Buddhism in Taiwan | History

1. Buddhism in Taiwan | History

Scholars can document the existence of Buddhism in Taiwan only from the migration of Chinese fleeing to the island after their failure to restore the fallen Ming dynasty in 1662.

The “Southern Ming” court ruled Taiwan until the Qing dynasty captured the island in 1683.

The subsequent history of Buddhism in Taiwan falls into 3 periods delimited by the 3 political regimes that followed:

1. Qing rule (1683–1895);
2. Japanese viceroyalty (1895–1945);
3. Han Chinese rule (1945–present).

2. The Southern Ming/Qing dynasty period

Chinese and Japanese scholars agree that knowledge and practice of Buddhism during this time was relatively unsophisticated:

Taiwan was a land of pirates, typhoons, plagues, and headhunting natives, and did not attract China’s social elite.

Many of the “monks” of this period were Ming loyalists who fled to the island in clerical disguise, and legitimate clerics were few in number and largely ignorant of Buddhist teachings.

Those whose names appear in the records were noted for non-Buddhist accomplishments such as rainmaking, painting, poetry, and playing go.

Most clerics functioned as temple caretakers and funeral specialists, and did not engage in teaching, meditation or other Buddhist practices.

The first known monk to migrate from the mainland is Canche, who arrived in 1675:

Chen Yonghua, a military commander, had built a monastery called the Dragon Lake Grotto (Longhu Yan), and invited Canche to serve as abbot.

Canche later founded the Blue Cloud Monastery (Biyun-si) on Fire Mountain (Huoshan) near the present-day town of Chiayi.

As the island became more settled, many more monasteries were founded, particularly around the capital city of Tainan. Notable among these early monasteries are:

1) Zhuxi (“Bamboo Stream”) Monastery (1664);
2) Haihui (“Ocean Assembly”) Monastery (1680);
3) Fahua (“Dharma-Flower”) Monastery (1683);
4) Mituo (“Amitābha”) Monastery;
5) Longshan (“Dragon Mountain”) Monastery (1738);
6)  Chaofeng (“Surpassing Peak”) Monastery (registered 1763);
7) Daxian (“Great Immortal”) Monastery.

Despite this vigorous activity, most of the monks and nuns in these monasteries had probably received only the novices’ ordination; there was no ordaining monastery in Taiwan, and only scant records exist of those who journeyed to the mainland to receive the full precepts.

3. The Japanese colonial period

In 1895 the Chinese government ceded the island to Japan, and the Japanese troops brought Buddhist missionaries with them:

These missionaries were eager to establish mission stations in order to propagate Japanese Buddhism to the native population, but funding from their head temples was insufficient, and only a very small percentage of the Chinese population ever enrolled in Japanese Buddhist lineages.

One of the most notable features of the Japanese period was, in fact, the effort on the part of the local Buddhists to maintain their Chinese identity and traditions.

This period saw the institution of the first facilities for transmitting the full monastic precepts in Taiwan. 4 monasteries established “ordination platforms”:

1. Lingquan (“Spirit Spring”) Chan Monastery in Keelung,
2. Lingyun (“Soaring Cloud”) Chan Monastery on Guanyin Mountain,
3. Fayun (“Dharma Cloud”) Chan Monastery near Miaoli,
4. Chaofeng (“Surpassing the Peak”) Monastery in Kaohsiung County.

The leaders of these monasteries all received ordination at the Yongquan (“Surging Spring”) Monastery in Fuzhou, China, and they transmitted their tonsure-lineages to Taiwan.

Monks and Nuns ordained from these monasteries went forth and founded other monasteries, giving rise to the “4 great ancestral lineages” that defined and organized Buddhism during this period.

At the same time, there were small groups of Chinese Buddhist monks who studied Marxism and advocated the relaxation of monastic discipline as a means to strengthen solidarity with ordinary people, while also resisting Japanese domination.

Even as Chinese Buddhism attempted to maintain its own distinctive identity, it still had to accommodate the government; thus clergy and laity joined together to form Buddhist organizations that functioned as governmental liaisons:

The largest of these, founded in 1922 by Marui Keijiro (1870–1934), was called the South Seas Buddhist Association, which operated until 1945.

These organizations were significant because they included members of zhaijiao, the “vegetarian religion”—a form of popular Buddhism that stood apart from the monastic establishment and rejected its oversight.

Zhaijiao’s participation in these Buddhist organizations marks the only time in history that they ever cooperated with monastic Buddhism. In 1945 they parted ways once again.

4. The Republican period (1945–present)

At the end of the Pacific War (known as World War II in West), Taiwan was returned to China, and the Japanese were evacuated. 4 years later, in 1949, mainland China fell to the communists, and the nationalists fled to Taiwan.

All of these events kept the political and economic situation in turmoil, and Buddhist clerics experienced difficulty keeping their monasteries viable.

A few refugee Buddhist monks from the mainland, such as Cihang (1895–1954), were imprisoned on suspicion of spying.

A few monks of national eminence also arrived, such as the Zhangjia Living Buddha (1891–1957), Baisheng (1904–1989), Wuming (1912– ), and Yin Shun (1906–2005 ):

They were the leaders of the newly revived Buddhist Association of the Republic of China (BAROC), and came to Taiwan for reasons that paralleled those of the nationalists: to use Taiwan as a base of operations until they could return home to rebuild Buddhism.

The BAROC mediated between Buddhism and the government in several ways:

The government expected it to register all clergy and temples, organize and administer clerical ordinations, certify clergy for exit visas, and help in framing laws dealing with religion.

The BAROC also confronted the government when it felt religious interests were threatened:

2 notable controversies concerned the failure of the government to return confiscated Japanese-era monasteries to religious use, and the government’s obstruction of efforts to establish a Buddhist university.

Because the laws on civic organizations allowed only one organization to fill any single niche in society, the BAROC enjoyed hegemony until the late 1980s.

In 1989 the government stopped dealing with Buddhist monks and nuns separately, and registered them under their lay names as ordinary citizens. Thus, the BAROC was no longer needed to certify their status.

That same year, a new law on civic organizations took effect, abolishing the “one niche, one organization” rule and opening the way for competition.

In the ensuing period, other Buddhist organizations took root:

Some grew out of pre-existing groups, most notably Fo Kuang Shan and the Buddhist Compassionate Relief Tzu-Chi Association. Others were newly founded, such as Dharma Drum Mountain.

5. Recent changes

Buddhism in Taiwan has undergone many changes during the last few decades as the island has shifted from an agrarian, village-based to an industrial, urban-based society.

4 particularly prominent developments follow.

Historically, Monks have predominated numerically over Nuns in Chinese Buddhism:

Since the 1950s the number of Nuns in Taiwan has increased relative to the number of monks: Between 1953 and 1986 the BAROC ordained 2 030 men and 6 006 women.

With more women than men seeking ordination, women are much more likely to be eliminated or given longer periods of testing. This has raised the overall quality and status of the Nuns’ order relative to the Monks.

This first development must be seen against a backdrop of steadily decreasing ordinations overall:

Between 1949 and 1989, when the population of Taiwan rose from 7.5 million to over 20 million, the number of new ordinations each year, especially male, did not keep pace.

Many observers understand this phenomenon to be part of a trend in the Buddhist world at large, where laity has grown increasingly active and prominent.

Third, the ethical content of Buddhism in Taiwan has undergone change:

Some organizations such as Fo Kuang Shan and the Buddhist Compassionate Relief Tzu-Chi Association have propounded new precepts that followers formally undertake.

The founder of Fo Kuang Shan, Xing Yun (1927– ), has published his vision of “Fo Kuang Buddhism” in several lectures and books,

in which he seeks to turn followers’ attention away from otherworldly concerns, such as rituals for the dead and rebirth in the Pure Land, and toward efforts to benefit living beings in this world.

Likewise, the Buddhist Compassionate Relief Tzu-chi Association under its founder Cheng Yen (1937– ) trains its followers to be of assistance within the present world.

As an association composed almost entirely of laypeople, the focus is on social action rather than maintaining monastic roles.

Individual monasteries such as the Nung Chan Monastery in northern Taipei and the Faguang temple in downtown Taipei are 2 of many that no longer use disposable chopsticks and bowls due to a concern for the environment.

In all these contexts, the slogan is “Building a Pure Land in the Human Realm”.

Finally, Buddhist Monasteries in Taiwan have changed their fund-raising methods in response to developments in the economic sphere:

Instead of traditional methods of generating income, such as soliciting donations, providing funeral services, and renting land for agriculture, many monasteries seek to build bases of lay support in a more systematic, less overtly commercial way:

They organize their core constituency into lay organizations, such as the Dharmapāla organization that supports Dharma Drum Mountain:

They found collegiate Buddhist fellowships and lead students in meditation or Pure Land retreats. Some of the larger urban monasteries have publishing concerns.

However, the most universal means of raising money is still to hold “dharma meetings” (fahui), in which laypeople come to hear sūtras recited, see the ceremony of releasing living beings (fang sheng),

or witness a ritual for the Yogic Release of the Flaming Mouths (yuqie yankou), in which hungry ghosts are freed from their torments, fed, and receive teaching.