Buddhism Buddhism in Taiwan
by
Wei-Yi Cheng
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0277

Introduction

It is difficult to speak of a distinctive “Taiwanese” Buddhism since the majority of the population in Taiwan is ethnically Han Chinese and the mainstream form of Buddhism in Taiwan is of the Han Chinese Buddhist tradition. With political democratization in the late 1980s, restriction on religious expression was lifted and various Buddhist groups of both foreign and local origins became active. Consequently different Buddhist traditions such as Theravada Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, etc. can now be found in Taiwan. The current Buddhist landscape in Taiwan is relatively diverse. In regard to English translation of names or titles in this article, it is necessary to note that romanization is a contentious issue in Taiwan. While the Pinyin Romanization is popular worldwide, people in Taiwan may use a number of other systems for Romanization. In this bibliography, the English names published by a person or an organization will take precedence; otherwise, the Pinyin Romanization will be used.

General Overview

Most studies on Buddhism in Taiwan are, unsurprisingly, published in the Chinese language. The authors of Jiang 2020 and Kan 2004 are the two most prolific writers on the history of Buddhism in Taiwan. Scholars who publish in both Chinese and English are represented in the works Li 2016, Kuo 2008, Yü 2010, among others; these works tend to focus on the study of Buddhism in contemporary Taiwan. Most studies published in English are about Buddhist organizations in Taiwan such as Laliberté 2004 and Madsen 2007 (cited under General Overview).

  • Jiang, Canteng. Taiwan Fojiaoshi. Taipei: Wu-Nan Book, 2020.

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    (History of Taiwan Buddhism.) This book outlines the history of Buddhism in Taiwan, illustrating important events, personalities, and organizations from 1662 to year 2008. It reveals how Buddhism has evolved and adapted along the political changes on the island. In Chinese.

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  • Kan, Zhengzong. Zhongdu Taiwan Fojiao: zhanhou Taiwan Fojiao- beichuan fojiao pian. Taipei: Darchen, 2004.

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    (Rethinking Taiwan Buddhism: Buddhism in postwar Taiwan—a chapter on northern Buddhism). Kan introduces major players and important Buddhist organizations in Taiwan in the postwar era. The work contextualizes the development and transformation of Taiwan Buddhism since the end of World War II. In Chinese.

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  • Kuo, Cheng-tian. Religion and Democracy in Taiwan. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.

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    On Buddhism, see chapter 2, “Taiwanese Buddhism.”

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  • Laliberté, André. The Politics of Buddhist Organizations in Taiwan, 1989–2003: Safeguarding the Faith, Building a Pure Land, Helping the Poor. London and New York: Routledge Curzon, 2004.

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    The book offers a detailed survey of the relationship between politics and Buddhist organizations.

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  • Li, Yuchen. Zhanhou Taiwan Fojiao yu Nuxing. Taipei: Boyoung Culture, 2016.

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    (Buddhist women and postwar Taiwan). Li combines historical and anthropological studies to illustrate the role women have played in Buddhism in Taiwan since the end of World War II. In Chinese.

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  • Yü, Chün-Fang. Xiangguang Zhuangyan -wuyin fashi hangchuan. Taipei: Ruoyu Zhenghe Hangxiao, 2010.

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    (Xiangguang Zhuangyan—biography of Master Wuyin). Master Wuyin (b. 1940) is one of the most eminent Buddhist nuns in Taiwan. Although Yü is normally renown as a historian, in this book, she adopts ethnographical studies to introduce the life story of Master Wuyin. In Chinese.

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Miscellaneous

There are few monographs in English that can give general introduction to Buddhism in Taiwan. The following journal articles help to contextualize Buddhism in Taiwan society.

Digital Databases

The following digital databases in Taiwan are useful for research on Buddhism in Taiwan.

  • Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association.

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    The website of the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (or better known as “CBETA”) is by far the most comprehensive digital achieve for Chinese Buddhist texts. The website contains several versions of Chinese Tripiṭaka and Chinese Buddhist texts throughout history. It was founded by Yin Shun Foundation and Bodhi Buddhist Association in the United States and Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies in Taiwan in 1998 and CBETA Online is currently maintained by Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts in Taiwan. In Chinese.

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  • Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism.

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    This database contains publications by one of the largest Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, Foguangshan (Buddha Light Association). While some of the papers in this database are non-academic, it includes papers published by two academic journals, Universal Gate Buddhist Journal and Fo Guang Journal of Buddhist Studies. Most of the papers are in the Chinese but some are in English. Registration for downloading papers is free. In English and Chinese.

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  • Taiwanese Buddhist Digital Database.

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    This database contains valuable data but has long ceased to update. It contains materials relating to the history of Buddhism in Taiwan, including journal articles (full text in many cases), indexes of books and journal articles, transcripts of interviews, historical documents, multimedia resources, etc. Although most of the texts are either in Chinese or Japanese, it is helpful for people who wish to conduct research on the history of Buddhism in Taiwan. In Chinese.

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History

Like most Sinophone societies, elements of Buddhism such as the concept of karma and rebirth penetrate every level of Taiwan society, but the exact number of Buddhists in Taiwan remains obscure. Scholars usually divide the history of Buddhism in Taiwan into four periods, along with the political changes: the Ming-Qing period (17th to 19th century), Japanese colonial period (1895–1945), the postwar and martial law period (1945–1987) and post–martial law period (1987–). Records of Buddhism in Taiwan before the 19th century are scarce, but it is assumed that Buddhism came to Taiwan with the large scale of ethnic Han Chinese migration which began in the mid-17th century. Buddhist discourse during the Ming-Qing period is believed to be dominated by householders with few monastics migrating to the island. When Taiwan became a Japanese colony (1895–1945), Japanese missionaries made an effort to proselytize Japanese Buddhism on the island but the effort ended with the conclusion of World War II. Following the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and the retreat of Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party) regime from mainland China to Taiwan, there was a surge of Buddhist monastic migration to Taiwan. Many of them were monks from southeast China, influenced by the Buddhist modernist movement and inspired by the great reformist monk Taixu (b. 1890–d. 1947). Subsequently, Buddhist discourse in postwar Taiwan came under the influence of Buddhist modernism. A brand of the Buddhist reform movement, called renjian fojiao, usually translated as “Humanistic Buddhism” or “Buddhism for the Human Realm,” came to dominate Buddhist discourse in Taiwan since the mid-20th century. With the lifting of martial law in 1987, Buddhism in Taiwan became more diverse.

Popular Practice and Customs in Taiwan Buddhism

Buddhist practices in Taiwan mostly follow Chinese Buddhist tradition. Ancestor worship is by far the most common religious practice in Taiwan. Chinese Buddhism’s integration of ancestor worship manifests in the annual Ullambana Festival (yulanpen; or translated into English as “Ghost Festival”) in which Buddhists give offerings to sangha and transfer the merit to their ancestors in this and past lives. Buddhism provides salvation for women who die without male offerings by offering them a space to be worshiped in Buddhist temples. Pure Land Buddhist practice is popular in Taiwan such as the recitation of Buddha’s name (nianfo). It is customary in Taiwan for Buddhists to greet each other with joined palms and the phrase “Amitabha Buddha.” Guanyin, the Chinese feminine version of bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, is so popular in Taiwan that even non-Buddhist temples may have shrines dedicated to Guanyin. Buddhists in Taiwan exchange small gifts such as rosary as a friendly gesture to build up karmic connection (jieyuan). Divination and the worship of mummified saints are popular though shunned by Buddhists with more modernist outlook. Vegetarianism is a norm in Chinese Buddhism and required of monastics. The practice of “animal release” (fangsheng) is also popular in Taiwan. Some Buddhist groups in Taiwan actively promote the practice of fangsheng.

Monastic Ordination and Transnational Network

In the early days of Han Chinese settlement in Taiwan, there was no substantial number of Buddhist monastics to perform ordination for those who wished to enter sangha, and therefore, receiving monastic ordination in mainland China, particularly Yongquan Monastery in Gushan, Fujian Province, was the common practice. This trend continued well into the Japanese colonial period (1895–1945). By the early 20th century, one could speak of four large monasteries of Chinese Buddhism in Taiwan: the Lingquan Chan Temple (also known as Yuemei Shan) in Keelung, the Fayun Chan Temple in Miaoli county, the Chaofeng Temple (also known as Dagang Shan) in Kaohsiung, and Lingyun Chan Temple (also known as Guanyin Shan) in Taipei. It is commonly said that the 1953 monastic ordination in Daxian Temple, Tainan, was the first monastic ordination in Taiwan, but temple records show that monastic ordination had taken place in Taiwan as early as 1917. After the war, Buddhist Association of Republic of China (BAROC) was the sole authority in Taiwan to conduct monastic ordination until the lifting of martial law in 1987. The claimed orthodoxy by BAROC attracted overseas Chinese to Taiwan for monastic ordination and subsequently built up a monastic transnational network. The second pattern of building transnational network is with the Chinese communities in southeast Asia, for with linguistic and cultural familiarity, mutual communication is easy. Chinese monastics migrating out of mainland China sometimes reside in Taiwan before migrating to other countries. Monk Yen Pei (b. 1917–d. 1996) is a good example. Born in mainland China, he lived in Taiwan from 1952 to 1960 before eventually settling in Singapore. Taiwan’s large Buddhist organizations began to expand globally from the 1980s, mostly following the trails of Chinese migration and serving mostly Chinese communities in other countries.

Monastic Ordination

The following papers discuss Buddhist monasticism in Taiwan.

Transnational Network

The following studies present Buddhist transnational networks that originate from Taiwan. Not included here are Buddhist networks that are transmitted from other countries to Taiwan, which is discussed in Non-Chinese Buddhism in Taiwan.

Pure Land Practices and Doctrines

Although Humanistic Buddhism, or “Buddhism for the Human Realm,” dominates academic discussion on Buddhism in Taiwan since the 1950s, other forms of Chinese Buddhism coexist. There is no survey on Buddhist landscape in Taiwan, but it has been suspected that Pure Land practices and doctrines and/or other forms of non-modernist Buddhism have more followers in Taiwan than Humanistic Buddhism. Even groups carrying the banner of Humanistic Buddhism incorporate Pure Land practices such as the recitation of Buddha’s name (nian fo) and using the concept of “building Pure Land on earth” to advocate social service. Pure Land Buddhism might have arrived in Taiwan during the earliest days of Han Chinese settlement since Pure Land practices have been synthesized into many other schools of Chinese Buddhism. During the Japanese colonial period, efforts were made to propagate Japanese Buddhism in Taiwan including missionaries of Japanese Pure Land sects. Japanese Buddhist groups became active again in Taiwan after democratization in the late 1980s. Japanese Pure Land Buddhist groups can once again be found in Taiwan. Nevertheless, it is the Chinese Pure Land Buddhism that is most widespread in Taiwan. There are so-called “Three Great Pure Land masters” in postwar Taiwan. One was monk Guangqin (b. 1892–d. 1986), who migrated to Taiwan in 1948 and was famous for his ascetic practice. Another is monk Chin Kung (b. 1927; Jingkong in Pinyin). He migrated to Taiwan in 1949 and through multi-media sermons, he developed a worldwide following. The third one was householder Li Bingnan (b. 1891–d. 1986), a student of Pure Land patriarch monk Yinguang (b. 1862–d. 1940) who later became a famous Pure Land preacher himself. After migrating to Taiwan in 1949, Li devoted his life to preaching Pure Land Buddhism and organized Buddhist summer and winter camps for students in higher education, consequently many Buddhist teachers and scholars of later generations can trace their inspiration to Li. There are many “lotus societies” in Taiwan in which people gather for recitation of the Buddha’s name or Pure Land sutras.

On Practice

Despite its popularity in Taiwan, there are few studies on Taiwan’s Pure Land practices and doctrines in English. The general Pure Land practices and doctrines in Taiwan follow the Chinese tradition.

  • Heller, Natasha. “Buddha in a Box: The Materiality of Recitation in Contemporary Chinese Buddhism.” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief 10.3 (2014): 294–314.

    DOI: 10.2752/175183414X14101642921384Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    It is popular in Taiwan to use a small device to assist in the practice of the recitation of Buddha’s name. This paper discusses the use and popularity of this device.

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  • Jones, Charles B. “Buddha One—One-Day Recitation Retreat in Contemporary Taiwan.” In Approaching the Land of Bliss: Religious Praxis in the Cult of Amitabha. Edited by Richard Karl Payn and Kenneth Kazuo Tanaka, 264–280. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.

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    Retreats for the recitation of Buddha’s name are popular in Taiwan, lasting from half a day to seven days. Jones presents an ethnographic report of such practice.

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On Monk Chin Kung (Jingkong in the pinyin)

Monk Chin Kung is a very popular monk throughout the Chinese communities worldwide. And among the Pure Land masters mentioned in this section, Chin Kung is the only monk for whom there are academic studies in the English language.

Controversy and Criticism

Monk Yinshun is considered the frontrunner of Humanistic Buddhism. His criticism on the Pure Land practice had caused conflict with Pure Land Buddhists in Taiwan.

Humanistic Buddhism or Buddhism for the Human Realm

Renjian fojiao, or “Humanistic Buddhism” (also translated as “Buddhism for the Human realm”), has dominated Buddhist discourse in Taiwan since the mid-20th century. The teachings of Humanistic Buddhism is inspired by the reformist monk Taixu (b. 1890–d. 1947) whose teaching of “Life Buddhism” (rensheng fojiao) calls to expel superstition in Buddhism and to focus on practice of this life (as opposed to the afterlife). In Taiwan, the leading thinker of Humanistic Buddhism was monk Yinshun (b. 1906–d. 2005) who is so revered in Taiwan that Buddhists give him the unofficial honorary title daoshi (“mentor master”). He began to preach Humanistic Buddhism (renjian fojiao) in 1952. He credited Taixu for the inspiration and stated that Humanistic Buddhism differs from Life Buddhism for it goes a step further: Humanistic Buddhism not only stresses the importance of expelling superstition but also the need to avoid theist faith. Buddhism came to be appreciated as compatible with this-worldly practices and appropriate for householders. Yinshun promotes the engagement with this-worldly social service and the studies of the Chinese Agama, which he saw as more representative of the Buddha’s original teachings. Many subsequent generations of monastics in Taiwan have been advocates of Humanistic Buddhism. Even though their interpretation of the term and their differ from one to another, they all emphasize the need to practice “the bodhisattva path” (i.e., this-worldly spiritual practice while conducting social service). “Building Pure Land on Earth” became a popular slogan. Some of Humanistic Buddhist organizations have grown to become globalized organizations, noticeably are Dharma Drum Mountain (founded by monk Sheng Yen; shengyan in Pinyin), Foguangshan (founded by monk Hsin Yun; xingyun in Pinyin), and Tzu Chi (founded by nun Cheng Yen; zhengyan in Pinyin).

General Overview

Masters and organizations that consider themselves as Humanistic Buddhist have different interpretations and agendas for the term. The following studies present an overview for the term.

Monk Yinshun

Monk Yinshun was one of the most influential Buddhist thinkers in postwar Taiwan and some consider him as the father of Humanistic Buddhism.

  • Bingenheimer, Marcus. “Writing History of Buddhist Thought in the Twentieth Century: Yinshun (1906–2005) in the Context of Chinese Buddhist Historiography.” Journal of Global Buddhism 10 (2009): 255–290.

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    This paper is about his historiographical practice and tries to outline his position in Chinese Buddhist historiography

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  • Chu, William P. “A Buddha-Shaped Hole: Yinshun’s (1906–2005) Critical Buddhology and the Theological Crisis in Modern Chinese Buddhism.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2006.

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    The dissertation discusses monk Yinshun’s interpretation on critical Buddhism, Chinese culture, Confucianism, and the Vinaya.

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  • Hurley, Scott. “The Doctrinal Transformation of Twentieth‐Century Chinese Buddhism: Master Yinshun’s Interpretation of the Tathāgatagarbha Doctrine.” Contemporary Buddhism 5.1 (2004): 29–46.

    DOI: 10.1080/1463994042000249562Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In his re-evaluation of Buddhist teachings, Yinshun focused his critical attention on the doctrinal foundation of traditional Chinese Buddhism, namely the theory of the tathagatagarbha.

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  • Travagnin, Stefania. “Yinshun’s Recovery of Shizhu Piposha Lun 十住毗婆沙論: A Madhyamaka-Based Pure Land Practice in Twentieth-Century Taiwan.” Contemporary Buddhism 14.2 (2013): 320–343.

    DOI: 10.1080/14639947.2013.832497Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article discusses Yinshun’s views on the Easy Path (yixing dao) and Difficult Path (nanxing dao) in the Pure Land practice, and contextualizes Yinshun’s interpretation within the past history of the Chinese Pure Land School, as well as within the new debates on Pure Land that emerged in 20th-century China.

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Dharma Drum Mountain (fagu shan)

Dharma Drum Mountain is one of the largest Humanistic Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, specially known for promoting meditation. In 2004, its founder, monk Sheng Yen, declared to have established a new Buddhist school, The Dharma Drum Lineage of Chan Buddhism (zhonghua chan fagu zong), echoing the idea of lineage and school in the tradition of Chinese Buddhism (zong).

  • Reinke, Jens. “Innovation and Continuity in the Pure Lands: Pure Land Discourses and Practices at the Taiwanese Buddhist Order Dharma Drum Mountain.” Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies 30 (2017): 169–210.

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    The paper analyzes the teachings of Dharma Drum Mountain.

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  • Yu, Jimmy. “Revisiting the Notion of Zong: Contextualizing the Dharma Drum Lineage of Modern Chan Buddhism.” Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies 26 (2013): 113–151.

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    The paper examines the historiography of (zong) in Chan/Zen studies in relation to Sheng Yen’s Dharma Drum Lineage in the historical context of postwar Taiwan. It also examines the evolution and the theoretical basis of Sheng Yen’s formulation of Chinese Buddhist orthodoxy.

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Foguangshan (Buddha Light Association)

“Foguangshan” is the English title that Buddha Light Association uses on its publications and websites. Hence the organization is better known as “Foguangshan” than as Buddha Light Association. It is one of the largest Humanistic Buddhist organizations in Taiwan.

Tzu Chi (Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation)

Tzu Chi is also one of the largest Humanistic Buddhist organizations in Taiwan. It is best known for conducting charity works and health-care service worldwide.

Others

There are few studies on Humanistic Buddhist groups other than the big organizations mentioned above.

  • Ritzinger, Justin. Anarchy in the Pure Land: Reinventing the Cult of Maitreya in Modern Chinese Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190491161.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This book explores an aspect seldom discussed in the study of Humanistic Buddhism; that is, the belief in Maitreya bodhisattva. On Taiwan, pp. 10–17; 106, 144, 222–235, 244–272, 284–286.

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  • Ritzinger, Justin. “Karma, Charisma, and Community: Karmic Storytelling in a Blue-Collar Taiwanese Buddhist Organization.” Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies 33 (2020): 203–232.

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    An ethnographic study that investigates a small working-class Taiwanese lay organization inspired by the Humanistic Buddhism of Yinshun. The paper gives a unique insight into a Humanistic Buddhist group that is not monastic-led.

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Modernist Influence

During Japanese colonial period, Taiwan Buddhists had attempted to modernize Buddhism, and Lin Qiuwu (also known as monk Zhengfeng; b. 1903–d. 1934) is a good example. Education, discussed in Buddhist Education has been seen as essential for modernizing Buddhism. Modernism has grown prominent in Taiwan Buddhism, especially among those who adhere to Humanistic Buddhism. Social service and philanthropic works are the keystone of Humanistic Buddhism in Taiwan. Buddhist organizations have founded nursing homes, disaster relief, financial aids, medical aids, etc. Philanthropic works conducted by Taiwan Buddhist organizations often expand to other countries. It is difficult to find a Buddhist group in Taiwan not conducting some kind of social service. Meditation is emphasized by many Buddhist groups. Chung Tai Chan Monastery, for example, hosts regular meditation classes in its branch temples across Taiwan. Dharma Drum Mountain is known for its emphasis on meditation. Meditation retreats have become common in Taiwan Buddhism. Non-Chinese Buddhist meditation centers such as those affiliated with the Mahasi meditation tradition are also popular. Modernism has been integrated into the campaigns of some Buddhist organizations. Tzu Chi, mostly known for its social and medical service, emphasizes bodhisattva practice in its campaign for organ and body donation and therefore overcomes Buddhist taboo of not moving the deceased body within eight hours of death. Dharma Drum Mountain launched a campaign called the “Six Ethics of Mind,” combing Buddhist modernism and ethical teaching. TV stations and online broadcasting are utilized by modernist groups. Buddhist hospice service has become increasingly popular in Taiwan since late 1990s. Major hospitals recruit Buddhist monastics to provide hospice palliative care to the patients. Buddhist Lotus Hospice Care Foundation, founded in 1994, provides seminars and training for monastics and householder volunteers who are interested in hospice service.

Buddhist Education

Records show that the institutionalization of Buddhist education in Taiwan began in the Japanese colonial period (1895–1945). Japanese colonial control over religions on the island tightened after the Xilai’an Incident in 1915. Xilai’an was a vegetarian sect (zhaijiao; discussed under Buddhism-Related New Religious Movements) whose temple was used by rebels as the base to launch an anti-colonial rebellion. After the rebellion failed, Buddhist temples in Taiwan were encouraged to join the South Seas Buddhist Association (SSBA, Ch. Nanying fojiaohui, Jp. Nanei bukkyokai) and form affiliation with Japanese Buddhist temples. The affiliation with Japanese Buddhist establishment enhanced the institutionalization of Buddhist education in Taiwan. For example, monk Jueli (b. 1881–d. 1933), a native of Fujian province, was invited to Taiwan by his Taiwanese disciple, monk Miaoguo (b. 1884–d. 1963), in 1909. Soon after arrival, Jueli formed an affiliation with the Japanese Sotō school that allowed him to conduct Buddhist study groups and schools. The educational foundation that Jueli laid down is the predecessor of Yuan Kuang Buddhist College, the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist academy in Taiwan. Under martial law (1949–1987), religious education was banned from the formal educational system. However, religious education was allowed to thrive outside of the formal educational system. Approximately two dozen Buddhist academies were founded during this period, with various degree of success and continuity. Most Buddhist academies offer scholarships, food and board, and monastic training; some academies train only monastics and some train both monastics and householders. Buddhist academies in Taiwan have been able to attract foreign students, especially overseas Chinese, despite not issuing formal degrees. After the lifting of martial law, Buddhist groups in Taiwan sought to enter the formal educational system. The first higher education institute founded by a Buddhist group was Huafan University, established by the nun Hiu Wan and formally opened in 1997. College of Buddhist Studies at Fo Guang University, founded by Foguangshan in 2007, is the first institute in Taiwan permitted to grant degrees in Buddhist studies. Other formal higher education founded by Buddhist groups are Husan Chuang University (founded in 1997), Tzu Chi University (opened in 2000), and Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts (opened in 2014; formerly “Dharma Drum Institute of Buddhist Studies”, founded in 2006). Only Fo Guang University and Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts are permitted to offer formal degrees in Buddhist studies while other universities incorporate Buddhist studies into other disciplines.

Case Studies

The following are case studies of Buddhist educational institutes or people engaging in Buddhist education in Taiwan.

Non-Chinese Buddhism in Taiwan

Although Chinese Buddhism remains mainstream, there is a noticeable presence of non-Chinese Buddhism in Taiwan. Due to the lack of written records, little is known about Buddhism in Taiwan until the Japanese colonial period (1895–1945). Inevitably, Japanese Buddhism is the earliest known non-Chinese Buddhism in Taiwan. After an anti-colonial rebellion in 1915 (Xilai’an Incident), the Japanese colonial administration tightened its hold on Taiwan and Japanese Buddhist missions were part of an attempt to colonialize Taiwan’s religious landscape. All major Japanese sects sent their missionaries to Taiwan. Although Japanese Buddhists were expelled for a few decades after the Japanese defeat at the end of World War II, Japanese Buddhist groups such as Soka Gakkai, Nichiren Buddhism, Sōtō Zen, Pure Land, Shingon Buddhism, etc. (re)established themselves in Taiwan after 1987. The first known visit of a Theravada monk to Taiwan was in 1965. Theravada books began to be translated into Chinese in Taiwan beginning in the late 1980s and 1992 saw the first known Theravada meditation retreat held in Taiwan. Since then, there has been a growing numbers of Theravada groups: some are branch temples from Theravada countries (e.g., Wat Phra Dhammakaya from Thailand) and some were founded locally in Taiwan by Theravada monks from Sri Lanka (Theravada Samadhi Education Association), Thailand (e.g., Jongli Thai Temple), and elsewhere. Although the number remains small, there are Taiwanese ordained in Theravada tradition who established their own Theravada organizations in Taiwan. While the first visit of Dalai Lama to Taiwan in 1997 stimulated public interest in Tibetan Buddhism, the arrival of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan actually occured earlier. Along with the retreat of the Kuomintang (KMT) regime to Taiwan, there were few Tibetan masters such as the Changkya Qutuytu Lozang Penden Tenpe Dronme (b. 1891–d. 1957) or Gelek Rinpoche (b. 1924–d. 2009). Taiwanese interest in Tibetan Buddhism has grown rapidly since 1997 and all four major schools of Tibetan tradition can now be found in Taiwan. There are other non-Chinese Mahayana Buddhist groups in Taiwan such as those from South Korea and Vietnam: some function for local Taiwanese and some function for diaspora. Foreign teachers of different Buddhist traditions have also held lectures or retreats in Taiwan; examples are the British nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (b. 1943), Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926–d. 2022), British teacher Lokamitra (b. 1947; affiliated with Ambedkar Buddhism in India), and many more.

Theravada Buddhism

There are few academic studies in the English language on Theravada Buddhism in Taiwan.

Tibetan Buddhism

In comparsion to Theravada Buddhism, there are more studies about Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan.

  • Jagou, Fabienne, ed. The Hybridity of Buddhism: Contemporary Encounters between Tibetan and Chinese Traditions in Taiwan and the Mainland. Paris: École française d’Extrême-Orient, 2018.

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    The eight chapters in this book may be divided into two parts: the general situation of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan, and the cases studies of specific Tibetan Buddhist schools and individuals.

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  • Travagnin, Stefania. “Elder Gongga (1903–1997) between China, Tibet and Taiwan.” Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions 3 (2016): 250–272.

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    A case study of one of earliest female gurus of the Tibetan tradition in Taiwan.

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  • Yao, Lixiang. Cangchuan Fojiao zai Taiwan. Taipei: The Grand East Book Co., 2007.

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    (Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan). A comprehensive survey of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan. In Chinese.

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  • Zablocki, Abraham. “The Taiwanese Connection : Politics, Piety, and Patronage in Transnational Tibetan Buddhism.” In Buddhism between Tibet and China. By Matthew T. Kapstein, 379–414. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.

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    The paper discusses the Dalai Lama’s visit to Taiwan and the complicated political context behind it. It also presents an overview and history of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan.

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Other

There are other non-Chinese Buddhist organizations in Taiwan that cannot be classified either as “Theravada” or “Tibetan” tradition; mostly they are of the Mahayana tradition

Buddhism-Related New Religious Movements

Reflecting the synthesis characteristic of Chinese religiosity, there have been religious movements with strong Buddhist elements throughout Chinese history such as the White Lotus Movement. One of the legacies of the White Lotus Movement is a religious movement called zhaijiao (“vegetarian sects”), which, according to a 1919 Japanese colonial survey, was widespread in Taiwan at the time. Because zhajiao synthesizes Buddhist beliefs and practices, there is a debate over whether zhaijiao is a form of householder Buddhism. Similar to zhaijiao is Yiguandao (“the Consistent Way,” or “Way of Pervading Unity”). Founded in China in the late 19th century, it was transmitted to Taiwan in 1946. Yiguando synthesizes Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam and emphasizes the need to observe a vegetarian diet. While Yiguandao assimilates Buddhist elements, it does not identify itself as Buddhist. One other religious movement that incorporates Buddhist elements but without Buddhist identity is the Quan Yin Method, founded by the self-styled “Supreme Master Ching Hai” (b. 1951) who was originally from Vietnam and at one time lived as a Buddhist nun in Taiwan. Some other new religious movements may carry Buddhist identity but are controversial in the eyes of Taiwan’s mainstream Buddhist establishment. One such example is True Buddha School (“zenfozong”), which claims to have millions of followers worldwide. Founded by a Taiwanese man, Lu Shengyan (b. 1945; self-styled “Lotus Born Living Buddha”), the headquarters of the movement is located in Seattle. The doctrine of the movement is a blend of Daoism and Tantric Buddhism. Another example is Bliss and Wisdom (fuzhi), founded by the monk Jih-Chang (b. 1929–d. 2004) in Taiwan in 1992. The organization grew rapidly and now has branches and followers worldwide. It is said that while on his deathbed in China, Jih-Chang left the leadership of the organization (including a monastic order) to a householder woman from northern China, styled “Master Zhen-Ru.”. Some sangha members disputed this account and left the organization. Less controversial cases include Modern Chan Society that denies monastic authority, and Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society (linjiushan) that merges Theravada, Chinese Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions. Since Taiwan does not have a central Buddhist authority, new religious movements with Buddhist elements and/or with Buddhist identity are free to flourish. Included here are just a few notable groups.

On Zhaijiao and Yiguandao

Both zhaijiao and Yiguandao incorporate Buddhist elements into their beliefs and practices, and both place emphasis on vegetarianism. While some aruge that zhaijiao is a householder form of Buddhism, Yiguandao does not identify itself as Buddhism.

  • Broy, Nikolas. “Secret Societies, Buddhist Fundamentalists, or Popular Religious Movements? Aspects of Zhaijiao in Taiwan.” In Chinese and European Perspectives on the Study of Chinese Popular Religions. Edited by Philip Clart, 329–369. Taipei: Boyyoung Culture, 2012.

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    The paper analyzes the history and rituals of zhaijiao in China and Taiwan. On the debate of whether zhaijiao is Buddhism, pp. 351–356.

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  • Lu, Yunfeng. The Transformation of Yiguan Dao in Taiwan: Adapting to a Changing Religious Economy. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.

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    Based on fieldwork conducted in Taiwan in 2002, Lu’s book provides a comprehensive overview of Yiguandao.

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On True Buddha School (zenfozong)

True Buddha School claims to be Tantric tradition, but its Buddhist identity is disputed by mainstream Buddhist establishment in Taiwan.

Others

The following are academic studies in the English language on Buddhism-related new religious movements in Taiwan.

Women and Buddhist Feminist Movement

Though Taiwan Buddhism is not free from sexism and institutional androcentrism, compared with other Buddhist cultures in Asia, gender equality fares relatively better in Taiwan. A 1919 survey by Japanese colonial administration noted the overwhelming number of women who outnumbered men in Taiwan’s religious settings. This gender imbalance persists and there have been consistently more women entering sangha than men since Taiwan’s first full monastic ordination in 1953. Buddhist nuns and laywomen are active in every aspect of Taiwan Buddhism. Tzu Chi (see Tzu Chi (Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation)), one of the largest Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, was founded by a nun Cheng Yen (b. 1937). Most of Tzu Chi’s members are female householders and includes a small order of nuns. Smaller in scale but also well-known, is the Luminary nuns’ order (“incense light”; xiangguang in Pinyin); founded by nun Wu Yin (b. 1940). Luminary nuns’ order provides dharma education for nuns and householders alike. One unusual characteristic of Taiwan Buddhism is the mixed-sex sangha, in which monks and nuns belong to the same monastic order and usually are ordained by the same tonsure master-monk. They may live in the same monastery compound, but they are expected to observe the monastic rules such as celibacy. It is unclear how the mixed-sex sangha originated, but the mixed-sexsangha is common in contemporary Taiwan. Despite the overwhelming number of nuns, the head of a mixed-sex sangha is almost without expectation a monk. “Sakyadhita: International Association of Buddhist Women” conference was held in Taiwan in 2002; afterward, Buddhists in Taiwan become more vocal about gender issues. Nun Chao Hwei (b. 1957; chaohui in Pinyin) is perhaps the best known Buddhist feminist in Taiwan. As a Buddhist feminist, she has called to abolish the misogynistic Garudhammas (the eight additional precepts required for fully ordained nuns) and equality for women. In the period leading up to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan in 2019, Chao Hwei publicly advocated support for LGBT+ rights and same-sex marriage.

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