Buddhism in Contemporary China

Chinese Buddhist Monk prays over a dead man in Shanxi, China

A Chinese Buddhist monk prays over a dead man in Shanxi, China

There are many faces to Buddhism in China today. But this is surely one of the most astonishing, not only for one gets from seeing a monk praying over and holding the hand of a dead stranger in a public place, but for the faces of the curious onlookers behind him.

What is the story of each of these people? What must their lives be like? And the man who had died?

The monk’s face elicits a sense of calm amidst emotional chaos.

The site that brought the image to my eyes, latitude news, does a good job of giving the back-story to Buddhism in China and the question of widespread apathy growing in this ever more densely packed and materialistic nation. Buddhism has had a very long and varied history in China, ranging from full government sponsorship to contempt and persecution. The cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s marked the most recent period of persecution and only recently has the government begun allowing Buddhism to reassert its presence in the public sphere, granted in a very guarded and controlled manner.

But given scenes like this, I can only imagine that Buddhism will continue to grow as a much-needed moral power in a country in great need of just such a force.

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  • Konchog

    Don’t mean to be too negative, but there’s a flip side (isn’t there always?): http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=46,10672,0,0,1,0

    • Justin Whitaker

      Oh – thanks for bringing this to light. No doubt, there usually is some flip side as an old yet nimble religion encounters a rapidly changing society – or should I simply say when (potential) power meets wealth. It reminds me of when I was in a temple in Mandalay, Burma and a ‘kind old monk’ took me under his wing to show me around and talk with me, only to demand $100 at the end. When I offered him less, he yelled at me! My rickshaw driver, a very nice man, simply told me, ‘he’s not a real monk’ and apologized that I had to encounter him. It seems that in both cases, these were not ‘real’ monks – which is itself a touchy matter.

      • T

        Over the years, I’ve concluded that I won’t judge a religion by its worst adherents, but its best. In Catholicism, we have the rich legacies of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II as recent examples.

  • http://mumonno.blogspot.com Mumon

    Having been to a few Chinese temples, and spoken with a few of the monks myself, I can tell you that Buddhism is going strong in China. Even at Shaolin-si, despite the commercialization it’s keeping practice going – but it’s much more intense elsewhere, e.g. White Horse Temple.

    • Justin Whitaker

      That’s good to hear, Mumon. I only ever hear relatively negative reports about Shaolin monastery. But likewise, those that I visited were in periods of growth – even under the close and often obstructive eye of gov’t officials.

  • http://JodoShinshu reivax argen

    Gasshô. A imagem búdica diz tudo

  • http://www.latitudenews.com Maria

    Hi Justin, thanks so much to linking to our piece at latitudenews.com. Konchog’s point is something that Lin Gu also addresses in his piece about the picture of the monk – as he puts it: “sensationalist media coverage of the lavish lifestyle of some monks soured many people’s view of them.” But this particular monk and his anonymity have sparked something in people’s minds. Lin Gu is a thoughtful commentator on contemporary China. You might also be interested in his piece contrasting how forgiveness is dealt with in the U.S. and in China – http://www.latitudenews.com/story/twenty-years-on-why-onen-american-letter-still-matters-in-china/

  • Jack


    Just want you to know we’ve done an audio follow-up to our previous story at Latitude News. It’s an interview with Lin Gu, the author of the previous article – as a Chinese Buddhist who has traveled the world and dabbled in Christianity, he puts these images into a global context. http://www.latitudenews.com/story/the-image-that-shocked-china/


    • Justin Whitaker

      Many thanks, Jack (and to Maria too) for updating and expanding the conversation. These audio clips are amazing; I STRONGLY urge readers to have a listen – they’re short and to the point, the last one being very personal and relating directly to Buddhism in China today. Keep up the great work, and I look forward to following along as I can.

  • http://www.owenmarcus.com Owen Marcus

    We all can learn from this picture. I’m as guilty as the the onlookers in the photo.

    The beauty and power of Buddhism is its compassion. Thanks for sharing it in action.