China’s main Buddhist organization has condemned a handful of temples for using online auctions to sell off the right to queue-jump merit-making activities for the start of Chinese New Year at midnight tomorrow. In a statement on Monday, the Buddhist Association of China said that temples in the provinces of Shaanxi and Zhejiang could damage the reputation of their religion after they auctioned off New Year privileges on the popular online store Taobao.com. “The value of religious activities such as incense burning and bell-ringing cannot be measured by money,” it said. “The amount of merit the follower can gain through the activity [incense burning] is not decided through the timing of the burning but through the piety of the follower.” An online auction by Huilong Temple in Jinhua, a town adjacent to Zhejiang’s prosperous trade hub Yiwu, prompted one bidder to pay 21,501 yuan (US$3,440) to secure the right to be first in line to offer incense. China is home to more than 100 million Buddhists — more than any other country — although many rarely go to temples outside of the New Year holiday.
The forthcoming Year of the Sheep marks the first time Buddhist temples have used online auctions to offer worshippers the chance to beat long queues. The practice has sparked controversy in recent weeks prompting criticism in China’s newspapers and on social media. “It seems strange, it seems that the temple itself is distorting the meaning of the first incense,” wrote one user, Cedric Kun Peng, on China’s most popular micro-blogging site Weibo. Some temples have justified online auctions by claiming they need the revenues to fund renovation which has traditionally come from donation boxes on site. “We have refused an investment company before for fear that our temple might be too commercialized, so we have turned to the auction as a way of raising funds for construction development,” a master at Huadu temple in Shaanxi province told state-run China News Service earlier this month. “It can do more good than harm.”
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