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How Buddhist monasteries were brought back from destruction

In Beijing in 1900, as the chaos of the Boxer Uprising raged on, a Buddhist monk arrived at Dafo Monastery, seeking master Datong to make him an offer. The visitor was abbot of Cihui Monastery and wanted to offer Cihui Monastery to Datong. Datong agreed, and he arrived at his new monastery to find it dilapidated and overgrown with weeds. Undeterred, Datong worked day and night to clean up the space, engaged in fundraising both in the city and back in his native region in the northeast of China, and within about seven years he had completed a full reconstruction of the monastery, with new buildings, religious images, and a small monastic community. For his efforts, Datong was recorded for posterity as a “restorer of Buddha’s light.”

More than simply a story of a renovation project, accounts of monastery reconstruction in Chinese Buddhist history are religiously charged narratives that celebrate the renewal of religious life and the restoration of a lost frame for religious activity. As historical phenomena, they are embedded within histories of material culture, social networks of patronage, conflicts with local society, and national narratives of salvation and renewal. Rebuilding a single monastery often brought together elements from across the religious, social, and political realms. It was a deeply symbolic act both within the world of professional Buddhists as well as in the wider realm of Chinese society.

Between the end of the catastrophically destructive Taiping War (1850-1864) and the eve of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), thousands of Buddhist sacred sites were destroyed, sometimes accidentally, other times intentionally, but many of these were later rebuilt from the ground up. As they were reconstructed, the site that emerged from the ashes of the old was always at least slightly different from what had been there before, and in many cases, reconstruction was an opportunity to introduce change into what is otherwise a highly conservative institutional structure. New halls for new practices, new buildings for new endevours, and new symbolic roles in the Chinese nation, were some of the innovations added to the reconstructed sites.

Learning about the history of these reconstructions is thus a window into how Buddhism in China changed, both in response to pressures from without, but also thanks to innovation and dynamic leadership from within. The story of Buddhism in modern China cannot fully be understood without also understanding the story of how its centres of religious practice were resurrected from decay and destruction. The concerns and goals of monastery leaders in the 1890s, for example, were very different from those in the 1930s, and later those in the 1950s. Although they all operated within a religious framework that put great value into rebuilding these sacred structures and renewing Buddhist culture, the changing nature of the Chinese nation-state meant that patronage and regulations changed rapidly, as even monasteries were expected to play a productive and supportive role in the new nation.

Buddhist monasteries and other religious sites in China today continue to face exigent threats to their continued survival and vitality, with many historic sites having been rebuilt as static museums without any dynamic religious life within. They are also under increasing pressure to visibly and enthusiastically ally themselves to the party-state, and to redefine themselves as symbols of an imagined national identity that minimizes or excludes recognition of foreign influences and inspirations. Examining the history of how Buddhist monasteries were brought back from destruction and how reconstruction leaders such as Datong navigated a rapidly changing modern world, helps us to better understand the historical place of sacred sites in China, and to imagine how they might continue to play a leading role in both their local society as well as the nation as a whole.

Featured image via Internet Archive.

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