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


Issue cover-dated September 05, 2002

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 Hsing 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 a 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 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 Hsing 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 Kaohsiung. 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. "This is especially true for Fo Guang Shan. They feel that they have reached their limit in Taiwan," says Yang Hui-nan, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Taiwan University.

At the same time, the major Buddhist groups--Fo Guang Shan, Tzu Chi, Chung Tai Chan and Dharma Drum--are facing the crucial issue of succession. All these groups were founded by and built around charismatic leaders, whose networking skills and intimate ties with Taiwan's political and financial elite have secured huge contributions and crucial support. As yet, none of their ageing leaders has appointed a successor.

"If they announce the successor too far in advance, there will be an intensive power struggle," says Professor Chiang Tsan-teng, a historian of Buddhism at Taiwan's Qinghua University. "If they don't announce a successor, they risk the dissolution of their empires. And if the appointed successor does not carry any weight within the establishment, who will donate money to them?" Those thoughts are echoed by Lan Chi-fu, professor of religious studies at Fo Guang University. "It is a big problem. If the successors fail, these groups may splinter or fall apart. We have seen this happen before."

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 Yi Kung, 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 Hsing 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 sceptical: "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."

As in other parts of the region, like Thailand, where Buddhist clergy have weathered a host of scandals in the past few years, several recent affairs have highlighted the ethical and religious challenges facing Taiwan's Buddhist leaders as they operate in the modern world.

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. Still, this wasn't Wei Chueh's first brush with controversy. In 1996, a scandal erupted when his temple ordained more than 100 young nuns without the prescribed one-year waiting period and without notifying their parents. Other groups have had to face questions about inappropriate donations. And, most notoriously, in 1996 the Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles, founded by Hsing Yun of the Fo Guang Shan, was caught up in a high-profile fund-raising scandal involving then-U.S. Vice-President Al Gore. Such publicity does little to encourage donations.

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-nan. "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."

Yi Kung of the Fo Guang Shan is confident the mainland will eventually open its doors: "Right now, the only place we don't have a temple is mainland China," she says. Although interest in the religion is growing, mainland Buddhists say they still find themselves under heavy scrutiny. "We hope they will be even more open, and that there will be even more room to do missionary work," says Yi. "Now, we can only work inside the temples."

Earlier this year, Beijing sent what many Taiwan Buddhists saw as an encouraging signal: A sacred relic, a finger supposedly belonging to the Buddha that was found in 1987 under a collapsed temple in Xian, was allowed to travel to Taiwan for a month-long tour under the auspices of Hsing Yun. According to several sources, there was even a plan to fly it straight from China to Taiwan, so breaking the ban on direct cross-strait links--a coup for "Buddhist diplomacy." The idea, however, was abandoned.

Nevertheless, the relic was heralded as a symbol of peace, and millions of Taiwanese across the island lined up to view it. Says Yi: "This was a very good exchange between the two sides. Both sides are optimistic about the goodwill it has generated." Taiwan's Buddhist leaders will be hoping that it's a sign of things to come.


By Erling Hoh

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, as she points out, "you can do a lot with a dollar."