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From Comrades to Bodhisattvas

From Comrades to Bodhisattvas: Moral Dimensions of Lay Buddhist Practice in Contemporary China

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 301
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  • Book Info
    From Comrades to Bodhisattvas
    Book Description:

    From Comrades to Bodhisattvas is the first book-length study of Han Chinese Buddhism in post-Mao China. Using an ethnographic approach supported by over a decade of field research, it provides an intimate portrait of lay Buddhist practitioners in Beijing who have recently embraced a religion that they were once socialized to see as harmful superstition. The book focuses on the lively discourses and debates that take place among these new practitioners in an unused courtyard of a Beijing temple. In this non-monastic space, which shrinks each year as the temple authorities expand their commercial activities, laypersons gather to distribute and exchange Buddhist-themed media, listen to the fiery sermons of charismatic preachers, and seek solutions to personal moral crises. Applying recent theories in the anthropology of morality and ethics, Gareth Fisher argues that the practitioners are attracted to the courtyard as a place where they can find ethical resources to re-make both themselves and others in a rapidly changing nation that they believe lacks a coherent moral direction. Spurred on by the lessons of the preachers and the stories in the media they share, these courtyard practitioners inventively combine moral elements from China’s recent Maoist past with Buddhist teachings on the workings of karma and the importance of universal compassion. Their aim is to articulate a moral antidote to what they see as blind obsession with consumption and wealth accumulation among twenty-first century Chinese. Often socially marginalized and sidelined from meaningful roles in China’s new economy, these former communist comrades look to their new moral roles along a bodhisattva path to rebuild their self-worth. Each chapter focuses on a central trope in the courtyard practitioners’ projects to form new moral identities. The Chinese government’s restrictions on the spread of religious teachings in urban areas curtail these practitioners' ability to insert their moral visions into an emerging public sphere. Nevertheless, they succeed, at least partially, Fisher argues, in creating their own discursive space characterized by a morality of concern for fellow humans and animals and a recognition of the organizational abilities and pedagogical talents of its members that are unacknowledged in society at large. Moreover, as the later chapters of the book discuss, by writing, copying, and distributing Buddhist-themed materials, the practitioners participate in creating a religious network of fellow-Buddhists across the country, thereby forming a counter-cultural community within contemporary urban China. Highly readable and full of engaging descriptions of the real lives of practicing lay Buddhists in contemporary China, From Comrades to Bodhisattvas will interest specialists in Chinese Buddhism, anthropologists of contemporary Asia, and all scholars interested in the relationship between religion and cultural change.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-4793-7
    Subjects: Religion, History, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Series Editor’s Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    I first met Liu Yuzhen during a visit to the apartment of two Buddhist laypersons living in the southern suburbs of Beijing.¹ These laypersons had allowed a monk, Jingxu, and his cousin, a nun, Miaozhen, to live with them and to see patients using traditional Chinese medical practices (mostly massage therapy). When it was her turn, Liu complained of back pain; Jingxu prepared some red flower oil, which Miaozhen applied to her upper back and shoulders. In spite of the fact that they were members of the clergy and she was a layperson, Jingxu and Miaozhen spoke gently and with...

  6. 1 Chaos
    (pp. 23-56)

    Although I had not known her long, I could see that Jiang Xiuqin preferred to be the organizer of ordered groups in a highly disordered world. She had meticulously arranged our day’s outing to the Tanzhe Temple (Tanzhe Si) on the outskirts of Beijing: she had hired a series of taxi vans for herself and half a dozen other elderly female practitioners from her neighborhood; had ordered each of the practitioners to sit in specific seats depending on height, status, and physical frailty; had planned every minute of their pilgrimage; and now, as the mid-afternoon winter sun was casting long...

  7. 2 Balance
    (pp. 57-81)

    During one late summer Dharma Assembly in 2003, light rain that had been falling throughout the day turned into a heavy downpour as a system of thundershowers moved through Beijing. Having failed to come prepared with an umbrella, I moved inside the narrow covered walkway between the inner and outer courtyards. There, a plump man with white hair and a very dour face was surrounded closely by a number of older women. Squeezing myself into a short space on the opposite wall, I managed to lean over the heads of the other listeners to catch something of what he was...

  8. 3 Buddhic Bonds
    (pp. 82-101)

    On the fifteenth day of the first Chinese lunar month of 2003, an important occasion in the annual ritual calendar, I had arranged to travel to the Tanzhe Temple on the outskirts of Beijing with Jiang Xiuqin.¹ However, I arrived late and we failed to connect correctly. Rather than simply returning to the city, I decided to make the best of things. I took out my notebook and began to randomly single out worshippers, introduce myself to them as a researcher, and attempt to engage them in open-ended questions about their reasons for coming to the temple. Given the suspicion...

  9. 4 Cause and Consequence
    (pp. 102-135)

    Gao Jie, a female lay practitioner in her midforties whom I had met at a lecture on the scriptures class, had volunteered to take a few hours away from her family on a cold, slate-gray New Year’s Day (in the Western calendar) in 2003 so that I could record her story of how, just two weeks prior, she had used the power of her relationship to Amitābha Buddha to save her mother’s life.¹ While visiting their hometown, Shenyang, in China’s northeast province of Liaoning, Gao’s mother, eighty-six, had unexpectedly suffered a stroke and was admitted to the hospital. Gao Jie,...

  10. 5 Creating Bonds
    (pp. 136-168)

    At a well-attended Dharma Assembly celebrating the birthday of the bodhisattva Guanyin in 2004, held in the Western calendar that year on March 9, a Buddhist lay practitioner stood near the entrance to the Youmin Temple (Youmin Si) in the city of Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province, handing out copies of an essay typed on thin yellow paper. The practitioner announced in a loud voice to the entering temple-goers that the essay was written by the popular Australian-based monk Jingkong. The essay called on all those “with a sincere intention to save the world” to “unite with righteous fellow...

  11. 6 Heart/Action
    (pp. 169-200)

    As I entered the outer courtyard on the day of a Dharma Assembly in the early 2000s, Cao Hongyu, an old woman with several missing teeth, would often approach me, a copy of theLotus Sūtrain her hand and a plastic pin with the likeness of Chairman Mao fastened to her lapel. She would sometimes tell me that Teacher Zhang was to come to the temple that day. She would then lead me over to a larger group of a dozen female practitioners, ranging in age from their twenties to their sixties, all of whom would be wearing similar...

  12. Conclusion: Islands of Religiosity
    (pp. 201-214)

    In August 2011, I sat with Liu Mei in a small traditional dessert café near the Chongwenmen metro station in the heart of Beijing. The café was deserted except for ourselves, in contrast to crowded scenes at nearby branches of McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Dairy Queen, which we had passed by in search of a quiet place to talk. I showed Liu the draft of the section I had written about her in chapter 2 on my laptop computer. An English major in college, Liu understood the gist of what I had written and agreed that I had correctly...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 215-236)
  14. Glossary
    (pp. 237-240)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 241-254)
  16. Index
    (pp. 255-264)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 265-271)