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Yilan, Taiwan
I'm a Social Studies teacher and single mom from Colorado and have lived here for 9 years. Taiwan is an excellent base for us explore Asia, while living in relative (gun free) safety, while benefiting from a cheap and efficient national health care system. The people are amazing too. I have friendships that are 14 years old and I'm always making new ones.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Buddha's Birthday + Zhaijiao Buddhism: Taiwan's Top 9 Buddhist Groups

Buddhist temple roof, Anping 2012
Its impossible to live in Taiwan and not be curious about local beliefs. There's a temple on every block, a shrine in most people's homes. Local deities' birthdays stop traffic, its common to drive or walk around burning ghost money on the sidewalks. Buddhism as its practiced here is mostly a mix with folk Taoism. In the same temple you can see Taoist folk gods (former generals) alongside Buddha and Guanyin/Matzu, goddesses of mercy and the sea.

Every May Buddhists celebrate Buddha's birthday in Taiwan by bathing his statue. Buddha's birthday (佛誕)  is celebrated in Taiwan officially on the second Sunday in May, the same as Mother's Day, as well as the 8th day of the 4th lunar month, which this year is May 25th. So it's not too late to observe some local customs.

 There are three main Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (Tibetan). Taiwanese Buddhism developed over the past 300 years when the first Han Chinese immigrated to Taiwan.  They followed the Mahayana traditions, of unselfishly delaying enlightenment and becoming Bodhisattva saints to help mankind, as they usurped agricultural lands from aboriginals, pushing them into the mountains where they remain today. (Which is no different from Christian Europeans doing the same thing in the Americas, Australia and Africa.)

3 Buddhist traditions, which is your cup of tea?

A noticeable feature of Taiwanese Buddhism is "Zhaijiao"or "Lay Buddhism" (齋教) . Zhaijiao started during the Qing dynasty in Taiwan and blossomed under Japanese colonial rule. Most of its early followers were widows and unmarried women who could not be nuns, because there were no nunneries at that time, so they worked in the vegetarian halls. So its most powerful movement was vegetarianism. So Taiwanese Mahayana also differs from Buddhism in other Asian countries on a modern level because laypeople, and everyday practitioners run temple duties, chant Buddhist scriptures and lead charity events rather than just monks or nuns. There is also a sense of social responsibility by its followers that is noticeable in everyday Taiwanese life. Chan (Zen) Buddhism is one of the most popular sects and there are several popular followings.

 Here is a scant list of some of the main Buddhist groups in Taiwan and with abbreviated backgrounds for English speaking people to participate in meditation or Buddhist educational retreats. Check their websites for more unabridged information. There are "4 Main Temples" of Buddhism in Taiwan, they compromise the first four in the following list:

1. Tzi Chi Foundation "Compassionate Relief"
If I had to pick my favorite organized Buddhist group in Taiwan it would be Tzi Chi, the world's largest Buddhist charity. Their headquarters, as well as university are located in Hualien. Their leader is nun Cheng Yen, the 78 year old "Mother Teresa of Asia". She is one of the first faces of mainstream Buddhism I saw when I first moved to Taiwan. She is often on TV with English subtitles.

Cheng Yen, founder of Tzi Chi Compassionate Relief
Living in Anping, several of my closest Taiwanese friends were followers of Tzi Chi and their kids went to that elementary school. They are all very gracious, sincere people. Tzi Chi seemed to be the first ones offering disaster relief to neighboring countries. I often dropped off old clothes or recyclables at their collection community center by my home. They are renown for their community outreach in times of natural disaster in Taiwan and internationally. They have centers throughout the country that take old clothes and recyclables, which they use for disaster relief- the most recent in Nepal, but also during the Tsunami in Japan and typhoons here and the Philippines. They have missions teams and you can volunteer in any of their local and global mission or donate bone marrow.

My daughter at the neighborhood Buddhist temple, just checking it out. Anping 2006

2. Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山or Fagushan Founded by Master Sheng Yen, they focus on Chan (Zen) meditation. They are located in New Taipei City with a complex of monasteries, two universities and a college. They practice three kind of educational outreach and four kinds of environmentalism.  Their main goal is to educate the public in Buddhism and they also raise money for other donations. Their leader was also a mainland Chinese monk. They spend 200 million NT per year to help families just above the poverty line who don't quality for govt assistance. They are having meditation events/festivals, May 23rd and 24th and in September, check their schedule.

Chung Tai Temple, Puli 2011
3.Chung Tai Chan Szu- Probably the least socially engaged, they encourage a monastic life and is the most controversial, due to its exorbitant $650 million monastery in Puli. They were also in the news back in September 1996 for basically kidnapping children summer campers and not returning them to their parents until the police were called and the parents had a sit in. Scary!

4. Fo Guang Shan- Located in Kaohsiung, they are the most comprehensive group with a monastery for men, women and foreigners. It has adult centers, youth and children;s camps, 3 kindergartens, a middle school and three universities. Believers recite Confucian ethics along with Buddhist chants and  is associated with Chinese cultural activities. They publish books, a journal, newspaper, have medical clinics, hospitals, treatments for prison inmates and a cemetery for the poor. Their leader is the Chinese, charismatic leader, Hsing Yun.

5.  Taiwan Vipassana- This probably is the most well known for Westerners and comes from the Theravada branch of Buddhism. This branch focuses on meditation techniques for calming the mind and having insight rather than teaching a system of religious beliefs. I have had friends do the 10 day silent Vipassana course (hardcore!). They offer, 1 day, 2 day, 10 and 20 day courses, for Mandarin and English speakers and some are for women only. Here is their schedule for the Lyu-Guei location. They have a main branch in Kaohsiung and another in Taichung.

Chung Tai Temple, Puli 2011
6.  Fu-Chih- They regard Tibetan Buddhism as they most advanced although they combine some Confucianism and Han Buddhism. They promote organic goods and a healthy lifestyle for body, mind, spirit and the environment, shun the media spotlight and have a nondescript building in Taipei. They also publish 2 journals and are working on a life education center, a boarding school complex in central Taiwan. They founded one of my favorite health food stores, Leezen.

7.  Ling Jiou Shan- They also embrace Tibetan and Theravada, Han traditions but goes further in trying to bridge all world belief systems and is known for their Museum of World Religions and the Chan Institute. Their leader Xindao was a student at Foguang who immigrated to Taiwan at age 13 from Burma, where he was a child-monk soldier in a monastery in Burma.

8. Kadampa Buddhism- Located in Tamsui, they offer retreats and meditation classes in English. They are a kind of modern (Gelug) Vajrayana (Tibetan) branch of Buddhism that was officially started in England and they have branches all over the world. Their main point is teaching meditation to be used practically. They call themselves the "Pure Gelugpas" and follow the writings of Je Tsongkhapa, which are interpreted and taught by their founder, the Venerable Kelsang Gyatso.

Master Miao
9. Tathagata Chan (Zen) Abode-  Led by the charismatic Guru Master Miao. They have groups all over the island, check their official website. I have 2 dear friends who are followers and they both have the same testimony. This guru recently became enlightened, he is now god incarnate, as in the "New Christ" which means he is free of all karma and can help his followers clean their karma so they can reincarnate in a better form or even better stay in heaven. When my friends push me to go to one of his meditation groups, I say, but I am already going to heaven, Jesus already did 2000 years ago what this guy claims to do now, so I don't see the point. My friends claim it has changed their lives, that this man is God, which is pretty charged on many levels.  I am wary and slightly curious. Master Miao has his followers meditate 30 min every day, and meet once a week, like church. (Check out this Western musician's testimony of Master Miao's effect on his music. He starts in at minute 5.)

What I know for sure is that meditating 30 min everyday for 4+ years, definitely had a noticeably positive impact on my friends' lives, regardless of their claim for their guru to be the Godhead.  I've been inspired to recently have been making my own times in the morning for a daily devotion and meditation, more in the style of vipassana. I'll meditate on uplifting scriptures  or subjects like, abundance, goal setting . I think even emptiness is an illusion.

Meeting Taiwan's New Age Buddhists
Taiwan's Socially Engaged Buddhist Groups
Dharma Net
Meditate and Buddhism in Taiwan
Database of Buddhist Temples in Taiwan
The Development of Taiwanese Buddhism
The Corporate Body of Buddhist Educational Foundation
A Buddhist Library
Urban Dharma
Out of the Monastery into the Crowds

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