Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
Thanks to the Romeo-Gilbert Intercultural Endowment Fund, in the fall of 2012, I had the opportunity to experience Buddhism as it is practiced in contemporary China. Having taken a course on Chinese religious practices at St. Lawrence University in the Fall of my sophomore year, I thought it appropriate to experience first hand Buddhist religious practice while I spent time abroad in Shanghai, China. My goal was to visit as many Buddhist grounds as possible. In order to accomplish my goals, I began researching Buddhist temples, monuments and museums prior to arriving in China.
Knowing little about how Chinese people view religion in their society, I relied on my host family for a more elaborate description of how Buddhism is used in Chinese society as a mode for traditional practice and daily ritual. Fortunately for me, my host grandmother whom I lived with for four months was a practicing Buddhist. Unlike in my Chinese religion class back at St. Lawrence, I was not learning through written texts or lecture but through ritual practice. Every morning at breakfast, I would watch as my host grandmother prayed to her Buddha.
Prayer music would fill the kitchen as my host grandmother bowed up and down repeating ritual prayers. Incense was lit and food items such as oranges were given as sacrifices. When I began visiting different Buddhist temples locally in Shanghai, I found that similar food sacrifices would be given and similar prayer music would be playing over the speakers. Although I was not Buddhist, I found that recognizing the sacrificial items and recognizing the prayer music made me feel more comfortable and gave me a sense of belonging at the sacred grounds of the Buddhist temples.
Over the course of the semester I was able to visit these notable temples: Jade Buddha Temple (Shanghai), Jing' an Temple (Shanghai), Lingshan Grand Buddha (Wuxi), Lingyin Temple (Hangzhou), Harbin Temple of Bliss (Harbin) and Temple of Heaven (Beijing). Besides temples, I was able to visit museums such as the Shanghai Museum, which had an entire exhibit dedicated to the construction of Buddha statues. The most notable Buddhist temple I had the chance to visit was the Lingshan Grande Buddha (Wuxi), which remains the eighth largest Buddha in the world. On site is the 88 meter bronze Buddha and two large Buddhist temples. It took about two and a half hours to explore the entire area.
Whether the temple was as far south as Shanghai or as far north as Harbin, Buddhist temples were places of escape from the hustle bustle of ordinary life. Regardless of age or ethnicity, I would find groups of Chinese people praying to Buddha. Whether the Buddha was made of bronze or jade or wood, followers were present lighting incense, bowing to Buddha and making either a financial sacrifice or food sacrifice. It did not matter whether you were wearing a business suit or tattered clothes, everyone was welcome to stop and make time for Buddha.