THE MOUNTAIN GOD AND THE MONASTERY – THE PECULIAR CASE OF THE SHANSHEN SHRINE

Written by Wen-Ren Liu.

Image Credit: 北港朝天宮 by 明志 鍾/ Flickr, license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When travelling around Taiwan one will inevitably encounter small temples whose religious affiliation is not immediately evident. The prevalence of such temples reflects an area where Chinese religiosity generally differs from the monotheism prevalent in many other societies – while many Chinese believe in the existence of a realm of invisible, non-material existence, they are less inclined to confine their belief to a specific God. In line with this, many religious sites in Taiwan demonstrate an interesting juxtaposition of spiritual beings and symbols pertaining to different religious/spiritual traditions, the main ones being Buddhism, Taoism (and Folk Taoism), and Confucianism, and when visiting these temples, many Taiwanese tend to pay respects to spiritual figures they are not familiar with in addition to those they came to worship. In short, Chinese folk culture has been the incubator of a harmonious co-existence of different religious/spiritual traditions, and this is arguably most evident in contemporary Taiwan.

An interesting example can be found in Northeast Taiwan near the main monastery of the Dharma Drum Mountain organisation (DDM) – one of the so-called ‘four great mountains’ or major Buddhist organizations of modern Taiwan. 

The founder of DDM, the eminent late Chan Master Sheng-Yen, chose as the site of this monastery a beautiful and tranquil hillside in Jinshan District, in what is now called New Taipei City. Sheng-Yen, who had engaged in extensive academic studies on Chinese Buddhism, intended that the temple reflect the spirit of the architecture of Chan Buddhism in the Tang period – the so-called ‘golden age’ of Chinese Buddhism, wherein the religion flourished and reached new heights. In line with this, while the DDM is both large and replete with the technologies and necessities of the modern world, its architecture appears humble and low-profile, while its buildings are confined to bland and non-stimulating colours; namely, gray, brown, and white. The calming ambiance this generates is enhanced by the temple’s landscape, where distant mountains appear to blend seamlessly with a more immediate vista of trees, rocks and small streams.

Yet next to the gate is a religious structure whose tenure and design could not be more different. While this shrine is not large, it is luxuriantly decorated with delicately carved dragons, exuberant ornaments, as well as statues and motifs stemming from local folk beliefs – all of which are made prominent by the prevalence of striking green, red and gold hues. While it comes across as an eye-catching piece of architecture, these features are aligned with the ‘traditional’ style of Chinese folk religion temples that are an almost omniprescent feature of small-town Taiwan.     

This is the shrine of a local deity – the so-called Mountain God. And it was sponsored and built by DDM.

Before DDM constructed its monastery, and the center for Buddhist education appended to it, the site featured a small building, called the Shanshen Shrine (山神廟), that was frequented by neighbouring residents who worshiped the Mountain God. When construction was about to begin, Master Shen-Yen decided that even though the temple was associated with a different and less orthodox belief system, its presence – and the beliefs of its patrons – should receive due respect. To provide the Mountain God a new home, the DDM meticulously reconstructed that building. It kept its design in line with the prevailing popular, mainstream style of Taiwanese folk temples and shrines.  

This conflation of Chan school and folk religious architecture at the DMM reflects an important point about Sheng-Yen’s vision for his organisation, and more arguably, Buddhist culture in modern Taiwan more generally. The architectural style currently most prevalent in Chinese temples did not became popular until China’s last two dynasties, the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The monasteries of what many regard to be Chinese Buddhism’s golden age – the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties – looked very different. As a monk devoting his life to the resurgence of Chinese Chan Buddhism, Sheng-Yen felt that exposing people to the architectural taste of Chan from its golden period could help devotees rediscover the spirit and ethos of that time.

Yet he did not hold that one is correct and that the other is not, for he felt architecture can serve as a microcosm of how historical and other causes and conditions create new necessities, and overpowering impetuses for change. The key for Buddhists, according to Sheng-Yen, is thus to view these changes with a non-discriminate mind and with equanimity. The same principles arguably apply to the formation of the temples of other religions and the belief systems that shaped their constitution.

This also reflects the more general Chan/Zen tenet that the very concepts of  “religion” and “temple” are seen through the lense of pragmatism. In Chan Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to rely on and re-connect with one’s inner self-nature, and worshiping gods in a temple is obviously not in line with this tenet. Nonetheless, like its predecessors, modern Taiwanese Chan Buddhism recognises wholeheartedly the fact that beliefs and ritual structures give people comfort and can help them on their religious journey. Perhaps more than anywhere, Buddhist leaders in Taiwan – especially leaders of the powerful so-called ‘humanistic Buddhism’ lineages – generally both appreciate this fact, and embrace the diversity that it gives rise to. This has meant that Buddhism’s recent rise and ongoing strength on the island has not come at the expense of the colour and multifariousness of its religious scene.

Wen-Ren Liu received a PhD in language acquisition from Pennysylvania State University, and is a researcher at Taiwan’s Chunghua Institute of Buddhist Studies. 

This article is part of a special issue on Buddhism.

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