This article explores factors contributing to a boom in Buddhist temple construction in contemporary mainland China. In contrast to recent studies focusing on struggles between religious believers and the state over the revival of local temples and churches, this article examines the culture of merit making and morality building that leads clergy and lay practitioners to form translocal networks with the aim of constructing temples in rural areas where they have few or any cultural ties. The author explores how temple building is driven by differing moral visions within the urban Buddhist community, but with little consideration for the culture and history of the people in the localities where the temples are constructed.
In the early spring of 2003, I accompanied a contingent of monks and lay practitioners from Beijing on a visit to a series of temples in China's south-central Hubei Province. During one visit, we were driven by car to the top of a valley stretching down toward the provincial capital of Wuhan. There we toured an impressive collection of temple halls, all under construction. The abbot of this complex, a fresh-faced monk who had only recently seen his thirtieth birthday, told us that he had already secured two million yuan (US$240,000) toward their construction. Without a trace of insincerity, he explained his aim to raise twenty million yuan to construct the largest Buddhist worship center in the region. In the same breath, he added that he enjoyed the fresh air and the chance to be his own boss.
The following winter, I traveled alone to the seat of Zhao County near Shijiazhuang, the capital of neighboring Hebei Province. Already in the area for a nearby temple festival, I decided to visit the Bailin Monastery, a newly revived temple complex that many of my lay Buddhist friends in Beijing had told me about. On this sunny but cool weekend day, I found few of the many visitors who come to the temple each summer to participate in its Living Chan Summer Camp. Instead, a group of local schoolchildren had gathered to compile a class report on the history of the temple and were dutifully copying down inscriptions from plaques mounted at the entranceways to each of the temple halls. At the same time, another group of schoolchildren gathered outside several reconstructed stelae in the temple's front courtyard. Ignoring the periodic admonishments of a monk who was sweeping in the area, the children rubbed one-jiao coins against auspicious characters on the stele. Looking more closely, I could see that the characters for fu (fortune) and an (peace) looked almost worn away. I watched as, having finished their rubbing, the children put the coins back into their pockets, as though taking away with them something of the magic of this monument to faraway wealth.
The following spring, I traveled to another temple under restoration, this time in the province of Zhejiang in China's culturally fertile Yangtze River Delta region. On this occasion, I was accompanied by a single lay practitioner from Beijing. We were not escorted in a car but made our own way by local bus and then motorcycle taxi. As we neared the temple, the practitioner confessed to me that she was not sure we would be welcome. One year ago, she had stayed at the temple for several weeks until, one night, officials of the local tourism bureau had come to discuss with the resident monks their plans to invest in the temple's reconstruction. A dinner had been prepared in their honor. Accustomed to sumptuous banquets, the visiting officials had requested meat and wine with their meal, and the abbot had acquiesced. Furious, the visiting practitioner had told the abbot that even though he could condone sacrilege in the temple, she could not. After failing to persuade him to forbid the officials from their drink and meat, she had left the temple in protest, but before storming out, she had vowed to return one day and rebuild it with every last jiao of untainted money her fellow Beijing practitioners could give her. Now, during our visit, she was coming back to keep her word.
This paper will examine the feverish rush by prominent and not-so-prominent Chinese monks and nuns from all over mainland China to acquire land and construct temples, with themselves as abbots. Following Document No. 19, the post-Mao Chinese central government's revised policy on religious freedom, many local governments have aided religious organizations in restoring places of worship that were damaged or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (see Huang and Yang 2005, 46; Leung 2005, 903). Interpretations of this law in many parts of the country now permit the national or provincial Buddhist Association to take possession of rural lands if it can be demonstrated, however flimsily, that a temple once stood on the site. At the same time, many wealthy lay Buddhists, both domestic and overseas, believe that temple construction is an important means of participating in the moral revival of Chinese society and gaining merit through their contributions. Local officials, eager to find a means to stimulate impoverished rural economies, enthusiastically welcome both the clergy and the financial backing they bring. This availability of both land and money has led a large number of monks and nuns to build their own temples, many with the aim of independence from the Buddhist hierarchy and financial security through their old age.1
A significant number of recent studies on religious revival in post-Mao China have focused on the revival of local religious traditions, often centered on the restoration of community temples or churches, by local people (Chau 2006; DuBois 2005; Feuchtwang 2000; Huang and Yang 2005; Jing 1996; Kipnis 2001; Lagerwey 2004; Overmyer 2002). Sometimes, these temples re-create traditional associations and networks destroyed by the modernizing projects of the Republican and Communist states (Dean 1993, 5–6; 1998, 5–7; 2003, 347–58; Duara 1988, 1991; Gao 2004) or create new networks across political boundaries within lineage groups (Dean 1993, 126–27; Kuan 1998), regional cults (Dean 1993, 64–89; 1998, 264–65; Yang 2004a), or transnational religious associations (Lozada 2001; Yoshiko and Wank 2005). Several of these studies have discussed local religious revival as re-creating traditional categories, whereas others have suggested that the revival represents local negotiations of morality, power, and place in the face of the inadequacy or undesirability of a state that has either penetrated too far into local interests (Mueggler 2001; Yang 2000, 2004b) or shirked its moral and administrative responsibilities (Feuchtwang 2001, 246; Flower and Leonard 1998; Tsai 2002). Local religious revival may also represent a local response to rapid political and cultural changes that threaten to subsume local interests and identities (Dean 1993, 5; 1997, 178–92; Lozada 2001).
By contrast, the Buddhist monks and nuns discussed in this study have very little to do with the interests and agendas of the people living near the villages or towns where they construct their new sacred palaces. They are sometimes natives of the areas in which the new temples are located, but as likely as not, they come from another part of the country. Likewise, in spite of the legal framework that permits the construction of these temples as the restitution of destroyed religious sites, their architects rarely attempt to model them on the structures that once stood in the same locations. These new and grandiose complexes have little to do with reviving local religious pasts and relate instead to the moral, religious, and professional agendas of urban clergy and lay practitioners. Yet prominent clergy and their wealthy patrons are not the only subjects whose personal journeys are wound up in this rush to new temple construction. Following from their example, many lesser known monks and nuns have aimed to raise funds to construct their own temples. Urban lay practitioners, though dramatically removed in economic status from the sponsors of grandiose temple complexes such as the Bailin Monastery, also seek to participate in temple construction. In contrast to the wealthy lay patrons who sponsor the projects of the monks, many of these practitioners have a very low socioeconomic status in Chinese society. Nonetheless, they are determined to give what money they have to fashion temples hundreds of miles away into artifacts of their own visions of Buddhism as a religion with the potential to morally revitalize a nation now obsessed by wealth and greed.
The remainder of this paper will draw from an analysis of this widespread nationwide movement in Buddhist temple reconstruction to consider religious revival in mainland China as a translocal and sometimes transnational phenomenon that involves moral, religious, and political forces other than those of the state–local dichotomy, to which the majority of recent studies remain confined.2 Following a short discussion of research methodology, I will examine the culture of patronage that has made it possible for many monks and nuns to become architects and leaders of their own temples and an even larger number of clergy to aspire to that status. Through an analysis of two case studies from my fieldwork, I will then examine who has been successful in these aims, how their success has been achieved, and what this reveals about temple construction in contemporary China. Following this, I will examine the alternative moral vision of the lay practitioner who attempted to rebuild another faraway temple with money collected from her own circle of patrons on a far more modest scale. I will conclude by considering the relationship between these translocal religious and moral visions and the aspirations of the local people in the areas where the temples are placed.
The fieldwork on which my findings are based forms part of a larger ethnography of the Temple of Universal Rescue (Guangji Si) in Beijing. As a center of both administrative control and theological orthodoxy, the Temple of Universal Rescue is home to many prominent monk-leaders within the Chinese Buddhist Association (zhongguo fojiao xiehui), several of whom are well connected to clergy, officials, and both national and international sources of funds. The temple also attracts a large number of lay practitioners. Many of these practitioners are interested in consulting with and learning from these eminent monks, though few can gain access to them. Many end up gathering in the temple's outer courtyard to collect and exchange free Buddhist literature, relate Buddhist teachings to personal dilemmas, or listen to amateur lay preachers articulate grand moral narratives that synthesize Buddhist ethics with other ideological visions, such as Marxism. Some lay practitioners participate in these courtyard groups because they lack the cultural or economic capital to consult with the monks. Others, however, eschew or even challenge the authority of the clergy and articulate competing visions.
My observations of the politics of temple construction come from my journeys outward from the Temple of Universal Rescue to the rural areas where temple building is taking place. I made many of these visits in the company of those connected to the funders or organizers of the construction. I followed up my direct observations of temple construction through interviews with clergy, their patron followers, and other lay practitioners who aspired to the construction of a temple in another part of the country. By observing this process of temple construction as an extension of my fieldwork in urban Beijing rather than from a base in a rural community where the temple was being rebuilt, I was able to observe how agents within an urban religious community used the construction of temples in faraway rural areas to realize their own agendas.
The Politics of Merit and Temple Reconstruction
The relationship between lay patrons and Buddhist clergy has deep roots in Chinese history. From the earliest records of its introduction into China, Buddhism attracted the interest and patronage of many Chinese rulers, while concern about the growing power of Buddhism led others to persecute it. Many recent studies have shown how the patronage of Buddhism was not simply a concern of the state: Susan Naquin's (2000) account of Beijing temple life in the Ming and Qing dynasties reveals a complex pattern of temple patronage by wealthy intellectuals, court eunuchs, and lay incense associations, among many others. The reasons for this patronage—both political and theological—were no doubt many: Certain versions of The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit, a series of handbooks for ethical behavior and moral retribution that became popular during the late Ming, list the restoration of temple structures and texts as important means of gaining merit (Brokaw 1991, 48–49; Yü 1981, 136). Timothy Brook's (1993) study of the relationship between gentry and Buddhist clergy in the late Ming reveals how gentry who had difficulty entering national politics used their patronage of Buddhism to legitimate their authority in local circles. Similarly, Prasenjit Duara (1988, 132–56) has discussed how village elite in the late Qing invested in local temples, in particular branch temples of imperial cults, as a means of establishing a “cultural nexus” that legitimized their position by linking their interests to that of the imperial state. Addressing temple restoration in the post-Mao era, Mayfair Yang (2000, 479–89) has argued that newly wealthy entrepreneurs in Zhejiang's Wenzhou region have used temple patronage as a means to redistribute wealth within the community. Kuan Khun Eng (1998) has discussed how officials of Anxi County in southeastern Fujian Province have succeeded in attracting the investment of overseas Chinese by invoking their ancestral responsibilities to the local area.
In my own fieldwork, lay practitioners of all socioeconomic backgrounds frequently spoke about their aspirations to help construct new temples or renovate existing ones. Many lay practitioners involve themselves in these activities because they believe that such actions can help them gain significant merit (gongde): If one helps to construct a temple, whatever wisdom (zhihui) is gained by those who later pray or learn at that temple will also accrue to him or her. Yet there are also limits to this theological reasoning: When specifically asked, most of my informants, both clergy and laity, insisted that donating money to build a school or hospital earned the donor merit equal to raising money to build a temple. Lay practitioners responsible for emptying the collection boxes at the temple lamented that the box marked for donations for Project Hope (xiwang gongcheng), a well-known development project of an educational foundation, received much less money than the regular collection boxes, the proceeds of which were mostly used to fund general temple expenses. They often explained to me that this was a misunderstanding (wujie) of Buddhist doctrine, but what led to this misunderstanding?
The answer to this question lies in a discourse within the Buddhist community that places strong emphasis on the production of merit through the construction of temples. In parts of the country where these projects of reconstruction proceed at a feverish pace, visitors are usually confronted with overt propaganda urging them to donate, describing grandiose (and sometimes unrealistic) plans for the finished temple, and extolling the moral authority and vision of the temple's abbot (zhuchi), who, more often than not, is spearheading the fund-raising campaign (see figure 1). Moreover, the continued growth in the physical infrastructure of the temple becomes a powerful outward symbol of the strength of the religious community that raised the funds. The growth of temples nationwide is a powerful testament to the efficacy and rightness of the practitioner's belief in a country where Buddhism—and religious practice in general—is still often criticized.
Typically more educated and further advanced in Buddhist theology than most, the monks at the Temple of Universal Rescue are rarely demonstrative about any temple-building plans, but in the outer courtyard, monks and nuns from other parts of the country frequently visit and mingle with lay practitioners to raise interest in their temple-building projects. Unlike the eminent clergy inside the temple, these wandering clergy lack connections to wealthy patrons but still desire to establish their own prestige and create financial security for themselves. As a public space where lay Buddhists gather in relatively large numbers and are not preoccupied by ritual activities, the outer courtyard of the Temple of Universal Rescue represents an excellent target for their fund-raising campaigns. Dressed in the robes that mark their sacred authority and far more accessible to ordinary lay practitioners than the monks inside the temple, they quickly establish in the minds of many practitioners the meritorious fruits of helping to construct their temples.
Though it would be very difficult to obtain exact figures, based on my discussions with clergy and laity involved in fund-raising and management at temples and lay practitioners' associations (jushi lin) across China, a relatively small percentage of temple funds are presently allocated for public outreach or community service projects; most are distributed for internal temple maintenance, new construction, the living expenses of the clergy, and the general costs of running the temple or association. It should also be noted that there is only one collection box at the Temple of Universal Rescue marked for donations to Project Hope; there are at least half a dozen much larger boxes targeted for internal temple funds. Each of these boxes is marked with the characters for “merit box” (gongde xiang); the Project Hope box is not. There seems to be little ambiguity about where one is supposed to place one's money in order to gain merit.
An equally unstated but important assumption is what I will refer to as the “cash–merit relationship”: Simply put, the more money one gives to a member of the clergy or to the temple, the more merit one will receive. This assumption is reinforced in a number of different ways: At almost any newly constructed or renovated temple in China, a prominent stele or plaque will list the donors to the temple project, sometimes with the approximate amounts of their donations inscribed next to their names.4 But not every donation is displayed for the whole community to see. For example, at a well-known temple in Guangdong Province, funds were raised to renovate one of the central halls by asking would-be donors to spend 200 yuan to have their names written in magic marker on the inside of one of the clay tiles to be pasted onto pillars in the new hall. In this case, no one would see the names, but the donors hoped (and were led to believe) that the fruits of the meritorious actions that were to occur inside these halls would also accrue to them.
Another indication of the implied cash–merit relationship is the starkly differential treatment of lay practitioners by monks at the Temple of Universal Rescue. Lay practitioners who do not have the financial means to make large donations to the temple or connections with those who do stand far less chance of receiving consultations with prominent monks. Many longtime lay practitioners who gather in the outer courtyard to listen to the amateur lay preachers told me that they would not dare to consult the monks because they lacked the financial means to bring them suitable gifts. I myself observed many occasions on which prominent monks flatly ignored the questions of longtime practitioners well-versed in Buddhist doctrine and entertained the relatively simplistic inquiries of affluent and well-connected visitors to the temple. These visitors often consulted privately with the monks even after the temple had officially closed for the day. This differential treatment reinforces the idea that those with more money make more important and therefore more meritorious contributions to the spread of Buddhist doctrine.5
It is also noteworthy that there is a clear difference in emphasis between social prestige and religious merit as clergy move down the economic scale in their requests for support: Wealthier and more prominent donors are enticed with the promise that their names can be etched in stone on the stele, thus contributing to their prestige among fellow donors. By contrast, when appealing to larger numbers of lay practitioners for support, clergy emphasize the religious merit accrued from anonymous donations. In this way, the prestige of large donors is enhanced; their names are etched on the stele in a select group uncluttered by the names of those making smaller donations (which are still needed to successfully complete the construction effort).6
I asked many of my regular informants about the cash–merit relationship. Both monks and lay people agreed that, as a theological point, the investment of more money does not necessarily lead to corresponding gains in merit, but this point seemed to create more contention than the earlier question of whether it is best to donate to the building of temples or, for instance, the building of schools. The lay practitioners in the outer courtyard of the Temple of Universal Rescue often complained about this implied connection. Some of them saw it as evidence of the corruption of the sangha by a culture of greed for monetary wealth, which they believed had become the dominant ethos of non-Buddhist Chinese society. The monks and lay people closest to or with greatest access to them, on the other hand, often reconciled the difference between theology and practice by explaining it as the difference between baoyou (protection) and gongde (merit). More money does not necessarily guarantee one greater gongde, but it gives the donor greater baoyou, helping to secure health and long life and protect the donor from the capricious nature of economic fortunes in a rapidly changing economy.
The availability of money to construct temples and the belief that investing this money in temple construction can generate merit for the donor, in whatever form, is only the first step in successfully constructing a temple, however. Another crucial requirement is the ability to cultivate the connections and relationships necessary to secure an appropriate site and local government officials willing to permit the expansion of religious structures. As noted earlier, the restitution of seized or destroyed religious structures is referred to in the central government's policy on religious freedoms. This policy alone is not enough to guarantee the “return” of temple sites, however. I also know of many cases in which temples struggled to regain land once owned by the sangha, sometimes unsuccessfully, especially when that land had already been developed (see Yang 2004b). In other cases, local officials have remained decidedly hostile to temple constructions and renovations of any sort (Flower 2004, 678–79; Flower and Leonard 1998, 277–78; Yang 2004b, 743–49).
Recent studies of local temple restorations provide insight into why local officials are sometimes amenable to temple expansion: One of the major reasons is their hope that the proposed temple project, especially when funded by international donors, will help stimulate the local economy (Eng and Lin 2002, 1280; Feuchtwang 2001, 246; Lai 2003, 418; F. Yang and Wei 2005, 74–77; Yoshiko and Wank 2006, 348). Some officials have even off-loaded public works projects and their resulting expenses onto temple or community organizations (Feuchtwang 2001, 245; Tsai 2002, 11), whereas others hope to line their own pockets with the proceeds from temple entrance tickets (menpiao) (Borchert 2005, 101). Other local officials, though ostensibly representatives of an atheist state, are nonetheless influenced by traditional beliefs, according to which aid in constructing a temple is a demonstration of moral authority; participation in temple revival becomes part of the local government's efforts to legitimize itself to the people (Dean 1993, 127; Flower and Leonard 1998, 283–84; Yang 2000, 501). Chau (2006, 198) discusses recent temple revival in northern Shaanxi as part of a “temple-village political nexus” whereby temples gain political legitimacy by registering with government agencies, such as the Religious Affairs Bureau (zongjiao ju), and including local officials in their dedication ceremonies, while the officials, in turn, gain power and legitimacy in the eyes of the people by appearing at such ceremonies and giving their blessings to popular religious activities. Officials are more likely to entertain a project under the auspices of the Chinese Buddhist Association than the Daoist Association because they perceive it as linked more closely with international sources of funds, particularly from Japan (Hahn 1989, 92), and more remote from superstitious (mixin) local cults, which are more often the target of central government concern (Flower and Leonard 1998, 277–81). Compared with other transnational religious movements, investment in Buddhism is seen as more desirable than investment in Christianity and Islam, both of which the Chinese government associates more closely with potential areas of political instability (Leung 2005, 905–6; Yang and Wei 2005, 72).
Given varying official attitudes toward temple construction, it is important for a monk or nun who aspires to rebuild a temple to have the correct connections. Some are fortunate to have come from a village, town, or even city where conditions are right to build a new temple, but my findings suggest that this is the exception rather than the norm: Most monks and nuns make use of extended networks of relationships, often in a part of the country they have never visited. To build these relationships, they rely on both traditional ties with fellow clergy from the same region or within the same monastic lineage and connections established over wider distances, such as between classmates in the national China Buddhism College (zhongguo foxueyuan) in Beijing and the regional centers of learning established through the auspices of provincial Buddhist Associations. Those without these connections often wander across the country in search of lay donors, making use of little more than their status as clergy and their own personal charisma.7
Welch (1967, 403–7) has argued that networks of clergy were traditionally established (1) between master and disciple, (2) between disciples tonsured under the same master at the same time, and (3) between monks from the same region. Writing about the importance of clergy and lay networks in the spread of Chinese Buddhism overseas, Yoshiko and Wank (2005, 230–34) find that clergy and lay practitioners with a common master also formed horizontal networks and that lay people took a more active role in the expansion of Buddhism. I suggest that this expansion of the importance of traditionally weaker ties was necessitated by the Chinese Buddhist community's desire to survive and expand away from its traditional base. Similarly, in the case of the expansion of Buddhism through the revival of temples in post-Mao China, many of the traditional connections discussed by Welch in his earlier study have been decimated through the Communist persecution of Buddhist practices, including the seizure of temples and long-term disruption in the ordination of new clergy within once large lineages (Welch 1972, 42–83). As a result, both clergy and lay practitioners looking for support to construct new temples have moved to relationships that are no longer facilitated through connections of common region and lineage. At the same time, the reorganization of Buddhist training around the model of regional and national Buddhist academies, inspired by a state-education model in which students test into educational institutions of varying prestige, has facilitated translocal ties between classmates that have supplemented regional links among clergy ordained by the same master. Technological advances in transportation and communications technology have also facilitated the establishment and maintenance of translocal networks. All of these changes have contributed to the expansion of Chinese Buddhist temples as a translocal phenomenon.
Though networks of Buddhist academies are connected closely to the Chinese Buddhist Association, the leadership of the national and regional Buddhist Associations does not initiate the majority of temple-building projects. Rather, clergy use networks of individual relationships facilitated through the connectivity of the associations to pursue their temple-building plans. Although local officials may welcome temple restoration projects under the auspices of the associations, the connection between the associations and the individual monk or nun proposing a temple-building project is often quite weak. Successful clergy may need the associations' approval to lay claim to land, usually secured through a relationship with an influential contact, but the connection often goes no further. The national Chinese Buddhist Association, though sanctioned and heavily regulated by the state, is not a state organization either in law or in spirit: While it conveys the state's interests to its members, it also represents the Buddhist community to the state and may take its side in disputes with state agencies (see Yoshiko and Wank 2006, 348–56). For these reasons, it is best to consider the expansion of Buddhist monasteries in contemporary China as an unanticipated evolution of a translocal set of ideologies and institutions whose spread is facilitated by state agencies with which they are only indirectly connected.
The strong connection between temple construction and the accumulation of merit and the belief in the cash–merit relationship contribute to a culture of patronage within the Buddhist community that directs significant financial resources to the construction of temples. This process also works in the reverse direction: The availability of land for temple construction, and the example of other monks and nuns building their own temples, drives a social and theological emphasis on the relationship among cash, merit, and temple building. The result is the availability of large sums of money for temple reconstruction and sites on which to build. What remains for the monks and nuns who aspire to construct their own temples is to harness those funds for their own particular projects. This depends on convincing lay patrons of the morally upright nature of their character and vision in building the temples, and thus the likely efficacy of the patrons' investments in helping them to gain merit. In the following section, I will explore two case studies: the first of the relationship between a prominent monk at the Temple of Universal Rescue and an affluent lay patron, and the second of two wandering monks who, despite lacking much prominence, aimed to follow the same cultural schema and establish temples with themselves as abbots.8
Master Jinghui and the Bailin Monastery
Venerable Master Jinghui is one of the most well-known monks in China today. He received the tonsure at age fifteen and by the 1950s had completed graduate-level training at the China Buddhism College (Wu and Yuan 2000, 37). During the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to leave the monastery and return to lay life (Yang and Wei 2005, 65). Following the revival of Buddhism in the post-Mao era, Jinghui returned to the monkhood and rose to prominence within the Buddhist Association, residing for many years at the Temple of Universal Rescue. In 1987, he accompanied a contingent of Japanese monks on their annual homage to a dilapidated pagoda that houses the ashes of the ninth-century Zhaozhou monk, the founder of their lineage (Jia 2007, 101; Wu and Yuan 2000, 38; Yang and Wei 2005, 63).9 The contingent expressed disappointment that only the original pagoda remained and that it was in a very poor state of repair. Jinghui resolved to renovate the temple and began to seek funds to do so. By 1988, the restoration of the temple had begun, and Jinghui was later installed as abbot. By 1992, the reconstruction of the original halls in the historical temple was under way, and Jinghui set his sights on a more ambitious target: He successfully raised funds for the construction of an enormous Ten Thousand Buddha Hall (wanfo lou), containing more than ten thousand gold-plated Buddhas (see figure 2). The five-story hall was completed in 2003 at a cost of 30 million yuan (Fayin2003, 48). Any visitor to the monastery would be forced to agree that it now ranks among the largest and most impressive in China.
The Bailin Monastery is the centerpiece for Jinghui's vision of a revived, modernized Buddhism. Placing himself within a tradition of modern Chinese Buddhist reformers, most notably Taixu (1890–1947), Jinghui stresses that “Buddhism must not only modernize but also change modernity” (bu dan shi yao xiandai hua hai yao hua xiandai) (Wu, Liu, and Yuan 2002, 17). In pursuit of the first goal, Jinghui has renewed Taixu's calls for a well-educated and socially engaged monastic community supported by an active laity. As for Buddhism's contribution to modern society, Jinghui has echoed Taixu's concerns about the debilitating effects of modernity with its social anomie and erosion of values, concerns that are as relevant at the beginning of the twenty-first century as they were at the beginning of the twentieth. Also like Taixu, Jinghui has stressed the compatibility of Buddhism with science but also its potential to raise awareness of science's destructive effects, such as environmental degradation and the creation of weapons of mass destruction (Wu, Liu, and Yuan 2002, 16).
In adding his own legacy to the evolution of modern Chinese Buddhism, Jinghui has drawn from the Bailin Monastery's Chan heritage to coin the term “Living Chan” (shenghuo chan). The basic idea behind Living Chan is that one should be mindful of one's own heart of compassion by focusing on it sincerely in one's everyday affairs—that one should retain this heart not only withdrawn in meditation but also as an active citizen in a modern world. In this way, one's practice of Buddhism remains connected to the world, and the world can be transformed by it. The Bailin Monastery is now home to various retreats, including a free Living Chan Summer Camp, held annually, which attracts practitioners from all over China and the world (Sun 2002, 21), many of them young and well educated (Yang and Wei 2005, 71).
Many lay Buddhists at the Temple of Universal Rescue frequently told me about the Bailin Monastery and, because the monastery is not far from Beijing, several of them had participated in at least one of the retreats. Many had contributed money in both large and small sums to the construction of the Ten Thousand Buddha Hall. One very affluent practitioner-patron described to me the history of her relationship with Master Jinghui: In 1991, when Jinghui was in residence at the Temple of Universal Rescue, Li Ling came to the temple on the day of the Buddha's birthday (the eighth day of the fourth lunar month) with some spiritual questions that had been bothering her. According to Li, the temple was packed and there was hardly room to move. She managed to find a lay practitioner, however, whom she asked what she described as her “simple questions” (jiandan de wenti). The practitioner replied that she could not answer the questions, but she took Li back to visit with her master, Jinghui. According to Li, Jinghui then talked with her for the rest of the afternoon. She felt that he spoke to many of her questions and later returned to formally convert to Buddhism, with Jinghui as her master.
Jinghui told Li Ling that he liked to talk to her because she was well educated (you wenhua). Most of his students were intellectuals, he said, and he preferred to preach among them rather than to the “old women” (lao taitai) who flooded the temple to pray for an end to the minute problems of everyday life. He noted that as someone with a high level of education, a successful position in society, and as a Communist Party member, Li Ling could do a lot of good works. Most people in Li Ling's position criticized Buddhist teachings as superstition; Jinghui praised her open-mindedness as rare and special. In keeping with his philosophy of shenghuo chan, Jinghui encouraged Li Ling to go out into the community to do good works. Jinghui, in turn, impressed Li with his wisdom and learnedness, not just of Buddhist matters but also many domestic and international affairs, as well as his belief that the purpose of Buddhism is to do good deeds for society. Li Ling agreed with Jinghui that modernization had left present-day Chinese society with particular challenges, and she came to believe, like him, that an engaged, modernized Buddhism is important for those living through this time. Jinghui shared with Li an interest in educational development and a belief that Buddhist teachings could play an important role in teaching China's youth to develop a heart of compassion. Following Jinghui's advice, Li invested some of her money into a think tank devoted to education reform; she also supported his project to reconstruct the Bailin Monastery and told me that it was evidence of his good works.
Jingxu and Miaozhen
Venerable Jingxu and his female cousin, Venerable Miaozhen, first arrived in Beijing in November 2003; Jingxu was in his late twenties and Miaozhen her late thirties. Jingxu was college educated and working in management when he became disenchanted with the direction of his life and decided to become a monk. Miaozhen had just fled an abusive husband when she found out that Jinxu had decided to take the tonsure; lacking a clear direction after the change in her life, she decided to join him. After losing her brother in a childhood accident, she had resolved to learn to practice Chinese medicine. Miaozhen told me that after she joined the nunnery, her skills came in handy in treating many of the resident nuns and even the temple cat.
Miaozhen's nunnery was in located in rural Jiangxi province in the southeast of China; the monastery with which Jingxu was affiliated was in the northern province of Shanxi. During the summer before they first arrived at the Temple of Universal Rescue, Miaozhen was visiting Jingxu's temple when they met a lay practitioner from Beijing and her husband, who suffered from chronic back problems. Miaozhen was able to provide the husband with relief, and the couple invited them to live in their apartment if they ever wanted to visit Beijing.
That autumn, Jingxu and Miaozhen arrived in Beijing and took the couple up on their offer. They also began visiting the outer courtyard of the Temple of Universal Rescue. Using mostly massage therapy (tui na), Miaozhen engaged in ostentatious healing sessions in the public space of the courtyard, punctuated by the loud cries of her patients as she attempted to twist and straighten backs, legs, and arms; Jingxu advertised her abilities and led others to participate. When the problems of her patients seemed psychological in nature, Miaozhen would diagnose them as suffering from the fruits of their past karmic misdeeds (yinguo bao). Miaozhen and Jingxu distributed a number of business cards to participants in the healing sessions and soon succeeded in transforming the apartment in which they were staying into a small clinic. They saw around a dozen patients a day, and Miaozhen diagnosed nearly every patient with a large range of medical problems, well beyond the symptoms reported by the patients themselves. They did not insist on a specific fee and asked only for donations. If they felt that a patient gave too little, however, they would loudly complain as soon as that person had left. The next patient, concerned to save face and gain merit, made sure to give more.
Miaozhen collected an average of 50 yuan for each patient, in spite of the fact that the going rate for a consultation with a licensed practitioner of Chinese medicine in Beijing at the time was only 17 yuan (Sonya Pritzker, personal communication). When I asked several of Miaozhen's patients why they had paid more to consult her, they told me that Miaozhen could be trusted more than an ordinary doctor because she combined her medical practice with special insight into their past lives. I estimated that Miaozhen and Jingxu were earning several thousand yuan per month, the salary of a successful college graduate. Their expenses were low, as they paid no rent in exchange for treating their landlord's back problem.
Jingxu and Miaozhen had originally made it known that they only planned to stay in Beijing for several weeks, saying that the winter in mountainous Shanxi was too cold. By the time the following spring came around, Jingxu and Miaozhen remained in Beijing, but relations between them and their lay patients had grown very sour. They left the apartment where they had been staying after their landlord and landlady, seeing how much money they were earning, suggested that they should pay rent. They then rented their own small space but were criticized by lay practitioners, as a monk and nun should not sleep in the same room. Rumors circulated that they were not really cousins but illicit lovers, and doubts were cast on the efficacy of Miaozhen's hit-or-miss diagnoses. They stopped coming to the Temple of Universal Rescue but managed to keep seeing patients by avoiding the networks of their previous clientele.
When I last spoke with them, it was in a small restaurant near a sacred curio shop whose owner they had befriended. They showed me the license and plans for two potential temple sites, both in Hebei Province, a few hours drive from Beijing. The abbot of Miaozhen's monastery in Jiangxi was using her name to acquire land for them through negotiations with the local government and the Buddhist Association. Neither seemed particularly concerned with the temple that had originally stood on the site, though both had many plans as to how the new one should look. Miaozhen told me that it was her aim to educate a young generation of monks and nuns in the medicinal arts she had learned and to send them out to heal those who could not otherwise afford medical care. They planned to use the money they had earned from their consultations to acquire the land and begin building. The curio shop owner paid for our meal, and another younger female practitioner drove them back to yet another practitioner's apartment in her car.10 Both seemed very interested in Jingxu and Miaozhen's temple-building plans.
Though representing very different positions within the sangha, Jingxu and Miaozhen aspired to follow the cultural schema established by monks such as Jinghui and construct their own temple, installing themselves as abbots. Although Jinghui's Bailin Monastery was obviously more grandiose and his position within the sangha already influential, it is possible that he, like many other members of the clergy I met, was attracted by the security of establishing himself as the abbot of his own temple. All three contributed, at different levels, to the proliferation of new Buddhist temples in China and the insertion of translocal Buddhist places into local space. In addition to using his knowledge of temple lineage to cultivate more lucrative overseas donations, Jinghui, through his existing student followers, was able to identify Li Ling—perhaps by her clothes, her speech, or the type of questions she asked—from among the many visitors to the Temple of Universal Rescue on a busy and important day. (Many of these visitors, as I have explained, would have had little opportunity to consult with a monk of Jinghui's stature). Jinghui was also able to speak to the interests and agendas of potential donors such as Li Ling—to convince her that he was a morally upright architect of a temple-building project. In Li Ling's case, this involved showing his interest in improving education and social welfare outside the temple community, activities that she believed the construction of the Bailin Monastery would help to develop. Similarly, on a much smaller scale, Jingxu and Miaozhen succeeded in creating a clientele and earning money on the basis of Miaozhen's insights into karmic retribution. It is possible that by the time of our last meeting, they had succeeded in using that initial capital to convince new patrons of the worthiness of their temple project, even as they fell from grace in the minds of their earlier patients.
From this we can see that, although belief in the meritorious fruits of investing in temple reconstruction made sources of funding potentially available to clergy angling to construct their own temples, the ability to access those potential funds in particular cases relied on the power of monks and nuns to convince particular patron-practitioners that they had an important moral vision concerning the spread of Buddhism in China and the material connections to carry this vision out. Armed with these two attributes, their donors believed that investment in their particular projects was likely to deliver a fruitful return in the form of merit. This is not to suggest, however, that the decisions by these lay patrons to invest in temple construction or by the clergy who sought security and independence were motivated only by self-interest. Nearly all of the patrons and clergy with whom I interacted spoke of temple reconstruction as making an important contribution to the spread of Buddhist teachings to those yearning for a spiritual compass. I have no reason to doubt that their intentions were genuine.
Similarly, though Jinghui's aims and methods seem more respectable than Jingxu's or Miaozhen's, it is also possible that, as their later patrons believed, Jingxu and Miaozhen sincerely believed that by establishing their own temple they, too, could spread useful skills to those who would use them to act compassionately. Lacking the connections of a prominent monk such as Jinghui, they had to employ a variety of means to gain the necessary cash to construct their own temple complex. As in many religious traditions, the concerns of clergy and patrons with moral altruism and personal spiritual (and material) rewards were very much intertwined. Nor were larger moral agendas limited to patrons and clergy with advanced schooling, such as Jinghui and Li Ling. Lay practitioners with little cultural capital not only were interested in the pursuit of individual merit but also believed in the importance of spreading Buddhist morality. The content of this morality was not entirely the same as that of the wealthier lay patrons and clergy, however, as I will explore in the next section.
Guo Xuzhen and the Moral Alternative to the Cash–Merit Relationship
By the time I met Guo Xuzhen, she was a regular lay preacher in the outer courtyard of the Temple of Universal Rescue. Born in Beijing, Guo completed only an elementary school education. She was estranged from her parents and raised by her paternal aunt (guma). She worked in the countryside of northeast China during her late teens and twenties. When she returned to Beijing, she fell into a semiarranged marriage, in which she was never very happy, and eventually had one son. She and her husband were assigned work at a local factory. By the mid-1990s, she had divorced and taken custody of her son. Shortly thereafter, her work unit became insolvent and then, in her early fifties, she was forced into early retirement. By the time I met her in 2002, she was surviving on a retirement salary of 550 yuan a month and living with her son, now twenty-two, and, later in my fieldwork, with his fiancée, in one small room in a condemned apartment building.
Lacking the means to acquire new work, Guo spent most of her days engaged in the study of Buddhist texts and DVDs. Her ability to project her voice, her knowledge of Buddhist doctrine, and her humble and pious lifestyle had earned her much respect at the temple, and she was frequently in the company of a devoted following of lay practitioners who telephoned or visited her. Like many of the other preachers at the temple, Guo Xuzhen believed that China had experienced a moral decline in the post-Mao era. She often stressed two main causes of this decline: the first was that Chinese people today are greedy (tanxin) and self-centered (zi gu zi de); the second was that, in part because of their self-centered nature, they are “not sufficiently unified” (bugou tuanjie). When asked, Guo said she thought that neither of these had been problems when she was growing up and Mao Zedong was still alive and chairman of the Communist Party.
Guo often criticized the influx of migrant workers to Beijing from other parts of China and the spiritual pollution that she believed was caused by an influx of Western television programs, advertising billboards, and consumer items—two obvious results of policies of reform and opening (gaige kaifang) particular to post-Mao China. Nevertheless, neither in her public remarks at the temple nor in our private conversations did Guo attribute the moral failures of the present to changes in the post-Mao government's economic or political priorities. Instead, she rooted them in the Buddhist notion of the dharma-ending period (mofa shiji), the time furthest away from the teaching of the Buddha, into which she believed that China had passed during her lifetime.11 Unlike some of the other lay preachers at the temple, Guo rarely mentioned Mao and never pined for the past, yet neither did she believe that moral decline was pre-fated or inevitable.12 She believed that those exposed to Buddhist teachings could be motivated to mend their selfish ways. Likewise, the revived Buddhist community had the potential to organize collectively in a way that could enable China to regain its national greatness, although Guo believed that this potential was still unrealized.
Guo often criticized individual monks and nuns for pursuing wealth and fame at the expense of the needs of ordinary lay practitioners, but she was always very respectful of the office of the clergy.13 She had also considered taking the tonsure herself several times in her life but had refrained from doing so because of family responsibilities. When her son became engaged, she began to talk more openly among her followers about becoming a nun. They offered to pool money to construct a temple for her, but she refused, saying that she wanted to fund herself. This made her different from clergy like Jinghui, Jingxu, and Miaozhen, who headed (or planned to head) their own temples as abbots. Guo frequently befriended the traveling clergy who visited the Temple of Universal Rescue, and she often traveled around the country herself, visiting the clergy in turn at their local temples. Some of these monks and nuns were attracted to Guo because they hoped that her charisma would help them draw in followers and, possibly, potential donors to their own temple construction or renovation projects.
In 2003, after making the acquaintance of its abbot during his visit to Beijing, Guo traveled to the Baiguang Monastery in Zhejiang Province.14 She stayed there for several weeks, buying and cooking meals for the abbot and the other temple monks. Though situated in an idyllic mountain setting, the temple was dilapidated, and the abbot and the monks (none of whom were local to the area) were very interested in restoring it (see figure 3). Toward the end of Guo Xuzhen's time at the temple, they were busy courting representatives from a local tourism agency who were interested in investing in developing the temple as a local tourist attraction. It was during these negotiations that the visiting officials requested meat and wine with their meal—the incident that led Guo to storm out of the temple and vow to return with “untainted” funds.
Returning to Beijing, Guo proved true to her word. Without going into the details of her estrangement from the temple's abbot, she told her followers and listeners that she was raising funds to help restore the Baiguang Temple. Over a one-year period, she succeeded in raising around 4,400 yuan in donations for the Baiguang reconstruction, mostly in small cash amounts from lay patrons in the outer courtyard of the Temple of Universal Rescue. She also talked of contributing a large portion of the money the Beijing government was planning to give her in compensation for her condemned apartment to the reconstruction. Almost all of the donations she received from other lay practitioners were extremely small amounts, with typical donations ranging from 1 to 30 yuan. She was meticulous about explaining exactly what the money was for, and, unlike most of the clergy involved in temple restoration, she did not accept—either implicitly or explicitly—the cash–merit relationship. Having pledged to raise money so as to avoid the Baiguang abbot's reliance on the tourism association, she was very concerned that those who donated to the temple have the “pure” aim of restoring the temple as a place for morally upright Buddhist teaching. When one practitioner who had donated 15 yuan to the temple restoration fund subsequently asked for an introduction to me so that I might tutor her daughter in English, Guo became very angry and insisted that the practitioner should take back her money. She explained to me that raising these funds was her way of harnessing the potential of the Buddhist community to achieve unity (tuanjie) in a collective effort. She saw her efforts to restore the Baiguang Temple as only the beginning of other plans to restore temples and revive true Buddhism throughout the country.
In the spring of 2004, I offered to travel with Guo to Zhejiang and pay her way for a return visit to the temple. Although the abbot was absent (which made Guo very irate), we were met by three temple monks who accepted the donations. In spite of her offerings, Guo was only politely tolerated throughout our visit. A more welcome visitor during my stay was another representative from the tourist association who would drive his car to the temple several times each week to talk with the monks, sometimes about investments but oftentimes just to chat and chain smoke. He considered himself a practitioner, but Guo made no secret of the fact that she saw him as more interested in pursuing hedonistic pleasures such as smoking, drinking, and money making than promoting the spread of Buddhist teachings.
It is very likely that the money raised by Guo, though impressive considering her lack of contact with lucrative donors, was very insubstantial indeed compared to what the tourism bureau could offer. This did not, however, deter her from pontificating on what was appropriate behavior for a morally upright Buddhist throughout our Zhejiang visit. While reserving her criticism of the temple abbot for me, she scolded an older male lay practitioner who helped around the temple for not wearing a shirt and occasionally drinking wine with his meal; she berated the owners of the nearby village convenience store (who were not necessarily Buddhist) for requesting multiple copies of a digital picture I had taken of them; and she criticized bus operators and taxi drivers for overcharging her. Even the broken dirt road that ran between the village and temple was not immune to criticism: Its lack of maintenance was an example of the greedy and self-serving nature of rural southerners who were unwilling to pool their resources to repair it. Although Guo saw herself as responsible for helping the temple to become more morally upright, it was clear that, for the monks, her combination of meager financial support and self-righteous pestering contrasted unfavorably with the tourism bureau representative, who offered both a more significant source of funds and far more likeable companionship.
Though not particularly welcome, Guo Xuzhen's efforts to influence the direction of the temple's growth according to her own vision of Buddhist morality (and, to some extent, that of her donors) was not very much different from that of Jinghui or Li Ling or even Jingxu and Miaozhen. All articulated an active role for Buddhist teachings and institutions in a modern China. Both Jinghui and Guo Xuzhen echoed the concerns of the reforming figures of the early Republican period. In Jinghui's case, this meant taking up the banner of Taixu's call for a modern, educated, and socially engaged Buddhist community. Guo Xuzhen's complaints that Chinese people have become disunified echoes Sun Yat-sen's famous assertion that Chinese people are like “a sheet of loose sand,” too preoccupied with particularistic ties to come together in the form of a modern nation—the difference being that Guo (she believed) had seen that unity achieved in Mao's China, only to be disintegrated again. Jinghui and Guo Xuzhen's relationship to the Maoist past, often more implied than directly stated, is an important difference between the two. Jinghui's references to earlier Buddhist figures such as Taixu and his own teacher, Xuyun, emphasize unity with a time in Buddhist history that predates the destruction of temples and laicization of clergy (including Jinghui himself) that occurred during the Maoist era. In reading Jinghui's writings, it sometimes seems as though the Maoist era did not exist, which is perhaps how he would prefer to remember it. Although Guo Xuzhen rarely referred to Mao himself, she was clearly much more comfortable discussing the Maoist era as a period of moral uprightness and national pride whose achievements could be returned to (rather than avoided) through Buddhism. Given that, during the Maoist era, Guo enjoyed a steady, dependable income with subsidized education and medical care, whereas, during the reform era, she was a laid-off (xiagang) worker who faced eviction, this contrast is not surprising.
For similar reasons, Jinghui and Guo Xuzhen represent different visions of post-Mao China's process of globalization: Whereas Guo, echoing Maoist concerns, viewed China's engagement with the West (particularly in its consumerist, capitalist form) with suspicion, Jinghui mirrored the early leaders of the Chinese Buddhist Association in their efforts to improve the status of Buddhism by emphasizing its role in linking China to friendly foreign influences (see Welch 1972, 202; Yang and Wei 2005, 79–81). For Jinghui, overseas Buddhist communities were also important sources of temple funds, whereas Guo raised all of her money from ordinary Chinese lay practitioners. Both, however, saw the expansion of Chinese Buddhism as a means to advance a moral agenda that questioned the imperative of Westernized modernization.
Because of her low socioeconomic status, Guo—and her donors—were perhaps more concerned than wealthier patrons and clergy about corruption and greed and, under Guo's leadership, made it their main objective to create a temple space that would be free of both. Unlike Miaozhen and Jingxu, Guo was most concerned with the means through which the money to reconstruct the Baiguang Temple was raised. Guo knew full well that, even without her support, the temple would still be reconstructed. The important matter for her was the moral character with which that reconstruction would take place. Unlike Jinghui, whose Living Chan Summer Camp interests young and relatively well-educated practitioners in Buddhist teachings, Guo and her supporters saw it as their goal to use the reconstruction of the Baiguang Temple to revive Maoist-era moral values among relatively uneducated and “backward” peasants. Likewise, Guo did not seek the security and prestige of establishing herself as the abbot of a monastery that she had helped to construct but pursued symbolic capital among her lay followers in Beijing as the successful architect of an ambitious moral agenda.
The Politics of the Translocal
The belief in the meritorious fruits of temple reconstruction, the implicit acceptance of the cash–merit relationship by donors and Buddhist clergy, the interest of local officials and agencies in temples as an investment in the local economy, and the moral politics through which both clergy and laity acquire funds for their temple-building plans have contributed to the proliferation of wholly new Buddhist temples and the restoration of many others throughout mainland China. Though frequently drawing from the Bailin Monastery's significance within its Chan lineage, Jinghui rarely refers to its history and significance within the temple's locality. In my visit to newly restored temples in Hubei Province, the abbot-developers also seemed little interested in the local history of the temple and even less so in the areas in which they were developed. The same was true of Miaozhen and Jingxu in their temple-building plans. Guo Xuzhen clearly saw the religious culture of rural Zhejiang as morally inferior to the version of Buddhist doctrine that she preached back in Beijing.
While Jinghui, Miaozhen and Jingxu, and Guo Xuzhen each sought to act out different moral agendas and visions through temple reconstruction, for all of them, the localities in which their temples were placed existed only as empty spaces onto which their plans and visions could be inscribed or as spaces of inferior morality in need of their knowledge and insight. Through their ability to secure large sums of money, the Buddhist clergy, lay practitioners, and patrons involved in these projects have the power to impose their physical structures and moral agendas in many parts of China, with little consideration for the cultural or moral relevance of that space for the people who live there. In this way, although the moral visions of both clergy and lay practitioners in constructing these temples reveal much about broad visions for the role of religion and nation in a time of rapid change, they tell us little about their role in the local moral lives of the people who live around them.
What little we know of these local visions comes through narratives that suggest the incorporation of these newly constructed temples within an alternative culture of meanings. In a recent article for the Journal of Shijiazhuang University, a local intellectual argues that county officials, prejudiced against the spread of religious activities, have not sufficiently exploited the Bailin Monastery as a center for regional tourism. The author suggests that the county revive the old city walls and moat near the temple's entrance and establish itself as a center for regional temple festivals, as other successfully revived temples have done, then apply for World Heritage Status for the county seat (Jia 2007, 104). The arguments of the article's author, though greater in their ambitions, are reminiscent of the suggestions the tourism bureau representative in Zhejiang made to me concerning his plans to develop the Baiguang Temple as part of a revived network of local religious sites. On an even smaller scale, the local middle school children who gathered notes on the Bailin Monastery's history for their class report were similarly engaged in a process of producing the impressive temple as part of the cultural memory of their own community (see figure 4). The children who rubbed away parts of the stele with their one-jiao coins may represent a slightly more individual but not unrelated attempt to both give to and take away from something of the temple as their own.
These local claims to the reconstructed temples emphasize the position of the temples within webs of linked meaning tied to place. They contrast significantly with the nonlocative visions of clergy such as Jinghui, Jingxu, and Miaozhen and lay practitioners such as Guo Xuzhen, for whom it seems the temples could be almost anywhere—anywhere in China at least. For their architects, they are beacons of enlightenment in otherwise empty space; in local accounts, they become new markers in constructing histories of local place that are rich with significance. More research is needed to examine more closely these local responses to the expansive aspirations of urban religious elites. For now, as my research has made clear, future studies of religious revival in post-Mao China will need to consider not only the relationship between local religion and a translocal secular state but also the politics of differing nonstate visions of morality and place.
I would like to thank John Shepherd, Adam Chau, Hanan Sabea, Andrew Junker, Yanfei Sun, and the three reviewers for Journal of Asian Studies for their helpful suggestions on this article and the anonymous participants in my study for their generous hospitality and time. Parts of this research were presented at the 2005 meeting of the American Academy of Religion and at the Social Science Workshop on Contemporary China at Yale University. Funding was made possible through a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship and a postdoctoral fellowship from the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale University.
Patterns of authority within Chinese Buddhist temples are often uncertain. Because of the politics of their relationships with the state's Religious Affairs Bureau (zongjiao ju), many of the major temples in Beijing, including the Temple of Universal Rescue, were without an abbot during the period of most of my fieldwork. As a result, the chain of command and authority among the temple clergy was often very complex. Many monks and nuns, particularly at more prominent temples, complained about the complexity of temple intrigues that these unstable hierarchies created. The position of many clergy was never completely secure. For these reasons, securing patrons to help construct one's own temple gave clergy the opportunity not only to become the nominal abbots of temples but also to establish an entire structure of authority within which each would be the unassailable leader, even after his or her retirement from the running of day-to-day temple affairs.
Some studies have complicated this dichotomy by examining the state as a grounded local power whose representatives negotiate between central state directives and local relationships (see, most notably, Chau 2006; Flower 2004). See Gao Bingzhong's (2004) study of the Dragon Tablet Association in rural Hubei for an interesting analysis of the role of the Chinese Folklore Association (zhongguo minsuxue hui) in shaping local religious revival. Yoshiko and Wank (2006) explore the shifting complexities of the relationship between the restoration and expansion of the Nanputuo Temple in Xiamen, Fujian Province, and translocal institutions such as the Chinese Buddhist Association and the Religious Affairs Bureau, but their analysis, like many of the other discussions of local religious revival, remains confined to an exploration of the relationship between local religious agents and the translocal state. They do not discuss other translocal institutions and agents, such as the highly mobile clergy and lay practitioners whom I focus on here. An earlier study by the same authors (Yoshiko and Wank 2005) explores in greater complexity the role of overseas Buddhist clergy and lay practitioners in funding the revival of Buddhist temples in mainland China, but it does not touch much on the operation of these networks domestically. Fenggang Yang and Wei Dedong's (2005) discussion of the restoration of the Bailin Monastery is rare in its focus on the revival of a local temple by nonlocal agents.
In the interest of confidentiality, I have brushed out the abbot's name and the names of the publications mentioning the temple in the adjacent picture.
The practice of recording the names of temple donors on stelae is not a modern invention. Ancient stelae with lists of donor names from centuries past can be found in temples all across China. Timothy Brook (1993) and Susan Naquin (2000) make particular use of these stelae to draw conclusions about the types of individuals who patronized particular temple sites. For an example from post-Mao China, see Mayfair Yang's (2000, 487–88) discussion of temple revival in Wenzhou.
This is neither to suggest that monks have no interest in helping those less fortunate, nor that their lives are exclusively dominated by the recruitment of potential patrons. The closer to the center of political power members of the clergy come, however, the more likely they are to find themselves embroiled in a culture of fund-raising and patronage and in the intrigues of competition with other monks and nuns for followers and funds. Moreover, those who are incapable of raising money often find it difficult to advance to positions of responsibility within the sangha.
Stelae sometimes contained lists of donors named only as anonymous (wu ming) or funds pooled together under an umbrella organization, such as “Hubei lay practitioners.” This practice also has historical roots: The names of lay religious associations (shenghui) can be found on temple stelae in Beijing at least as far back as the Ming dynasty (Naquin 2000, 234) and on Buddhist carvings in the grottoes of Longmen (near present-day Luoyang in Henan Province) and Yungang (near present-day Datong in Shanxi Province) from at least the third century (Ch'en 1964, 290).
For instance, the wandering monks Miaozhen and Jingxu discussed later in the article were able to identify their temple site in part through Miaozhen's relationship to her abbot in Jiangxi, but that abbot was, in turn, able to secure a temple site for her disciple in faraway Hebei Province because of a translocal connection facilitated through contacts formed through the abbot's reputation within the wider Buddhist community. Miaozhen and Jinxu secured their funds by establishing a name for themselves in Beijing, largely by manufacturing their own relationships.
I have borrowed the term cultural schema from Sherry Ortner (1989), particularly as it relates to her study of new temple construction among the Tibetan Sherpa. Ortner argues that Sherpa elites sought prestige and merit from temple construction through a popular myth that established the founding of temples as a heroic act. This myth created a cultural schema surrounding the construction of temples that led all strata of Sherpa society to participate in their construction as means of gaining merit and prestige. The discourse that establishes the construction of temples in contemporary China as a morally upright and meritorious act also forms a cultural schema around temple building.
The Zhaozhou monk Chan Master Congyu (ca. 777–897) was the fourth patriarch after the well-known Chan Master Huineng (638–713), the founder of the Southern Chan school (Jia 2007, 101).
Car ownership in Beijing, though growing at a significant rate, remains a sign of affluence. Extremely few of my informants owned their own vehicles. Those who did were often generous donors to the temple or one of the monks.
The dharma-ending period is one of three in Buddhist history, the others being the period of the “true dharma” (zhengfa) and the period of the “semblance dharma” (xiangfa). The period of the true dharma is the nearest to the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, while the dharma-ending period is the furthest removed. The notion of the dharma-ending period and its accompanying decline emerged as a recurring theme among many religious groups in Chinese history that drew on Buddhist teachings. Many, like Guo Xuzhen, drew on their own recent histories as evidence that Buddhism has now passed into this period.
For more on the phenomenon of amateur lay preachers at the Temple of Universal Rescue, see Fisher (2006).
The criticisms Guo voiced against this greed, particularly when directed toward individual monks and nuns rather than the institution of the clergy, are by no means new. Reformers both inside and outside the Chinese Buddhist community have directed criticisms toward those who take advantage of their office to earn wealth and status, such as through the performance of fee-for-service funeral rituals (Jones 1999, 125; Pittman 2001, 229). Unlike some of the other lay preachers at the Temple of Universal Rescue, Guo would not have suggested that the clergy are unnecessary for or detrimental to the spread of an authentic Buddhism, nor would she have suggested that a lay practitioner such as herself is superior to someone who has taken monastic vows.
This is a fictitious name; apart from the Bailin Monastery, the Temple of Universal Rescue, and Master Jinghui, all of which are well known and a matter of public record, I have changed the names of informants and temples mentioned in this study.