A thriving home for Buddha's teachings

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2007, 12:00am

Popular throughout the Chinese world, Buddhism most flourishes in Taiwan, home to four major sects and Buddhist universities, schools, hospitals and other welfare institutions.

According to government figures, 5.5 million people - 24 per cent of the population - believe in the teachings of Buddhism and worship in 4,000 temples.

That makes it the most popular religion on the island, with 30,000 clergy, of whom 75 per cent are nuns.

It is home to what people call the 'four high mountains' - four teachers who have millions of followers at home and overseas and have led the revival

of an ancient religion that had fallen into decay at the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

Of the four, three came to Taiwan after fleeing the mainland in 1949 and one, Cheng Yen, founder of the Tzu Chi foundation, is a native Taiwanese. Her group has 10 million members worldwide, about 6 million in Taiwan.

Hers is the most socially active and its projects include seven hospitals, a university, schools, Asia's biggest bone marrow bank, 50,000 volunteers doing recycling, a global television station and extensive international relief efforts.

Of the other three, the best known is Hsing Yun, founder of Buddha Light Mountain, which has temples and monasteries in Taiwan and more than 30 countries abroad. He has often visited Hong Kong and given lectures to thousands.

The other two are Sheng Yen, founder of Dharma Drum Mountain, and Wei Chueh, a meditation master who established the Chong Tai Shan monastery in central Taiwan.

Buddhism grew even during martial law (1949-1987), which aimed to stop new political parties and media but not religion.

After the end of martial law, religious activity intensified as groups used their new freedoms to attract members, raise money, build temples, monasteries, universities and hospitals.

Taiwan has realised the vision of reformist monks on the mainland in the 1920s who advocated 'humanised Buddhism' - a religion practised not only in the monastery, but also in the daily life of people.

By the late Qing reign (1644-1911), it had become dry and irrelevant to society, practised in remote monasteries, while Christian missionaries were aggressively building schools, hospitals and orphanages.

In Taiwan, Buddhists run universities, colleges, schools, nurseries, hospitals, retirement homes, libraries and publishing houses. Buddhism has become an integral part of society.