Very few lay people were exclusively Buddhist- that is, felt a commitment to Buddhism over against China's other religions" (Welch 1976, p.164).
Moreover, Buddhism in China was largely an individual affair. The monastaries were not held together any type of hierarchy. "In China the largest unit was the monastery and the highest office was the abbotship. This meant that there was no mechanism for maintaining standards" (Welch 1976, p.175). As a result, there was a tremendous amount of variation in how people practiced Buddhism and the standards found in temples and monasteries. "Generally speaking, the small hereditary temples were unable to maintain as high standards as the large, rich public monasteries. Yet the latter too periodically fell into decay because of the malfunction of the merit system of electing abbots" (Welch 1976, p. 165). This contributed to a cyclical pattern of decay and renewal, particularly in famous monasteries, with monks intervening and bringing outside support into failing monasteries.
Moreover, Buddhist monks were not responsible for preaching to the laity, even before religion became prohibited in China. "Monks were not expected to be moral leaders or to preach the doctrine to the populace. The only preached to other monks or to the small number of committed lay Buddhists" (Welch 1976, p.166). However, these monks were expected to do some things for the people in the community. "What the populace did expect was the performance of rites to assist the dead and to avert natural disaster. This required knowledge of liturgy and a store of transferable merit that had been accumulated by devotions, meditation, and abstinence from meat and sex" (Welch 1976, p.166). This provided a way for monks to obtain support from the community and for the community to get the experience of a monk, without having to engage in the stern lifestyle expected of monks (Welch 1976, p.166).
It is also important to recognize the cultural role that monasteries played in China. They were not simply places of religious worship, although they were places for worship. "They also served as amusement parks (near cities), hostels (in remote areas), and sanatoria (for city dwellers in need of rest" (Welch 1976, p.166). This use of monasteries for secular purposes set a precedent for a takeover of those monasteries. As European powers and Japan threatened China, China wanted to establish a new school system. However, the government did not have sufficient funds to pay for the buildings necessary for those schools. "Since the government lacked funds, it authorized local officials to use monastery buildings for classrooms and monastery farm lands to defray teachers' salaries" (Welch 1976, p.167). However, Buddhists came together to protect themselves against this government encroachment.
Despite efforts to keep the government from using Buddhism as a means of propaganda, there has been some overlap between Buddhist practices and governmental interests. Prior to the Communist Revolution in China, Buddhism was actually considered an important element of international relations for China. While this is no longer true, there has been an effort to bend some of the elements of traditional practice to align with communist ideals. These efforts have not been met with the expected resistance. "After all, doctrinal unity and consistent doctrinal reform have never been matters of the first moment to the Buddhist priesthood" (Watson 1974, p.331). However, the overlap between the government and religion has not resulted in a further spread of Buddhism in China. On the contrary, "the vast majority of people, especially among the Han Chinese, have not taken the Triple Refuge and know little, if anything, of Buddhist teachings" (Chandler 2006, p.171).
The modern era is resulting in some changes in the worldwide practice of Buddhism. In many instances, these changes impact people from all schools of Buddhism. This is referred to as socially engaged Buddhism. Socially engaged Buddhism became prominent under the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King (Prebish & Keown 2006, p.208). This began in Vietnam and reflected ideals that, at that time, were very Vietnamese. Those ideals were: 1) awareness in daily life, 2) social service, and 3) social activism" (Prebish & Keown 2006, p.209). These ideals could be used for political and civil rights issues, but they could also be applied in people's personal lives.
What is interesting is how the two countries selected have incorporated are linked to this socially engaged Buddhism. Both China and Sri Lanka have been the subject of human rights questions in recent time, both as perpetrators. "The Chinese invasion of Tibet, the bitter ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, and the experience of dictatorship in countries such as Burma have all provided Buddhism with first-hand experience of human rights violations" (Prebish & Keown 2006, p.217). This brings the idea of social justice to the forefront of what it is to be Buddhist in today's world, regardless of location and regardless of the branch of Buddhism practiced. While traditional Buddhist texts have generally concentrated on duties rather than rights, the idea of basic human rights is certainly not incompatible with Buddhism. How this changing world emphasis on the idea of inalienable human rights will impact the practice of Buddhism around the world, especially in these two already-diverse countries, will be revealed by time.
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