Buddha business
Taiwanese Buddhism is no longer the faith of poor monks, but rather a multi-million-dollar business. Now it's facing new challenges as it attempts to expand its reach

Far from home: Chueh Yann Shih works with Swedish Buddhists

On April 23 this year a notice appeared in the on-line edition of Taiwan's Merit Times, a daily newspaper run by the island's Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Society.

Master Hosing Yun, the society's founder and leader, having propagated Buddhism in Taiwan tirelessly for more than 40 years, was convalescing abroad, and would not be returning to Taiwan in the near future. "Please accept my apologies," the announcement concluded.

For Taiwan's millions of Buddhists, the article was a stark reminder that the remarkable era in their religion's history is drawing to a close. In the past 40 years, Taiwan's Buddhist monks, led by refugees from the mainland, have come down from the mountains, exchanged their begging bowls for PalmPilots, and - riding on the crest of Taiwan's transformation from agricultural backwater to hi-tech economy - extended their island's vision of "Buddhism within the human realm" way beyond their island's shores. Economic powerhouses in their own right, these groups have built extravagant temples, founded universities, hospitals and charities, and, in the process, rebranded Chinese Buddhism, once considered a religion in stasis, as a dynamic force in the real world.

Many Taiwanese Buddhists credit it all to Hosing Yun. In the 1950s, he was the first to use radio to spread his Buddhist teachings. In the 1960s, he founded the Fo Guang Shan near Kaohsing. Today it boasts 173 branches in over 30 countries. Other Buddhist groups followed. The Hualien-based Tzu Chi foundation runs the world's third-largest registry of bone-marrow donors along with hospitals and an international relief organization that has operated everywhere from Afghanistan to the Caribbean. Another is the Dharma Drum Mountain Society, which is opening a new multimillion dollar temple complex just north of Taipei. And then there's the Ling Jiuo Shan Buddhist Society, which last year opened the doors to its ultramodern $66 million Museum of World religions in Taipei. Also last year, the Chung Tai Chan Monastery inaugurated a vast new $110-million temple in central Taiwan.

Behind the apparent prosperity and endless activity, however, analysts say the cost of these large-scale projects are straining the resources of Taiwan's major Buddhist groups to the limit. With the island's economy in the doldrums and donors increasingly circumspect amid a flurry of bad publicity for the societies, mass-Buddhism has hit saturation point in the Taiwanese "market." The only option now is to increase the pace of expansion overseas.

The groundwork for Taiwan's "Buddhism in the human realm" was laid early in the last century by monks influenced by socialism and communism. Amid the revolutionary fervour of the time, the monks sought a more active role for their religion. That influence still lives on today. "This is real communism," says YiKung, publisher of the Merit Times, who turns over her salary as a university professor to the Fo Guang Shan every month.

In the 1970s, as young people flocked to Taiwan's cities to work in factories and offices, Buddhism helped fill the spiritual needs of this newly urbanized populace, who had free time to spend and money to donate. Having attracted millions of followers, Taiwan's Buddhist groups grew into corporation-like organizations, vying for market share and expanding aggressively with slick marketing campaigns.

The academic Chiang Tsan-teng calls it "Department Store Buddhism". "The prosperous, happy, resplendent Buddhism advocated by Hosing Yun, 'religion in the human realm', is very different from the purity and poverty that people associate with traditional Buddhism. This is why it can cater to the taste of industry leaders and why politicians flock to it like ducks", he wrote in his book "Contemporary Buddhism". In person, he's even more skeptical: "Taiwan's Buddhist groups are religious business enterprises," he says. "And Taiwan's Buddhists are not opposed to this. For them, it is another opportunity to spend money."

In May, the Taiwanese edition of Next magazine ran a report on the monk Wei Chueh, leader of the Chung Tai Chan Monastery and the fastest-rising star in Taiwan's Buddhist firmament. Parts of his group's huge new temple in central Taiwan, the magazine reported, are illegal structures built on state property. Worse still, local residents said the monastery had stood by and done nothing in the wake of the disastrous 1999 earthquake: "Chung Tai Chan did not spend a penny on disaster relief," one local told the magazine. "People in Pu Li cannot forgive them for that. That big temple is not magnificent. It is an affront to the eye." A spokesman for the group, Jian-Yun, dismisses the report as "irresponsible," and says the monastery set up medical stations and provided food to earthquake survivors. Away from the headlines, though, Taiwan's Buddhist groups are busy going about their usual business, and increasingly eyeing new markets. Top of the list: China. "The mainland is a very big future market for Taiwan's Buddhist groups," says Taiwan University's Yang Hui-nag. "At present they are mostly involved in renovating and rebuilding temples. But I think it will be at least 10 more years before they can propagate Buddhism freely there."
Far Eastern Economic Review

A simple life
Taiwan's Buddhist societies might seem obsessed with building grand new shrines. But for many of their members, life is about far simpler things.

Take Chueh Yann Shih, a Malaysian-Chinese nun who runs what must be one of the Fo Guang Shan's most remote outposts- a one-woman monastery in the village of Rosersberg, north of Stockholm. Here in a converted factory building, the nun rises early each day to meditate before beginning her work in the Chinese community-visiting the sick, performing weddings and funerals, and blessing newly opened shops and restaurants. She may have limited resources, but the nun is happy to do what she can for local Buddhists. And, she points out, "you can do a lot with a dollar."
Erling Hoh

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