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“WeChat Together about Buddha: The Construction of Sacred Space and Religious Community in Shanghai through Social Media”

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“WeChat Together about Buddha: The Construction of Sacred Space and Religious Community in Shanghai through Social Media”
   6 WeChat Together about the Buddha The Construction of Sacred Space and Religious Community in Shanghai through Social Media Weishan Huang Introduction Spaces can be physical, mental and social, so it is important to ask what kinds of space are occupied and employed by religions when they or their members use (and express themselves through) the media in their practices. Urban spaces and the practice of religion are highly transnational, and many of their related processes are conceptualized as parts or consequences of the phenomenon of globalization, especially as they are linked to international migration. In this chapter, I am interested in looking at the way in which the Tzu Chi organization and its members use social media to construct a sacred virtual space that connects them globally. This chapter starts with a discussion of the concepts of ‘digital religion,’ ‘online religion,’ and ‘third space’ in the subfield of religion and media. Second, I will address my research methods and give a brief introduction to the Tzu Chi Foundation and the development of WeChat in China. Third, Heidi Campbell’s five concepts of online religion—facilitating a networked community, storied identities, shifting authority, convergent practice and a multi-sites reality—will be used to examine the relationship between reli-gious groups and social media. I will conclude by looking at how Tzu Chi creates a sacred community in cyberspace and how it circulates their online images through its global network. 1   Digital Religion or Online Religion In the 1990s, scholars started working on the notions of cyber-religion, online religion and digital religion. Cyber-religion was used to emphasize the emergence of a new kind of community and what Michel Bauwens called the “cyber-sacred.” His definition was more focused on the relation-ship between technological and spiritual development. Dawson adapted the term to identify the religious organizations that exist only in “cyberspace” (Bauwens and Rossi 1999, 29). Brasher used the term, cyber-religion to 15032-0180d-1pass-r02.indd 11017-09-2016 14:49:46  WeChat Together about the Buddha  111identify the presence of both religious organization and religious activities in cyberspace, which was a much more extensive concept. Online religion and religion online were other conceptual frameworks developed by Helland (2000) to refer to the differentiated religious uses of the Internet. Online religion consisted of religious websites where people could act with unre-stricted freedom and a high level of interactivity. It represented how the fluid and flexible nature of the Internet also allowed new forms of religiosity and interactive religious practice online. The term “religion online,” which often referred to religious websites, suggested that such media provide only reli-gious information without the limits of time and space but little interaction; however, at the same time, it could empower members to bypass traditional systems of legitimated gatekeepers (Helland 2005, 1) 2  . The authors of Finding Religion in the Media  (Hoover and Echchaibi 2012) focused on the various relationships between digital media and religi-osity in a technological society. In his article, “The Third Space of Digital Religion,” Stewart Hoover suggested that new media has moved on from simply exploring the “digitalization of religion” to a deeper level examining how religion is actually constituted through digital media. He urged that scholarship move forward to study how religious tradition, authority and authenticity is changed through the process of digitalization. In Digital Religion  , Heidi Campbell adapted the term, ‘digital religion’ in the book because the term describes the technological and cultural space that is evoked when the authors study how online and offline religious spheres have become blended or integrated. In the introduction, Campbell argues that digital religion is a bridge connecting and extending online religious practices and spaces into offline religious contexts. They follow a frame-work that argued that when lived religious practices and digital culture meet a “third space” emerges, a hybridized and fluid context requiring new logics and evoking unique forms of meaning making. Digital religions as a concept acknowledges not only how the unique character of digital technology and culture shapes religious practices and beliefs, but also how religions seek to cre-ate new media contexts with established ways of being and convictions about the nature of reality and larger worlds. (Campbell 2012a, 4; Hoover and Echchaibi 2012, 7) 3  . Ray Oldenburg’s students used the notion ‘third place’ to refer to places between home and work, such as a corner bar, café or bookstore, where people hang out. The Pew Internet and American Life Project states, People’s use of Internet to participate in organization is not necessarily evidence of a revival of civic engagement, but it has clearly stimulated new associational activity. And, because they have been both physical and virtual, these groups’ interactions are richer than those found in 15032-0180d-1pass-r02.indd 11117-09-2016 14:49:46   When  112  Weishan Huang  “tertiary associations.” This type of activity might be likened to what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls the “third place”—the corner bar, café, or bookstore where people hang out to talk about things that are going on in their lives and neighborhoods. (Horrigan 2001) 4  The paper provides a normative account of such places for generating civic engagement and for the sensibilities that would motivate civic engage-ment. And most of time, this ‘third place’ refers to a physical place. Hoover used the term ‘third space’ to suggest some other in-between-ness beyond the social spheres of home and work. With Oldenburg, the authors also share the notion of ‘third-ness’ (Oldenburg 1989). They share the similar view that this digital world is nurturing different forms of community bonds beyond the private (home) and public (workplace). In their framework on the study of religion, they also try to push the category beyond institutions (churches, mosques, denominations, faith organizations) as the ‘first space’ and individual practices as the ‘second space. Hoover suggests, As we are thinking about processes of technological mediation, we might also mean that the digital enables individual and solipsistic artic-ulation and action. Other “first” and second spaces that are implied by digital practices we study include: “commodities” and authenticity;” embodiment” and “virtuality;” “tradition” and “secularism;” “author-ity” and “autonomy;” “knowledge” and “practice/performance;” “individual” and “community;” “static” and “generative” spaces in cultural production. There are many dimensions on which the digital can be located as a unique space between and beyond received polari-ties. This “in-between-ness” is, to our way of thinking, basic to the meaning of “third-ness.” (Hoover and Echchaibi 2012, 9) In my research, my use of the terms space or sacred space relates to Hoo-ver’s definition. Hoover tends to focus on digital culture and its capacity to constitute such a third space, not on its putative capacity to support a politi-cal notion of a third place in social life. The authors also tend to focus more on a conceptual space. Hoover argues that ‘digital third space’ can func-tion as if they are their own bounded geographies and discourses with their own rules of access, participation and relative ‘publicness.’ It is a cultural public sphere as much as a political one (Hoover and Echchaibi 2012, 9). My chapter also adapts Heidi Campbell’s concept of online religion and its related five key traits: facilitating a networked community, storied identities, shifting authority, convergent practice and a multi-sites reality. She argues, The network image helps us examine the complex interplay and nego-tiations occurring between the individual and community, new and old 15032-0180d-1pass-r02.indd 11217-09-2016 14:49:46  WeChat Together about the Buddha  113sources of author, and public and private identities in a networked soci-ety. The concept of networked religion highlights cultural and social shifts occurring both online and offline. However, what Campbell describes is the development of religion in the Internet age. In the concluding section, I want to propose a concept of how the new media has encouraged new practices of religion based around the concept of being ‘never offline.’ Tzu Chi Foundation: Transnational Buddhism Tzu Chi Foundation The Tzu Chi movement is unconventional because it is defined more by social service than by religious service. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation ( Ciji gongdehui   慈濟功德會 ) is an international Buddhist relief organiza-tion founded in 1966 and based in Hualian, Taiwan, and that counts over seven million members in Taiwan and overseas. Indeed, Tzu Chi is the larg-est religious group in Taiwan today, and has more than three hundred Tzu Chi offices in forty countries, four supporting missions, and three hundred thousand certified volunteers worldwide. The founder, the nun Cheng Yen 證嚴  (b.1937), 5  was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1963 and was influenced by her master, Yinshun 印順  (1906–2005), who taught his followers “Be committed to Buddhism and to all living beings.” 6  Unusual among Bud-dhist organizations, Tzu Chi defines social service rather than religion as its primary goal, a change that dates back to the late 1960s. This reform was very much the nun Cheng Yen’s own innovation. Some studies of the Tzu Chi in Taiwan have argued that the development of Tzu Chi and the reforms of Tzu Chi practices were due to pluralistic influences, including those of  Japanese Buddhism, Taiwanese indigenous Buddhism, reformist Chinese Buddhism and Catholicism (Li 1996). The following discussion focuses on the reproduction of religious beliefs carried out by Taiwanese merchants in the intersection of transnational migration and the global division of labor in Shanghai. Most of the Taiwan-ese in Shanghai are economic migrants who are seeking better economic opportunities. Taiwan has served as an important source of emigration that has contributed to the religious revival in China since the latter nation’s opening to outside influences. What does make Tzu Chi’s teaching different from other traditional Mahayana Buddhism? “Relieve suffering, embrace all beings” is a core teaching of its founder Master Cheng Yen. The focuses on ‘this world’ and on ‘physical practice’ are central doctrines of Tzu Chi Buddhism, and are more potent than sutra chanting or meditation. With the belief of that benevolent actions can cultivate or repair one’s karma, Tzu Chi members demonstrate the Tzu Chi spirit by visiting the poor, providing disaster relief 15032-0180d-1pass-r02.indd 11317-09-2016 14:49:47  114  Weishan Huang  or conducting community services. This doctrine provides the basis for mobilizing commissioners and volunteers into becoming involved in a vari-ety of social service activities. Tzu Chi’s model of public and social engage-ment embodies reformed humanistic Buddhism ( renjian fojiao   人間佛教 ). I discuss the creation and discourse of Tzu Chi’s humanistic Buddhism in the latter part of this chapter. Before the Tzu Chi Foundation gained legal status as the first registered foreign non-governmental organization in PRC in 2008, Tzu Chi practition-ers also had to practice their faith in an ‘underground space’ as many other unregistered groups do in Shanghai. The crowd control of mass gatherings is imposed by the municipal government to quarantine religious groups by isolating them into small groups. If one takes the political constraints on religious groups as the biggest structural obstacle in the city, one will then pay attention to the innovative practices of where and how people are prac-ticing religion to bypass restrictions rather than only looking at the relation-ship between states and faith-based groups.  Restriction on Publication Since Tzu Chi Foundation was registered as a non-profit organization in 2008, not as a religious organization, it has been under the state’s censor-ship regarding its public events and publications. Tzu Chi China cannot publish any magazines or newsletters related to religious teaching. However, one can easily find some Buddhist teaching online on Tzu Chi’s China home page. 7  The main website has served as an official platform for non-believers to search for information on the Tzu Chi Foundation. Many Tzu Chi prac-titioners also receive information and news through Da Ai Television on satellite. There are no nuns in the branches in China, 8  and this means that commissioners use PowerPoint and video for Dharma teaching at the Tzu Chi’s evening study groups in China. YouTube has been used for teaching purpose in many Tzu Chi overseas branches, but not in China, where You-Tube is blocked. Therefore, Tzu Chi commissioners prepare offline video for events or classes. Although Tzu Chi Foundation cannot produce religious publications in China, I have discovered that members have used WeChat as a ‘public’ platform to circulate Tzu Chi teachings among their WeChat friend circles. Social media has served as a ‘third place,’ a virtual space to accommodate what physical third spaces (religious sites) cannot accomplish in the produc-tion and reproduction of Tzu Chi religious teachings. WeChat ( weixin   微信 ) is a mobile text and voice messaging communica-tion service developed in China. It was first released in January 2011. Today it is the largest stand-alone messaging app in China, with 697 million active users, 70 million of whom are outside of the country. Of course, WeChat has become popular not only for social functions; many companies also use this app for business communications. Many 15032-0180d-1pass-r02.indd 11417-09-2016 14:49:47
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