Remaking Ancient Virtues for the Virtual World: A Case Study of the “Voice of Longquan”

Remaking Ancient Virtues for the Virtual World: A Case Study of the “Voice of Longquan”

Fan Zhang (School of Media and Communication, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJICST.2015010104
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Abstract

This article explores the use of communication technology for the dissemination of Buddhist narratives in post-Mao China. It presents a case study of how a thousand-year old Buddhist Longquan Monastery located in the outskirts of Beijing became an avant-garde of modern Buddhism in China with the help of communication technology. The analysis focuses on online rhetoric of Master Xuecheng, the abbot of Longquan and president of China's Buddhist Association, and new media strategies used by the proponents of modern Buddhism to form connections and to create new meaning. The author seeks to determine (a) whether new identities concerning citizenship and nationalism are forged; and (b) whether technology serves as a platform to popularize Buddhism online and offline. The argument is made that by constructing rhetoric that links technology with Buddhism and utilizing new media, the monks of Longquan strive to constitute the religious authority of modern Buddhism and its spiritual leader, Master Xuecheng.
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Introduction

During the past decades, the rise of globalization has triggered a ubiquitous utilization of communication technologies with revolutionary effects in every public and private domain. Consequently, the positioning of religious beliefs and rituals has been challenged by technological transformations. As a result, there is a growing transformational trend in contemporary Buddhist discourse worldwide: traditional Buddhist narratives become subject to change as some interpreters call for a “worldly-civic engagement” and link to divine concepts in a layman-friendly manner. These narratives use Buddhist traditional beliefs and practices to offer spiritual enlightenment and suggest strategies of sustainable solutions to the world’s social and environmental problems, creating new communication channels powered by technology to reach geographically, demographically and socially diverse audiences.

The turn of the millennium in China was marked by the revival of Buddhism as a belief system (Wang, 2013). After being relentlessly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, Buddhism took on a new life (Lu-Hai, 2015). Signifying this remarkable development, the ancient Beijing Longquan Monastery1 officially reopened on April 11, 2005 for religious practice. Today Buddhism, introduced to China by Indian missionaries two thousand years ago, is not only revived but also thriving (Ling, Liu, & Xie, 2005; Poceski, 2009). According to the Pew Research Center (2012), half of the world’s Buddhists live in China, comprising 18.2% of China’s overall population.

Technology has occupied a prominent place in the efforts to revive Buddhism in China. Launched in 2008, Longquan’s website, “Voice of Longquan” (www.longquanzs.org), was not the first Buddhist voice in Chinese cyberspace. However, it became the first to incorporate social interaction technologies such as microblogging and mobile text and voice messaging. The monastery’s website, with its rich multimedia content, is regularly updated. It features short videos and audio sutras in different languages and comics and animated versions of Buddhist teachings aiming to attract people from around the world, including young generations (Lu-Hai, 2015). Thus, “Keeping up with the times” has become a central theme for the development of Chinese Modern Buddhism and for Beijing Longquan Monastery, in particular.

Venerable Master Xuecheng, the abbot of Famen, Guanghua, Southern Shaolin, and Longquan monasteries, became the first Buddhist monk in China to start blogging on February 21, 2006. Since then, he has continued to connect with his followers worldwide via multiple digital platforms on a daily basis, and has earned a celebrity status as a prolific blogger (Modern Abbot Promotes Buddhism, 2012; Tang, 2012b; Xinhua, 2015b). His main blog hosted by China’s popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo is translated into several languages by volunteers and generates millions of page views.

In one interview, Xuecheng expressed his perspective on modern Buddhism: “Buddhism should keep up with the times and embrace modern technology to promote Buddha’s teachings in an innovative and recipient-friendly way” (Tang, 2012a, p. 41). At the same time, he urges his followers to stay connected with traditional cultural values: “In an era of globalization when humanity faces multiple challenges ranging from pollution to ecological imbalances and dwindling resources, Chinese Buddhists should take on the social obligation of reviving traditional culture and promoting a wholesome spiritual life” (New Tech Promotes an Old Religion, 2013). In 2015 in recognition of his efforts to engage Buddhism and its practitioners more deeply with contemporary issues, Xuecheng was elected president of the Buddhist Association of China (B.A.C.), which guides Chinese Buddhists (Xinhua, 2015a).

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