Holiday in Saffron

I’ve just had a week off work for the Chinese national holiday. Fittingly, given that my mind has been occupied with peace and evil, I had planned to stay in a Pure Land Buddhist monastery close to Shanghai. There were lots of reasons; some personal (including a desperate need for fresh country air), some intellectual (I’m interested in both Buddhism and monastic traditions) and as ever, some political. I’m curious about the standing of (non-Tibetan) Buddhism in China.

In the information the retreat organiser sent before I arrived it warned that visitors should “avoid political discussions with the monks, especially concerning Tibet and the Dalai Lama. These are sensitive issues which will at best end up embarrassing the monks and better to be left aside during your stay…” The guideline was unsurprising. Although it’s not always written, there’s an implicit assumption that questions shouldn’t be asked in China, that information will be neither sought nor provided upfront. Rather, to glimpse understanding of anything you have to put together a jigsaw.

The jigsaw pieces were there during the monastery retreat. I arrived in the pouring rain, soaked to the skin and exhausted after nearly 24 hours travel. The place was deserted. I had to sit and wait for about twenty minutes until a monk (whom I later learned was the Master of the temple) arrived and made me tea, took my bags and showed me to my room. The emptiness seemed strange, but later I realised that there are only two monks permanently resident in the monastery. Others were ordained there, but study in bigger towns and cities nearby (over the weekend they would arrive to visit every now and then on big, un-monastic motorbikes.) It seems a lonely place, with its three prayer halls sitting empty most of the time and gathering dust.

Some of my questions were answered when I met the retreat facilitator, Michael. He’s a foreigner too, and we were obviously speaking in English, so he could be more candid about the political history of the monastery. He told me that at its peak the monastery (or at least the same site) housed over 200 monks and nuns. However, in the mid-1960s the monastery was overwhelmed by Chinese state. The impacts of the Cultural Revolution on Chinese Buddhism were, of course, immense. Many monasteries were emptied and ransacked, monks and nuns were arrested, killed or “re-educated”.

One story I heard particularly stuck with me. A Master whom Michael met some years ago, had his monastery taken over by the representatives of the PR and they ordered the monks to renounce their Buddhism or be shot. Some monks refused and were killed, but the Master complied and was sent to work (in military uniform) in a factory in Shanghai. His reasoning was that the Buddhist precept that forbids killing (or harming sentient beings) should also be interpreted as prohibiting any action that causes killing. He believed that his defiance of a Chinese soldier would compel the soldier to kill, and as such would violate the precept. So he went and worked in the factory, and apparently found the military uniform very comfortable, and that his inner spirituality remained intact.  A very interesting perspective in the incredibly charged debate about religious martyrdom.*

Thankfully, in the monastery in which I stayed no monks or nuns were killed. Soldiers arrived and ordered them to leave, which they did and the site was shelled. However, the story according to locals is apparently that the Japanese who shelled the monastery in the 1940s. This was the version Michael knew until recently, when a shopkeeper called him into the back room and explained the truth. Michael believes the local people are too ashamed to admit the truth. It’s also possible that they don’t know. Finally, and most distressingly, they may know the truth but willingly participate in the propaganda (the area is apparently loyally Maoist).

According to local legend, after the destruction one nun came back and lived for many years in the ruins of the temple, growing her own vegetables and chanting her mantras and the name of the Buddha.

With time, China relaxed its religious policy. The monks emerged from the dark age of the Cultural Revolution, to a new and depressing reality; a severely depleted sangha (community), ongoing tensions with the political system and an overwhelming amount to rebuild. About twelve years ago the now head of the monastery was sent from the nearest city, Hangzhou, to see if there was anything to be salvaged. Apparently he found the nun there and sent her back to the city and a community. He felt a spiritual draw to the ruined monastery and has spent the last twelve years rebuilding the site and developing relationships with the local community. The area is rural and quite poor, apparently monks frequently come/are sent to the monastery from severely impoverished backgrounds. Monastic life provides food, place to live, some education (the second monk living there is, it seems, illiterate) and, presumably, a meaningful existence.

According to Michael, the presence of foreigners in the monastery is rejuvenating the monks, as well as sparking the interest of some local people. However, twice over the course of my stay carloads of police arrived at the gates and spoke to the Master at length, enquiring as to why so many foreigners were staying there. One wonders how they found out. I was about to leave anyway, but those staying any longer were told to go to the police station the next day to register.

The energies of Buddhism when directed towards political change can be very potent, as indicated, for instance, by the continuing threat posed by Tibetan Buddhists or by the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar. The Chinese authorities seem acutely conscious of the tension, and of the capacity of a doctrine of peace and tolerance to threaten a repressive regime.

* I’ve wondered lately about the growing levels of self-immolation among Buddhists, and whether the harm of the self is seen as a violation of the precept, but those questions did seem too politically intrusive.

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