This article presents an overview of the nature of lay Buddhist revival in post-Mao China. After defining the category of lay practitioner, it outlines key events in the revival of lay Buddhism following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Following this, it describes three main aspects of the revival: the grassroots-organized formation of communities of lay Buddhists that gather at temples either to share and discuss the moral teachings of Buddhist-themed media or to engage in devotional activities; devotional and pedagogical activities organized for lay practitioners by monastic and lay leaders at temples and lay practitioners’ groves; and, more recently, the emergence of private spaces for specific practices such as meditation, the appreciation of Buddhist art and culture, and the discussion of teachings from specific Buddhist masters. The article concludes that while government-authorized temples continue to be active spaces for lay practitioners interested in Dharma instruction from monastics, regular devotional activities, and opportunities to earn merit and gain self-fulfillment through volunteerism, greater state restrictions on spontaneous lay-organized practices in temple space are increasingly leading lay practitioners to organize activities in private or semi-private spaces. The introduction of social media has facilitated the growth of Buddhist-related practices for laypersons in nontemple spaces.
The last few decades have seen the rise of grassroots groups of lay Buddhists in post-Mao China who, through the composition, exchange, and discussion of Buddhist-themed media, foster moral discourses that critique what they perceive as the materialistic direction of contemporary Chinese society. Disseminated at legal but unregulated spaces within Buddhist temples, these discourses empower the economically marginalized lay practitioners who gather there and provide them with new purpose in life. Practitioners are also able to transmit these moral discourses through networks to other temple spaces. However, they do not yet possess the means to use them to influence the social direction of Chinese society at large. This is due to (1) political restrictions against the circulation of religious-themed materials outside of approved religious activity sites; (2) economic obstacles faced by the practitioners who seek to spread anti-materialistic messages; (3) a lack of organizational cohesiveness among the practitioners; and (4) the influence on practitioners of doctrines within Buddhism that caution against proselytizing to those who do not already possess a pre-fated bond with the Buddha and his teachings. As a result, lay Buddhists do not as yet constitute a social movement in the way the term is conventionally used by sociologists.