu in 520 AD by Buddhist monks from India.

In 1958, during the Great Leap Forward, the local people's commune destroyed the temple when they built a water reservoir around it. After the launch of economic reforms in the early 1980s, the government began to allow greater religious freedom in China, and permitted the reconstruction of temples. Local Buddhist practitioners wholeheartedly embraced the local authorities' plan and donated more than $5.3 million to rebuild Shuanglin Temple.

Monks File Complaint

However in Yiwu's case the local government appeared to be more interested in using the temple to fill its own coffers than in rebuilding a site for Buddhists to worship. Halfway through the construction of the temple, the government sold the temple for $4.5 million to a local real estate developer planning to develop the Yiwu Shuanglin Tourism & Vacation Scenic Area.

On July 4, six Buddhist monks last month filed a complaint against the head of local religious affairs bureau, charging, "The new Shuanglin Temple was built from donations from the city's Buddhists, not the government. The government authorities have no right to sell the temple," the complaint stated.

The Yiwu Religious Affairs Bureau declined to comment and referred requests for comment to the local propaganda bureau, which also declined to discuss the issue. Shuanglin Temple accountant Liu Tiyuan says the local government forced the businessman to sell back his stake in the temple last year due to a "change in government policy."

There is growing trepidation among academics and Buddhist clergy that local authorities generally are focusing too much of the temples' energy on making money as opposed to alleviating Buddhist followers' sufferings. "The money can be very dangerous for Buddhism development. Money can bring corruption and conflict," points out Xue Yu, professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong's Cultural & Religious Studies Dept., who is researching Buddhism in modern China.

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