Around 300 young people were sitting on the earth under a 1,000-year-old pine tree, the full moon hanging above their heads. Empty cups next to them were immediately refilled with fine Zhaozhou tea that smelled refreshing. The chief monks of the Bolin Temple were sitting on the opposite side, smiling at “aggressive” questions such as:
“When a Bhikkhuni (nun) meets a Bhikkhu (monk), she has to bow to the Bhikkhu. Does it mean the Buddhism is actually gender-biased?”
Sun Zhizhuang, a 22-year-old young man who will continue his postgraduate studies in finance at Tsinghua University in Beijing from September, also had a question in mind. He was interested in the temple’s financial statement for the past 20 years. Before the first annual Life Zen Summer Campus was held in 1993, there were barely enough rooms to accommodate just a dozen campers. Since then, the temple has built more dorms while the summer camp is always free of charge.
But Sun decided that this sacred Pucha meeting was not the right time to ask that question. After all, temples hold ceremonies like these to share tea and Zen wisdom with secular people. The whiff of money would definitely ruin the mood.
During the ten-day camp from July 16 to 25, Sun shared a room with four other people in the temple, awaking at 4:30 am each day to the sound of temple bells. It was not easy for a night owl with a penchant for rolling out of bed late. Before breakfast, he chanted mantras with other students and monks. He learned how to meditate while sitting in the lotus position – though he admitted that was the hardest part for him and he still could not maintain the position for long. He liked the vegetarian food served in the temple and was happy to ensure nothing was wasted. When the monks taught him to pour hot water into his bowl after eating the rice, he drank it up.
“People nowadays are extremely anxious and fickle, especially young people,” Sun told The Diplomat. “I’m coming here to clean my mind after undergoing the ups and downs of graduate school exams. Here I’ve found a world that I barely knew before.”
During the Cultural Revolution, Buddhism and Taoism were seen as feudal superstitions to be wiped out – burdensome remnants of China’s ancient past. It was the revolutionary mission of the Red Guards, students mobilized by Chairman Mao, to wipe out the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Among other things, this meant smashing Buddha statues, destroying temples, and forcing monks and nuns to resume secular life. When people started to focus on the market economy after China’s opening-up, a new push to revive temples as private enterprises was born. Monks and nuns reopened temples in eastern coastal cities, perhaps in the hope that the Buddha would bless them with good fortune.
But the generation born in 1980s and 1990s are taking a different approach than their parents. The once despised feudal superstitions are now seen as trendy by Chinese youth who are not only curious about the lives of monks and nuns, but also cannot help romanticizing the idea of a spiritual shelter. They yearn to escape from the pressures and setbacks encountered in their studies, careers and love affairs.
Zhou Qianyu, 21, is a high school drop-out from Guangdong province. Zhou has found deep consolation in Buddhist wisdom. “I feel there’s true sincerity in Buddhism. But romantic relationships are full of hypocrisy,” he said, declining to say more about his own experience.
Zhou was crestfallen when he heard Ci’en Temple on Tiantai mountain, Zhejiang province, had to suspend its short-term temple-stay program when a flood of more than 500 applicants, mostly from the post-1980s generation, jumped at the chance after a notice about it was posted online. The response drastically exceeded the temple’s original expectations, as well as the program’s maximum capacity, Ci’en Temple explained in a statement.
“I will continue to try temples further inland,” Zhou said. “I heard that only the temples in western Sichuan are not that crowded.”