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Archive → January, 2011

Visit to Dongshan Chan (Zen) Buddhist Temple in Jiangxi Province

With Abbot Gudao (centre), monks and lay practitioners.

Anyone who has visited China in recent years cannot help but be impressed by the sheer scale and pace of change . China is indeed undergoing a dramatic transformation and nothing within the society shall remain untouched. The pace of life, especially in the cities but also in much of rural China, has quickened immeasurably. The competitive nature of social life has intensified as individuals and families seek to make their way to a better life, or in many cases, simply make ends meet. The almost sudden shift from a ‘socialist’ system of values to a ‘market’ system (albeit with ‘socialist characteristics’) has created a sense of moral and ethical uncertainty as collectivism has given way to individualist materialism and hedonism. This is well discussed and analysed in Ci Jiwei’s (1994) The Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution: From Utopianism to Hedonism. The ethical issues surrounding the recent food safety scandals are cases in point in which greed is placed before people. In simple terms the more Chinese society changes the more complex it becomes, and in turn the more difficult it is to manage and govern. The Communist Party’s own policy of reform and openness is creating new unforeseen and unexpected challenges, unleashing new social forces and pushing society in multiple directions. These are the many ‘unintended consequences’ of social and economic reform. At the same time social change and development is also creating new spaces for individuals and communities to create meaning and value in their own lives beyond the immediate reach of the party-state (but never completely unobserved).

Don't cry Si Meng! It shall be rebuilt and Buddha's light (佛光) shall shine again!

Local lay practitioners on their way to the grave of the former Abbot, Master Miao Zong (妙宗). Master Miao Zong was responsible for rebuilding the temple in the 1980s. We arrived on this birthday. Rather auspicous don't you think? We also took our time to pay respects.

Into this complex situation comes the revival of religious practice. Since the 1980s the major religions in China have made impressive comebacks. Officially the authorities recognise Daoism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam and each has a specific government-sponsored organisation overseeing its activities (there is of course a large undergound Christian church that falls somewhat outside the parametres of regulation and a massive revival in ‘folk religion’ which the authorities tend to regard as ‘feudal superstition’ but with increasing levels of tolerance and accommodation). Whereas the Party once, in good materialist fashion, held that religion was a feudal practice that would whither away during the course of modernisation (a view also held by many social scientists and intellectuals in the West for much of the 20th Century) it now clearly sees that this is not going to be the case. On the contrary religion is back … big time. All across the country money is pouring into the rebuilding of temples, churches, mosques and so on. Religious books, especially those that claim to offer solace in the modern world, now occupy prime spaces in the bookstores .  So these days the Party looks at religion as a useful means for placating the masses and keeping them off the streets rather than as a source of ‘anti-scientific backwardness’ or challenge to political authority. Of course any religious activity that is a threat to the Party’s authority will not be tolerated one iota, such as the case with the Falun Gong movement. The principle of ‘nation first’ (and by extension ‘party first’) and ‘religion second’ still applies and is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Chan Buddhist temples typically have large gardens and farm land. It is part of Chan practice to be as self-sustaining as possible and to also lead a productive and active life, even as monks. Here we see a vegetable patch amongst the rubble.

The construction is somewhat disruptive to normal temple life. At present the monks and live-in lay practitioners follow their own schedules. Here we see the site of the new meditation centre.

Bearing this background in mind, whilst in Hangzhou in December 2010 I was introduced to two American Chan (Zen) Buddhist practitioners who, with my good friend Si Meng, had completed a pilgrimage to all six of the major Chan Buddhist temples in China (representing the six different Chan sects). (Note: ‘Chan’ is often known as ‘Zen’ in English. ‘Zen’ is the Japanese romanisation of the character 禅.  However, I will use ‘Chan’ instead of ‘Zen’ in order to reflect the Chinese traditions and context). I was deeply impressed by their observations and insights into Chan practice, and when Si Meng extended an invitation for me to visit one of the temples – the Puli Temple (普利庙) in Dongshan (洞山) in Jiangxi Province (江西省) – I jumped at the opportunity. The Abbot – Master Gudao (古道法师) – happened to be passing through Hangzhou on his way back to the temple from a visit to his teacher in Suzhou (his teacher is the famous lay Chan Buddhist Master Nan Huai Jin (南怀瑾) whom some refer to as the most significant living teacher of Chan Buddhism. He has his own English website here). Interestingly his Buddhist name ‘Gudao’ (古道) means ‘ancient path’ and since I’m researching ‘ancient paths’ in China these days it seemed we had a karmic connection. Heavenly intervention was thus pushing me towards Dongshan and being a compliant student I ‘went where the water flows’. You can see where Puli Temple is on Google Maps here. You can also view the images taken during this trip on my Flickr website here. As it turns my time in Dongshan was quite auspicious with a lunar eclipse upon arrival, the celebration of Buddha’s birthday the following day which also happend to coincide with the birthday of Master Miao Zong (妙宗法师) who was the Abbot during the 1980s and the man responsible for the ‘rebirth’ of the temple after the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.

A Tang Dynasty tombstone. This monk has been resting here for over a 1,000 years.

This is a Song Dynasty bridge (960-1279 AD) built in 1098 (the pavillion on top of the bridge is of more recent origin) along a path up to the temple. It is called the Fengqu Bridge (逢渠桥). It is one of only three remaining Song Dynasty bridges in Jiangxi. Images of the engravings and arch are on my Flickr webpage.

The Puli Temple is part of the Caodongshan (曹洞山) sect of Chan Buddhism. The sect was founded by Liang Jie (良价) (sometimes simply known as ‘Dongshan’) in the ninth century (during the Tang Dynasty 618 – 907 AD). Liang Jie’s approach to Chan Buddhism emphasised ‘silent illumination’ through ‘quiet meditation’. His approach became extremely influential and the Caodongshan school later made its way to Japan where it became known as ‘Soto’. No doubt Liang Jie would hardly recognise Dongshan if he returned. The current temple is a massive construction site. The only building that remains is a two hundred year old scripture hall (藏经阁). The rest of the buildings that were constructed in the 1980s have mostly been demolished. The temple halls are now nothing but a pile of rubble. In addition to the scripture hall only the monk and lay residences and kitchen/dining hall are still left. The new complex will be much bigger and represents a considerable investment. Most of the money has come via private donations with the local government also contributing in the form of land donations and concessions (such as upgrading the electric power network free of charge). In a way what is happening at Dongshan is a good metaphor for religion in contemporary China. Like everything else even religion cannot escape the fury of the wrecking balls of demolition. But in this instance rather than just building another shopping mall or expensive residential complex that will stand empty, the new Dongshan Temple will be able to offer something of spiritual substance to those looking to escape the madness of modern life for a time.

Yanfa and Tiande try their hands at the didgeridoo. Where on earth did the didge come from? That's a long story ...

Master Gudao can belt out a tune when the mood takes him. He was trained in Shaolin and learnt to play flute when he was a boy from a lonely shepherd.

Indeed Abbot Gudao has quite a vision for Dongshan. He hopes it will become a meditation and healthy lifestyle retreat for people from all walks of life. He realises the pressures that modern people face and that not everyone can just lay down their keyboards and take up a monastic life. But with the right conditions they can at least escape for a few days to rejuvenate the body and soul. At present it is quite a journey to the temple. But like almost every other place I visit in China these days an expressway is currently under construction and goes right past the temple. Once complete it will make Dongshan much more accessible. I very much enjoyed my visit to Dongshan. I was privileged to have been accepted by the monks and laypersons, to eat with them (fantastic vegetarian food!), pray with them, learn from them and also share many a laugh and smile. I will certainly return and monitor the progress of the construction over time. I also hope to learn how to meditate Chan Buddhist style as I believe it could come in handy and prevent the loss of sanity. I conducted a very interesting interview with the Abbot and hope to have it up on the blog soon. It gives a lot of insights into the state of religion in contemporary China and the future plans for Dongshan. Stay tuned!

The soon to be Puli Temple at Dongshan.