Written by Corey Bell and Yao-hung Huang.
Religion in Taiwan is big – and big business. With religious affiliation rates dwarfing those of its neighbours South Korea and Japan, and donations to religious and benevolent causes on a scale that is almost unpeered in the region, this tiny island of merely 24 million people has come to sustain a rich and diverse ecosystem of religious institutions whose organisational capacity, financial strength and international influence defy its modest population. In addition to religiosity being an almost omnipresent feature of life in Taiwan, religious groups have in recent times increased their institutional footprint, operating a growing number of publishing houses, medical and palliative services, educational institutions and environmental programs. Some have expanded their reach through Taiwanese diaspora into other parts of East Asia, and even the West.
Towering above the canopy of this dense socio-religious ecology are the so-called ‘Four Great Mountains’ – or four prominent Buddhist organisations. These are Foguang shan (Buddha’s Light Mountain), founded by Venerable Hsing Yun, Tzu Chi, led by Venerable Cheng Yen, Dharma Drum Mountain, founded by the Japanese-educated scholar-monk Sheng-yen, and Chung-Tai Shan, which was established by Venerable Wei Chueh. All of these adhere to what is arguably the most prominent form of Buddhism in the modern Sinitic world – ‘humanistic Buddhism’ – and each run a substantial number of benevolent and other programs/institutions. Yet while they are united by common roots and similar visions, the reality of competition for limited resources in such a crowded market has given rise to intense competition. This has in turn prompted a creeping growth of intersectarian rivalries which is challenging their solidarity, and which does not entirely sit well with their Buddhist ethos.
It is in the backdrop of this unique ecology that a truly distinctive event has come into being – the ‘Buddha-Dharma Cup’ 佛法盃. The name is derived from the juxtaposition of the first characters of ‘Buddha’s Light’ and ‘Dharma Drum’ respectively, and refers to a competition, held annually, between sangha and lay students of Buddhism enrolled in the Buddha Light’s University, and the Dharma Drum Mountain’s Institute of Liberal Arts (DILA). The idea for the event first formed when members of Fo Guang Shan’s Department of Buddhist Studies (DPS) visited DILA in late 2015 – part of a series of events to facilitate the promotion of Buddhism by fostering intersectarian cooperation. The Cup has since been held annually, and – depending on the island’s success in controlling the coronavirus – will possibly witness its fifth inauguration this May.
Originally called the ‘Buddha Dharma Cup Friendly’ 佛法盃友誼賽, the first incarnation of the event was held at Foguang University in May 2016. It featured competitions in basketball, badminton and table tennis, as well as novelty events including ‘caterpillar relays,’ games for testing reflexes, and tug-of-war. Music was a major component of the event, which featured performances of modern as well as classical Chinese songs from orchestras and bands hailing from both institutions. The event was hailed as a success by both organisations, paving the way for a repeat of the event on a larger scale in 2017.
By 2018 the event had both grown considerably, and including a third contingent from Taiwan’s Fu Jen Catholic University. Roughly 150 participants – including international students from as far as Indonesia and Argentina – joined competitions and exhibition performances including debates, Taekwondo demonstrations, orchestra, jazz and traditional Chinese zither renditions, and even tea-art. That year’s event also featured a number of special guests and advisors – including Taiwan’s world famous latteart instructor and judge Schroeder Hsieh. Wan Jun-chuan, the Dean of Foguang University’s Department of Buddhist Studies (DBS), praised the success of the event as an important symbol of cross-collegial and intersectarian solidarity. He noted his hopes that by bringing people together, society could come to better appreciate the value of Buddhist Studies, and religious studies more generally, as important sub-branches of the humanities.
Last year’s event – the fourth and largest so far – was held on May 1, this time in DILA’s Yang-sheng Stadium in the Northeast of Taiwan. It was attended by more than 200 participants, including a small contingent of special guests from India. Prizes were given in the categories of ‘Harmony and respect’ and ‘Compassion and Wisdom’. Events and performances were complemented by lessons in digital humanities, and opportunities for students from Foguang University to familiarise themselves with the institute’s facilities. Upon its conclusion, students were taken on a guided tour of the local sights.
As the event transformed and expanded over its brief four year history, its aims and objectives have also evolved. According to Associate Professor Teng Wei-jin – a Harvard Graduate who teaches at DILA’s Department of Buddhist Studies – the event has become important to students, and, by extension, a field struggling to retain young talent. As Dr Teng noted, ‘Young people see Buddhist studies as old, quiet and lonely,’ but ‘the Cup shows them that the the world of Buddhist studies can be lively and vibrant.’ He also noted that students appreciated the chance to make friends and foster connections in a field where settling into a career can be daunting – especially with the university sector facing threats of closures and amalgamations due to Taiwan’s rapidly aging population. ‘The event is helping break boundaries,’ stated Dr Teng. ‘Buddhism needs this if it is to continue to flourish.’
Corey Bell is an associate editor at Taiwan Insight.
Yao-hung Huang is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures, Fo Guang University, Taiwan.
This article is part of a special issue on Buddhism.