Family and Fo Guang Shan

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We stroll into Home of Joy and Celebration  near the Buddha Memorial Hall. Cheerful young women greet us and escort us toward a small, bright chapel which cushioned benches for forty people. Another young women proudly hands us a book with photos of a “Witnessing Master” who is “officiating” a wedding. At the front of the book is an order of service. Some of the elements of the service may sound familiar: procession, exchange of marriage vows, prayer, exchange of rings, prayer, wedding theme song. For a Buddhist wedding ceremony, Master Hsing Yun wrote these words himself:
May they become a Bodhi family,
Under the same roof,
May they be respectful to each other,
May they be tolerant of each other,
May they be helpful to each other,
May they love each other all their lives…..
May they be united inlove and may everything go smoothly;
May they share the same feeling towards each other,
May they make a harmonious and orderly home…..
I am not prepared for a Las Vegas chapel at Fo Guang Shan! My understanding of most Buddhists is that marriage rests upon a desire and a romantic attraction to the other person. While these desires are a part of life of this life, such desires ultimately become a hindrance to obtaining ultimate happiness. As a result, Buddhist monks and nuns rarely have anything to do with weddings. Yet, here at Fo Guang Shan they have monks and nuns participating along with a wedding prayer written by their own Master. Whew! To me this is an example of Fo Guang Shan’s altering traditional practices and adopting elements of other traditions, a wedding style of Christianity and values from Confucianism!

Of course, the language of family abounds at Fo Guang Shan. Master Hsing Xun, the founder, frequently shares stories from his own life. Born in 1927, he becomes a monk at the age of 12 thus separating from his mother. After war against the Japanese and the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists, the Master eventually moves to Taiwan in 1949. Many years elapse before he sees his mother again. In his diary, he writes that “On his birthday I would light a light and chant a sutra to the Buddha alone hoping that all these merits could be transferred to mother for a long and happy life. In the year she turned eighty six, we finally got in touch with each other. Separated by half a century, the longing to see my mother was finally satisfied.” Surely linked to his own experiences, the Master instituted “Family Reunion Days.” Differing from other Buddhist communities who have the monastics break with their families, Fo Guang Shan once every two years encourages the monks and nuns’ families to visit.

Master Hsing Yun is the “pious loyal son.” He seems to combine being deeply grateful and being ashamed of the pain his separation has caused his mother. Again, this model is an adoption of Confucianism rather than more traditional Buddhist beliefs and practices.

The language of family is widely used. The Master speaks of the family as “not limited to the same surname or origin, and neither confined within one house. It can be expanded to “universal brotherhood of the four oceans.” Others speak similarly. A lay member sees “all sentient beings forming one family.” A monastic proclaims that there is an “extended family of Fo Guang Shan.” This extended family includes all the monastics both at Fo Guang Shan and the more than 150 branch locations around the world; the extended family also includes the hundreds of thousands of Buddhist Light International Association (BLIA) members an international lay Buddhist organization founded by the Master in 1992. During the week that I’m here, probably 50 BLIA members worked and participated in a week long chanting retreat. One member from Detroit has been returning To Fo Guang Shan the past four years as it was an “incredible experience.” Apparently, the extended family even includes fellow Buddhists who can work together such as the joint celebrating of the relocating of a Buddha tooth relic to Fo Guang Shan about fifteen years ago.

Of course, questions arise. While there are many who are included in the family, how fully inclusive is this family? One person guessed that nuns outnumber monks ten to one. The nuns do head departments and branch temples. Am I overly suspicious if I suspect that Master Hsing Yun and his close male advisors maintain a firm hold on power? I’m sure there are other undercurrents. For example, how does Fo Guang Shan and other contemporary Buddhist movements get along? Like real families, do they smile in public and fight in private?

Regardless of my questions, Master Hsing Yun is amazingly creative and energetic. He is not reluctant to change traditional Buddhism even if it means borrowing from other religious traditions. It will be interesting to watch how Fo Guang Shan develops in the years ahead.

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