From Public Radio International, a story that probably makes Beijing feel somewhat uneasy:
Wutaishan, in the mountains of China’s northern Shanxi province, has long been a sacred site for Buddhists.
They hike mountain paths, and visit temples dating back to the eighth century.
On one mountain path, a group of middle-aged guys hang a rainbow of prayer flags between two trees, and watch, satisfied, as they flutter in the breeze.
One declines to be interviewed. He’s a government official, and wants to keep his practice of Buddhism private. The other, former pharmaceutical salesman Zhang Jiankun, 42, is downright loquacious.
“I used to smoke, drink, gamble, fight and chase women. I used to like to do all this all day,” he said. “And then, by the time I was 30, I had money – but I also had hypertension, and liver damage from all the drinking. I’d take clients out, so I’d drink every day. And I was fat.”
Now, he says, he’s slimmed down, quit drinking, and can climb these mountains with no problem. He credits his embrace of Tibetan Buddhism 11 years ago with helping him clean up his act.
Like many Chinese, Zhang believes Tibetan Buddhism is a purer form than the variety battered and eventually coopted over 60 years of Communist Party rule in the rest of China. Not that Tibetan Buddhism escaped unscathed. Under Communist Party rule, thousands of Buddhist temples in Tibet have been destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans killed – others, especially monks and nuns, have been imprisoned.
By some estimates, at least one in four Chinese actively practice Buddhism, with the upwardly mobile and creative classes increasingly embracing Tibetan Buddhism, in particular.
But not all who come in search of meaning know the essence of Buddhism. At one Wutaishan temple, a young businesswoman from Shanghai, Chu Hui, lights long incense sticks. She holds them to her forehead and bows deeply toward the temple. She said she came once before to make a wish, and had to come back, because the wish came true.
“If you make a wish and it become reality, you have to come back to offer thanks,” she said. “Otherwise, they will be some disaster – maybe.”
Chu admits she’s not actually Buddhist – just interested. Many of the visitors here are similar, said senior monk Shi Yanping.
“People are trying to find a way to connect their heart to Buddhism,” he said. “But many don’t understand Buddhism. They think burning incense, and falling on their knees and knocking their head on the ground is Buddhism. But the real practice of Buddhism it to find it in your heart.”
“Neither Chinese nor Tibetan Buddhism face any restrictions in China,” he said. “Some people may have taken advantage of freedom of religion to make mistakes, or commit wrongdoings. But it doesn’t mean the practice of religion faces any restriction.”
When asked if it’s “wrongdoing” for Tibetan Buddhists to display photos of the Dalai Lama, he says no. When asked about the Tibetan Buddhists who’ve been arrested for doing just that, he’s surprised.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” he said, with a polite smile.
Most Tibetans in China couldn’t say the same. Ever since a March 2008 uprising in ethnic Tibetan parts of western China, lasting weeks, the Chinese government has cracked down. It flooded ethnic Tibetan areas with military police, tried to get monks to renounce the Dalai Lama and arrested those who showed signs of following him.
And yet, growing numbers of Chinese embrace him as a spiritual leader. They must tread carefully.
Reta Dinchenpujun is a “living Buddha” – a reincarnated practitioner, back to help others attain enlightenment. He declines to answer whether he’s been asked to denounce the Dalai Lama.
“I’m not particularly interested in politics,” he says. “No one can ask me to do or not to do something in my life. I belong to myself.” He paused and added a thought. “Of course, the Dalai Lama is a spiritual role model for all Tibetan Buddhists – as every Dalai Lama has been throughout history.”
The extent to which Chinese Buddhism has been destroyed by Communist Party rule is too obvious for even them to hide, despite massive efforts to sell it. A wider Chinese public embrace of Tibetan Buddhism as a result doesn’t necessarily mean hordes of Han Chinese will take up the cause of Tibetan independence, but it could break down one of the many walls that Zhongnanhai depends on to separate the different ethnicities from each other. Luckily they’re already trying harder than ever to coopt and/or destroy any meaningful practice of Tibetan Buddhism, so they might not have too much to worry about.