The golden statue of Confucius sits serenely and benevolently at the Wen Miao Temple in Shanghai. Various gifts - fruits, sweets, and other offerings - are arranged neatly and respectfully by those who come to pay respects and to make requests. The requests, written on small red banners, flutter in the breeze in the courtyard like a massive migration of butterflies lifted by the clouds of incense. Most are prayers for success in studies and school: the Gaokao, China's notoriously challenging college entrance exam, had occurred just a few weeks prior to our visit in late June.
Despite the atheistic excesses of the Cultural Revolution that saw effigies destroyed and the temple of the City God turned into a shopping plaza, Shanghai, like many places in Southern China, still houses a wealth of traditional Daoist and Buddhist temples and temple complexes. In one, monks in saffron robes chanted and beat gongs at a funerary ritual where the family congregated around a large photo of the deceased. At another, Black Hat Daoist priests performed rites. Believers clasped incense, bowed, made prostrations, presented offerings, and prayed. A day trip from Shanghai to Suzhou, just half an hour on a fast train, led to Beisi Pagoda and temple, originally over 1500 years old, where pilgrims circumnavigated the cool interior clockwise three times, reciting prayers and sutras to accumulate merit.
Over the years, I have met so many people who insist that Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism are not religions. They insist the three are philosophies, as though philosophy and religion are somehow mutually exclusive. However, those who stood in the three sets of stone footsteps in Longhua Temple to present incense and devotions to the Buddha were praying, not philosophizing. The Jade Emperor, Dragon King, and array of celestial deities and Immortals enthroned in Daoist temples are objects of reverence. In these places, people bring their hopes, fears, and supplications. People bring their respect. Both laypeople and clergy - Buddhist nuns and monks, Daoist priests - perform rituals. These are not just historical artifacts and tourist destinations (in fact, an active Daoist temple and school near the remnant of Shanghai's old city wall, Dajing Ge, is anything but a tourist destination and not terribly easy to find); they are places of religion.
Nor are they exclusive. The person who presents supplications at the Confucian temple might also go to the Jade Buddha temple to pray. People who take the world religions class I teach are frequently confused and sometimes troubled in trying to wrap their heads around Chinese traditional religion. Shanghai houses synagogues, churches, cathedrals, and mosques, each of which fits the Western idea of "That person is X," X being a particular religion. Traditionally, though, in China a person might not be a religion in the way Westerners identify as being Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant or so on. Buddhism frequently had elements of Daoism, and vice versa. Cultural emphasis on reverence for ancestors and for hierarchy kept Confucius relevant and elevated his teaching to a form of religion through Neo-Confucianism. Exclusivity for laypeople was not important; they could pay homage to Buddha, revere Confucius and perform Daoist-inspired rituals simultaneously.
For me, being in the temples in Shanghai and other parts of southern China is only partly academic. Above all, when I am in the Buddhist temples, I am there because of faith.
Here in Southern Vermont, I attend Congregation Beth El, because the ideals of Reconstructionist Judaism are kin to those of Buddhism. As in traditional Chinese religion, I see no need to choose; my heart can love Judaism even as I see myself as a Buddhist. In China, I am just one more person from any walk of life and any belief who bows before the resplendent buddhas and boddhisattvas, not to philosophize, but to pray, to praise the Jewel in the lotus, and to reset myself on a path whose goal is the release from suffering for all beings.
Nancy Thompson, of Bennington, is an instructor of comparative religion at NVU-Johnson and Community College of Vermont, and is a member of the Bennington Interfaith Council. Her book Touching the Elephant: Values the World's Religions Share and How They Can Transform Us will be released in August 2019 from Zio Apollo Press.