Written By: Liang Yaoxiang & Huang Peidan
It was the early morning of the Lunar New Year’s Day, and the night had hardly past. Renshou Temple, a major Buddhist temple located in downtown Foshan, a southern city of China, was already flooded with people who wanted to offer their first stick of incense of the year to the Buddha. Old grandpas and grandmas were standing in front of the Buddha, putting their hands together, forming a Zen gesture, and muttering incantations devoutly. Middle-aged men and women were holding bundles of burning incense and distributing them to their children. A few of them were also wielding their phones, seemingly taking photos of the pagoda. But they were not. They were scanning a printed-out QR code pasted on the tower, which would allow them to follow the temple’s official WeChat public account, a form of new media now flourishing in China.
(Photograph of Renshou Si by Liang Yingying)
Renshou Temple is not the only Buddhist temple taking advantage of new technology. Buddhist temples all across China, from Guangxiao Temple in Guangzhou and Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, to Shengquan Temple in Beijing have all set up official WeChat accounts to send regular event updates and articles promoting Buddhism to their followers. The 2500-year-old religion’s online presence is not just limited to the temples’ WeChat public accounts—on Weibo, China’s microblogging site, Buddhist masters are teaching life lessons, and Buddhism quotes are being posted and reposted; on WeChat, self-created media outlets are producing huge amounts of Buddhism-related content, and Buddhists are creating discussion groups to share understanding and thoughts. As new media develops rapidly in China, Buddhism, one of the country’s most influential religions, is quietly moving into the virtual space, to guide and attract followers. But the new media presence has also given rise to scams and raised doubts over whether the religion is becoming over-commercialized and entertainment-oriented.
Wu Yongyi, a Foshan local Buddhist in her forties, began to follow Renshou Temple’s public WeChat account about six months ago when she paid regular semi-monthly visits there. “I am not quite familiar with new technology. It took me a while to learn to scan QR codes and even longer to figure out what a public account is and how it works,” Wu said, “but it’s worthwhile.” By following the account, she got updated on every event of the temple, from the ceremony celebrating the birth of Guanyin (a major deity in Buddhism) to Fangsheng (a Buddhism practice that frees captive animals) events, and also got a daily dose of short articles explaining Buddhist philosophy and practices.
(Screenshots of Buddhist WeChat groups)
It was also through Renshou Temple’s WeChat public account that Huo Ruifang, another Buddhist who frequents Renshou Temple, found a Buddhist study class that was held in the temple every Saturday night. She then registered as a student of the class, and was invited to join a WeChat discussion group in the first class. As Huo explained, in the group, the teacher (usually a monk) will tell followers the content of the next class beforehand, so that they could better prepare for it; after class, they will discuss it in that group, and if they want to ask for a leave, they also do it there. “Even the old grandmas are learning these things now. They might not even be able to read, but they still want to get updated,” said Huo.
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama in the late 6th century B.C.E. It first came to China in the first century, when the country was ruled by the Han Dynasty, and in the following 2,000 years, it has influenced Chinese culture profoundly, according to the Chinese government’s official website. During the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1976, all religions in China, including Buddhism, were demonized and suppressed. It was not until Deng Xiaoping’s reform in 1978 that Buddhism began to come back, and now, it is experiencing what Huffington Post reporter Matt Sheehan called a “revival” in China.
According to Wu Jiajia, a graduate student of Southwest University of Nationalities who has studied the use of social media for religious purposes, Buddhism in China has “seized the opportunity provided by the Internet’s development,” and has been integrating rapidly with new media.
Evidence of this trend abounds. On WeChat, in addition to accounts run by temples, huge numbers of accounts are publishing articles about Buddhism. For example, a WeChat public account called “Fo Xue (literally, the study of Buddhism)” posts articles explaining Buddhist philosophy on a daily basis, and most of them have been viewed over ten thousand times. On Sina Weibo such content is also prevalent. According to a published paper, there are approximately one hundred million Buddhism-related posts on Sina Weibo. Xingyun Master, a Taiwanese monk, is one of the most famous Buddhism masters on that platform. He turns Buddhism theory into easy daily practices and memorable quotes, and shares them with his fans. Now, his follower count has reached 325,000. In one of his latest posts, he taught that “the Buddha lives in our hearts and also in our homes. What is the point of worshiping Buddha in temples if the filial duties to parents at home are not fulfilled?” Below the post, his followers replied with the emoji showing two hands clapping together, which is construed as a Zen gesture by many in China.
Fan Linjun, a Shantou University teacher who studies Buddhist philosophy on her own, said that she reads Buddhism-related content online occasionally. “Social platforms are great tools to spread Buddhism teachings,” she said. But she also thought that discussing and learning Buddhism online could not be a substitute for the experience of reading classic Buddhism works, and for meditation. “Understanding Buddhism requires you to calm your mind and to meditate, instead of merely gaining information,” said Fan. The journalism school teacher also pointed out the drawbacks of Buddhism content on the Internet. “The bad and the good are intermingled, and some people are using the disguise of Buddhism to sell things that have nothing to do with the religion,” she said.
Wu Jiajia, the graduate student, echoes Fan’s opinion. In an academic paper published in Communication and Copyright, she talked about how scam artists are using Buddhism to cheat believers, and warned against the trend of Buddhism getting commercialized and entertainment-oriented online. “New media could help Buddhism to reach an unprecedentedly large audience, but the religion’s social image is prone to be damaged by online content as well,” she wrote.
Earlier this year, Phoenix TV’s website reported on a scam artist called Bi Wen’guan, who pretended to be the abbot of a temple in Zhejiang province on Weibo, and tried to cheated Buddhists of their money by asking for donations.
Despite all the controversies, Xuecheng, the abbot of Beijing Longquan Temple, was still optimistic about the integration of Buddhism and new media. In an interview with Sina Finance, he stressed the necessity of monks being tech-savvy in the age of new media, and lauded the medium for helping to spread Buddhism. “New media is only a tool, a platform,” Xuecheng said. “If we can use it properly and effectively, we can transmit the Buddha’s wisdom to people all around the world.”
Editor’s note: This is one of a three-part story series on how traditional culture or customs in the Chaoshan area are intersecting with practices or concerns of the modern world. Please see the other stories in this series, on grave-building vs. environmental concerns in the Sangpu hills, and on the naming controversy of a girls’ dormitory at Shantou University.