On September 5, 2023, an event of profound significance unfolded on the sacred grounds of Mount Wutai in Shanxi province, China. The “Buddhist Educational Affairs and Teaching Style Work Training Course of the China Buddhist Association” commenced at this hallowed site, where the essence of Chinese Buddhism has flourished for over a millennium. However, beneath the spiritual façade lay a deeper purpose, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sought to reinforce its influence over Chinese Buddhism under the banner of “Sinicization.” This article explores the implications of this endeavor and its impact on the age- old traditions of Chinese Buddhism.
Mount Wutai, often referred to as the foremost among China’s four Sacred Mountains, is a place of profound spiritual significance for Chinese Buddhists. Home to more than fifty monasteries, some of which trace their origins back to the Tang dynasty (8th and 9th centuries CE), the mountain exudes a sense of timelessness. Its temples, sculptures, paintings, and music have seamlessly integrated with traditional Chinese culture, reflecting a centuries-old process of “Sinicization.”
The term “Sinicization” in the context of Chinese Buddhism signifies the adaptation of a religion born in India to the broader Chinese culture. It encompasses the assimilation of spiritual principles, language, architecture, art, and music. This process began more than a thousand years ago and is a testament to the flexibility and adaptability of Buddhism.
Ironically, the recent “Training Course” at Mount Wutai was not aimed at preserving or enhancing the existing harmony between Buddhism and Chinese culture. Instead, it was yet another step in the CCP’s campaign to reframe Chinese Buddhism in its own image. This campaign, referred to as “Sinicization,” seeks to make Buddhism a conduit for promoting the CCP’s ideology and slogans.
Master Yanjue, President of the China Buddhist Association, laid the foundation for this campaign during his introductory lecture. He highlighted the importance of implementing the spirit of the 20th National Congress of the CCP and Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. The course attendees were tasked with comprehensively studying and implementing General Secretary Xi Jinping’s views on religious work.
The CCP’s Sinicization of Buddhism is underpinned by a fourfold approach:
Ideological Understanding: Monks and devotees are expected to embrace Marxism and Xi Jinping Thought. This shift in ideological orientation suggests an attempt to exert control over the spiritual and philosophical foundations of Buddhism.
Socialist Legal Education: The CCP seeks to inculcate Xi Jinping’s thoughts on the rule of law within the Buddhist community. This includes strict adherence to new and restrictive laws and directives on religion, further emphasizing the party’s dominance.
System Management: The CCP aims to establish top-down bureaucratic control over even the most remote temples. The “Administrative Measures for Religious Activity Venues” have been introduced to transform religious institutions into vehicles for CCP propaganda.
Sinicization of Academic Courses: Academic courses on Buddhism are to be Sinicized, aligning them with the principles outlined in Xi Jinping’s 2021 speech. This not only restricts religious scholarship but also reinterprets Buddhist history and doctrine through a Marxist lens.
The implications of the CCP’s Sinicization campaign are profound. It raises concerns about the erosion of the unique spiritual identity of Chinese Buddhism, which has evolved over centuries. Monastic traditions, meditation practices, and philosophical teachings may be subsumed under the umbrella of party ideology.
Moreover, the risk of religious persecution and suppression looms large. The CCP’s efforts to exert control over religious institutions and beliefs can stifle the
freedom of religious expression, undermining the very essence of Buddhism as a path to spiritual enlightenment.
The unfolding of the “Buddhist Educational Affairs and Teaching Style Work Training Course” at Mount Wutai underscores the CCP’s unyielding quest for ideological supremacy. Chinese Buddhism, a harmonious fusion of cultures, is now facing a pivotal juncture. The intricate equilibrium between tradition and ideology must be safeguarded to ensure that this ancient tradition continues to kindle the spiritual flame for generations to come. The lasting consequences of this profound transformation on China’s revered spiritual heritage will become more apparent with the passage of time, raising questions about the resilience of ancient wisdom in the face of modern political forces. This evolving narrative prompts us to reflect on the enduring resilience of spiritual traditions in the face of external influences. The tension between preserving the essence of Chinese Buddhism and adapting to the changing sociopolitical landscape encapsulates a broader global conversation on the intersection of faith and governance. Mount Wutai, with its rich history, now bears witness to a profound struggle, echoing the timeless quest for the soul of a culture amidst shifting paradigms.