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2.7 The Chinese Buddhist Ritual Field: Common Public Rituals
in PRC Monasteries Today (2014)

For centuries the performance of rituals has been one of the most common, complex, remunerative, and controversial activities in Chinese Buddhism. This article lays out the contours of the contemporary Chinese Buddhist “ritual field,” focusing on rituals called “Dharma assemblies” (fahui法會) in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Based on a selection of announcements and ritual schedules posted in monasteries during 2009-2013, I show which rituals are performed and how they are marketed. I also show when and how frequently certain rituals linked to the annual cycle of festivals are performed, and analyze and suggest categorization schemas for the rituals. Finally, I discuss the relationships between ritual activities on the one hand and commercial activity, monastic revenue, and seminary studies on the other. Annotated translations of six announcements and ritual schedules, followed by transcriptions of the source Chinese texts for these translations, are included in the appendixes.


Reference:   2014. “The Chinese Buddhist Ritual Field: Common Public Rituals in PRC Monasteries Today.” Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies 27, 59-127.

Related Links:

  1. Download the full article.
  2. Recent ritual activities at Yongfu Monastery, Hangzhou, from which data in this article was taken.
  3. The website of Nanputuo Monastery, from which data in this article was taken.


Additional Notes

Among other issues, this article raises the question to what extent Buddhism depends on rituals, especially funerary/memorial rituals, for its revenue. It seems that revenue from ritual performance is that main source of income for monastic communities worldwide. Is this claim true, or are there exceptions in certain countries? One could analyze this issue from at least three perspectives: the sources of income for an individual monk or nun, the total revenue of a given monastery or sangha (i.e., analyzed as a “firm”: microeconomics), or the total revenue of the entire Buddhist “sector” (i.e., macroeconomics). Here are a few scraps of data and anecdotes pertinent to this issue:


  1. Ten years ago, from a very reliable source, I heard an account of a taxi driver, married with children, who was tired of working so hard to only make forty-some thousand New Taiwan dollars each month. After learning how much monks make from funerary rituals, he decided to shave his head, dress up as a monk, and work as a “monk” doing such rituals. He still had to work very long hours, but his income tripled.
  2. I also heard from the same source that the monk Zhenhua真華 (1922-2012), who had vowed never to perform funerary rituals for pay and whose autobiography has been translated into English (In Search of the Dharma, 1992), had fallen on hard times and was getting by economically by performing funerary rituals. But I have no additional confirmation on this point.


  1. I spoke with Mark Rowe, and expert on funerary ritual and Buddhist clergy in contemporary Japan, on 11 March 2014. In his intuitive estimate, probably 80% of the total revenue of Japanese Buddhist clerics comes from some form of ritual or service for funerals or commemoration of the dead.
  2. Chapter 7 in Stephen Covell’s Japanese Temple Buddhism (2005) also addresses this issue. According to one table in his book (p. 144), based on a source published in 2003, 76.3% of total Japanese temple income derived from funerals, memorial services, or temple graveyards.


Based on discussion with a former Buddhist monk in Thailand—whose name will be acknowledged if he wishes—and currently an instructor at a Buddhist university (discussion on 6 October 2013), I learned that an instructor at a Buddhist university could typically make 500 Thai Baht per hour of instruction. This is the same fee that a typical monk could make chanting in one funeral, for roughly one hour (clarify--how long exactly, on average?), but a senior monk could make 1000 Baht, and an abbot 2000 Baht. Or in some cases, there is just a set fee of 1000 Baht for all participants, regardless of rank. And they might chant for five funerals in one night. Unlike a professor, once the basic chants are memorized, they would not have to prepare for the funerals in the same way that a teacher would have to prepare for class (not to mention grading student papers and exams). In short, in this informant’s words: “an uneducated rural monastic who only knows a death-chant gets more money for chanting over dead bodies than what I make per month, as a professor of Buddhism.”


  • In my article, p. 83 and p. 91: I mention religious tourism as a major, and growing, source of income for monastics in China. Another piece discussing a transition from “pilgrimage” to “tourism” is John Clifford Holt’s “Buddha for Our Time” (2012, in Studying Buddhism in Practice, pp. 65-78). Holt claims that in 1979 there were still genuine pilgrimages in Sri Lanka, but by 1982 there had already occurred a transition to tourism rather than, or in addition to, pilgrimage. By 1982, pilgrimage sites were charging entrance fees, and that the religious culture shared the sites with another subculture that suggested “leering voyeurs rather than devout worshippers.” (Probably foreign scholars are more like devout voyeurs.) It’s interesting that in Sri Lanka, as in China, this change began around the early 1980s. In a possibly related change, in Thailand, the Department of Religious Affairs used to be under the Ministry of Education, but then was placed under the Ministry of Culture. I wonder if that move was also related to the desire to capitalize on cultural heritage for tourism promotion.


Suggested Changes

The following are changes I suggested, many for the sake of consistency with usage elsewhere in the article, that I didn’t get to make prior to typesetting.


Old text

Change to

p. 76, n. 22

fast of confinement [=retreat]

fasting [retreat of] confinement

p. 77

Sutra (at Guanghua

Scripture (at Guanghua

p. 79, n. 28

Similar to monasteries in  Taiwan

Similar to monasteries in Taiwan in shifting the dates of rituals to increase participation

p. 86, n. 37

Welch discusses the finances of Republican era monasteries and

Welch indicates that for most of the monks who lived in hereditary monasteries during the Republican era, who comprised some ninety-five percent of all the monks in China, performing rituals for the dead was the largest source of revenue (1967, 3-4, 207, 303). He also discusses other sources of monastic income and

p. 92, n. 45

Lotus Sutra

Lotus Scripture

p. 100, n. 68

Lotus Sūtra

Lotus Scripture

p. 106, n. 77

one day prior to the actual normative days

one day prior to the normative days

p. 106, n. 78

Lotus Sūtra

Lotus Scripture

p. 107

Flower Adornment Sūtra

Flower Adornment Scripture

p. 110, n. 92

(Delete the last sentence of this note and add these two sentences at the end of the note):

Biographies of the monks Zhuanfeng (1879-1952), Guangqia (1900-1994), and Huiquan (1874-1942) are available in Yu (2000). Numerous studies of the monk Taixu (1889-1947) are available, including that in Welch (1968, esp. pp. 51-71).

p. 122, first line

webpage for that penance

webpage for this penance



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