Say your virtual prayers

By Zhang Yiwei Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-8 0:28:01

Staring at your computer screen, you click on the offering you want to make - will it be a bouquet of flowers, or a more expensive gold ingot? More importantly, which Buddha are you worshipping today?

After you have dispensed with the pleasantries, you can also note down your wishes or cherished scriptures, click submit, and in theory, Buddha will feel your sincerity.

Buddhism has gone online, with "virtual temples" now open for business. These "temples" are equipped with everything you would expect from a normal temple, including chanting, blessings, sacrifices and confessions, to name a few services, but aside from doubts over whether the click of a mouse is a genuine form of worship, there are concerns about whether they exist to make a profit, given the existence of donation buttons. Not to mention the fact that these temples present an ideal way to commit fraud.

Real worship?

A lay-Buddhist monk from Jiangsu Province, whose monastic name is Yihong, launched an online temple in 2006 in conjunction with a Buddhist website.

Yihong's site is split into various sections; each dedicated to a particular service, and on each section thousands of prayers have been left by Net users. Yihong told the Global Times that he launched the temple to help Buddhists maintain their faith, and that the Internet was the best way to do this.

"It's a way to remind people to practice their beliefs more often in their daily lives, as the Internet is easily accessible," Yihong said. "It can also help to build and strengthen one's faith."

However, Yihong does stress that the online temple can't replace real-world temples. "The real treasures of Buddhism are located in temples, not on the Internet," he said, noting that the key elements of the religion, namely Buddha, Buddhist sutras and monks, are in temples, and Buddhists need to show respect to them by visiting temples.

Despite Yihong's desire to reinforce worship in traditional temples, some Buddhists have simply replaced physical temples with an online version.

A 31-year-old Buddhist with the Web name Qingjing Suiyuan, who often prays online, said that he doesn't think praying online is connected with laziness. He said that people live fast-paced city lifestyles, and that the online prayers will be heard by Buddha as long as the prayers are sincere.

In contrast, another Buddhist, surnamed Liu, who has been studying Buddhism for more than ten years, said she believes that conducting rituals online will never replace visiting real temples. "Learning the knowledge of Buddhism through face-to-face communication with Buddhist masters is a totally different experience from just reading materials on the Web," she said. "Also, temples have had the role of enlightening people, as far back as ancient times," Liu said. "They are located in places distant from the secular world and try to purify visitors' minds and make them treasure the rituals. Praying at home just weakens people's respect for the solemnity of the act."

Dangerous legality

There is also the issue of whether these temples are breaking the law.

Qiu Baochang, president of the legal panel of the China Consumers' Association, told the Global Times that the website founders should not receive donations. He pointed out that even if they were using the money to print scripture, if they had not received approval from the authorities then what they are doing is illegal.

"Even if these online temples are just spreading the religion, they should receive approval from religious departments, otherwise it's breaking the law," Qiu said.

A 2005 regulation on religious affairs stipulates that religious activities must be conducted by organizations registered with local administrations of religious affairs.

Beyond whether or not these temples are properly registered, there is also the question of whether asking for donations constitutes fraud.

While Yihong said he didn't add a donation option to his website because he felt it was inappropriate, other websites do not have these compunctions.

Certain privately-owned online temples even advertise their temples as the most "efficacious," stressing the fact that wishes can be granted by merely clicking a mouse. When the Global Times contacted an online temple called the "Tongling Buddhist Website," the proprietor, who goes by the monastic name "Tongling," told the reporter that clicking a mouse would make dreams come true, but hung up when asked further questions.

Master Hengyu, from the Hebei Buddhism Association, told the Global Times that there are risks associated with these websites. "If real offerings are involved in online prayers, these people should be very careful as it's hard to identify where the money is going, given the fact these places were not set up by real temples."

Hengyu added that some form of sacrifice should be involved in prayer, but he said that  it didn't necessarily need to be financial. He said that this "sacrifice" could even be the effort in traveling to real temples, or taking the time to burn incense.

Fraud at these temples can also potentially come in other forms. The Global Times earlier reported that temples in different provinces have started selling animal "mercy release" services via Taobao, a popular e-commerce platform, but the report also mentioned that fake temples had been known to swindle Net users.

The owner of another online temple contacted by the Global Times, which receives donations to conduct mercy releases and print scripture, claimed that donations were used for these things, but when asked how she could prove it, she just reiterated that this was how it was used.

Qingjing Suiyuan said he felt that money should only be given to websites if they have been properly investigated, as fraud is often committed under the guise of Buddhism.

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