I was fortunate enough to be able to spend the fall semester of my junior year studying at Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. As a student majoring in Mathematics and minoring in Computer Science and Statistics, studying Chinese history, culture, and language was completely new and foreign to me. In order to get the most out of my experience in China, I decided to take a closer look at one of the state’s most widely practiced religions: Buddhism. Instead of simplify learning about Buddhism in the classroom, I chose to study it in practice and travel to different temples in Suzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. I believe that there is much more to a religion than what is found in the textbook, and therefore I chose to travel to these places in order to get a better understanding of the religion in its place of practice and witness the environment that goes along with this lifestyle.
The first thing I learned from traveling to Xiyuan Temple (Suzhou) and Jing’an Temple (Shanghai) was that my initial assumptions about the traditional Buddhist monk were false. Upon further research I realized that a lot of what I understood about “traditional” Buddhism stems from Indian Buddhism, which went through a conceptual transformation as it spread east towards China then South throughout China. The degree to which Chinese Buddhism and Indian Buddhism agree and differ is a constant debate among scholars. Each scholar wishes to claim the degree to which Chinese Buddhism is “authentic” or whether the change in beliefs that occurred is positive or negative. From independent research and visiting many different temples in the North and South of China, I was able to observe how pre-existing Chinese culture morphed Indian Buddhism in order to fit into Chinese society. There was very clear evidence of cultural preservation, which could be seen through the adherence to traditional Confucian and Taoist principles such as filial piety and a type of universal salvation that allowed any and all social classes to achieve Buddhahood. Furthermore, the Ch’an and Pure Land schools of thought both depict fundamental differences between Indian and Chinese Buddhism, further supporting a divide between Chinese Buddhism and “traditional” Indian Buddhism. The conservation of Confucian ideals in the face of a very popular and foreign religion shows how much Confucianianism has shaped and ingrained itself into Chinese society since the early dynasties of Ancient China, but also reflects a curiosity towards foreign religion and practices seen in the latter parts of Ancient China.
Thanks to the Romeo-Gilbert Fund, I was able to better understand an integral part of Chinese life and society. By learning about Buddhism, I became conscious of how impactful a philosophy can be in day to day activities, and how societal pressure can morph new ideas to reflect pre-existing ones. This experience allowed me to become more culturally aware and pushed me strive to better understand those around me. Because of this opportunity, I feel better equipped to connect with fellow Laurentians, and hope to continue to learn about places other than my home, making me a more well-rounded individual and friend.