Date: Fri, 6 Aug 1999 07:41:37 -0400
Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <H-ASIA@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
From: Leibo, Steven A. <>
Subject: H-ASIA: Taiwan Diary #

From: Scott Simon <>
Subject: Re: Taiwan Diary #6

Taiwan Diary #6: Urban Religion, Part I

By Scott Simon, 6 August 1999

Modernization theorists believed that religion would fade away in the face of modernity and technological progress. The experience of Taiwan, however, seems to prove the opposite. In spite of Taiwan's rapid industrialization and urbanization (or perhaps BECAUSE of it), traditional and new religions have become a visible part of the Taiwanese urban ethnoscape, and a favorite conversation topic among young and old alike.

Traditional Taiwanese religion was territorial. Every piece of land had (and still has) its Earth God (To De Gong). Villages had their local temples, and pilgrimage networks linked them to higher centres of religious devotion. Temple fairs brought together neighbors and villagers, one's temple affiliation being determined by one's place of residence. Most people were unclear about religion itself, however. Usually unable to state clearly if they were Buddhist or Taoist, most were comfortable saying simply that they worship (pai pai).

Urbanization, however, has extracted people from those traditional social networks and exposed them to new forms of religious expression. Taoists have long paraded their deities through the streets. Now Christians join them, carrying banners that proclaim, Believe in Jesus and gain eternal life. New religions abound, and old traditions take new forms. Master Cheng Yan of the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation (, inspired by contact with Catholic nuns, has founded a Buddhist hospital and university in Hualien. That organization has also studied liturgical forms from Protestant Christianity, as members hold witnessing candles during meetings and relate stories of how Buddha has changed their lives. The century-old I-Kuan-Tao (, once persecuted by KMT and CCP alike, attracts hundreds of thousands with its claim to combine Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam in the worship of Wu-sheng Lao-mu. Urban intellectuals flock to the esoteric teachings of Tibetan lamas.

Two weeks ago, Ch'an Master Sheng-yen of Faku Shan (, who usually divides his time between Taipei and New York, made a rare trip to Southern Taiwan. About 2,500 people gathered in Tainan's Number Two High School to hear Master Sheng-yen give a lecture on Buddhism. Bus loads of people came in, not only from Tainan, but also from Kaohsiung, Pingtung, and Chiayi. Women in white shirts and blue ties escorted people to their proper seats in the auditorium. The ceremony began with nuns leading a chant to Kuanyin. Shortly thereafter, Master Sheng-yen himself entered the auditorium, escorted by six men in black suits and white gloves. He gave his speech in Mandarin, with simultaneous translation into Taiwanese.

In Tainan, he began, there are already many temples. One can always worship in those temples. So why should one take refuge in the Three Jewels? After you take refuge, the benevolent gods, Buddha, and the bodhisattvas will protect you.

Whereas one once had to find an individual master, and then work one-on-one to enter the path of Ch'an, Master Sheng-yen has turned Ch'an Buddhism into a mass movement. Faku Shan has Buddhist centres all over Taiwan (not to mention in the USA and Great Britain), where individuals meet for lectures on Buddhism, group meditation retreats, Buddhists choirs, and even organized trips to pick up trash in public parks. Faku Shan even conducts Buddhist wedding ceremonies, a ritual not traditionally associated with Buddhism.

Some people ask me, said Master Sheng-yen, if they can become a Buddha merely by following the precepts of a Buddhist (but not going through formal conversion). I say yes. Then why, they ask, is it necessary to take refuge? If a person can practice Buddhism without taking refuge, I will support that person's decision. But there is a problem. How many people can get a Ph.D. without getting an M.A. and Ph.D. first? I can give you the example of a man who doesn't have a degree at all, but he is a university professor. Many Ph.D. candidates study with him. But most people can't do it. Most people have to go to school.

In Tainan this time, Master Sheng-yen accepted about 1,200 new disciples in a public ceremony. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels, the new disciples took a collective oath to believe in Buddha and obey the precepts of avoiding killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and drinking alcohol. They then stood in line to give red envelopes filled with money to Faku Shan volunteers and accept a necklace as a sign of entry into the religion. Today is your other birthday, said Master Sheng-yen. In traditional Buddhism, new disciples receive a dharma name. With so many people taking refuge, however, that custom was no longer practical. Master Sheng-yen suggested people see one of the Buddhist nuns afterwards if they really feel they need a dharma name. Even Ch'an, it seems, can become a new, mass form of religion.

Religion in contemporary Taiwan is itself a product of modernity. People once participated in temples primarily as members of lineages and villages; they now join religions as individuals motivated by faith. Those who sought Buddhist masters once had to make pilgrimages to monasteries in sometimes remote locations; they can now watch them on TV or look them up on the Internet. No longer struggling each day simply to earn their daily rice, but unsatisfied by a life of consumption and materialism, the Taiwanese have turned in millions to organized religion. Mass conversions to Ch'an Buddhism, in ceremonies reminiscent of Christian baptisms, are a part of this phenomena. Technological progress has not led to the demise of religion. If anything, it has intensified religion and helped it reach a larger audience.