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China's prosperity inspires rising spirituality

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"Exceptions to the regulations are often made in regard to Buddhism," says Mr. Yang. "You can buy Buddhist scriptures at public bookstores, but the Christian Bible is not allowed to be sold. Of course, if you ask for it in sincerity, some bookstore manager might find a copy for you under a hidden cabinet."

Still, other religions are gaining followers as well. Yoga is attracting more practitioners, ironically because of its image as a fashionable Western trend. And Protestant Christianity is the fastest growing religion in China, according to Yang, who notes an increase of young converts in recent years. Academics estimate that there are 50 to 80 million Protestants in China. Often, Chinese will move back and forth between religions, according to their needs.

"The Chinese have traditionally been religious opportunists," said Gene Cooper, a professor in anthropology at the University of Southern California. "But if you've had success getting your prayers answered at the Daoist Temple, then that's the one you go back to."

Because of the leeway given to Buddhism, its revival has been more evident. This April, for example, the Buddhist Association of China, the official supervisory organ, will launch the first World Buddhist Forum to "find out how Buddhists can take action to make a peaceful world," says Yuan Ci.

"Unlike Christianity and Falun Gong, which authorities view as 'alien' and intrusive, the government has adopted a fairly loose reaction to the reemergence of local 'popular' religion, which is experiencing a renaissance," says Professor Cooper.

To reach his followers, Ming ignores the rules on home teaching. On Sundays, his students pack a Beijing apartment, sitting cross-legged on the floor to listen to lectures on Zen philosophy. "In Buddhism, there is destiny," says Fang Fang of how she became one of Ming Zhuang's students. "One day in 2004, I realized that I must find a teacher in Buddhism. So I prayed for it. Last year, I met my teacher."

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