Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

Tibetian Buddhism has become popular in the West, but also among rich Han Chinese. Journalist Ian Johnson discusses with author John Osburn the reasons behind this popularity in a two-piece interview for the New York Times.

The New York Times (and Ian Johnson is asking the questions):

Q. Why Tibetan Buddhism and not Chinese Buddhism?
A. There’s a sense among Han Chinese that it’s been less corrupted by the cultural and political upheavals of the past 60 years. Their ideas about Tibetan Buddhism also mirror many of their images of Tibet itself as being pre-modern, spiritualistic, happy. I get told that a lot. There’s a perception among Han that Tibetans are “happy” people and that belief in Buddhism is a key enabler of their happiness.

Also, Tibetan Buddhism is seen as more mysterious, powerful and efficacious than Chinese Buddhism. I’m just beginning to research this, but I think the practice draws them in as well. I don’t think Chinese Buddhism puts as much emphasis on practices like repetition of sutras and ritual prostrations for lay followers. Han Chinese often call it their gongke — their homework — this set of rituals and practices to follow in their daily lives.

Q. What’s your view on whether they’re more sympathetic to the Tibetan cause?
A. Given the sensitivity of this issue, I usually just ask about their views of Tibetans in general. And it seems that it’s led some people to overturn some negative stereotypes they had of Tibetans, such as being backward or uncivilized. But it’s unclear to me that this religious encounter is going to alter their attitudes toward the Tibetan issue. I’m reluctant to say anything definitive, because I don’t have enough data.
Q.You’ve mentioned how this has warped some aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, by giving money and prestige to religious figures who otherwise would have a fairly low status. They just happened to somehow attract the fancy of a rich Han Chinese and get showered with money. How are they discovered?
A. Some young monks go to Han areas with the specific aim of attracting Han followers, hoping to encounter wealthy patrons. But sometimes it’s just random. But these random encounters are usually interpreted according to notions of fate. You might have a rich entrepreneur who just happens to sit next to an ordinary monk on an airplane. Maybe he’s having a spiritual crisis and believes that he was fated to sit next to this monk and become his disciple. Even if the monk doesn’t see it that way, as a monk it’s his duty to help someone who is suffering, so he likely won’t refuse the person.
Q. Is it just a coincidence that a number of wealthy Westerners also follow Tibetan Buddhism? Is there something in Tibetan Buddhism that wealthy people like?
A. Its rise in China is clearly connected to the global popularity of Tibetan Buddhism, which arose in the West in the 1960s and ’70s and slightly later became popular in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Lay Buddhists in the mainland read Chinese translations of many of the same pop Buddhist philosophy books read around the world. As in the West, they view Tibetan Buddhism as offering a cure to many of the ills of modernity. So it’s linked up with the global trend, but also “reimported” in a sense.

But some aspects are unique to the People’s Republic. Take the rise of the Wuming Buddhist Institute. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, the founder of the Larung Wuming Buddhist Study Institute in Serthar County [in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province], had a vision that Tibetan Buddhism should spread to Han areas. That development was autonomous from the global rise of Tibetan Buddhism as a form of spiritual self-help, but many Chinese who started reading pop Buddhist philosophy eventually ended up at Serthar.

Now there are over 10,000 monks and lay Buddhists studying there, and many are Han Chinese. The Wuming Buddhist Institute even streams Buddhist sermons and has set up online courses.

More in the New York Times. Piece one can be found here.

John Osburn is the author of “Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich.

Ian Johnson is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers´request form.

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