Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In China, A Different Brand of Buddhism

Ethnic Han Turning To Tibetan Doctrine For Guidance

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 19, 2009; A10

HUANGSONGYU RESERVOIR, China -- The Buddhists came by the busload to this partially frozen reservoir about 55 miles north of Beijing. In the morning, they released 53,000 fish into holes cut in the ice. In the afternoon, they walked clockwise around a bonfire in the courtyard of a windswept rural hotel, chanting incantations against evil as volunteers threw cooking oil, beans, fruit and cigarettes onto the flames.

The participants were 200 Han Chinese, the ethnic designation of most people on the mainland, but their teachers, or "masters," were Tibetan monks, including Yixi, a lama, or senior monk, from Shigatse, Tibet, who presided over the unusual and unofficial ceremony last week from between two enormous vases of tulips.

"The lama who hosted this has great achievements in Buddhism, so the power and merit of releasing fish with him is much greater than if ordinary people release fish," said Zheng Jinbao, a 36-year-old vegetable dealer who, like the others, had heard about the out-of-the-way animal-rescue ceremony by word of mouth. "Several years ago, only 10 people at a time attended fish releases, but now, more than 100 people come each time."

While statistics are hard to come by, monks, followers and experts say that growing numbers of middle-class Chinese are turning to Tibetan Buddhism, driven by the perception of a spiritual vacuum in society and aided by the voluminous information available on the Internet. Communist Party officials and celebrities alike have embraced Tibetan Buddhism, despite having to worship at home, meet their lamas at night and run the risk of attending officially unauthorized events, such as the fish release and "fire sacrifice" at Huangsongyu Reservoir.

China's Communist Party tightly regulates religious activity, especially the banned Falun Gong sect, but allows wide latitude for many law-abiding Catholics and Protestants who meet in unofficial house churches. Tibetan Buddhists however, are in a different category.

Their spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing blames for stoking the deadly riots in Lhasa last March. Although he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama is routinely described in official state media reports as a wolf in monk's clothing, an evil and dangerous separatist. In December, China stunned European leaders by canceling a summit on the economic crisis because the E.U. president had planned to meet the Dalai Lama the same week.


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