Friday, 30 June 2017

Buddhist Group Changing China (or visa versa?)

This article by Ian Johnson is from the New York Times..............................

For most of her life, Shen Ying was disappointed by the world she saw around her. She watched China’s economic rise in this small city in the Yangtze River Valley, and she found a foothold in the new middle class, running a convenience store in a strip mall. Yet prosperity felt hollow.

She worried about losing her shop if she didn’t wine and dine and pay off the right officials. Recurring scandals about unsafe food or tainted infant formula made by once-reputable companies upset her. She recalled the values her father had tried to instill in her — honesty, thrift, righteousness — but she said there seemed no way to live by them in China today.

“You just feel disappointed at some of the dishonest conduct in society,” she said.

Then, five years ago, a Buddhist organisation from Taiwan called Fo Guang Shan, or Buddha’s Light Mountain, began building a temple in the outskirts of her city, Yixing. She began attending its meetings and studying its texts — and it changed her life.

She and her husband, a successful businessman, started living more simply. They gave up luxury goods and made donations to support poor children. And before the temple opened last year, she left her convenience store to manage a tea shop near the temple, pledging the proceeds to charity.

Across China, millions of people like Ms. Shen have begun participating in faith-based organisations like Fo Guang Shan. They aim to fill what they see as a moral vacuum left by attacks on traditional values over the past century, especially under Mao, and the nation’s embrace of a cutthroat form of capitalism.

Many want to change their country — to make it more compassionate, more civil and more just. But unlike political dissidents or other activists suppressed by the Communist Party, they hope to change Chinese society through personal piety and by working with the government instead of against it. And for the most part, the authorities have left them alone.

Fo Guang Shan is perhaps the most successful of these groups. Since coming to China more than a decade ago, it has set up cultural centres and libraries in major Chinese cities and printed and distributed millions of volumes of its books through state-controlled publishers. While the government has tightened controls on most other foreign religious organisations, Fo Guang Shan has flourished, spreading a powerful message that individual acts of charity can reshape China.

It has done so, however, by making compromises. The Chinese government is wary of spiritual activity it does not control — the Falun Gong an example — and prohibits mixing religion and politics. That has led Fo Guang Shan to play down its message of social change and even its religious content, focusing instead on promoting knowledge of traditional culture and values.

The approach has won it high-level support; President Xi Jinping is one of its backers. But its relationship with the party raises a key question: Can it still change China?

Avoiding Politics

Fo Guang Shan is led by one of modern China’s most famous religious figures, the Venerable Master Hsing Yun. I met him late last year at the temple in Yixing, in a bright room filled with his calligraphy and photos of senior Chinese leaders who have received him in Beijing. He wore tannish golden robes, and his shaved head was set off by thick eyebrows and sharp, impish lips.

At age 89, he is nearly blind, and a nun often had to repeat my questions so he could hear them. But his mind was quick, and he nimbly parried questions that the Chinese authorities might consider objectionable. When I asked him what he hoped to accomplish by spreading Buddhism — proselytising is illegal in China — his eyebrows arched in mock amusement.

“I don’t want to promote Buddhism!” he said. “I only promote Chinese culture to cleanse humanity.”

As for the Communist Party, he was unequivocal: “We Buddhists uphold whoever is in charge. Buddhists don’t get involved in politics.”

That has not been true for most of Master Hsing Yun’s life. Born outside the eastern city of Yangzhou in 1927, he was 10 when he joined a monastery that he and his mother passed by while searching for his father, who disappeared during the Japanese invasion of China.

There, he was influenced by the ideas of Humanistic Buddhism, a movement that aimed to save China through spiritual renewal. It argued that religion should be focused on this world, instead of the afterworld. It also encouraged clergy to take up the concerns of the living, and urged adherents to help change society through fairness and compassion.

After fleeing the Communist Revolution, Master Hsing Yun took that message to Taiwan and founded Fo Guang Shan in the southern port of Kaohsiung in 1967. He sought to make Buddhism more accessible to ordinary people by updating its fusty image and embracing mass-market tactics. In sports stadiums, he held lectures that owed more to Billy Graham than the sound of one hand clapping. He built a theme park with multimedia shows and slot machines that displayed dioramas of Buddhist saints.

The approach had a profound impact in Taiwan, which then resembled mainland China today: an industrialising society that worried it had cast off traditional values in its rush to modernise. Fo Guang Shan became part of a popular embrace of religious life. Many scholars say it also helped lay the foundation for the self-governing island’s evolution into a vibrant democracy by fostering a political culture committed to equality, civility and social progress.

Fo Guang Shan expanded rapidly, spending more than $1 billion on universities, community colleges, kindergartens, a publishing arm, a daily newspaper and a television station. It now counts more than 1,000 monks and nuns, and more than one million followers in 50 countries, including the United States.

Government Support

But the group declines to offer an estimate of its following in China, where the government initially viewed it with suspicion. In 1989, an official fleeing the Tiananmen massacre took refuge in its temple in Los Angeles. China retaliated by barring Master Hsing Yun from the mainland.

More than a decade later, though, Beijing began looking at Master Hsing Yun differently. Like many in Taiwan of his generation born on the mainland, he favoured unification of China and the island — a priority for Communist leaders.

In 2003, they allowed him to visit his hometown, Yangzhou. He pledged to build a library, and followed through a few years later with a 100-acre facility that now holds nearly two million books, including a 100,000-volume collection of Buddhist scriptures, one of the largest in China.

Under President Xi, who started a campaign to promote traditional Chinese faiths, especially Buddhism, as part of his program for “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” the government’s support has grown. He has met with Master Hsing Yun four times since 2012, telling him in one meeting: “I’ve read all the books that master sent me.”

While Mr. Xi’s government has tightened restrictions on Christianity and Islam, it has allowed Fo Guang Shan to open cultural centres in four cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. The organization’s students include government officials, who don gray tunics and trousers and live like monks or nuns for several days, reciting the sutras and learning about Master Hsing Yun’s philosophy.

But unlike in Taiwan, where it held special services during national crises and encouraged members to participate in public affairs, Fo Guang Shan avoids politics in China. There is no mention of civic activism, and it never criticises the party.

“We can keep the religion secondary but introduce the ideas of Buddhism into society,” said Venerable Miaoyuan, the nun who runs the library in Yangzhou. She describes the group’s work as “cultural exchange.”

“The mainland continues the ideology of ancient emperors — you can only operate there when you are firmly under its control,” said Chiang Tsan-teng, a professor at Taipei City University of Science and Technology who studies Buddhism in the region. “Fo Guang Shan can never be its own boss in the mainland.”

That limits its influence, but many Chinese express understanding given the reality of one-party rule.

“It certainly cannot promote social service and create associations,” said Hu Jia, a prominent dissident who is Buddhist. “The party certainly would not allow it, so Fo Guang Shan makes compromises. But it is still promoting Buddhism.”

A ‘Moral Standard’

Carved into two valleys of lush bamboo forest, the temple on the outskirts of Yixing features giant friezes that tell the story of Buddha, a 15-story pagoda and a gargantuan 68,000 square-foot worship hall.

Since construction started in 2006, Fo Guang Shan has spent more than $150 million on the facility, known as the Temple of Great Awakening. On a nearby hill, track hoes hack away at trees to make way for a new lecture hall and a shrine to the goddess of mercy, Guanyin. There, the group plans to feature a moving, talking, three-dimensional hologram of the deity.

Unlike most temples in China, it bans hawkers and fortunetellers, and it does not charge an entrance fee. The atmosphere is reflective and solemn, with quiet reading rooms offering books, newspapers, spaces to practice calligraphy, and tea. A stream of visitors from Yixing come for lectures, meals and camaraderie.

Last autumn, Fo Guang Shan welcomed 2,000 pilgrims at the temple to celebrate China’s National Day. Over the course of a long afternoon, they walked along a road to the temple in a slow, dignified procession: taking three steps and kowtowing, three steps and kowtowing, on and on for about two hours.

Mrs. Shen said that when she took over the tea shop she had a hard time understanding what being a good Buddhist meant. At first, she admitted, she wanted to make more money for the temple by using low-grade cooking oil.

But her husband objected. China is rife with scandals about restaurants using unsafe or cheap ingredients, and he argued that good Buddhists should set a better example.

“This made me realise that faith gives you a minimum moral standard,” Ms. Shen told me. “It helps you treat others as your equals.”

Many followers say they want a cleaner, fairer society and believe they can make a difference by changing their own lives.

Yang Jianwei, 44, a kitchenware exporter who embraced Fo Guang Shan, said he stopped attending the boozy late-night dinners that seem an unavoidable part of doing business in China. “I realise that you might lose some business this way, but it’s a better way to live,” he said.

This idealism is why the authorities support Fo Guang Shan, said Jin Xinhua, an official who helped the group secure the land for the new temple. “Through its work, Fo Guang Shan is helping the masses,” he said. “We need that sort of thing today.”

Saturday, 24 June 2017

NEW MOON - Hastening Towards Wholesomeness

Hasten towards doing what is wholesome.
Restrain your mind from evil acts.
The mind that is slow to do good
can easily find pleasure in evil-doing.

Dhammapada v. 116

We are familiar with the teachings that caution us against unwholesomeness. And we already know that it takes effort to be restrained. But here the Buddha is making a point which might not have occurred to us before: if we are tardy to do good, we are more likely to fall for the allure of the not-good; unwholesomeness increases its appeal. If we truly understand this, we see the wisdom of cultivating wholesomeness and the protection we are afforded.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

We are Ten years Old this Month!

It's just occurred to me that the West Wight Sangha Website is ten years old this month. Back on Wednesday the 6th of June 2007 I posted our first item.............


I'm launching the "West Wight Sangha" Blog today but it is still very much a work in progress (subtle Buddhist joke). Being a total Blog newbie I am still finding my way through the terminology and trying to fit the "personal" format of a Blog to suit a group. Hopefully this will be a way of either having a "public face" or possibly a private on-line notice board, or both?

This was followed on the 14th with our first proper story!

A Zen Monk on the Isle of Wight

I received this email the other day..........

Dear Stephen,

I'm an English Zen monk, just on my way back from Japan. I'm going to be walking the length of Britain starting on the Isle of Wight at dawn on June 21st. Full information is on the news section of my website, I'd be delighted to meet you and other spiritual friends around that time. Please drop me a note if you'd like to make contact.

Best wishes,


I am now in contact with Daizan Roshi with a view to sorting something out, I will keep everyone posted.

And the rest is history......................

Monday, 19 June 2017

The Language of Conflict

Following the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester and the apparently "retaliatory" attack last night outside a mosque in Finsbury Park this article by Andrew Olendzki on conflict is so appropriate.............

A lot of fighting is going on in both private and public discourse today. In a text known as the discourse about not doing battle (Aranavibhanga Sutta, MN 139), the Buddha puts forth suggestions on how we might lessen the conflicts around us. One stands out as making an important point about how we can use language to either provoke or reduce conflict.

It is very common for people to speak something like this:

All those who are committed to [x] are on the wrong path.

All those who are not committed to [x] are on the right path.

You can insert as the variable any belief, opinion, practice, or behaviour.

According to the Buddha, the trouble with this way of speaking is that it engages in “extolling” and “disparaging.” The real problem with this mode of expression is that it is praise or blame directed at a person, and either extols or disparages people who hold the views and engage in the activities specified. We can easily think of examples of arguments, debates, or political talks that are little more than ad hominem attacks, which focus on one’s opponent personally rather than on the matter at hand. As soon as the issue has to do with persons, we tap into primitive instincts for self-preservation and self-aggrandisement and evoke the deep psychological forces identified in the Buddhist tradition as greed, hatred, and delusion. Anytime a “self” is involved, that self is driven by the need to get or hold on to whatever serves it, at any cost, and by the need to deny or destroy anything that threatens it. When a person is extolled, their sense of self-importance and self-righteousness increases, and when a person is disparaged, their reflexes for self-defence are triggered. Both praise and blame evoke a sense of self, and the self always shows up ready to fight.

However, the Buddha was also very clear about the existence of a right path and a wrong path. His message is not that we should avoid conflict by not making distinctions or judgements about what is healthy or unhealthy, skillful or unskillful. Indeed, the clarity of his insight into what is harmful and what is beneficial for sentient beings is among the major contributions made to world civilisation by the Buddha. The matter is more carefully stated this way:

Being committed to [x] brings about suffering and is the wrong path.

Not being committed to [x] does not bring about suffering and is the right path.

The point is a simple and timeless one. There are all sorts of beliefs, opinions, practices, and behaviours that lead to harm, and many others that lead to well-being. By all means, let’s be clear about which is which, and share with others what we understand about this. But when we do this by disparaging people for their views, it will only trigger their existential defence mechanisms—and likely bring out their worst side. They may be hurt or get angry, and because of this either strike back or in some other way speak and act badly. Similarly, if we extol ourselves for our beliefs, it will feed into our own narcissistic tendencies. When alternately one criticises the beliefs and practices themselves, rather than the people that adhere to them, we create some space between the two.

At its worst, of course, the separation of persons from their views or behaviours does little good, for people often identify so strongly with these things that any criticism is taken as a personal attack. If you disparage my beliefs, I hold these so much as a part of who I am that you are essentially disparaging me. This is the insidious side of grasping, and of creating a self to which so many things belong.

At its best, the practice of discussing ideas rather than praising or blaming people allows for everyone to hold different viewpoints without going to battle. I can believe strongly that I am right and you are wrong, but still respect you, while you can maintain the view that you are right and I am wrong, and still put up with me. It is inevitable that there will be a wide range of beliefs, opinions, practices, and behaviours in this large and diverse world. It is not inevitable that people must hate one another on account of this.

It may be a modest contribution, but let’s see whether following the Buddha’s suggestion of using depersonalised language to critique harmful thoughts, words, and deeds, rather than attacking the people who wield them, can help end some of the fighting and muffle the call to battle.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Daily Mindfulness Exercise

(I'm re-posting this item from last year as an annual reminder to "keep the ball rolling").

For some time now I have been emailing out regular weekly mindfulness/meditation exercises to the members of the West Wight Sangha and to other friends and associates. At the New Year I introduced an additional Daily Mindfulness Exercise and post a reminder of this with each weeks email.

Quite simply, the exercise is to pick up and dispose of one piece of litter every day.

Obviously this is an environmentally useful activity in its own right and has a number of merits, but how can it be considered a mindfulness exercise?

It is so easy to rush through life without stopping to notice much.

Paying more attention to the present moment – to our own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around us – can improve our mental wellbeing.

This awareness is what we call "mindfulness". Mindfulness can help us enjoy life more and understand ourselves better. We can take steps to develop it in our own lives but there is one vital element that underpins this kind of mental activity and that is the need to REMEMBER to be mindful.

This is where the use of regular exercises comes in, essentially we commit to carrying out a task, we have a job to do. For the purpose of developing our ability to be mindful these tasks should not be overly complicated and there should be a clear trigger, a predefined set of circumstances, to initiate our focused awareness of the task.

One of our weekly exercises, and one of my favourites, is to notice the colour blue. Sounds simple but you quickly become aware of how rare, especially in the countryside, this colour is. There are two elements here, you can be mindfully looking for the colour blue or your mindfulness is triggered by seeing the colour blue. Just swap litter for blue objects and you can see the benefit of the litter pick exercise.

It’s also a good idea to tell other people what you are doing, people do look and wonder..... so tell them. Here on the Isle of Wight we have a population of 139,000. Even halving this to allow for the too youngs, too olds, too infirmeds and, sadly, the don’t cares still leaves the potential for the best part of 70,000 pieces of litter to be removed from our beautiful island EVERY DAY and every day works out to a staggering TWO AND A HALF MILLION PIECES OF LITTER REMOVED EVERY YEAR. So the more people you can get interested the better.

You can also beef up the remembering element of the exercise by keeping a tally of days missed, it will happen, and making a personal promise to pick up the missed number of pieces of litter the next opportunity you have.

The environmental point of this task is to get us working at creating a cosy home for all of us in this world. After all, the world is our home. Trying to define home as only the space we live in every night only serves to segregate and not unite us. Recognise that our home extends beyond just those physical walls and every ground we walk on, every neighbourhood we walk in, every district we step into, etc. should be considered our home, too.

The problem with litter is that the more there is, the more it generates. If people see litter all over the place, they see no reason why they shouldn't add to it. Why should they bother to look for a bin when nobody else does? What difference to the general scene would one more sandwich wrapper make? 

But think what difference one less wrapper makes and then another one less and another and another........................

Sunday, 11 June 2017

China Embraces Buddhism to Project Power

China is rapidly developing a plan for a ‘Buddhist globalisation’ using its financial, political and marketing clout.

Unsurprisingly, President Xi Jinping is not just asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea and expanding China’s connectivity project through the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, he is also working to make China the world leader in Buddhism. Xi has had this idea for some time now – he started building a partnership between China’s communist party and the religion when he was only 29 years old, serving as a bureaucrat in provinces. The story began when he encountered Shi Youming, a Buddhist monk who was restoring ruined temples of Zhengding County in Hebei Province.

Xi was probably also influenced by his father, Xi Zhongxun, who in 1980 had warned the party in his 11,000-word report ‘Document 19’ against banning religious activity, suggesting that this would alienate too many people. In fact, one of Xi’s father’s signature lines is said to have been, “If the people have faith, the nation has hope and the country has strength.”

Nobody knows whether Xi is a practitioner himself, but he has firmly been putting Chinese Buddhism on the global stage since 2005. At the domestic level, it looks as though Xi is turning to religion not just to bolster his rule, but also to save the party from falling. He certainly sees Buddhism as useful for arresting the flagging moral values in China’s social fabric, and to prevent the angry middle class from crumbling under the weight of a deepening social crisis and economic downturn. Having felt the pains of an ageing society, the country had to abandon the Mao’s one-child policy. More importantly, Xi intends to imbibe moral ethics among party officials – deemed necessary to bring about further economic reforms.

Becoming a guardian of Buddhism is helping Xi successfully promote China as an acceptable world power with a soft image. Buddhist globalisation helps Beijing push its economic projects – religious diplomacy makes it easier for China to win economic and infrastructural projects in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal and elsewhere.

Friday, 9 June 2017

FULL MOON - Preparing for the Journey

Resembling a withered leaf, 
you have the messenger 
of death at your side. 
Although a long journey lies ahead, 
you have still made no provision. 

Dhammapada v. 235

We all know that death is the inevitable consequence of having been born, and you would think that we would want to make provision for such a significant event. However, the daunting fear of uncertainty that death generates means we readily default to the pursuit of distractions. If we do wish to make mindful preparation for the inevitable, it is wise to strengthen our confidence in the law of kamma. The Buddha taught to trust in the cultivation of that which is wholesome and the relinquishment of that which is unwholesome. We don't know the future, but it is not helpful to waste a lot of time worrying about it. Mindful preparation is very different from compulsive worrying. This very moment is the only reality to which we have direct access, so it makes sense to emphasise the quality of attention we bring to this moment, and to trust in that effort. Developing such a trusting disposition is not avoiding responsibility, it is making an intelligent choice.