“Who is he?” my Nepalese guide asked me eagerly about the solemn statute of a monk at the front gate of the Chinese Temple of Nepal at Lumbini, the birthplace of Sakyamuni, founder of Buddhism.
“He is Master Xuanzang (602–664 AD), a great Chinese monk in the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), who traveled to India to study Buddhism,” I replied.
“And who is this?” he pointed to another statute at the gate.
“He is Master Benhuan (1907–2012), a Chinese Buddhist guru known for his compassion for the nation and the people,” I said.
“Great!” he exalted. “Could you please take a picture for me with each of them?” Gladly I did.
It was on a balmy July day, when I visited Lumbini for the first time in my life.
Our guide is a Brahmin, from a Hindu family, but he is now studying Buddhism for a master’s degree with a renowned Nepalese professor.
“Hinduism and Buddhism are different in many ways, but there’s no conflict in my mind,” he said merrily. It reminded me of many Confucian scholar-officials in ancient China, especially those in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), who found no difficulty in absorbing Taoist and Buddhist ideas, as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism shared beliefs in oneness between man and nature.
The peaceful co-existence of different schools of thoughts — for that matter, religions — remains a singular cultural phenomenon in today’s China.
As our guide ushered us into the Chinese temple of Nepal, I was amazed to see many Nepalese pilgrims praying piously in the main hall, while leaving their children — many were toddlers — playing in the courtyard. I looked around and saw a winding corridor, under which some Chinese monks either murmured mantras or discussed Buddhist teachings with local pilgrims and visitors from some other countries. One visitor, apparently aware of Buddhist respect for serenity, pressed a finger across his lips several times, in an earnest gesture to hush his friends who were unwittingly making a noise from a distance.
It was beyond my imagination that a Chinese temple in a foreign land could be so open and appealing to local people. I had been aided in my bias by some Chinese scholars on religion, who claimed that the Chinese Temple of Nepal was not very popular, as communication of Buddhism with locals was “difficult.”
“The Chinese Temple of Nepal is a crystallization of Sino-Nepalese friendship, and a window onto Chinese culture,” says Master Xuecheng, president of the Buddhist Association of China, in his book, “Dialogue Among Civilizations: Chinese Buddhism as a Cultural Nexus in One Belt One Road.” The People’s Publishing House published it in 2015.
The Chinese Temple of Nepal was constructed in the 1990s, as part of a global effort to erect Buddhist temples of different styles at Lumbini in memory of Sakyamuni. It was the first such temple China has ever built overseas, and it belongs to the Buddhist Association of China. Many other countries, including Sri Lanka, Thailand, Germany, France and Singapore, have also built gorgeous temples on the site sacred to Buddhists worldwide. My experience shows that the Chinese Temple of Nepal has perhaps the busiest daily flow of praying pilgrims.
“We should encourage Chinese Buddhism to go abroad and contribute to local wellbeing through poverty alleviation, charitable work, and cultural and educational services, and make Chinese culture, including Buddhism, better understood,” writes Master Xuecheng.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping explained in his speech at the headquarters of UNESCO in 2014, Chinese Buddhism, or Buddhism with Chinese characteristics, was built upon a fusion of Buddhism that originated in ancient India with Chinese Taoist and Confucian cultures. Master Xuecheng also cited President Xi as saying that Xuanzang’s trip to India reflected “the staunch spirit of Chinese people in learning foreign cultures.”
And it was not just Buddhism that China learned. “In more than 2,000 years, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity have all found their way into China, one after another,” said President Xi in his UNESCO speech. “Chinese music, painting and literature have also absorbed the better part of foreign civilizations.”
In the same vein, Master Xuecheng calls for dialogue among different civilizations. He writes: “Chinese Buddhism advocates communication and cross-learning among different faiths based on a rational spirit — through such non-violent means as interaction and dialogue”
He further observes: “Central Asian countries along One Belt are a crossroad in Eurasian communications and a meeting point of cultures from China, India, Europe and Arab, etc, hence historically a region where different religions and cultures co-existed… It’s proper to positively promote dialogue with central Asian countries on religions and cultures, and to build a high-level 21st century civilizational communication platform. This will help eradicate the roots of extremism of all kinds.”
“Building China’s cultural soft power does not mean an assault on, an erosion of or a threat to the values of other civilizations,” he points out. “Instead, we appreciate and respect what is different from us, while demonstrating our own civilization.”
On the character of Chinese civilization, he says “harmony” and “benevolence” are deeply rooted thoughts that help foster a spirit of accommodation and openness.
“China’s Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have co-existed and co-developed in harmony,” he says. “The world will be in peace if Chinese traditional culture could contribute to peaceful co-existence of many more cultures.”
American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington is known for having coined the concept of “clash of civilizations.” Master Xuecheng disagrees.
“The world needs to guard against the preaching of a clash of civilizations,” he warns. “Humankind should cultivate a basic belief that civilizations connect… They all teach us to be tolerant, loving, compassionate and ready to help….”
He says it’s absurd and harmful to play up conflicts between civilizations while neglecting their connectivity, and to blame conflicts arising from an unfair distribution of power, wealth and income, as well as big countries’ lack of respect for smaller ones, on differences of civilizations or religions. He cautions the reader against a part of Western culture that, though conducive to great material prosperity, breeds human centralism and individualism with its focus on dualism.
“Human centralism and individualism permeate the human society, causing various global crises,” he points out.
In contrast, he notes, oriental cultures — not just Chinese culture — rarely espouse dualism in examining the world and humankind.
“All problems can be solved in human minds,” he explains. “In other words, tensions between man and nature, between an individual and a society, and even between one and oneself, can be eased with transformation and transcendence of one’s mind.”
(See more in the related article today: “Broadcasting peace loving story overseas.”)