There are an estimated 245 million Buddhists in officially atheist China, but the religion faces severe legal and political hurdles
By Yang Siqi for Time
Yan Lu studied Marxism-Leninism in college, majoring in ideological and political education. After graduating from the prestigious Southwest Jiaotong University in the Chinese city of Chengdu, she worked at a kindergarten and as a secretary. Neither job satisfied her. Today, the 27-year-old lives as a Buddhist nun at the tiny Changxing Temple in a village near Beijing. She eschews cellphones, T.V. and the Internet, preferring to spend her time in quiet meditation. “Now Chinese people are richer,” Yan says, “but they urgently need more spiritual life.”
China’s religious revival, born of the failings of both communism and capitalism to provide adequate meaning in Chinese lives, has been well-documented. While Chinese have flocked to Confucian temples and Christian churches, the biggest beneficiary is Buddhism. Official statistics don’t exist, but the Pew Research Center, which surveys religious belief worldwide, estimates some 245 million Buddhists in China, around 18% of the total national population. Another 21% of Chinese adhere to folk religions that often incorporate Buddhist beliefs, according to Pew.
Like other faiths, Buddhism, which travelled to China two millennia ago from India, was targeted during the Cultural Revolution. The Changxing temple was razed. Former village head Zhang Qian, from a Buddhist family himself, remembers how his hands shook as he used a hammer to destroy the temple’s clay Buddhas. In Beijing alone, among 6,843 registered cultural relics, 4,922 were ruined during the Cultural Revolution. More than half a million antiques were destroyed. Buddhist monks were tortured and sacred books burned.
Even today, despite the ruling Communist Party’s generally welcoming attitude toward Buddhism, Changxing is not an officially sanctioned temple because registering for various religious licenses is a complex process, often dependent on the grace of powerful officials from the State Administration of Religious Affairs. Therefore, the temple—a few bare rooms, some old stone tablets, a huge incense burner covered with rust, and a poplar tree reputed to be 1,000 years old—is technically illegal. Thousands of temples across China that lack official paperwork have been similarly left in limbo. (Islam and Christianity face far more overt pressure from the ruling Communist Party, which in recent months has torn down churches and prevented Muslims from worship.)
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