Fake Lamas flourish as China’s middle class grows

By Zhang Rui | China.org.cn

ON THE WEB, 25 May 2015

As China’s growing middle class searches for spiritual comfort, both authentic and fake Rinpoche Lamas are becoming sought-after advisors and status symbols.

Recently circulated online posts reported that the husband of Taiwan television host, singer and actress Aya Liu was rumored to be a “Living Buddha.” On 13 May, Liu revealed that her husband, previously known by the name of Tony, is actually the seventh reincarnation of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.

Rinpoche, which literally means “precious one,” is a term used in Tibetan Buddhism as a way of showing respect when addressing those recognized as reincarnated, older, respected, notable, learned or accomplished Lamas and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism.

The 7th Dzogchen Ponlop, who is based in Seattle, has many followers who include Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Aya Liu said she didn’t want to reveal her husband’s identity because of the Rinpoche’s faith and because of her celebrity status. “I didn’t want public opinions to disrupt our peaceful lives,” she said.

“He is the best partner in my life,” Liu added.

Liu is not the only female celebrity to marry and have a child with a Rinpoche. Hong Kong singer Shirley Kwan admitted in 2014 that her son’s biological father is Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, also known as Khyentse Norbu.

Many showbiz celebrities in the Chinese-speaking world are followers of Buddhism or Christianity, including Andy Lau, Faye Wong, Jet Li, Zhang Guoli and Zhang Ziyi. Many of them also turn to highly-respected Buddhist monks as mentors.

Many of China’s richest businesspeople also believe in Buddhism. According to a 2014 report from the Financial Times, 50 percent of China’s richest class people say they adhere to some kind of religion. One-third of this group of people claimed to be Buddhist.

China Entrepreneur Magazine reported that Tibetan Buddhist masters rely on mutual introduction and word-of-mouth inside businesspeople’s social circles. Some entrepreneurs have even bought properties for the masters just to listen to their sermons.

Many allege that because wealthy businesspeople and celebrities have made their fortunes through luck and chance, they are always insecure and anxious after their success. Therefore, they feel the need to find someone like a Rinpoche to bless them and help them avoid disaster or decline.

Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2014 said that in 2014 there were one billion adults throughout the world who belonged to the middle class, which was defined as possessing wealth ranging anywhere from US$10,000 to US$100,000. China’s share of the middle class has doubled since 2000, and one-third of the global middle class now resides in China.

Rinpoches are currently respected and followed by many in China because they offer some comfort for their followers’ spiritual needs, regardless of whether their credentials are authentic or fake.

An ifeng.com investigative report issued on 15 May said that the reason there are so many “Rinpoches” is because they can either be hired both to comfort middle class individuals’ hearts and minds and act as a social status symbol for middle class individuals.

China’s middle class people find themselves under intense pressure as they climb higher in society. They are anxious about their status and feel the need to turn to simple identity labels to show their superiority and prove that they have classy cultural tastes. Following a respected Buddhist mentor is thus a safe and easy choice for many who are looking to shore up their middle-class credentials.

But according to China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs, there were only 1,700 real Living Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism as of 2007. The small number of masters is not enough to meet the spiritual needs of the rapidly growing number of wealthy men and women in China. It is no wonder that there are jokes online saying there are 300,000 “wild” and “fake” Rinpoches in Beijing’s Chaoyang District alone, a district where many of the capital’s wealthy celebrities, businesspeople, middle class individuals and their erstwhile spiritual advisors live and work.

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