Synergy or Collision:
University students encountering Buddhism in China

Bill Mak

In this paper, my goal is to examine the relationship between university students and Buddhism in China, in particular, the role of the young and highly educated in the resurgence of Buddhism in the recent decades. By outlining both the fruits and challenges resulting from the encounter of the two, I hope to generate some interest amongst readers who are concerned with the future development of Buddhism in China.

Historical relationship between Chinese intellectuals and Buddhism

To understand how the two paths of university students and Buddhists came across each other, we should look a bit further back in history. Prior to the 20th century, Buddhism and the educated had always been closely associated with each other. China has a history of Buddhist scholarship of almost 2000 years. Both traditional scholarship and the Buddhist path were believed to be of the common pursuit of wisdom. No Chinese could call themselves educated without some serious learning in at least one of the many branches of Buddhism. In the 20th century China, the situation however turned upside down. Both university education and Buddhism had been seriously disrupted – with foreign invasion, civil strife and the ideological struggle within Communist China culminating in the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, putting literally all forms of developments into a complete halt. The Chinese intelligentsia as well as the Buddhist religious leaders were ousted from society, abused mentally and physically, becoming eventually a kind of social outcast. By early 1980s when China had firmly established its open-door policy, China was once again swept by a tide of reforms. Buddhism began to revive, thanks to the more liberal religious policy. Higher education too rose in importance and gradually became once again a common aspiration for the Chinese people, a tradition deeply rooted in the Chinese culture. The fate of the learned and the pious seem to be inextricably linked with each other throughout the tumultuous history of China. It is of no surprise that the path of the two should cross once again in this age of rapid changes.

Contemporary Developments

In the 1980s, the Chinese Buddhist community faced a seriously problem of resource vacuum: temples were run by non-Buddhists and there was a serious lack of qualified monks within the Sangha to manage all the Buddhist affairs across the country. There was a sense of urgency for Buddhism to quickly build itself up at various levels. With the growing diplomatic ties between China and its neighboring countries, in particular Japan, a presentable Buddhist representation amongst the delegate, as well as within the country in general, seemed to be necessary as a part of the diplomatic protocol (Note 1). Within the country itself, Chinese Buddhists quickly rose in number and there was demand for proper management of temple affairs. In response to this, Buddhist leaders at that time, most notably the late Mr. Zhao Puchu (趙朴初), former president of Buddhist Association of China, called for development of Sangha education. (Note 2) Besides training within the monasteries, Buddhist colleges were established across China and dozen of monks were sent overseas to receive higher education, with a majority to Japan and Sri Lanka. In the following decades, we could see that the result was mixed. Amongst the educated monks, some stayed in the academia and continued to contribute to Buddhism in China through education, while a significant number of them disrobed and left the Sangha.

By the late 1980s, university education in China became firmly established and university students became an increasingly active group in society. University students became involved in various social and political activities, in a spirit akin to that of the earlier part of the century during the May Fourth Movement. For many of the students during this era, the goal of education is truly altruistic for the well-being of the country. Buddhism naturally came to the mind of some students despite the lingering aversion towards religious beliefs due to the Marxist-Leninist ideology. In 1991, the first “Chan (Zen) society” was formed in China at the Peking University with the goal of  “examining Chinese Chan (Buddhist meditation), promoting tradition, cultivating a spirit of humanism and enriching campus culture” (Note 3). There seemed to be nevertheless a deliberate effort both amongst the students and within the school authority to draw such student group away from traditional Buddhism and to position it within Chinese culture instead. As student groups had a sensitive history in China, they were under close scrutiny by the Party Representatives in school. The fact that such society as well as many other subsequently came into existence, demonstrated the fact that the Chinese authority was gradually liberalizing its religious policies.

Already in the 1990s, within the Chinese Sangha, there were a number of university graduates from top Chinese universities such as the Peking University and Tsinghua University.  Ven. Ming Hai (明海), a former philosophy graduate from the Peking University and now abbot of Bo Lin Chan Monastery in Hebei Province, organized since the 1990s annual summer camps targeted mostly toward university students (Note 4). Since then many such summer camps sprang up across the country with an accumulation of ten of thousands of participants. Within the universities, Buddhist activities carried on both formally and informally. At the Peking University, a lecture on Buddhism or a guided visit to Buddhist monasteries often drew over hundreds of students. University students in general have much greater exposure to Buddhist teachings.

Nevertheless, the more complete Buddhist exposure is available only outside university. As religious activities are discouraged on campus and in the public in general, those who are interested in Buddhism could only carry on their learning in temples or informally on campus through other means. In the following sections, I shall examine the various means through which university students encounter Buddhism.

Classes and public lecture

Classes on the history of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy are offered in most of the major universities across the country. Application from students wishing to specialize in Buddhist studies has been growing every year, most notably at the Peking University (Beijing), Renmin University (Beijing), Fudan University (Shanghai), Nanking University (Nanjing) and Zhongshan University (Guangzhou). The majority of such classes are run under the department of philosophy, though at times due to different emphasis, classes related to Buddhism are offered also in the department of Chinese language, history, foreign studies, foreign languages, archaeology. Some of these classes are available to only students who are majoring in them while some are general courses open to all students. At the Peking University, the general course “History of Buddhism in China” run by the Department of Philosophy is amongst one of the most popular general classes in the university, with enrolment often over 300 students.

Beside classes, public lectures by eminent Buddhist leaders as well as Buddhist scholars were organized by both the schools as well as various school societies. Amongst some of the notable examples is Taiwanese Buddhist leader Venerable Sheng Yan’s visit to Peking University and Tsinghua University in 2005 (Note 5); Master Hsing Yun’s public lecture at Zhongshan university, Guangzhou in 2006.


University society activities

Although religious activities are not permitted on campus or generally in public, school societies who have an interest in Buddhism and/or traditional Chinese culture usually have relationships with Buddhist organizations outside the university and therefore provide a platform for students to gain access to these different Buddhist organizations. The societies, moreover, inform students of Buddhist activities, such as various religious ceremonies (法會/法事) and the extremely popular summer camps which are usually free of charge.

Off-campus activities

As religious activities are permitted only within state-sanctioned places of worship, students often organize amongst themselves informally to participate in such activities. Within the city proper, Peking has no temples for Buddhist religious activities open to public. Most temples have either turned into tourist attractions or reserved for internal activities for the Sangha. Two major worship centers attracted a great number of university students are the Longquan Monastery (龍泉寺)situated at the outskirt of Beijing and Bailin Monastery (柏林寺) located at around 300km south of Beijing. The former belongs to the Pure Land tradition and the latter Chan (Zen). The two monasteries have had close relationship with the top two universities of the country: Tsinghua University and Peking University. Monks currently holding important positions at these temples are in fact former alumni of these universities, making the monasteries to have even greater appeal to the university students and the general public.

Study groups and the “Solitary Buddha”

A remarkable development of Buddhist learning amongst university students is the growing popularity of  the “Guanglun” (廣論) study groups. “Guanglun” (in full, Putidaocidiguanglun 菩提道次第廣論 or in Tibetan, Lamrim Chenmo – “The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment”) is a Tibetan treatise composed by Tibetan monk Tsong-Kha-Pa in the 14th century. It is an important work in Tibetan Buddhism describing the complete gamut of Buddhist teachings from the perspective of Mahayana Buddhism. Traditionally, this text carried little importance in Chinese Buddhism. After it was translated into modern Chinese by Ven. Fazun (法尊)in the 1930s, it grew steadily in importance.

Advocates of “Guanglun” believe the text to carry the ultimate truth in Buddhist teachings and its philosophy encompasses all forms of Buddhist practices regardless of tradition and background. As “Guanglun” is a highly demanding philosophical work targeted originally toward the monastic communities, “tutors” of lay background as well as monks began giving regular classes to university students. Some of these classes may run up to twice a week, demanding at least a total of six hours per week plus personal studies.

Due to the rigorous nature of the “Guanglun” study, it has been under severe criticism by some teachers and students. It has been commented that such studies drew the students’ attention away from their studies, putting in their mind a new set of values which are completely incompatible with a student’s normal life. While some “Guanglun” members asserted their learning instilled in them a sense of deep Buddhist faith as well as understanding into the subtleties of Buddhism, ex-members of the group complained that the morality and rigid soteriology of Guanglun philosophy created a great sense of guilt in their daily lives and made them feel disgusted with their studies, that is, a life other than that of a monk or a nun is nothing but of futile pursuit.

Equally remarkable but in stark contrast to the group study phenomenon, are the what I call “Solitary Buddhas” who prefer a completely solitary lifestyle. These are the students who have a voracious appetite for sutras and Buddhist books. They deliberately stayed away from Buddhist groups and organizations, hoping to gain enlightenment through their own intellectual effort. I have personally encountered a number of mostly science students who are of such character. They can elaborate endlessly on the theory of emptiness and dependent origination but not necessarily knowing the basic history of Buddhism and seemingly oblivious of the existence of various Buddhist traditions around our world. Such students tend to be highly opinionated when it comes to dealing with difference of opinions or adversities. The “Solitary Buddhas” amongst Chinese university students embraced Buddhism as if a means to evade all questions and difficulties in life, and hence liberation according to their own definition.

Synergy or Collision?

What I have done above is to give a broad picture of the interaction between the educated youth and Buddhism against a backdrop of rapid social changes in contemporary China. Without any doubt, university students as a unique segment of society have had made significant contribution to the development of Buddhism, and will likely to continue to do so. Given the importance of Buddhism in the context of the cultural history of China, the educated elites and the Buddhists often find themselves sharing common fate – that is, common aspirations and challenges as well. In the growingly pluralistic Chinese society, there are full of opportunities where the two may collaborate in constructing a truly harmonious society. As pressure and expectation put on Buddhism keeps on growing, it is our hope that the Chinese Buddhist Sangha would be able to response effectively to the various needs of the young and educated, and to help to ensure that those with good intention end up doing actually good deeds.

1. Such development in diplomatic affairs culminated in the “First World Buddhist Forum” organized by the Buddhist Association of China under aegis of the United Front Work Department (aka Strategic Affairs) of the Communist Party of China. Buddhist leaders around of the world, with the notable exception of Dalai Lama, were invited in a week-long extravaganza of Buddhist ceremonies and entertainment with a budget of alledgedly over RMB 200 million (TBC), to cultivate “comradeship and friendship”. Information on the Forum may be found on: The Chinese government officially recognized the importance of Buddhism as a “valuable social resource”. For more on the position of Chinese government on Buddhism, see 葉小文《從心開始的腳步》. 北京:宗教文化出版社, 2006.

2. 朱洪《趙朴初傳》。北京:人民出版社,2004。

3. 包勝勇:《風雨十年化燕園——北大禪學社簡記》,《北大禪學》第四期,二○○一年一二月。

4. 明海:《生活禪夏令營緣起》。《法音》 1993 年第 9 期。

5. 《臺灣法鼓山聖嚴法師赴北大發表專題演講》 中華佛教資訊網(2007年3月5日下載)。