Monday, December 9, 2013

Dhammaloka: The Irish Buddhist monk who condemned Christianity

BBC, 6th Dec 2013

An Irishman, Laurence Carroll has a strong claim to be the first Westerner to become a Buddhist monk, and became famous in Burma in the early 20th Century for denouncing the spread of Christianity there.

Carroll was thought to have been born in 1856 in Booterstown, Dublin. He was to later become known as Dhammaloka, meaning 'light of the Dhamma' (Buddhist teaching) or 'word of the 'Dhamma'.

He left Ireland when he was a teenager and travelled to America. After a number of years travelling from place to place, he began working on the San Francisco/Yokohama mail shipping line, but after just three journeys was thrown off the ship in Japan, reportedly due to drunkenness.

From there he made a three-week journey by steamer to Rangoon in Burma where he got work as a tally man at a logging company. It was at this stage he had his first interaction with Buddhist monks.

"The monks had a lot of respect from people and I suspect that Dhammaloka might have been a drinker and they helped him to overcome his dependency on alcohol," explains professor Brian Bocking, head of the School of Asian Studies at the University College Cork.

"It's notable that in addition to atheism, the issue of temperance became a focus of Dhammaloka's preaching as well as his coded anti-colonialism. He became a temperance campaigner for the rest of his life."

The Irishman began to train as a Buddhist monk and was fully ordained before 1900.

His ordination therefore pre-dates that of Charles Henry Allan Bennett (Ananda Metteyya) who has traditionally been dubbed the 'first western Buddhist monk', as Bennett was ordained in the Theravada tradition in 1902.

But how did Carroll reconcile his atheist principles with a spiritual life?

Professor Brian Bocking explains: "He was an atheist but the Dalai Lama is an atheist.

"Buddhists don't believe in God, not in the Christian sense. They don't believe in a creator God that you could interact with.

"What they say is that suffering is caused by the mind - what you have to do is to distil the mind and extinguish any fires of craving and you do that by following a monastic life.

"In that way Buddhism was completely compatible with Dhammaloka's atheism."

Atheism within Buddhism is a principle that still remains intact and Dr Laurence Cox, author of Buddhism and Ireland: from the Celts to counter-culture and beyond, believes that with a rise in secularism people outside of Asia became more open to Buddhist practices. Church attendances in Ireland in the 1970s were measured at 91% but in 2008 that had dropped to just 36%.

"Most Irish people who convert might have had strong associations to Catholicism or Protestantism and were faced with a lot of dogma and they don't want to do the same thing with Buddhism," argues Dr Cox.

"Buddhism allows you to redefine a bit of what matters to you. You're not looking to your own family tradition - you can step outside what can sometimes be stifling conventions and look up and have encounters with a different kind of culture that might have had an effect on you."

Kelsang Chitta is currently the only ordained Buddhist nun in Northern Ireland within the Kadampa tradition.

Having grown up with a Christian background she developed an interest in Buddhism while studying philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin. She believes that people are now attracted to elements of the religion due to its unimposing nature.

"Since the summer, we've had the biggest numbers ever coming to our classes at the [Potala Kadampa Buddhist] centre," she says.

"You can practise the teachings in your daily life, developing compassion without calling yourself a Buddhist.

"Many people would practise in that way. Take the essence of the teachings and practise and that's fine within Buddhism. It's not really necessary to label yourself."

Mixing Buddhist practices with traditional Christian faith in Ireland nowadays is not something that would have gained support with Dhammaloka who had strong views both on Christianity and colonialism.

His outspoken opinion gained him followers but also made him a figure of some notoriety in Rangoon during the first decade of the 20th Century.

And, while his anti-colonial and Christian stance may have made him popular in Buddhist communities in South East Asia it also attracted the wrath of colonial authorities.

Dhammaloka faced minor charges of sedition twice. Once in 1902 and again in 1910.

In 1910 opponents reported him to the chief court of Rangoon after he publicly accused Christians of being immoral, violent and set on the destruction of Burmese tradition.

He was bound over by the judge for a year and his supporters paid the sizeable sum of approximately 1,000 rupees as a surety he would not re-offend.

"Dhammaloka was famous for two things," explains Professor Bocking.

"One, he was a Westerner but a Buddhist monk and secondly, he made speeches that were controversial denouncing Christian missionaries and European colonialism."

Professor Bocking also believes the most significant aspect of Dhammaloka's conversion was that his background was no barrier to Buddhism.

"I suppose the most important thing for us in learning about Dhammaloka is that he opens up a whole world of early Western Buddhists who were not respectable types but who came out of an imperial underclass that was interested in religion."

The manner in which people in the West are encouraged to practise the religion may have changed since Dhammaloka's time but the concept that Buddhism is open to everyone from all kinds of background still resonates today.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Bill Clinton Turns to Buddhism to Improve His Health

By Katherine Weber , Christian Post Reporter
August 7, 2012|2:36 pm

Washington D.C, USA -- Former U.S. president and environmental activist Bill Clinton, raised a Southern Baptist, has turned his spiritual focus to the religion of Buddhism for the sake of his health and "hectic life," according to reports.

"Ever since his heart scare, Bill has looked for ways to help him relax," a source told RadarOnline in an exclusive report.

"He has a hectic life, he travels a lot on business as an ambassador for the U.S. and needs something to keep him sane," the person presumably close to Clinton added. "Meditation offers him that, he has a mantra that he likes to chant and after every session he feels transformed and full of positive energy."

"It's definitely doing him the world of good – he feels fitter and stronger than ever," the source concluded.

According to the Times of India, Clinton has even hired a Buddhist monk to aid him in his spiritual studies.

Clinton reportedly has sought to improve himself both spiritually and physically after surviving a wave of health scares, relating mostly to his poor diet and weight, in the mid-2000s.

The former president also has become an advocate for veganism after he underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2004 to unblock four clogged arteries. He also received two stents, or mesh scaffolds, in a fifth artery in 2010 at the New York Presbyterian Hospital.

"I essentially concluded that I had played Russian roulette," Clinton told CNN's Sanjay Gupta regarding his previous poor health in an Aug. 2011 interview.
"I was lucky I did not die of a heart attack," the 42nd president added.
Clinton's current diet consists primarily of fresh fruit and vegetables, although he reportedly occasionally eats fish.

The former president, 65, currently travels the world speaking on the importance of international diplomacy and environmental responsibility through the Clinton Foundation, established with the stated mission to "strengthen the capacity of people throughout the world to meet the challenges of global interdependence."
Clinton was raised a Southern Baptist, and many critics claim that he ebbed and flowed in his religious beliefs throughout his terms as president.

"You know, Bill Clinton knew the language. Bill Clinton could talk like a Southern Baptist evangelist when he wanted to. But they hated what he was doing with it, because they were in fundamental disagreement with him about so many very important social issues," Richard Land, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has told PBS Frontline.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Sangharakshita is one of the founding fathers of Western Buddhism.

He was born Dennis Lingwood in South London, in 1925, and had a Church of England upbringing. But from an early age he developed an interest in the cultures and philosophies of the East. Aged 16, after reading the Diamond Sutra, he had a distinct realisation that he was a Buddhist. He became involved in London’s germinal Buddhist world in wartime Britain, and started to explore the Dharma through study and practice.

Then conscription in the Second World War took him to Sri Lanka as a signals operator, and after the war he stayed on in India. For two years he lived as a wandering mendicant, and later he was ordained as a Theravadin Buddhist monk and named Sangharakshita (‘protected by the spiritual community’). Sangharakshita lived for 14 years in the Himalayan town of Kalimpong, where he encountered venerable Tibetan Buddhist teachers — so he had the opportunity to study intensively under leading teachers from all major Buddhist traditions.

All the while he taught and wrote extensively. He is now the author of over 50 books. Most of these are expositions of the Buddhist tradition, but he has also published a large amount of poetry and four volumes of memoirs, as well as works on aspects of western culture and the arts from a Buddhist perspective. After 20 years in India, Sangharakshita returned to the UK to teach the Dharma. In 1967 he set up the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order — a new Buddhist movement for the modern West.

Sangharakshita has been a translator between East and West, between the traditional world and the modern, between timeless principles and relevant practices. His clear thinking, depth of experience and ecumenical approach have been appreciated around the world. He has always emphasised the decisive significance of commitment in the spiritual life, the value of spiritual friendship and community, the link between religion and the arts, and the need for a ‘new society’ that supports spiritual values. Sangharakshita played a key part in the revival of Buddhism in India, particularly through his work with the followers of Dr Ambedkar (formerly known as Untouchables). Around one third of the Order is in India, where the movement is called Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayak Gana, or TBMSG. Throughout his life Sangharakshita has been concerned with issues of social reform.

Now in his 80s, Sangharakshita has handed over his responsibilities for the FWBO to a group of senior members of the Order. From his base in Birmingham, he is now focusing on personal contact with disciples, and on his writing.

More biographical reading about Sangharakshita: on Sangharakshita’s website to see some of his personal poetry and prose; see Sangharakshita — Founder of the FWBO by Subhuti and Vessantara on his First Meeting with Sangharakshita. Elsewhere on this site for Sangharakshita’s memoirs.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Buddhism in UK prisons

by Vasana Chinvarakorn, The Bangkok Post, April 14, 2011

British monk takes Buddha's message of compassion to prison inmates 'gone astray'

Bangkok, Thailand -- It is one singular word of his master that he has been following for over three decades. In 1977 Khemadhammo, a Briton already ordained as a monk, followed Ajahn Chah on what he initially thought would be a two-month trip to revisit his homeland, Britain. One day sitting on a train, the disciple consulted his mentor about how to respond to a request inviting him to serve as a visiting Buddhist minister at three prisons there. "Pai", or "go", was what the late Ajahn Chah uttered.

"That was it. And I have been going to prisons ever since," said Khemadhammo, founder and spiritual director of Angulimala, a chaplaincy organisation that has introduced Buddhism to over a hundred prisons throughout the UK. For his dedicated service to prison inmates, in 2003 Queen Elizabeth II bestowed him with an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), and the following year His Majesty the King of Thailand granted him the ecclesiastical title of Chao Khun Bhavanaviteht, the second foreign-born monk to receive such an honour.

On his recent visit to Thailand the monk, now 66, was invited to be a keynote speaker at an annual talk organised by SEM (Spirit in Education Movement). It was part of the Thai NGO's month-long programme to improve public understanding of people who have supposedly "gone astray", during which the venerable monk got the opportunity to meet and share his experiences, in a closed-door meeting, with Thai people who work with prison inmates and juvenile delinquents.

Luang Por Khemadhammo began his talk with a brief summary of his background. Born into a middle-class Christian family, at 17 he took up professional acting and later became interested in Buddhism. At 27, he decided to travel to Asia, and ended up in Bangkok where he was ordained as a novice. One day, he chanced upon an old friend from London, who said to him: "If you want to be a real monk, there's only one place: Wat Nong Pah Pong". And off he went to Ubon Ratchathani province where he spent the next five and a half years under the tutelage of Ajahn Chah, one of the most famous meditation masters at that time

Then he returned to England. And from the first three prisons he visited, over time his coverage expanded and the venerable Khemadhammo found himself visiting other prisons, following the inmates as they were transferred to serve their terms elsewhere. During the talk in Bangkok he recalled being teased by some of them as having to serve a "very long sentence."

In the beginning the monk admitted to feeling uncertain in this new role: until then he had neither been to prison nor seen a prisoner. The closest he had ever come was, while still an actor, playing out a character who had been captured.

Then it dawned on him that ''actually, there were some parallels'' between inmates held in captivity and the seclusion of a forest monastery. While inmates are locked away in cells, during his years at Wat Nong Pah Pong the monk was confined to a small hut with no or very few distractions. Without some ability to deal with one's mind, noted the monk, such solitude could become very difficult and painful

Venerable Khemmadatto''There were differences but there were similarities. I too had been uncomfortable and it was my sense of unease that had led me to look beyond the then narrow confines that restricted me for answers. Yes, I realised, I did understand something about imprisonment,'' he conceded.

''And after all, quite apart from any comparisons between prison and monastic life, aren't we all imprisoned by our greed and aversion, by our ignorance, and our prejudices and attachments? It was my belief then, as it is now, that Buddhist techniques equip us with the means to escape that imprisonment and enjoy a secure and lasting peace.''

Thus he set out to teach inmates Buddhism. With more lay practitioners assisting him, on Magha Puja Day in 1985, he founded Angulimala, now recognised as ''the official representative of Buddhism in all matters concerning prison service in England and Wales'', and there is an Angulimala Scotland, too.

Khemadhammo disclosed that there are about 50 Buddhist chaplains in Britain who come from different schools of Buddhism. ''In Angulimala we work together very well'', a phenomenon which is note-worthy in itself, added the monk who also serves as a Buddhist Adviser to the Prison Services Multifaith Chaplaincy Council.

According to the organisation's website, every Buddhist chaplain is required to attend at least one workshop a year, but new recruits must attend two annually the first three years. They get to learn about Buddha's teachings and practices, with particular focus on how they might be applied or taught in prisons, listen to invited speakers involved in Britain's penal system, and share experiences of their past activities dealing with the inmates and their guardians

The venerable monk stressed that the best way to change people is by setting an example. ''When we want people to change, we have to be the institution of that change ourselves. I am very fussy about ensuring that Buddhist chaplains all do their best to practice and train themselves, especially to live by the five precepts of Buddhism - abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and consuming addictive substances.''

It may come as a surprise to hear him espouse the value of these precepts that many Buddhists have taken for granted. In particular he ventured how the fifth might be the most important: if you break it, you can break all the rest. A number of inmates he has met committed terrible crimes and had their lives altered tragically just because they used alcohol and drugs.

''I beg you all to take these five precepts seriously. They'll protect you and they'll protect others.''

Why do people commit crime anyway? Is it because of anger, greed, or destitution? He argued the punitive approach - based on the principle that if you hurt someone hard enough, then they won't commit wrong deeds (again) - has been proven it doesn't work. Often, people emerge from prison angry, having no home, money nor family and thus are ready to commit more crimes. Accepting that one cannot stop governments from pursuing their policies, through the Angulimala project, Venerable Khemadhammo and his team have sought to provide an alternative avenue for inmates to do something ''useful and constructive''. They learn how to meditate, to watch their mind and come to terms with themselves. Since the early '90s, thanks to an Angulimala initiative, a handful of prisons in England have allowed the setting up of a ''Buddha Grove'', an area open to prisoners from all denominations to do contemplative work in a quiet, peaceful ambience.

''When it is suggested that I was involved in some kind of Buddhist social action, I'd rather reject that term. I think I am just doing my duty as a Buddhist monk. I feel Buddhism is an amazing teaching and practice. I have had the good fortune to come to Thailand and practice with Luang Por Chah. He once said [to me] 'everything is your practice'.

''What I've been doing with people in the prison is the same as what I do anywhere. When we teach Buddhism, we are trying to offer people a way to end their suffering, a way to deal with kilesa [desire] that brings suffering.

''Of course, people in prison can't come to the temple, so we have to take the temple to them,'' he said.

Like the poignant tale of serial killer-turned-monk Angulimala (see sidebar), the venerable Khemadhammo believes that people can _ and will _ change if given an opportunity. Apparently, he never tires of retelling again and again how Buddha, through his compassion, was able to transform a supposedly evil man without resorting to force. Likewise, in his years of visiting prisoners, he said he has observed some of the so-called ''most notorious and dangerous people'' showing kindness to their fellow inmates, be it to share milk or sugar (which is akin to ''gold'' in such places), or to raise funds to help those family members who need to undergo surgery.

''I think it is very important that we let go of that tendency to make judgements and realise that people are very complex. None of us are just black and white; everyone here has some good things and not very good things. We do unpleasant things. We get angry, jealous, upset, we act on impulses.

''I hope you will learn not to attach to views or opinions, especially the views and opinions about other people. Give everyone a chance,'' he concluded.
For more details about the Angulimala Project and other works by the venerable Khemadhammo, visit his temple's website at

Monday, December 27, 2010

Springs woman sells business, possessions for Buddhist life

by MARK BARNA, THE GAZETTE, December 19, 2010

Gwyn Waterfield, her head shaved and wearing a white robe, walked slowly down an aisle at Shove Chapel on the Colorado College campus last week during her Buddhist Precept Ceremony.
Nine months ago, Waterfield was an Austin, Texas, business owner with 10 employees. She gave it up and most of her possessions to pursue becoming a Buddhist nun.
“I have some nervousness and fear about my new life,” Waterfield said, “but mostly I have an enormous amount of gratitude.”
The ceremony signified Waterfield becoming an Anagarika within Buddhism’s Thai Forest Tradition.
As an Anagarika, Waterfield will adhere to the Eight Buddhist Thai Forest Precepts: refraining from sexual activity, speaking falsely, ingesting mind-altering products, eating after noon, entertainment, beautification, adornment and oversleeping.
After one year, Waterfield will be a novitiate, which requires, in addition to the precepts, prohibition from preparing food and driving a car. Two years from now, she may be an ordained Buddhist monastic, though the process usually takes longer. 
Waterfield is the first to join the monastic arm of the nonprofit Awakening Truth, founded by Ajahn Thanasanti earlier this year in west Colorado Springs. Awakening Truth also offers Tava Sangha, a free meditation and talk from Thanasanti for lay people.
Monastics within the Thai Forest Tradition take a vow of poverty, making them dependent on donations for survival since they never charge for their talks and good works.
Donors pay the rent on Thanasanti’s small cottage and on an apartment, which doubles as Waterfield’s sleeping area and communal meditation site for lay people.
Everything Thanasanti and Waterfield eat has been given. One day it might be a McDonald’s meal, and on another it might be a chef salad from a family restaurant.
“You can’t show preference (for what you are given),” Waterfield, 40, said.
At the Precept Ceremony, Thanasanti said the purpose of the monastic life is “awakening.” Monks benefit society by revealing a path to a happiness deeper than anything the world can offer.
“We live in a world where self-discipline, restraint and self-renunciation are not popular,” Thanasanti, sitting cross-legged on a pillow, said. Monastics “open the door for people to question their choices. There is another choice.”
Raised on a ranch in Canadian, Texas, Waterfield got a double-shot of Christianity. Mom was a Roman Catholic and Dad a Methodist. Her teen and early-adult years were marked by drinking and drug use, she said.
Because of her wayward lifestyle, it took her a number of years to finish her math degree at St. Edward’s University, a Catholic college in Austin.
In 1998 she founded “Gwyndows,” a window-cleaning operation in Austin that quickly grew into a formidable residential and commercial business.
All the while she was exploring Buddhism. She practiced at Austin Buddhist centers and attended days-long retreats around the country.
“The world started to look different,” Waterfield said. “There is something transformative and powerful about sitting still.”
After attending a 10-day retreat in CaƱon City this year run by Thanasanti, she made a decision. “I knew I had to pursue this,” said Waterfield, who has never been married.
About 50 people attended the Precept Ceremony. Waterfield’s mother, Gail, and her brother, Bruce, traveled from Texas.
The ceremony took place at an altar adorned with flowers, candles, and the statues of Buddha and Kuan Yin, the embodiment of compassion within the faith.
“I was prouder of her than I’ve ever been,” Gail Waterfield, 70, said after the ceremony. “The peace I see that has come over her is something that a mother prays her child will have.”
To learn about Waterfield’s daily life as a monastic, go to Barna’s blog, The Pulpit, at
Awakening Truth
What: Tava Sangha, a Buddhist program for lay people
When: Wed. 6:15-7:15 p.m.,meditation only; Sat. 6:30-8:30 p.m., meditation and talk by Ajahn Thanasanti.
Where: 511 Columbia Road
Cost: Free

Read more:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Becoming a Buddhist in Guernsey

by Richard Moorman, BBC, Dec 20, 2010

Guernsey, UK -- Guernseyman Richard Moorman became a Buddhist in 1997 but said he had been "flirting with the idea" since 1971.

He explained that in that time he had researched the faith and had been practising elements of it before his official conversion.

He said the Guernsey Buddhist Group held meetings open to anyone from any branch of Buddhism or any faith.
Richard said: "We've had Zen and Tibetan Buddhists and people of other religions come to our meetings."

He explained: "They enjoy the chanting, the meditating and the things we do."

Even though meditation is a central part of Buddhist practice Richard said it had its origins in the pre-Buddhist religions of northern India and today was practised by many people both as a religious activity and in secular life.

He said: "Meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce stress levels - it's a very good thing to do irrespective of the religious sharpens powers of concentration."

Richard decided to make the step of taking on Buddhism in an official capacity following his step-daughter's move to the faith and, along with his wife, began practising a Japanese derivation of the religion.

He explained when they converted to Buddhism they took part in "taking refuge" which involves accepting "the Buddha as your teacher, the Dharma as his teaching and the Sangha as the community of Buddhists".

Richard said Buddhists have "a profound respect for all sincere religious practice".

Using the example of Christmas he said they respected Christians and their celebration of Jesus' birth.
Richard said as he lives in a Christian culture he still celebrated the event: "It's not a religious festival for me but its certainly a time to enjoy being with family."

He said the main teaching of Buddhism is: "We don't exist in isolation to everything else, we are one with everything and everything is one with us... once that becomes a profound insight, it produces great happiness."

Friday, December 3, 2010

Buddhism Enjoys A Revival In China

by Mitch Moxley, IPS News

BEIJING, Dec 1 (IPS) - Quan Zhenyuan discovered Buddhism by accident. After the owner of a vegetarian restaurant here in the Chinese capital gave her a book about the religion, she became hooked. Today, Quan is one of a growing number of urban Chinese who turn to Buddhism for spiritual fulfillment.

"I always used to believe Buddhism is a kind of superstition, but I changed my mind completely after reading the book" called ‘Recognising Buddhism’, says Quan, 32, an executive manager at a tourism agency in Beijing. She says Buddhism has taught her how to better solve problems and cooperate with employees and clients. "Buddhism gives me peace of mind."

China, an officially atheist country, is experiencing a Buddhism revival.

In the three decades since Premier Deng Xiaoping announced the ‘Reform and Opening Up’ policy, a spiritual void has opened among many Chinese, experts say. Stressed and overfocused on careers and material gain, many of its citizens have started to look for answers in religion, none more than Buddhism, which has a 2,000-year history in China.

A 2007 survey by the Research Centre for Religious Culture at East China Normal University found that of 4,500 people questioned across 31 provinces and autonomous regions, 33 percent claimed to believe in Buddhism.

Liu Zhongyu, the research team’s leader, told Phoenix News Media that "Buddhism is the major belief among intellectuals and young people" in China. He said that more than 300 million Chinese likely believe in Buddhism. Ten years earlier, the State Bureau of Religious Affairs pegged the number at 100 million.

Liu attributed the growing interest in Buddhism to social instability, pressures and anxiety caused by the rapidly developing market economy in China.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ ‘Blue Book on China’s Religions’ said Buddhism has experienced a "golden period" during China’s three decades of reform. During this period, nationwide organisational systems have been created, conducting summer camps and public education activities.

Research by the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in the United States, announced at the 7th Symposium of the Social Scientific Study of Religion in China in July, found that interest in Buddhism has exploded in the last three decades. About 185 million Chinese follow Buddhism today, the Centre found.

Around the first century AD, Buddhism began to spread from India to China via the Silk Road. Gaining the support of emperors and royalty, the religion’s teachings spread rapidly. Indian dignitaries were invited to teach Buddhist philosophy and many sutras were introduced in China.

Mao Zedong, who was famously hostile toward religion, did not ban Buddhism outright, but many temples and Buddhist organisations were soon overtaken by the state.

When China brutally suppressed Tibetan Buddhism in 1959, this was supported by the government-controlled Buddhist Association of China. During the Cultural Revolution, many Buddhist holy sites were ravaged, but following Mao’s death in 1976, the suppression of Buddhism and other religions eased somewhat.

Like many young urban Chinese, a man in his thirties who gave his nickname as Eddie has turned to Buddhism to find meaning in his life. Buddhism has helped him answer questions about mankind’s purpose and about what comes next, he says.

"It shows me a brand new world. It’s like a light to guide my life, it gives me hope. It makes me understand the power of now," says Eddie. "I think I’m on the right track in connecting with myself."

But Duan Yuming, a professor at Sichuan University’s Institute of Religious Studies, says that while interest in Buddhism is growing, very few Chinese can actually call themselves Buddhist. "They practice Buddhism just for peace of mind."

Still, even a cursory interest is a good thing, Duan tells IPS.

"Buddhism is a spiritual development leading to true happiness. Buddhist practices, such as meditation, are a means of transforming oneself and developing the qualities of awareness, kindness and wisdom….Chinese people today are always urgent to do things. They don’t even know how to relax. Meditation can help them find peace of mind," he says.

Over the past decades, Buddhist monuments have been erected and restored across China, and tourism to Buddhist and other religious sites has increased. In 2006, China organised the World Buddhist Forum, and the next year banned mining on Buddhist sacred mountains.

Part of the rising interest in Buddhism stems from a growing fascination with Tibet. Although the vast majority of Chinese view the Autonomous Region as an inalienable part of China, many urban Chinese think of Tibet as a romantic, rugged frontier. As a result, tourism to the capital, Lhasa, and beyond has exploded in recent years.

Duan says that the growing interest in Buddhism among the majority Han Chinese can help improve understanding of and relations with Tibet – something the exiled Dalai Lama, who fled China for India in 1959, has said himself.

He told his biographer, the author Pico Iyer: "If thirty years from now Tibet is six million Tibetans and ten million Chinese Buddhists, then maybe something will be O.K."