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The Cultural Gravity of a Neighborhood Temple: Lay Practice and Temple Buddhism in Contemporary Shanghai


This qualitative research focuses on one Buddhist temple in urban Shanghai from the ground up to better understand the contours of lay practice oriented toward and inspired by Buddhism in contemporary China. It helps fill an important gap in the scholarship on contemporary Chinese Buddhism which has tended toward top-down investigations of elite temples and practitioners, textual traditions, and state influence. A religious ecology framework emphasizing the relationships between elements is used to describe the temple community and contribute to conceptualizing a spectrum of lay Buddhist practice in China today.

The temple has two clear groups of practitioners; a core group of regularly participating lay Buddhists and a wider, more numerous, group whose practices are rooted in popular religious culture. Each has clear in-group similarity and practices based on a distinct religious foundation. However, participants of both groups share a place of worship, cultural heritage, and certain values. I outline a temple ecology built on interdependence and, at times, ambivalence between the groups. The temple promotes a generalized culture that allows for both groups to fulfill their aims and the community to thrive. Comprehensive analysis of participant practices also allows for conceptualizing the ecology of lay practice oriented toward Buddhism more broadly in a way that draws out the important connections between the lay Buddhist and popular practices found at the temple. A theoretically grounded defining feature of practicing lay Buddhism is proposed that can effectively account for the breadth and distinctiveness of temple practices and contribute to describing a spectrum of lay Buddhist practice in urban China today.

Finally, the findings about lay practice on the ground challenge the extent which efforts to modernize, contain, and control Buddhism have been successful in purifying Buddhism of its popular elements. At this local temple, instead, both groups are accepted and supported which is necessary for its survival and success. The temple is also an important venue for the spread of Buddhism and renewal of shared values in the community. These findings about the complexities of urban temple Buddhism in China should encourage additional reflection about the forces shaping Chinese Buddhism today.

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