The Leshan Giant Buddha.

Buddhism should not be peripheral to the Chinese Dream, that great and multi-dimensional project of national rejuvenation. The religion should be front and center in informing it.

This is not simply my wild theocratic fantasy, but an idea actively encouraged by the Chinese government. It is also being propagated by Buddhist temples, media, and events (such as the World Buddhist Forum series, the most recent of which was held in Wuxi in 2015, and Hong Kong’s own Belt and Road symposium, which I hope is only the first of many more to follow). For Buddhism to exert satisfactory influence, the entire sangha (by this I mean the overall organism of Buddhist activity in China) needs to be engaged, from monastics to academics to householders; from influential monasteries to lay publishers to Buddhist Studies departments at universities.

Each generation of Chinese leaders must decide how they should govern such a gargantuan and diverse civilization-state. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, sometimes known as socialism with Chinese characteristics, steered the country in a new and incredible direction that has since propelled it to becoming the world’s second-largest economy. Today in the 21st Century, the interlocking concepts of the Belt and Road Initiative and the Chinese Dream go beyond mere economic development or politics in the sense that they aim to provide, overtly and subtly, indicators of the values or “inner constituents” that will create a prosperous and strong (fuqiang) China, which should interface with the rest of the world without imperialism or empire building, but rather through traditional Chinese thought.

President Xi Jinping has built bonds with the Chinese Buddhist community since 2005, and he has apparently incubated an inclination to cooperate with Buddhism ever since the 1980s, when he was a local bureaucrat in Zhengding. In 2013, anonymous sources in the Communist Party elite revealed that the influence of the traditional faiths in China would increase, but subtly. Buddhism’s growth, supported by both the grassroots and the government, is the “killer app” against moral numbness and cynicism.

China’s government is taking Buddhism more seriously than any other leadership generation. It must, because on numerous occasions it has already touted China’s ancient spiritual traditions as bringing higher purpose and philosophy to the era of the Chinese Dream and the Belt and Road Initiative. To not have Buddhism (and also Confucianism and Daoism) fundamentally shape the moral direction of progress and development is to effectively tolerate a yawning, gnawing hole at the heart of China’s road to the stars.

How can Chinese society find meaning and purpose when all is said and done and we realize that this universe is an illusion (maya)? Buddhist philosophy and morality will be critical to guiding the Chinese Dream into a sustainable vision for the long term because it is the antidote for what society perceives to be an existential vacuum vulnerable to selfishness, materialism, and greed.

Master Jingzong of Hongyuan Monastery once wrote that China’s intent to realize its economic and political destiny would pale compared to the urge among millions to accomplish their spiritual fortunes. He could not imagine the future of China without Buddhism. Millions of Chinese now seek their (karmic) affinity yinguo with Amitabha Buddha. This earnestness transcends sectarian boundaries as increasing numbers of students, officials, businessmen, and people of many other demographics see their happiness and existential fulfilment as no longer dependent on wealth, but rather the interdependent nature of cause and effect.

The prominence the government has given to Chinese Buddhist organizations across the country is to me evidence that there is no one individual or institution to bring about a new spiritual awakening in China. It will be a collective effort; those who want to see a Chinese renaissance will need to be a part of it. This, I think, is a reasonable request.