Over the past two decades, religion in China has boomed, and no faith has benefited more than Buddhism. The number of temples has tripled, monks and abbots have become well-known public figures, and China has used the faith to build ties around the world, sending out nuns and monks on good-will missions.
The person most closely associated with this revival is the Venerable Xuecheng, a charismatic monk who was fast-tracked for success. He became abbot of his first temple at 23 and head of the Communist Party-run Buddhist Association of China at 49.
His use of social media and emphasis on compassion attracted the sort of bright, white-collar professionals who once spurned traditional Chinese religions. Many rank him as the most important Chinese Buddhist reformer in a century.
But over the summer, all of these worldly successes vanished.
Accused of lewdness toward nuns and financial misconduct, Xuecheng, 52, has in recent weeks been stripped of his titles and banished to a small temple in his home province of Fujian. Government investigators now occupy the cleric’s main temple in Beijing, have purged his cadre of loyal monks and are scouring his books for financial wrongdoing.
That makes Xuecheng the most important national leader to be felled in China’s small but tenacious #MeToo movement, a rare case of a politically connected figure here falling to charges of sexual misconduct.
It has also prompted widespread discussion among Buddhists about whether their faith’s rapid growth has come at too steep a cost.
Many worry that Xuecheng’s model of a supercharged Buddhism that embraces social trends lacks the very spirituality that drew people to the faith in the first place. His downfall also presents a potential setback in the Chinese government’s efforts to push Buddhism as a kind of national religion that can win friends abroad and offer moral values at home.
“It’s impossible not to feel pained and sorrowful” at recent developments, two monks wrote in a 95-page report detailing accusations of sexual and financial misdeeds against Xuecheng. They asked the government to act quickly or “we dare not imagine where Xuecheng will lead this group of Buddhists!”
Until recently, Xuecheng’s rise had seemed unstoppable.
Born in 1966, he graduated from the nation’s top Buddhist academy in Beijing in 1988 with top grades and experience studying in Sri Lanka. Two years later, he was abbot of Guanghua Temple in his native Fujian Province. At the time, educated religious figures were rare, and the government’s national Buddhist leader, Zhao Puchu, defended appointing such a youthful abbot, comparing him to Communist guerrilla fighters who led troops into battle while still young.
Around this time, biographers say, Xuecheng made a vow. Buddhism was strong in China’s prosperous south but had no major, socially active monasteries in the north. He pledged to change that, and in 2004 got his chance, taking over a largely ruined temple in Beijing’s western suburbs called Longquan, or Dragon Spring, Temple.
Within a few years, Longquan Temple was one of the most active in China. Xuecheng tapped into a widespread desire among wealthy Chinese to give something back to society, taking over a charitable foundation and moving it into his temple, and reaching out to well-educated but spiritually adrift people in the university community in western Beijing.
Soon, Communist Party officials were visiting Longquan Temple to learn how to do charity work. Although the party’s 90 million members are supposed to be atheist, they lauded the temple for its Communist-style selfless sacrifice.
Bespectacled, handsome and with a winning smile, Xuecheng was a compelling figure, able to woo graduates from China’s top universities with his vision of an altruistic society that helped the poor and weak.
He said little about Buddhism itself — theology seemed a secondary concern in his speeches and writings — but he was savvy at anticipating government policy. He set up an animation department at the temple that developed videos aimed at combating online violence and pornography, adroitly launching the clips on the same day as a government campaign aimed at the same vices.
As a delegate to the annual session of a Communist Party advisory body in 2012, he gave an interview with The New York Times in which he questioned the ability of government-run cultural centers known as the Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese culture and China’s image to foreigners.
“The Confucius Institute only teaches Chinese language, which I think is far from being enough,” he said. “The influence of Confucius Institutes is limited.”
Instead, he said that China needed to promote Buddhism. Around this time, Longquan began opening branch temples and cultural centers in Los Angeles, Botswana, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Tanzania. This expansion came as Western critics began accusing the Confucius Institutes of being propaganda tools.
Sylvania Tragenani, who teaches contemporary Buddhism at Groningen University in the Netherlands, said Buddhism seemed to have been chosen over China’s other three legal religions — Islam, Christianity and Taoism — as the most appropriate to represent it abroad.
Islam and Christianity have too many ties to other countries, she said, while Taoism is an indigenous Chinese faith that foreigners often have difficulty understanding. Buddhism, by contrast, is familiar because of the popularity of Japanese versions, like Zen.
As with any official religious undertaking, the expansion abroad was approved by the government. President Xi Jinping, for example, singled out Buddhism as having been successfully integrated into Chinese cultures and traditions.
“Buddhism is the religious flag of China,” Professor Tragenani said. “It’s like Catholicism used to be for Italy, France and Spain.”
It was this program of sending clergy abroad that led to Xuecheng’s downfall. Most of those sent overseas were nuns. Like Xuecheng, they had taken a vow of chastity. But unlike other clergy members, who are banned by monastic rules from using cellphones, these nuns were given phones so they could communicate when overseas.
Then half a dozen were summoned to meet Xuecheng for instruction.
Xuecheng began sending them explicit messages, according to transcripts reprinted in the 95-page report, such as asking one if she would be willing to be caressed and have intercourse. When she said no, he said she had to “break through” this kind of thinking. He started a conversation with another nun, asking her, “Who do you belong to?” Her answer: “The Master,” meaning Xuecheng, an exchange that made clear the power relationship between the two.
Late last year, the nuns contacted two senior monks, who took up their cause. In their report, the monks also assert that donations to the temple were siphoned into Xuecheng’s personal bank account.
But — symptomatic of China’s top-down political system — the monks alleged that Xuecheng blocked their efforts to begin a formal investigation. In February, the monks forwarded their report to the government, and in August someone posted it on social media. Later that month, Xuecheng was stripped of his main titles and the authorities confirmed he had sent the messages.
Li Tingting, a prominent Chinese feminist activist now living in London, said the charges represent the spread of the Chinese #MeToo movement beyond relatively soft targets, like figures in academia, the news media and nongovernmental organizations, who in China generally have little political clout.
Unclear, though, is why the allegations against Xuecheng were made public. One reason may be that the monks were worried that the report was being swept under the carpet. (Efforts to reach the monks who wrote it were unsuccessful.)
But others say the report was intended to wake up the faithful to the dangers of Xuecheng’s embrace of social media and social elites.
A prominent scholar at Renmin University in Beijing who advises the government on religious policy said many people feel that temples are too commercial and just a way for people to make money. Asking for anonymity because of his work for the government, he said the authorities had begun cutting or eliminating entrance tickets and banning temples from engaging in business, adding: “Otherwise, it’s hard to argue that you’re offering an alternative to materialism.”
Many of Xuecheng’s followers think he has been given a raw deal and hope he will be back.
“Xuecheng did a lot of good things; he had great virtues,” said one, a 25-year-old who runs an inn for pilgrims near Longquan Temple and asked for anonymity for fear of government trouble. “You can’t deny him totally, even if he did it.”
By Ian Johnson