National Geographic : 2005 Dec
emerges from mud, is resurfacing. With more than 100 million practitioners, it's one of the country's fastest growing religions. On the surface, Chen Xiaoxu is a most unlikely poster child for this renaissance. At 39 she heads one of Beijing's top advertising agen cies, but she's better known as a former Chinese television star. She started her agency in the early 1990s, when advertising in China was in its infancy, soon earning success beyond her dreams. "Once I got the taste, I always wanted more and more, bigger and bigger status symbols," she tells me, as we sit in the conference room of her com pany, Beijing Shipang Lianhe Advertising, in a modern Beijing high-rise. Her long neck and delicate features evoke Audrey Hepburn, whose portrait hangs on the wall behind her, but her warm, empathetic eyes mirror paintings and sculptures I've seen of Guanyin, Chinese Bud dhism's female representation of compassion. Gradually, she says, it took hold-that feeling of emptiness so many people experience when they have all the material possessions they desire. In Buddhism this desire has a nickname: the Hungry Ghost, an appetite that can't be filled. "Though I had it all-big car, beautiful house, travel wherever I wanted, surrounded by fame and luxury with plenty to share with my family - I was still, somehow, unhappy." Then someone gave Chen a book about the life and teachings of the Buddha, and she became a serious student of Buddhism. Now one wall of her stark white office is dedicated to pictures of her teacher, Chin Kung, as well as Buddhist statues and paintings. Her employees know to hold phone calls during lunch hour, 104 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * DECEMBER 2005 when she takes a break to meditate and chant. A Buddhist in a profession whose goal is to whet the appetites of the Hungry Ghost? What's no less remarkable is that so public a figure as Chen Xiaoxu is openly practicing Buddhism in communist China. * WHILE BUDDHISM COMES BACK in China, it's been losing appeal in Japan, long considered the wellspring by Westerners. "If it doesn't meet the changing needs of modern society, Japanese Buddhism will die," says Rev. Yoshiharu Tomatsu of the Jodo Shu Research Institute of Buddhism in Tokyo.