Tibetan Buddhism among the Han Chinese in China 1996


A large number of Han Chinese of all ages in China are interested in Buddhism, but as in Tibet, the main problem is the lack of teachers. Many young people are receiving m­onastic ordination, but their quality is low. The majority of college-educated youth prefer to work and make m­oney, while those who join monasteries are mostly from poor and/or unedu­cated families, primarily from the countryside. There are only a few qualified e­lderly monks and nuns left who survived the communist persecution and can teach, and there is no one of middle age with any training. As in the Tibetan and Inner Mongolian regions, there are government Buddhist colleges with two, three or four-year p­rograms in many major Inner Chinese cities and pilgrimage sites, with political education as part of their curriculum, but relatively few of the newly-ordained Han Chinese attend them.

In general, the level of Buddhist education is lower in the Chinese monasteries than in the Tibetan ones. As in Tibet, people are focusing primarily on the physical reconstruction of Buddhism at the moment – temples, pagodas, statues and so forth – and this requires putting time and effort into raising money and building. In some cases, the Chinese government is helping to finance this reconstruction. As a result, many Buddhist temples are now open as museums or tourist attractions, with the monastics being the ticket-collectors and temple attendants, as in Lhasa. This allows for a veneer of “religious freedom,” an image much sought by the Beijing government. Most reconstruc­tion, however, is being financed by the local people, sometimes with foreign benefactors, and often by the monastics themselves.

The Revival of Traditional Chinese Ancestor Worship

Some traditional ancestor-worship practices done in temples before the communist persecu­tion are now being revived. As in the Chinese overseas communities of East and South East Asia, people burn paper money, paper bars of gold, paper houses and so forth at the temples to send to their deceased relatives. Due to both financial concerns and requests from the public, many temples engage in reciting prayers for the dead. One even sees girls in mini-skirts and their boyfriends offering incense and candles at city tem­ples. But they seem to do this simply because their p­arents and ancestors did so and it is part of their culture. Most do not even understand to whom they are offering them and why. This is undoubtedly the case among many Tibetans and Inner Mongolians as well, but their level of understanding seems higher than that of most Han Chinese.

The Revival of Chinese Buddhism and Taoism

There are, however, a few Chinese monasteries in various parts of Inner China that are active and have some level of study and practice. They follow mostly a mixture of Chan and Pure Land practice, which has been the main form of Chinese Buddhism since the major repression of the late ninth century, contemporary with Langdarma’s persecution of Buddhism in Tibet. In Fayuan Temple (Fayuan Si 法源寺), for example, the only active Chinese Bud­dhist temple in Beijing open to the public for worship, a group of about 100 Chinese from Tianjin took refuge in a formal ceremony and received instruction.

There is also a revival of Taoism, although it is much less known to the Chinese than Buddhism. The main Taoist temple in Beijing, the White Cloud Temple (Chin.: Baiyun Guan 白云观), has more than 100 ordained Taoist priests and adepts studying and per­forming rituals very similar to those found at Chinese Bud­dhist temples. Although there were a few Chinese devo­tees at this Taoist temple, the main Confucian temple in Bei­jing was deser­ted.

Chinese Interest in Tibetan Buddhism

Many better educated Han Chinese, espe­cially in Beijing, Shanghai, Cheng­du and some other big cities, are also inter­ested in Tibe­tan Buddhism. If people in the countryside are interested in Bud­dhism, it is in the Chinese forms. Every­one thinks Tibet is part of China, and so con­sequently they consi­der Tibetan Bud­dhism as just a sub-category of Chinese Bud­dhism, and therefore are open to it.

There is a long history of Tibetan Buddhism being studied and prac­ticed by Han Chinese. There have been Tibetan monaste­ries and temples at Wutaishan 五台山 (Tib.: Ri bo rtse lnga) since the mid-seventeenth century and at the imperial court in Beijing since the mid-thirteenth century. But it is unclear whe­ther any Han Chinese outside of the imperial household or court studied at them. During the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, however, from the late thir­teenth to mid-fourteenth centuries, Tibetan monks came to the Xi’an district of Shaan­xi and taught in Chinese monaster­ies near the former Chinese capital there. Even now, there are some Tibetan names used in this area. This Tibetan influence con­tin­ued in Xi’an during the Ming dynasty as well, from the mid-four­teenth to the mid-seve­n­teenth cen­tury. During the early Ming period, there was also a Chinese monastery near the capi­tal, Nanjing, at which Tibetan monks taught.

It is reported that there was a small Tibetan monastery at Emeishan 峨眉山 (Tib.: Ri-bo glang-chen), the sacred mountain of Amitabha near Chengdu, and Tibetan monks living at Putuoshan 普陀山 (Tib.: Ri-bo po-ta-la), the sacred mountain of Avalokitesh­vara on an island off Ningbo south of Shan­ghai, but this has not been confirmed. There are no re­ports of Tibe­tans having resid­ed at the fourth sacred Buddhist mountain of Chin­a, Jiuhua­shan 九华山, the sacred mountain of Kshiti­garbha near Anqing in Anhui Province.

Qigong and Energy Manipulation Practices

Qigong 气功, meaning “manipulation of energy”, is a general Chinese term for any meditational practice involving energies. There are five divisions: Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, martial arts and medicine. The Buddhist category includes tantra, Cha­n 禅 (Jap.: Zen), Pure Land 净土 and Tiantai 天台, and the tan­tra systems in­clude not only Han Mi 汉密 (Chinese Tantra), but also three pure­ly Tibetan forms that have been transmitted by Han Chinese. These are Zang Mi 藏密 (Tibetan Tantra), Lianhua Mi 莲花密 (Lo­tus Tantra, emph­asiz­ing tummo) and Xian Mi 显密 (Illustrious Tantra, emphasizing vajra-breathing). There is also Chan Mi 禅密 (Zen Tantra) which is a mix­ture of Tibe­tan and Chinese Bud­dhist practices, and includes in its line­age of sources Bodhidharma, Shubhakarasinha, Padma­sambhava, Phagpa, and Tsongkhapa. In addition to many Chinese-style practices of physical movements to make the energies pliable and Chan-style meditations on voidness, it has illusory body practices in the form of a two-armed, female Avalokiteshvara. This aspect of tantra came into this system as the result of contact with Gelug teach­ers in the early nineteenth cen­tury. A number of Han Chinese qigong practition­ers have become inter­ested these days in Tibetan Buddhism in order to discover the deeper philosophical and meditational foundations of their primarily physical prac­tices.

Mixing Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Khangsar Rin­poche visited Chengdu in Sichuan and conferred the Yamantaka initiation to a group of Han Chinese. The monk Nenghai Shang­shi 能海上师 became his main Chinese disciple, and went back to study at Drepung. After returning to Chengdu, he began a tradition of Buddhism that combines Chine­se Pure Land, Chan and Gelug tan­tra. This is practiced at the Zhaojue Si 昭觉寺 (by 200 Chinese monks) and Shuxiang Si 殊相寺 Monasteries in Chengdu and at the Bao­guang Si 宝光寺 Monas­tery in nearby Xindu. They recite the Yamantaka sadha­na in Chinese and study a little Tibetan. Nenghai Shang­shi’s chief dis­ciple, the 92 year old Qingding Shangshi 清定上师, is the present mas­ter of this tradition at these monasteries. There are, at pre­sent, also 300 Chinese lay follow­ers of this tradition in Chengdu, and nearly 100,000 Chinese devotees a year come to pay their respects at Zhaojue Si.

At the sacred mountain of Wutaishan in Shanxi, the Luohou Si 罗喉寺 and Tangtu Si Monasteries also follow a combined Chin­ese Pure Land and Gelug tantra practice. It is unclear when this custom began and who started it.

Also at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Chin­ese Buddhist master Taixu 太虚 sent his disciple Fazun 法尊, known in Tibetan as Losang Chophel, to Tibet. He wished to enrich Chin­ese Buddhism with teachings and practices from other tradi­tions. Fazun translated into Chinese many texts, including the Lamrim chenmo (Lam-rim chen-mo) and Lamrim chungwa (Lam-rim chung-ba), and the Ngagrim chenmo (sNgags-rim chen-mo), and Namdrel Tsawa (rNam-’grel rtsa-ba). The tradition that arose from Fazun tries to make a whole out of Chinese and Tibetan Gelug Bud­dhism. One starts with Pure Land and Chan practices, and then goes on to Tsongkhapa’s tradition of Lam-rim and tan­tra. Fazun’s dis­ciples include Yang Deneng and his wife, Hu Ji-ou, the two Vice-Chairmen and main teachers at the Beijing Bud­dhist Lay­men’s Society (Beijing Fojiao Jushilin 北京佛教居士林, dGe-bsnyen tshogs-pa). These two also consider themselves disciples of Trijang Rinpoche from his visit to Beijing in 1954.

Tibetan Buddhist Activity in Major Chinese Cities

In the 1920s, the Sixth Panchen Lama (by Chinese count, the Ninth) came to Beijing together with Ngagchen Dorjechang. They taught many Chinese disciples and started the Sang-Ngag Gonpa (gSang-sngags dGon-pa) tem­ple for Tibetans and Mongolians living there. Their Chinese disciples founded the Beijing Buddhist Laymen’s Society at this temple. At present, this society has be­tween 300 and 400 members, and since 1992 has its own build­ing. Previously, it had operated around the corner, out of Guangji Si 广济寺, the Chinese temple that now houses the Chinese Bud­dhist Association (Zhongguo Fojie Xiehui 中国佛教协会), the official communist organ.

The Sixth Panchen Lama also established the Jingangdao 金刚道 (Vajrayana) Temple in Shanghai during the 1920s. His Chinese disciples there started the Shanghai Buddhist Laymen’s Society (Shanghai Fojiao Jushilin 上海佛教居士林) as a separate, nearby group. They take as their main teacher Qingding Shangshi, the master from the mixed Pure Land and Gelug tantra monasteries in Chengdu. At present, this soci­ety has about 300 members. One old layman, Ni Weiquan, who had studied in Kham, leads them twice a month in performing the Lama Chopa (bLa-ma mchod-pa), recited in Chinese translation. One monastery in Sanmen, south of Shanghai in Zhejiang province between Ningpo and Mount Tiantai, still follows a mixture of Pure Land and Gelug practice, which undoubtedly derives from the same lineage from the 1920s. There are Buddhist Lay­men’s Societies in Z­­­hengzhou, H­angzhou, Tianjin, Chengdu and G­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­uang­zhou, but they follow Chinese, not Tibetan forms of Bud­dhism.

Official Chinese Tibetan Buddhist Organisations

In 1924, the Chinese government started a School of Tibe­tan Studies in Beijing and, in 1931, a Sino-Tibetan Institute (Han Zang Jiaoli Yuan 汉藏教理院) outside Chongqing. On the surface, the purpose was to prepare Chinese students for future study at the main Tibetan monas­teries in Lhasa. Although a handful of Chinese actually did go to these monasteries in Lhasa and some did become quite learn­ed, they were expected to serve the Chinese Nationalist gov­ernment’s aims in Tibet, namely to incorporate the area into China.

In 1935, the Chinese established a Bodhi Society (Jueshe 觉社) in Shanghai, with the Sixth Panchen Lama as its president. He and other Tibetan Lamas sympathetic to teaching the Chinese, as well as some of the Lhasa-educated Chinese monks, gave lec­tures there. The Sixth Panchen Lama conferred the Kalachakra initia­tion both in Beijing and at Agui Miao 阿贵庙 in Kezhuo Zhongqi near Baokang in Northeast Inner Mongolia. There were many Han Chin­ese disciples.

During the degenerate times of the 1940s, Tibetan Nyingma lamas supposedly conferred in Amdo the actual third initiation in a literal fashion. Their reputation grew for pos­sessing special powers and they were invited to Beij­ing, Nanjing, Shang­hai and Guan­gzhou to teach interested Chinese. Dharma Master Mingchi, the chief Chin­ese monk at the Guangji Si Monastery in Beijing, for example, engages in and teaches Guru Rinpoche practices. He was also a disciple of the late Seventh Panchen Lama. Many of the child­ren of the Chinese disciples of these Nyingma lamas continue their parents’ interest in Nyingma and are looking for Nyingma tantric masters to teach­ them.

In 1954, during their visit to Beijing, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his tutors and other great lamas gave lectures and teachings to the Chinese. Many people developed an interest in Tibetan Bud­dhism from this contact.

The Present Situation

After his release from Chinese prison, the Seventh Pan­chen Lama taught many Chinese throughout the country. Having established in Beijing in 1987 the Government Buddhist College for Tibetan monks and tulkus, he conferred the thirteen-deity Yaman­taka initiation there in 1989. About 400 Mongolians and Tibe­tans as well as Chinese from the Beijing Buddhist Laymen’s Society attended. In 1993, Chesho (Che-shos) Rinpoche of Kumbum confer­red this same initiation at the Guanghua Si 广化寺 Monastery in Bei­jing to about 300 people, mostly Chinese, many of whom were students from the Beijing Traditional Medical Institute (Beijing Zhongyi Xueyuan 北京中医学院). There are about 100 students from this institute interested in Bud­dhism now, and 20 are serious practitioners.

As is the case at Kumbum, many Han Chinese, of all ages, regularly visit Yonghehong 雍和宫, the Inner Mongolian monastery in Beijing, and sit with the monks during the pujas. Many others come to offer incense. They ask many Dharma questions to the monks. From seeing too many kungfu martial arts movies, how­ever, most Chi­nese are interested pri­marily in gaining powers from Bud­dhism. The flashy Tibetan tantric cere­monies attract their attention, since Chinese Buddhist temples lack such ritual, color and drama. But they have no teachers, and so they just con­sider ex­ternal as­pects and worry, for instance, over what size and color Buddha statue they should buy and keep in order to gain power and suc­cess in busi­ness and life.

Some of the Chinese in Beijing who are interested in Tibetan Buddhism are of Manchu descent. About 30 Manchus in Chengde have faith. Beijing and Chengde are the only two places in China that had Manchu monasteries.

At Zhaojue Si 昭觉寺 Monastery in Chengdu, Sichuan, 200 of the 300 Han Chinese monks there practice a combination of Pure Land, Chan and Gelug tantra. They wear a variety of styles of Chinese robes, but some add over them a Tibetan shawl. Their temple is in a mixed Chinese and Tibetan style, with statues from both traditions. Although the Panchen Lama had once conferred an initiation here, there were no pictures of either the Panchen Lama or His Holi­ness the Dalai Lama. In the Pure Land temple on the grounds of this mon­as­tery, it is common for a proces­sion of about 100 monks, nuns and lay­people to circumambulate inside together, chanting “Namo Amitofo.”

At Wenshu (Manjushri) Yuan 文殊院, the main Chinese monastery in Chengdu, there are frequently large crowds of Han Chinese of all ages, offering incense and prayers. It is one of the most active and crowded Buddhist temples in China.