Field Impressions
Dan Smyer Yü (China)

Religious practices in neo-socialist China

Dan Smyer Yü

I study pilgrimage and religious practices in private spaces or in socially less accessible places. For instance, under unfavorable social circumstances, Buddhists and Christians in urban China often prefer to congregate in homes rather than in temples, monasteries, and churches. In this case spatial alternatives for traditional religious activities often engender new ways of practicing. Space in the social/sociological sense is never a neutral word but is replete with intentions, negotiations, and strategies to rebuild a communal solidarity with a sustained leadership. The examples of socially less accessible places of religious practices are caves, sacred sites, and pilgrimage routes. Humans are gregarine in nature; however, naturally pleasing, spiritually sublime but materially harsh places for contemplative moments or a prolonged solitude for the exploration of one’s consciousness are equally desirable but usually for a small number of people in a given society.

Being an anthropologist of religion for the last decade has brought me a fortunate of experiences, affects, thoughts, realizations, new awarenesses, and inspired moments of ethnographic writing, all rested upon my traveling with pilgrims, living in communities, trading my life story with those of my ethnographic collaborators, and learning to visualize with religious elders a future of the world in prophetically altered states of consciousness based on the prescriptions of their past saints. Being experiential and experimental is one of the goals of my ethnographic research. As a social scientist I work with my fellow human beings and document their life patterns and social occurrences. Besides writing, I also photograph and film people, places, and events as a way of articulating my research.

Tibetan Buddhism among urban Chinese is a new, growing religion. Private homes are the primary places of meeting with Tibetan lamas. I photographed this devotional and photo taking scene of Chinese Buddhists with a prominent Tibetan lama (not shown) in Beijing.

On a wintry day in southern China, a group of Buddhists rented a ship from a shipyard for their life-releasing event. Freeing lives is a practice for cultivating one’s compassion toward other sentient beings. The task of this shipload of Buddhists was to release a truckload of carps into a river. From their Buddhist perspective, these carps were on a death row in a local market. The utilitarian functions of freeing lives include healing, clearing hindrances, and repaying forgotten karmic debts (harmful acts of present and past lifetimes). The woman in the photo gave blessings to the carp before releasing it into the river.

This is a fraction of over two hundred Buddhists reciting prayers before boarding the ship above to free the truckload of fish into the river.

The Enchantment of High Altitude Buddhism

One of my professional ideals is being a teacher-scholar. Whenever I can find opportunities to combine teaching, research, and inter-collegiate activities, I embrace them all. I have taught field research methods courses and directed field projects in villages, monasteries, cave meditation sites, and sacred mountains and lakes where I have done fieldwork and built trusting rapport with local communities. I bring students and my colleagues there for specially themed courses and faculty training seminars. Working together in the field with my peer scholars is intellectually and existentially stimulating. Especially in high altitude environment like Tibet, the initial professional distances and walls between each other eventually all shortened and broke down. Fieldworking with each other resembles a Turnerian pilgrimage process in which everyone bonds with each other.

This is a session of Tibetan Buddhist art in a village in Amdo (Qinghai Province). My artist friend Lama Gyal illustrates Thangkha painting process for my U.S. students.

This is a part of my field course [inter-cultural life practicum] for students to learn goat-herding techniques with a Tibetan family. In my teaching I retain my undergraduate liberal arts experience: learning isn’t just the work of the mind. When the body is also mobilized and synchronized with the mind’s volition, the learning process becomes ever more stimulated and eventually embodied in the student.

Prior to coming to Germany I had directed faculty development seminars on religion, ecology, and identity in Tibet for two years. In this photo we are at a cave meditation site. When the rainbow around the sun emerged, we decided to be “rainbowed,” too, as a part of it!

This is a panoramic view of the cave meditation site outside Lhasa, where we were “rainbowed.” The body of the mountain is covered by prayer flags.

Meditation huts and cabins in the mountains of Tibet are not always like those well-constructed, well-maintained facilities in places like Green Gulch Farm, The Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and Odiyan Retreat Center in Northern California. As you can see, they are built with rocks, mud, and plastic tarps, and yet these simple huts are “placentas” of future saints.

I do landscape studies in relation to its religious and ecological significance. This is a part of a sacred site in Amdo. The cluster of houses in the valley is the abbot’s quarter (Namtson Monastery).

Tibet’s landscape is charismatic. In my formal writing I regard it as a type of “territorial charisma” (Smyer Yu 2012). Pilgrims in the midst of this “territorial charisma” are often inspired by the landscape, too, as a part of their spiritual empowerment.

Akhu Chuyang in Golok, Amdo (Qinghai) is revered as a “crazy monk” possessed with “crazy wisdom” and the ability to perform healing miracles. He is a Gelugpa monk but also embraces Dzochen, Mahamudra and other tantric techniques from Nyingmapa, Kagyupa, Jonanpa, and other sects of Tibetan Buddhism. He is a high lama but loves to work in construction sites with common folks. In this photo he takes a lunch break from helping out a construction project.

The late Akhu Rigsem of Golok was a dear friend of mind. He taught me many ecological significances of mountain deity offering rituals.

My primary ethnographic research collaborators are ngapas or tantric yogis. To me, their practice of Buddhism is more realistically connected with daily chores of the familial life: herding livestock, plowing the land, harvesting crops, providing healing to the sick, and seeking protections and blessings from local deities. With them I see a web of lives and their lifeworlds, all interconnected.

For the last four years I have devoted part of my research attention to making ethnographic documentary films. As an anthropologist of religion, my focus is on the “lived” aspect of religion. In my work I see a lived religion as a living process of place-making and order-making involving a deep entanglement of the sentience of the practitioner with his or her social and ecological sphere. It is a fusion of the textually sanctioned spiritual visions with the organic and inorganic elements outside the bounds of the given religious canon. What is external is internalized while what is internal is externalized. In this process the sacred and the worldly, and the somatic and the psychic saturate each other with both psychological and ecological effects.

Dr. Dan Smyer Yü (2013-2014)



Dan Smyer Yu was a CETREN researcher during his position as the Research Group Leader at the Department of Religious Diversity, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. He is an anthropologist specializing in the studies of religious revitalizations, charismatic communities, commercialization of religious spirituality, and the relationship between eco-religious practices and place-making in contemporary China. He received his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of California at Davis. Prior to his joining Max Planck, he was a New Millennium Scholar and the Associate Director of the Ethnic Minority Study Center of China at Minzu University of China. He also taught and held research positions at the University of California, Davis, Graduate Theological Union, San Francisco Theological Seminary, and Sacramento City College, and the Center for the Pacific Rim of University of San Francisco.

His research interests include religion and ethnic nationalism; religiosity of state ideology; religious conversion; religion and ecology; sacred landscapes; pilgrimage studies; religion and mental health; religion and peacebuilding; visual anthropology; and religious use of digital media. He recently completed his second monograph concerning the intersections of religion, nation, and nationalism in the context of modern Sino-Tibetan interactions. It addresses how land, place-making, nostalgia, modernity, imagination, and representation are entwined in both rural and urban settings of contemporary China.

In addition to his research writing, Dr. Smyer Yu has also made an ethnographic film titled Embrace, which documents Amdo Tibetans’ narratives concerning folk religious practices and their ecological significances. It is nominated for award at the Beijing International Film Festival in 2011. Currently he is making a new documentary film about Buddhism and science dialogue.


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Georg-Universität-Universität Göttingen
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