From Comrades to Bodhisattvas: Moral Dimensions of Lay Buddhist Practices in Contemporary China
280pp. September 2014
From Comrades to Bodhisattvas: Moral Dimensions of Lay Buddhist Practice in Contemporary China
Author: Fisher, Gareth;
From Comrades to Bodhisattvas is the first book-length study of Han Chinese Buddhism in post-Mao China. Using an ethnographic approach supported by over a decade of field research, it provides an intimate portrait of lay Buddhist practitioners in Beijing who have recently embraced a religion that they were once socialized to see as harmful superstition. The book focuses on the lively discourses and debates that take place among these new practitioners in an unused courtyard of a Beijing temple. In this non-monastic space, which shrinks each year as the temple authorities expand their commercial activities, laypersons gather to distribute and exchange Buddhist-themed media, listen to the fiery sermons of charismatic preachers, and seek solutions to personal moral crises. Applying recent theories in the anthropology of morality and ethics, Gareth Fisher argues that the practitioners are attracted to the courtyard as a place where they can find ethical resources to re-make both themselves and others in a rapidly changing nation that they believe lacks a coherent moral direction. Spurred on by the lessons of the preachers and the stories in the media they share, these courtyard practitioners inventively combine moral elements from China’s recent Maoist past with Buddhist teachings on the workings of karma and the importance of universal compassion. Their aim is to articulate a moral antidote to what they see as blind obsession with consumption and wealth accumulation among twenty-first century Chinese. Often socially marginalized and sidelined from meaningful roles in China’s new economy, these former communist comrades look to their new moral roles along a bodhisattva path to rebuild their self-worth.

Each chapter focuses on a central trope in the courtyard practitioners’ projects to form new moral identities. The Chinese government’s restrictions on the spread of religious teachings in urban areas curtail these practitioners' ability to insert their moral visions into an emerging public sphere. Nevertheless, they succeed, at least partially, Fisher argues, in creating their own discursive space characterized by a morality of concern for fellow humans and animals and a recognition of the organizational abilities and pedagogical talents of its members that are unacknowledged in society at large. Moreover, as the later chapters of the book discuss, by writing, copying, and distributing Buddhist-themed materials, the practitioners participate in creating a religious network of fellow-Buddhists across the country, thereby forming a counter-cultural community within contemporary urban China.

Highly readable and full of engaging descriptions of the real lives of practicing lay Buddhists in contemporary China, From Comrades to Bodhisattvas will interest specialists in Chinese Buddhism, anthropologists of contemporary Asia, and all scholars interested in the relationship between religion and cultural change.

13 illustrations
Topics in Contemporary Buddhism Series
"While there have been book-length studies of popular religion, Taoism, and Christianity in contemporaryChina, this is the first book-length study of Han Buddhism in post-Mao China. . . . The book is written in clear, engaging, and accessible prose and is an essential reading for scholars of contemporary religion in East Asia and anthropologists of Buddhism. It will also interest scholars of Buddhism and Chinese religion." –Religious Studies Review

"In recent years, a number of books about Buddhism in contemporary China and Taiwan have been published.This book is a welcome addition. . . . This book makes an important contribution to the study of contemporary Buddhism in China. Although lay Buddhist groups have existed in history, several features stand out about the one that is the focus of this book." –H-Buddhism

“Many western scholars of Chinese Buddhism have visited temples, passing through a bustling, chaotic outer courtyard on the way to the interior for tours and meetings with abbots. Professor Fisher lingered in this courtyard and found there a liminal space between the state-controlled public sidewalk and the monastic-controlled inner halls. Within this frontier are lay preachers, discussion groups, free literature, and a shifting population of people displaced by the changing economics of the post-Mao era and suffering from ‘moral breakdown.’ The outer courtyard becomes the place where they negotiate a new framework for their lives through discussion, the building of a do-it-yourself Buddhism, and nostalgia for the days of Mao. It was a delight to accompany Professor Fisher and get to know these enterprising, very human, and not-always-orthodox Buddhists.” —Charles B. Jones, The Catholic University of America

From Comrades to Bodhisattvas reveals for the first time an important and rapidly developing aspect of Chinese religiosity—the rise of lay Buddhism, which takes place in the cracks of China’s strict system of religious control. Nothing in the current literature on Buddhism or on religion in China is comparable to Fisher’s important contribution. His fascinating findings include, for example, showing how a ‘karmic’ morality offers an alternative for people unhappy with the more utilitarian morality of connection-building that characterizes much of life in Beijing. Other sections show counter-intuitively how a nostalgia for some of the ideals of the Maoist period—a sense of community, a commitment to a kind of egalitarian fairness for all, a broadly shared sense of thrift and poverty—can combine with Buddhist ideals to create a critique of the current system.” —Robert P. Weller, Boston University
Author: Fisher, Gareth;
Gareth Fisher is assistant professor of religion and anthropology at Syracuse University.