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Sunday, September 23, 2007


Prostituting the Buddha

In many Asian Buddhist countries it is the custom for people to make donations to the temple. Many practise Buddhism by creating merit (good karma) to benefit themselves in future lives. Personally I believe this misses the point of what the Buddha was really about. Never-the-less this is what happens. I found temples in Thailand, for example, to be beautiful but extravagant and in light of poverty in the country perhaps this is not the best way for people to make merit.

Temples in China are a different story again. Perhaps many of the people lost their Buddhist roots during the communist years and the Cultural Revolution. It seems now that most temples are a tourist attraction. There is invariably a fee to enter and it is usually quite high. Sometimes there is one fee to enter the complex and another to get into the most relevant part. In this fledgling capitalist society the people are queuing to see these temples and I should add that most tourists in China are Chinese.

When I had not been long in Hangzhou I spent a day or two visiting a few of the sights listed in the local guide book which included a few temples. One temple seemed different from the rest. There was no admission fee. They were serving food in one area outside the main part of the temple. When I enquired about the cost a monk came and helped me to order. The price was reasonable and the food simple but good.

Many of the temples are promoted as having a history dating back many centuries. However the building you see has probably been rebuilt in fairly recent times. They are well preserved and look beautiful but how much real Buddhism is practised there I am uncertain.

People pay their money, come in, touch the statue of the Buddha and leave. The Buddha has been made into a prostitute. I wonder what would happen in such a temple if you went in and asked for a dharma lesson.

I gave up visiting temples in Hangzhou but had some time to kill in Xiamen and decided to visit one there. Most of the complex looked to be reasonably old and not recently painted. There is a hill behind, which I climbed and when I returned I discovered a much newer large pagoda-style building. There were many monks and nuns entering. Obviously something was happening there.

I got chatting to a monk outside who spoke English and asked him what was going on. He said they were holding a forum on commercialization of Buddhism. I told him of my observations. He said that businessmen were investing in temples so that they could be restored and attract tourists. The businessmen then take a return from the entrance fees paid by the tourists.

So much for the teachings of the Buddha.

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