Fo Guang Shan has a rich and fascinating history and presence. Here are a few notes from observation, conversations, and reading about Fo Guang Shan.
Fo Guang Shan originates from the work of Master Hsing Yun. Established in 1967, Fo Guang Shan immigrated from mainland China in 1949. With the KMT losing to the Communiists on the mainland, they were quite suspicious of any individuals also fleeing the mainland. Thus, the KMT thought Hsing Yun was a communist agent at first. He freed himself from suspicion in his new adopted land. Quickly he began to attract other Buddhists to his form of Buddhism. Growth was slow at first, but in 1967 (?) he established Fo Guang Shan.
Fo Guang Shan’s growth has been due to his charismatic, innovative, and organizational leadership. In a way similar to megachurch founders in the USA (Oral Robertson, TD Jakes, Creflo Dollar, etc) Hsing Yun has been charismatic. More importantly though, his innovative spirit introduced modern media as a way to promote Buddhism. A museum exhibit shows the first slide show projector as well as a TV camera that was used in his early years. He also has an organizational gift. He has developed the structure that has contributed from his expanding from a small base in Taiwan to a global organization found in USA, Canada, Argentina, South Africa, mainland China, Japan, and numerous European countries. This expansion even resulted in a Fo Guang Shan university in southern California.
Fo Guang Shan responds both to its social context as well as the Buddhist context. It is no accident that Fo Guang Shan has grown since the 1990’s along with Taiwan as one of the Asian “Tiger” economies. Like South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia, Taiwan’s export driven semi-conductor industry has improved the economic life of many Taiwanese. Master Hsing Yun offers Buddhism to these new Taiwanese; these Taiwanese offer financial resources for Fo Guang Shan. With the election of a non-KMT party, the Green Party, there is uncertainty in the air. As a result of this breaking with the previous “One China” understanding, the PRC has prohibited large tourist groups from leaving the mainland for Taiwan. The slowdown in tourism is quite evident. When I flew from Shanghai to Kaohsiung, the flight was only half-full. I’m sure that this slowdown will hurt Fo Guang Shan because it is one of the major tourist attractions in Taiwan. While living in Taiwan for over 50 years, the 91 year old Hsing Yun has always kept connections with the Chinese on the mainland.
Briefly, Fo Guang Shan seeks to revitalize Buddhism. Master Hsing Yun seeks to do this by combining both traditional Buddhism with his own modern commitments. In the “Life of the Buddha” museum exhibit, he narrates the life of the Buddha. In expected fashion, he writes about the Buddhist classics. While he identifies as a Chinese Buddhist, he doesn’t seek to limit himself to one of the traditional eight schools of Chinese Buddhism; instead, he seeks to combine Pure Land with the Chan (Zen) schools. He is an example of traditions as “ongoing argumens”; yet, he doesn’t argue as much as simply adopts. Over and over again, I heard and I read about his “Humanistic Buddhism.” He has adopted that slogan as a way of “branding” Fo Guang Shan as a new religious alternative to Taiwanese. Although I don’t want to be cynical, I ask myself when has Buddhism not been humanistic?
I can only guess about the membership size of Fo Guang Shan. I’ve heard that the 1500 monastics are assigned both to the main Fo Guang Shan headquarters as well as a hundred sites around the world. The nuns outnumber the monks probably ten to one. The same individual suggested that probably at least 400 plus are here in the main complex. While 90% of these monks and nuns are Taiwanese, the global outreach of Fo Guang Shan attracts young men and women from around the world. Either at worship or strolling around, I observed a few western monks; during my interviews, I interviewed both an Austrian and an Australian. I suspect though that because the organization is so heavily Chinese, that these westerners or African individuals will face severe challenges through the years. Established in the 1990’s, Master Hsing Yun created the Buddhist Light International Association (BLIA). This innovative lay organization provides tremendous energy as well as financial resources to Fo Guang Shan. I talked with two Taiwanese-Americans who are volunteering for a month. Their time alternatives between service, such as being visitor guides, to participating in weeklong retreats.
The monastics practice traditional lifestyles at Fo Guang Shan. As one described it, “we are poor and pure.” There seems to be a “suggested” mandatory requirement that they participate in the 5:50 AM main shrine service. Different from my experience of other Buddhist monasteries, the monks and nuns then file with military precision to a dining hall where they quickly eat in silence. Probably by 9AM, they are in their offices or performing physical work around the grounds. There are similar eating rituals for lunch and dinner although fewer monks and nuns attend those periods.
I find that chanting is much more publicly emphasized than meditation. The chanting led by nuns primarily is exquisitely beautiful. During the first week of each month, there is a week-long chanting retreat. When I attended the hour and a half long evening chanting, I was enthralled with the chanting. The deep and repetitive chanting reminded me of a non-frenzied Pentecostal or African American worship service. Fascinating.
As I’ve mentioned, Maste Hsing Yun has sought to revitalize Buddhism in Taiwan as well as the world. I can’t help but to be impressed with his ability to learn from other’s examples. Fo Guang Shan purpose drives its ideals and sense of responsibility. Its four objectives are as follows:
1)To propagate the Dharma through culture.
2) To foster talent through education.
3) To benefit society through charitable programs.
4) to purify minds through Buddhist practice.
Regarding these objectives, I am struck by acknowledging culture in the first objective. The culture is very clearly Chinese. The language is Chinese, the food is Chinese, the organizational hierarchy is run in traditional Chinese fashion, the cultural practices of Confucian “Li” and “guangxi” are the same. One night at dinner, I saw numerous officials leaving a dinner across from the guest dining hall. I learned that they were visiting Buddhist dignitaries from the mainland! The cultural ties between the mainland and Fo Guang Shan are strong (even though it is allowed only one temple on the mainland).
The second objective is probably the main public objective of Fo Guang Shan. It supports high schools and colleges. On the main campus, there is both a women’s and a men’s college as well as a program for monastics. Reportedly, Master Hsing Yun deplored that Taiwan’s two most prestigious universities were formed by Christian missionaries. He has set a high goal of achieving the same educational heights.
The third objective guides primarily relief efforts. There appears to be a medical team that provides assistance to local Taiwanese. In addition, they try to respond to disasters that occur in areas where they have temples.
Finally, their last priority is to promote Buddhism. As I mentioned, the chanting services are the public expression of this Buddhism. More individually, they certainly seek to exhibit “wise compassion.” The monks and nuns work with a purpose; they exhibit a high degree of sacrifice to this purpose; and, at least to a stranger, they are unfailingly kind, patient, and generous.
Fo Guang Shan is an intriguing place, filled with interesting people~