Written by Scott Pacey
Buddhism in Taiwan sits within a complex religious milieu that includes Daoism, folk religion, Protestantism, Catholicism, and various new religious movements (NRMs). Since Chinese Buddhism has never been isolated from its religious surroundings, understanding Buddhism in Taiwan thus requires that we examine how it engages with this diverse religious ecosystem. Doing so allows us to paint a more textured and multilayered picture of Taiwanese Buddhism. And since it is a major religion there, it can help us better understand the island’s highly multifarious religious ecology.
Some recent examples illustrate the benefits of this approach. In Taipei’s nondescript district of Yonghe, for instance, there is a museum run by the Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society—the Museum of World Religions. This Society is headquartered at the Wu Sheng Monastery, established by the Buddhist Master Hsin Tao, in Fulong on Taiwan’s Northeast coast. Even so, the museum—which opened in 2001—is very much a focal-point of the organisation. This evinces the importance it places on reaching out to other faiths.
This is evident from the moment one enters. There are displays providing information about various religions, including not only Buddhism, but also Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Miniature reproductions of significant religious sites have also been included to increase the public’s understanding of these and other faiths. By providing examples of similarities bridging religious divides, and displays such as the ‘Pilgrim’s Way,’ which encourages visitors to reflect on something religions share in common—the practice of pilgrimage—Buddhist practices are contextualised within a broader Taiwanese, and global, religious landscape.
There are also examples of interfaith dialogue and influence—such as the case of the Buddhist organisation Tzu Chi. Established by the nun Cheng Yen in 1966 in Hualian on Taiwan’s East coast, Tzu Chi focuses on charitable causes including disaster relief and medical care. A watershed moment in the journey of Tzu Chi was an encounter Cheng Yen had with three Catholic nuns—one which led her to reflect on the relative lack of Buddhist charity projects in Taiwan. This is generally cited in retellings of the story of what led Cheng Yen to determine the core mission of her organisation, which in 1986 completed its first hospital, and has since expanded its network of medical and educational centres.
Such interfaith engagement continues to this day. Cheng Yen has since met, for instance, the Catholic nun Sister Angela Mary Doyle on a number of occasions. And while Tzu Chi’s aid projects stem from Buddhist motivations, they have been carried out in different cultural and religious contexts around the world. Tzu Chi has, for example, helped rebuild non-Buddhist religious sites in regions hit by disasters. While Tzu Chi’s constuction of housing for the mainly Christian indigenous communities affected by typhoon Morakot in 2009 was subject to criticism, such examples bring into relief the degree to which Taiwanese Buddhist groups are embedded within Taiwan’s broader religious diversity.
Another example can be found in Foguang Shan (Buddha Light Mountain), which was founded by the monastic Hsing Yun in 1967. In 2018, a Buddhist-Catholic dialogue between nuns was held at the organisation’s temple complex in Kaohsiung. The next year, the organisation wrote to Pope Francis offering assistance to repair the fire-damaged Notre Dame Cathedral. Prior to this, the very first Buddhist-Christian dialogue organised by the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue was held at Foguang Shan in 1995. It returned to Taiwan in 2017, where it was held at Ling Jiou Mountain.
When we think about Buddhism in Taiwan, however, we should not assume that it is a monolithic entity—it is in fact a complex web of different Buddhist forms. On this point, recent research on the presence of Tibetan Buddhism on the island has been illuminating. The Dalai Lama has visited the island, which is home to large numbers of Tibetan Buddhist adherents, on a number of occasions to great fanfare. When we talk about Buddhism in Taiwan, then, we cannot simply be talking about ‘Chinese Buddhism’—we must be mindful of the substantial diversity of beliefs and practices that come together to shape the religion’s intricate tapestry. That diversity is thus not only a feature of Taiwan’s broader religious setting, but also of Taiwanese Buddhism itself.
As this small—and by no means comprehensive—set of recent examples shows, Buddhism in Taiwan is highly suffused within its broader religious environment in ways that are worthy of analysis and further study. Indeed, the island provides a wealth of case studies that can shed light on the dynamics of interfaith engagement in multifarious religious settings. In the case of Taiwan’s Buddhist organisations, this remains the case even as Taiwan’s space for official international engagement shrinks. In coming years, the study of Taiwan’s religious ecology—both Buddhist and beyond—will certainly continue to yield insights that will be relevant when thinking about interfaith engagement in other parts of the world as well.
Scott Pacey is an Assistant Professor in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. His recent publications include the book Buddhist Responses to Christianity in Postwar Taiwan.
This article is part of a special issue on Buddhism.