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Transforming the Self through Benefiting Others: Fo Guang Shan Humanistic Buddhism in the People's Republic of China



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Liu, Xinying 


This thesis presents an ethnographic study of Fo Guang Shan (FGS, Buddha’s Light Mountain, 佛光山), a Taiwan-based Han-Chinese Buddhist movement that is socially engaged and highly active on a global scale. The particular focus is the development of FGS in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It aims to answer the question: wherein lies the appeal of FGS Humanistic Buddhist teachings and practices in contemporary China? My overarching argument is that FGS Humanistic Buddhism (renjian fojiao, 人間佛教) – ingrained in bodhisattva-oriented ethical pedagogies that not only concern self-focussed cultivation, but also underscore the importance of caring for others in the broadest sense – encourages and enables mainland Chinese participants in ‘doing personhood’ (zuoren, 做人) during the current epoch of prevailing moral uncertainty.

Based on my twelve-month fieldwork across seven FGS branches, spanning from Beijing and Shanghai to other cities in Jiangsu province, this thesis takes two main aspects into account: the institutional development of FGS mainland branches and the experiences of mainland Chinese followers. It explores how FGS endeavours to ‘purify people’s hearts and minds’ (jinghua renxin, 淨化人心), pivoting on the guidance of its founder, Master Hsing Yun (星雲), in the highly distinctive religious ecology of the PRC. It also examines how adherents pursue self-transformation – whether they are successful or not – through ruminating over their own relations with the self and others.

Key discussion revolves around how participants with multifarious demographic features heighten their awareness of self-reflection and make ethical choices when confronting different value clusters: (1) kinship-based relational morality of ego-centred relations, (2) Communist ideology (or ideologies), (3) individualistic views that have emerged during China’s socio- economic transformation, and (4) a double concern for the well-being of the self and others entrenched in Humanistic Buddhism. Practitioners learn to perfect their personhood in both monastic and daily settings: following the Six Pāramitās (Six Perfections, liudu, 六度) via monastic training, creating positive karmic bonds (jieshanyuan, 結善緣) via Buddhist Giving, and cultivating the Bodhi Mind (putixin, 菩提心) via Buddhist volunteerism.

Indebted to many contributors in the anthropology of ethics and morality, this thesis participates in various discussions surrounding virtue ethics, ethical practice (self-cultivation and ethical pedagogies), and ethics in institutional life (moral economy and volunteerism). It also contributes to the anthropological study of religion (Buddhism) in China, as well as the study of Humanistic Buddhism. A four-pronged theoretical approach is developed in this thesis. First, moving beyond Euro-American philosophical traditions, Buddhist concepts have been deployed as analytical tools to enrich our understanding of the plurality of human ethical thought and practice. Second, examining Buddhism from the perspective of ethics broadens the analysis of religion in Chinese society. Third, reflecting Buddhist emphasis on both the ontological equality and the interdependence of persons, self–other relations are key to the FGS approach to self-transformation. Finally, my understanding of the ‘humanistic’ character of Buddhism as taught by FGS is predicated on the interplay between practitioners’ ethical and spiritual pursuits: people’s faith in Buddhism is spontaneously and gradually nurtured when their ethical aspirations for perfect personhood and a meaningful life converge with their spiritual pursuit to benefit the self and others.





Laidlaw, James


anthropology of ethics and morality, Buddhism in contemporary China, Fo Guang Shan, Humanistic Buddhism


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Trust International King's College Scholarship University Fieldwork Fund