Economies of Merit at play in Qinghai

Posted by on Mar 17, 2011 in Otherhood | No Comments

Last year, the Taer Monastery reported ticket sales revenues of 36 million yuan (US$5.48 million). The money was used to pay every monk about 10,000 yuan in living allowances and to maintain the monastery buildings.

In 2010, the per capita net income of farmers and herdsmen in Qinghai was 3,863 yuan, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Besides allowances, the monks can earn extra income by chanting prayers for families of Tibetan Buddhist believers.

Link to Shanghai Daily

When I visited Chinese and Tibetan monasteries in 2003, it was clear that technology had hit, and that tourism was big business. I don’t fault these monks at all for owning cellphones or surfing the Internet. Or for earning roughly 1,500 US dollars a year, for that matter. Good on ’em.

But it will be interesting to see how it shifts their relationship to the secular world. What do those herdsmen think?

There are patterns of economic growth and reform in so many traditions, from wealth to poverty and back again. The cause of this cycle–that vows of renunciation of wealth are be viewed as meritorious, and thereby become a source of profit–seems unsustainable.

Can monasteries justify continuing to operate in the black market of merit, pretending to dwell outside of the ecosystem of the “worldly”?

Rather than make claims to renunciation, maybe it would be better to pursue another merit strategy, or a source of revenue that doesn’t involve merit. Or maybe that just gets us back to the blind pursuit of profit–without values–that many monastics are trying to avoid in the first place.


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