This is a digital version of the following paper:

Bingenheimer, Marcus (2003): “Chinese Buddhism Unbound - Rebuilding and Redefining Chinese Buddhism on Taiwan.” In Kalpakam Sankarnarayan (Ed.): Buddhism in Global Perspective. Mumbai: Somaiya Publications, 2003. 122-146.

Pagination is indicated in the text (pb). The file may be freely distributed with this header intact.

1. Historical Background

1.1 Buddhism in Taiwan before the Japanese occupation

1.2. Buddhism during the Japanese occupation

1.3 Taiwanese Buddhism from 1945 to 1989

2. The Institutions of Taiwanese Buddhism in the Nineties

2.1 The Structure of the Sangha

2.2 The “Four Big Mountains”

2.3. Other forms of Buddhism in Taiwan

3. Current Doctrinal and Academic Developments on Taiwan

3.1. The influence of Yinshun

3.2 Academic developments

4. Conclusion

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Rebuilding and redefining Chinese Buddhism on Taiwan


Marcus Bingenheimer, Taipei

This paper is intended as an overview of the development and current situation of Chinese Buddhism in Taiwan. The first part will outline the historical background. In the second part we will take a closer look at the religious situation in Taiwan during the nineties, especially the characteristics and the impact of the so-called Four big mountainsas well as some peculiarities in the structure of the Taiwanese Sangha. The aim of the third part is to highlight a few important aspects of Taiwanese Buddhism and Buddhist studies. On the doctrinal level there is the transition from the “reformer monk” Taixu to his student Yinshun. This is in many ways connected to the growth of Buddhist studies on the island. Finally, the CBETA-project serves as an example for the many editorial activities in the Buddhist world on the island. With the help of these examples we will see how Chinese Buddhism, a tradition that has taken many blows during the past century, is currently rebuild and redefined in Taiwan.


1. Historical Background


Over the last twenty years, Taiwanese scholars of Buddhism have <pb n="123"/>studied the history of Buddhism on Taiwan in some detail.[1] There are three main periods to consider:

1. Buddhism in Taiwan before 1895.

2. Buddhism in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation until 1945.

3. Taiwanese Buddhism since 1945.

Before the Japanese occupation, Buddhism in Taiwan did not differ much from that in other provincial regions of South China. Under the Japanese occupation, the situation became more complex. Buddhist institutions were forced to associate themselves with Japanese sects while finding and maintaining a Chinese Buddhist identity. After 1949 monks from the mainland, who arrived in the wake of Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat to Taiwan, reasserted and reformed Chinese Buddhism in the island. It was, however, only after martial law ended in 1987 that a period of pluralisation led to a fast paced development of Buddhism in Taiwan.


1.1 Buddhism in Taiwan before the Japanese occupation


During the first period, from the first arrival of Buddhist monks until the Japanese occupation in 1895, Taiwan was part of the Manchu-Chinese empire. Taiwan appeared on the political landscape of Asia only in the 17th century when the Dutch tried to incorporateFormosainto their colonial empire. In the wake of the collapse of the Ming dynasty during the mid-seventeenth century, forces loyal to the Ming drove the Dutch out, only to be ousted in turn by the Manchu forces of the Qing dynasty. In the years between 1683 and 1895 Taiwan stayed very much on the periphery of affairs; it was never more than a distant outpost of the Qing empire. Only in 1887 was its status upgraded from prefecture to province.


During the Qing dynasty the situation of Buddhism in Taiwan was similar to that of other backwaters in South China. Although the first known monk on the island arrived as early as 1675, the predominant form of Buddhism called zhaijiao (“Vegetarian Teaching”) was largely independent from the Sangha of monks and nuns. Zhaijiao, which comes in several different sects, is a form of Folk-Buddhism that originated in the Ming dynasty <pb n="124"/>with the teaching of Luo Qing (1442-1527), the founder of the so-called luojiao. Scholarship has not yet disentangled the complex history of these sects, each of which is its own amalgam of Buddhism, Daoism, Neo-Confucianism and local folk-religious beliefs.[2] Zhaijiao, which still exists today, was organised by lay-people. The common denominator of its different sects seems to be the adherence to a form of vegetarian diet that also excludes certain vegetables.[3] Objects of worship include both Bodhisattvas and Daoist deities. The places of worship were deliberately not called simiao but zhaitang (“Vegetarian Hall”) to further emphasise their independence from orthodox Buddhism. It is estimated that there were slightly more than hundred zhaitang on the island at the end of the Qing dynasty.[4]


1.2. Buddhism during the Japanese occupation


After China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), Taiwan fell to Japan in the treaty of Shimonoseki and became its first colony (second, if the Ryūkyū Islands are counted). The Japanese carried out a wide range of economical and social measures that were aimed at turning Taiwan into a part of a future Japanese empire. Because of the nearly total japanisation of the education system, Japanese influence is present in certain aspects of Taiwanese culture even today.

For both orthodox Buddhism in Taiwan, as well as for the Zhaijiao and Daoist sects, the arrival of the Japanese led to great changes in the way religion on the island was organised. During the first twenty years the colonial rulers did not interfere in religious matters, but to their credit, studied the situation systematically. These studies and surveys are today the most valuable and reliable source for the study of the religious setting in 19th century Taiwan. After an unsuccessful uprising connected with a Zhaitang temple (the so-called Xilaian shijian) in 1915, the Japanese attitude towards the local religion changed and strong efforts were made to control religious groups. Zhaijiao sects and Buddhist ordination lineages alike had either to associate themselves <pb n="125"/>with Japanese Buddhist sects or join island-wide ‘patriotic’ associations[5] that were inspired or co-founded by Japanese sects.[6]


Japanese Buddhism entered Taiwan at the heels of the Japanese colonists. In the early stages of the occupation, when there were frequent revolts by ethnic Chinese and aboriginal people, Japanese priests served as chaplains in the Japanese army. Later they catered to Japanese civilians that immigrated to Taiwan and finally they started missionary activities on a wider range aimed at both Chinese and aboriginal Taiwanese. In the end, most Japanese Buddhist sects had representatives in Taiwan and a survey shows that in 1941 65 Japanese temples had been constructed since the start of the occupation.[7] The Sōtō and Rinzai schools deployed the highest numbers of missionaries, but even so their efforts can hardly be called successful. The number of Chinese devotees stayed negligible. After fifty years of proselytising there were only about 28,000 Taiwanese who were officially registered with Japanese Buddhist institutions.


While during the first decades the attitude of the colonial government towards religion was relatively tolerant, this too, changed when all of Japan succumbed to the nationalistic lunacy of the thirties. In the mid-thirties aJapanisation Movement(kominka undo) policy was formulated. For Taiwan this meant nothing less than an all-out attempt to abolish Chinese language, culture and tradition. The use of the Chinese languages was forbidden at school and Japanese became the only medium of instruction. From 1938-1940 with a campaign called “temple restructuring(jibyo seiri) the Japanese rule turned into full-fledged religious suppression, for restructuring effectively meant the razing of the temple structures and the burning of religious images. “Purely” Buddhist temples, however, were mostly spared (their association with Japanese sects offered some protection), though the same could not be said for Daoist temples or Zhaitang halls, and a large number of those were destroyed.


<pb n="126"/>In spite of all the pressure the fifty years of foreign rule also had its positive effects for Buddhism. The tightrope-walk between official co-operation with Japanese Buddhism and continued contacts with the mainland was also a creative process from which Taiwanese Buddhism gained a sense of identity. During this period a number of monks successfully developed traditional Chinese Buddhism on Taiwan.[8] Through their efforts, distinct ordination lineages were for the first time established and more monks were ordained according to Chinese ordination rites during the Japanese occupation than ever before.[9]



1.3 Taiwanese Buddhism from 1945 to 1989


In line with the terms of the Cairo Declaration (Dec. 1943) Taiwan was returned to Chinese control after the allied victory. In October 1945 the Nationalist government in Chongqing dispatched Chen Yi as governor, who ruled without any mandate from the Taiwanese and often against their wishes. A revolt in February 1947 was ruthlessly put down, and from that time on, it is appropriate to speak of the government as a Nationalist regime that ruled Taiwan until its peaceful transition to democracy in the late eighties.


After Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party lost the Civil War (1946-1949) on the mainland, Taiwan was chosen as the safest retreat. Among the 1.5 million mainlanders that fled to Taiwan in 1949-1950 (mainly the remainder of Chiang’s army and bureaucracy) there were also a few monks. Some had been drafted to the army; some managed to travel via Hong Kong or devised other ways of passage. Altogether not more than 100 monks, these men have nevertheless determined the course of Taiwanese Buddhism until today. What set them apart from their Taiwanese brethren was mainly their superior education. Almost half of the group came from Northern Jiangsu that in those days was considered the place in China where Buddhism was practised in its fullest form, with large, public monastic centres and seminaries. Among those that came to Taiwan were some highly respected elders who had served as abbots in renowned monasteries.


<pb n="127"/>To unify the various Buddhist associations an umbrella organisation was first founded in Nanjing in 1947. The Buddhist Association of the Republic of China (BAROC) was to stay the main organisation of Buddhism in Taiwan until the late eighties. It had a de facto monopoly as the only official representative of Buddhism in Taiwan. Crucially, every monk or nun, who wanted to go abroad, had to apply for a travel-permit via the BAROC.


It is possible to distinguish roughly between two groups among the mainlanders. On the one side were the more reform-oriented monks who had studied in Taixu’s (1889-1947) seminaries on the mainland.[10]  On the other side stood the majority of more conservative minded clerics who saw no need to reform Chinese Buddhism in general (although very much the Buddhism they found on Taiwan). During a meeting in 1955 the conservatives, who by then had gained the backing of the Nationalist Party, finally took over control of the BAROC.[11] This position they have maintained until today, even though the influence of the BAROC is now negligible.

Although the Nationalist Party regime suppressed all forms of political opposition, it displayed great laissez faire in other areas of society and in general did not interfere in religious activities. This made it possible for all religions, especially Buddhism and Christianity, to establish firm roots in society over the course of fifty years. Taiwan’s economic success led to large donations, and the Buddhist Sangha in Taiwan is extremely wealthy. Reliable figures are not available, but if the construction-boom is any measure, ready money is definitely available. Since the sixties many temples have been built, renovated and enlarged to an extent that is certainly unique in the Buddhist word of the 20th century.[12] The growing wealth of the Sangha also enabled it to get involved in charity work and the active dissemination of the Dharma. During the four decades until 1990, both profile and reputation of the Sangha in society has been raised substantially. More and more monks have acquired <pb n="128"/>higher education, which not only strengthened their position as community leaders, but also put them at par with the Christian missionaries.[13]


The BAROC was never a very popular organisation and played only a minor role in the actual religious life of Taiwanese Buddhists, but it was successful in its aim to expunge the Japanese influence from the Buddhist Sangha. The crucial questions here were vegetarianism and celibacy. Both principles were irrelevant to Japanese Buddhist priests (who have been allowed to marry since 1876), but were strictly adhered to by the Chinese monks and nuns.[14]

It was also with the help of the BAROC, but mostly by founding their own temples or seminaries, that the monks from the mainland and their Taiwanese disciples over the years restructured and reformed Taiwanese Buddhism towards greater unity and orthodoxy. This was achieved mainly by two means: control over the ordination system and the establishment of seminaries for members of the Sangha.[15]

By virtue of their seniority and reputation, the mainland monks were able to strengthen their Chinese form of Buddhist orthodoxy through Dharma-talks, publications and the able use of mass media. One issue that reoccurred during the fifties and sixties was the worship of non-Buddhist idols in Buddhist temples next to images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.[16] This practice, which is very common in Chinese Folk-Buddhism, has consequently almost vanished in Taiwan. It is possible to find a Kuan-yin image in a Daoist temple, but very few Buddhist temples in Taiwan would exhibit a figure of, say, the Yellow Emperor.

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2. The Institutions of Taiwanese Buddhism in the Nineties


Before the end of martial law in 1987 social change in Taiwan was largely defined economically. After transition to democratic rule change accelerated in all sectors of society.

In the area of religion this led to greater diversity among religious organisations. In Buddhism the unity that before, at least on the surface, had been maintained by the BAROC gave way to a large number of independent organisations working openly according to their own characteristic views of Buddhism. Taiwanese Buddhism today is characterised by a number of the different traits. The most prominent are the peculiar structure of the Taiwanese Sangha, the existance of large independent organizations, and the growing presence of other Buddhist traditions on the island.


2.1 The Structure of the Sangha


No single organisation in the history of Chinese Buddhism has ever managed to become an overarching structure to the whole. There is not one institution that spoke for all the different communities and lineages. Coherence has been achieved through different forms of bonding between generations in the Sangha, that in function and terminology were similar to traditional Chinese family relations. In Chinese Buddhism the aspiring nun or monk left their families to enter a new family-like structure. The “hereditary temple(zisunmiao) was (with exceptions) the basic unity of the structure of the Sangha. [17] In a “hereditary temple” one undergoes the tidu-ordination. Here the master shaves the head of the disciple to mark his or her formal entry into the Sangha. By doing so the novice enters a “temple family” of “master-father” (shifu) and “master-brothers” (shixiong). By accepting the guidance of one’s tidu-master, one establishes a close relationship that involves life-long, mutual responsibilities. The next step to full monkhood is the full ordination (shoujie), ideally a large public event that is explicitly not a temple <pb n="130"/>affair, but involves the whole Sangha. Again, the ordination masters and the participants enter into a formal relationship, this time beyond the local level. Still another way of bonding between Sangha generations is bestowal and inheritance of Dharmai.e. the permission to act as the next master. This is especially important for the Chan schools, where the legitimacy of a monk’s inclusion in the lineage often depended on having received the Dharmafrom the master. Though all three forms of bonding are still practised, the individual members of the Sangha are better-educated and financially more independent thereby gaining greater freedom to opt out of these traditional patterns. In practice this means that today individual monks and nuns have much more control over their life than ever before on Taiwan.


Another important structural characteristic of the Taiwanese Sangha is the large number of nuns in absolute and relative terms. Its overall size can only be determined through the available ordination records.[18] If one adds the figures in the tables provided by Chern (1999) and compares the differences, one arrives at a fairly reliable figure: between 1953 and 1999 some 17.000 monks and nuns were ordained on Taiwan.[19] All available statistics agree that the number almost doubled in the last fifteen years. [20] Nuns clearly outnumber monks in a ratio of about 3:1. Their numerical strength as well as the fact that many of the younger nuns have a university degree, translates into growing empowerment and self-awareness.[21] Part of the bhikkhunī Sangha has started promoting a rethink of traditional Vinaya practices, especially the double ordination and the eight rules of respect that a nun is obliged to follow in her conduct towards a monk (bajingfa). There <pb n="131"/>are also a growing number of Buddhist institutions that are exclusively for nuns, like the Xiangguang Women Buddhist Seminary.


2.2 The “Four Big Mountains”


All these various ways of bonding that gave coherence and structure to the Chinese Sangha for many centuries still have their place in Taiwanese Buddhism until today. There is, however, another, perhaps new, type of community that is largely based on the tidu-ordination, but not exclusively so. These are the large Buddhist organizations that are formed around a master and that are strongly involved with secular society through various activities. Their problems are often similar to those of large companies, and the huge amounts of donated money that pass through them often threaten to compromise their Buddhist agenda. In Taiwan, the four largest of these organisations are called the “Four Big Mountains” (sidashan). The four are:

Foguang Shan based near Gaoxiong.

Zhongtai Shan based in Puli.

Ciji Foundation based in Hualien.

Dharma Drum Mountain (Fagu shan) in Taipei.


By maintaining a high public profile, these organisations are without doubt the most influential Buddhist movements in Taiwan, and merit a short description. A visitor in Taiwan who is interested in Buddhism is bound to come into contact with one or the other of these groups. Most Taiwanese know their names and the names of their founders (though people often confuse the names of Ven. Zhengyan and Ven. Shengyan).


2.2.1 Foguang Shan

The Foguang Shan Organisation, founded in 1967 by Ven. Xingyun (*1927), quickly became the largest Buddhist group in South Taiwan. Xingyun was one of the first members of the Taiwanese Sangha to promote the Dharma via TV and Radio stations. Through his over 30 years on TV he is very well known in Taiwan. He has come under criticism because of his involvement in politics however. In the presidential elections 1996, he energetically supported Chen Lu’an, a candidate who ran on an explicitly Buddhist platform only to lose by a wide margin. Xingyun had long developed strong relations <pb n="132"/>with the Nationalist Party, especially under the former president Lee Denghui.[22]

The headquarters of Foguang Shan are quite impressive. In a park-like setting the visitor finds huge halls, tall Buddha statues, a hostel, a clinic, a museum, a small Pure-Land theme park and plenty of stalls that sell Buddhist souvenirs. The premises were closed a few years ago for the general public after it became a favourite recreation spot, but Buddhist groups still arrive in busloads from all over Taiwan. Its burial grounds house 50,000 urns, the lease of which is an important source of income for Foguang Shan.[23] As the other “Four Big Mountains” Foguang Shan has become an island wide organisation. In 1997, 1100 nuns and 134 monks belonged to the organisation, that is” went forth” with Xingyun as ordination master and committed themselves to work in the organisation.[24] In 1996 it had 51 temples or centres on Taiwan.[25] As the Ciji foundation, Foguang Shan aims at becoming a global player. Under the name “Buddha’s Light International Association” it has today more than 100 centres worldwide,[26] an impressive figure for a religious organisation from a small island. Foguang Shan was probably the first group of Chinese Buddhists to open a branch in Africa. Its internationalisation in order to spread the Dharma is highly ambitious, and they strongly promote their form of Buddhist mission.[27]

2.2.2 Zhongtai Shan

Zhongtai Shan too is attracting a large number of lay-followers, many of whom are invited to join the Sangha. Statistics about Zhongtai Shan are especially hard to get, but the community is believed to have close to 1000 monks and nuns, albeit with high fluctuations. It is therefore about the same <pb n="133"/>size as Foguang Shan. Its founder and leader is Ven. Weijue (*1928), who was born in Sichuan. Like Xingyun he is deeply involved in regional politics, although Zhongtai Shan in general is less outgoing and not yet trying to internationalise.[28] In many respects it is the most traditional “hereditary temple” of the “Four Big Mountains.” All teachers in its college, the Zhongtai fojiao xueyuan, which is only open to members of the Sangha, are tudi-disciples of Weijue.

The headquarters of the group near Puli in Central Taiwan is certainly the most impressive and expensive Buddhist temple site on Taiwan. Its Sangha however seems to play a less active part in society than those of the other three Big Mountains”. Nevertheless, in 1996 Zhongtai Shan had 40 branch centres and temples and the aim is to create altogether 108 branch centres on Taiwan.

2.2.3 Ciji (Tz’u chi) Foundation

Ven. Zhengyan (*1937), one of the few ordination disciples of Ven. Yinshun, founded her organisation in 1966. Among the community leaders Zhengyanas woman and Taiwanese – is the exception. The leaders of the other three mountains, Xingyun, Weijue, and Shengyan, were born on the mainland.

The Ciji foundation can be described as a Buddhist philanthropic society that is deeply involved in charitable works especially in the medical field. As such, it has been the object of several studies.[29] In the last 20 years the Ciji Foundation has became the largest religious organisation in Taiwan.[30] It differs from the other three “Big Mountains” in that it is not a Sangha- but a lay-organisation led by a monastic. There are a small number of nuns involved, but most of the responsibility lies with the lay-followers. These are often highly motivated professionals who are convinced of their contribution to society. Over the years, a hospital, a medical college and a nursing school were built near the Ciji headquarters in Hualian (East Taiwan), an area that previously lacked sufficient medical facilities. The fund-raising success that made these projects possible is indeed amazing. In one incident, <pb n="134"/>Ven. Zhengyan once refused the massive sum of 200 million US $ from a Japanese donor, because she wanted the Taiwanese to contribute the money themselves. Like Foguang Shan the foundation has a large number of international offices that are, however, not mainly involved in religious activities, but in relief efforts and development aid.[31] The foundation also has its own TV station called “Great Love” (daai).


2.2.4 Dharma Drum Mountain

The founder and leader of Dharma Drum Mountain is Ven. Shengyan (*1930). Like Ven. Zhengyan he is widely known and respected. Shengyan came to Taiwan as a member of Chiang Kai-shek’s army in which he served as communication officer. After he returned to monastic life in 1959, he practised under Ven. Dongchu (1908-1977). Between 1962 and 1966 he spent some time in solitary retreat. In 1969 Shengyan went to Japan to study Buddhism at Risshō University. When he got his PhD in 1975 for his Buddhist studies of late Ming dynasty, he was the first Chinese Buddhist monk to achieve this, a fact that clearly helped his career. Always an avid writer, he has published more than 90 books, fifteen of which were translated into English.

Dharma Drum Mountain was founded relatively late in 1989. In 1997 it had 65 nuns and 12 monks.[32] The emphasis of Dharma Drum Mountain is the practice of Chinese Chan meditation and the promotion of the academic study of all forms of Buddhism. Chan retreats of varying length are offered to the general public, to provide lay-people with an opportunity to meditate.

Dharma Drum Mountain’s biggest contribution is perhaps in the field of Buddhist education. Centrepiece of this effort is the Chunghwa Institute of Buddhist Studies that was founded in 1985, and is now a well-established institute in Taiwan. It is strongly involved in international academic exchange, inviting foreign scholars to teach and study. It has organised several national and international conferences on Buddhism and during the last 15 years more than 400 graduate students received their training in advanced Buddhist studies at the Institute. The faculty consists of a number of renowned Buddhist scholars, although most of them teach only on a part-time basis.

<pb n="135"/>The organisation is in the progress of moving its headquarters as well as the Institute of Buddhist Studies from Taipei to a larger site on Jinshan Mountain, 40 minutes north of Taipei, where it plans to open a university college of humanities.[33] First attempts have been made to extend the reach of Dharma Drum Mountain internationally, but so far there are only few centres outside Taiwan.


The organisational structure of the “Four Big Mountains” a hybrid from between the large traditional temple estate and the modern company raises many questions. Viewed as another example of Buddhism trying to adjust to a new environment, it is probably too early to say how they will continue their development as the standard bearers Xingyun, Weijue, Zhengyan and Shengyan are still alive, a certain stability seems guaranteed, but given their central importance for the decision- making process, it is a mere guesswork how the situation will change when these four individuals (now in their sixties and seventies) are gone.

The stance these organisations will take vis-à-vis a changing secular society on issues of gender, politics, economy, education and last not least Buddhist doctrine, will strongly influence the future of Chinese Buddhism.


2.3. Other forms of Buddhism in Taiwan


During the last decade Buddhists on Taiwan have opened their doors to other forms of Buddhist practice, in particular Tibetan Buddhism. In Taiwanese society today great religious tolerance is paired with curiosity and readiness to experiment with spiritual practices. No wonder Tibetan Buddhism that was forced to adopt a global attitude’ in the fifties was given a friendly welcome. It did not come as a complete stranger. Esoteric Buddhism had once been part of Chinese Buddhism and the Tibeto-Mongolian Lamaism that was promoted under the Qing dynasty was similar enough to Tibetan Buddhism to allow a certain familiarity. The success of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan has already attracted the attention of researchers.[34]


To date there are more than 30 Tibetan Centres in Taipei alone. Some of these have resident teachers, while some groups only convene when <pb n="135"/>their teacher visits. These teachers are coming to Taiwan on a regular basis to give teachings. The Dalai Lama himself visited twice, the last time in 2001. According to knowledgeable sources, Taiwan has become an important source of revenue for many Tibetan monasteries in India, Nepal and Bhutan. The contributions must run to several million US every year, though it is impossible to calculate them exactely. The reaction of the Chinese Buddhist Sangha is generally begin, considering that the situation is indeed one of competition for devotees and resources between two clearly distinguishable forms of Buddhism. There is the occasional negative comment or attack in the field of doctrine, but, as far as one can assess from the outside, there are in general no objections to the fact that the Tibetan Buddhists are increasingly active in Taiwan. However, the so-called inter-religious or inter-confessional dialogue, much touted in the Christian world (and in fact invented there) is almost absent. The Chinese Buddhist associations hardly communicate with each other, much less so with other denominations. An exception is Ven. Shengyan, who held highly publicised and amiable talks with the Dalai Lama during his first visit. Also the Chunghwa Institute of Buddhist Studies runs an exchange program, under which several Tibetan lamas come to study at the institute every year. The Chunghwa Institute has also organised two cross-straits academic conferences on Buddhist education, which, given the political climate, is major success.


Theravada Buddhism, generally the ‘shiest’ among the three great traditions, is much less represented in Taiwan. There are a Thai and a Burmese temple in Taipei, but it seems mainly to cater to the overseas communities of these countries. In 1998, the Goenka school of Vipassana has established a centre near Taizhong in Central Taiwan. It is running strong and offers courses throughout the year.


Japanese Buddhism, in Taiwan somewhat discredited by its missionary activities during the occupation, does not seem to be even a minor player anymore. There are, however, strong academic contacts between the two countries in the field of Buddhist studies.


3. Current Doctrinal and Academic Developments on Taiwan


3.1. The influence of Yinshun


Ven. Yinshun (1906*) is without doubt the scholar-monk that has exercised the greatest influence on the doctrinal development of Chinese Buddhism <pb n="137"/>during the second half of the 20th century. Yinshun has reached an unprecedented large audience among Chinese Buddhist and has served as bridge between the academic community and the religious world of Buddhist devotees.

His academic or semi-academic writings continue the paradigm-shift towards a more academically acceptable view of Buddhism doctrine and history that his teacher Taixu (1889-1947) had started but left largely unfinished. Yinshun, together with Lü Cheng and Tang Yongtong, has laid the groundwork for the academic study of Buddhism in China. He inspired a large number of contemporary Chinese Scholars, most of who read Yinshun’s works early in their career. Yinshun can be considered the first member of the Sangha who seriously entered the academic discourse on Buddhism. His work was recognised internationally when the Taishō University (Kyoto) awarded him a PhD of honours in 1973. Between his Yindu zhi fojiao [Indian Buddhism] (1942) and the publication of his last major work in 1989, in which he returned to the same topic, Yinshun’s output was prolific. His works are widely read in Taiwan, China and among the overseas Chinese. Chinese Buddhists still consider them as an authoritative standard, albeit a slightly outdated one.

Yinshun has also written a large number of popular works that aim to explain Buddhism in more rationalistic terms than the religious discourse of traditional Buddhism usually does. Moreover his concept of “Buddhism of the Human Realm (renjian fojiao),” also taken from his teacher and further modified, has become one of the leading doctrines in the practice of Taiwanese Buddhism.


Here we will sketch the main fault line that separates Yinshun’s view of Buddhism from that of his teacher Taixu. It is here, I believe, that Chinese Buddhist thought underwent its most profound change in the 20th century. Crucial to an understanding of this are their respective “hierarchies of teachings(panjiao).[35] Both Taixu and Yinshun modified the way they presented their systems over the years of their writing and grouped the <pb n="138"/>different Buddhist traditions in various ways. Here we can consider only a small segment of their panjiao.[36]


Taixu’s main argument concerning the Mahāyāna schools was that, what today is called the Tathāgatagarbha line of thought, should be considered as the highest teaching. This teaching of “Perfect enlightenment” he claimed, included and surpassed the two other remaining theories, i.e. Yogācāra and Madhyamaka. Although widely considered a reformer, Taixu agrees in this respect with mainstream Chinese Buddhism from the Song dynasty onward and places himself squarely in the camp of the dharmadhātuvādin, whose views are the bone of contention in the discussions about Critical Buddhism.[37]

Taixu’s ranking of the traditions in Chinese Mahāyāna:[38]

1. The Dharmadhātu Perfect-Enlightenment school (Tathāgatagarbha)

2. The Dharmalakana Consciousness-Only school (Yogācāra)

3. The Dharmatā Wisdom-of-Emptiness school (Madhyamaka)


Yinshun’s approach differs from that of Taixu in several respects. In this question in particular he turns, if not the tables on his teacher, certainly his table upside down. His interpretation of the field is that Madhyamaka should be considered the purest form of Mahāyāna, its “true meaning (zhengyi).” In Yinshun’s ranking the Tathāgatagarbha tradition is the least important, the least true:

1. Empty Nature, Name Only (Madhyamaka)

2. Illusion, Consciousness Only (Yogācāra)

3. True and Eternal, Mind Only (Tathāgatagarbha)


As in his understanding of the truth value of the Mahāyāna Schools, Yinshun disagrees with mainstream Chinese doctrine also in the assessment of the role of early Buddhism as found in the Chinese Āgama Sūtras. His appraisal of the Āgamas led to a more extensive reception of the early <pb n="139"/>scriptures among Taiwanese Buddhists. Though Yinshun never mastered any foreign language he insisted in his research on Indian Buddhism. All his major academic works, except one, are on Pre-Mahāyāna or Early Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine in India. He clearly considers early Indian Buddhism, especially early Mahāyāna thought, to be superior to Chinese forms of Buddhism. This constitutes a significant break with the Chinese tradition.


3.2 Academic developments


I will focus on two main points: one is the fast growth of Buddhist scholarship in Taiwan during the nineties. The second is the digitalisation and free distribution of the complete Chinese Tripitaka by the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA).


3.2.1 Buddhist Academia in Taiwan[39]

Prof. Lan Jifu kept track of the number of academics working in Buddhist studies on Taiwan, while contributing some valuable tools for the study of Chinese Buddhism himself.[40] According to him, in 1993 there were only 60 scholars in Taiwan who had specialised in Buddhism. Out of these twelve held a PhD from foreign universities (7 from Japan, 5 from the U.S.) another 12 got their PhD in Taiwan. Most Buddhist Scholars lacked training in canonical languages other than Chinese, because Sanskrit, Pali and Tibetan were not taught in Taiwan.[41] During the eighties Buddhist studies had grown, but were still far from popular, not least because the chances of getting a university position as scholar with a specialisation in Buddhism were meagre.


During the nineties the mood has changed. With the improvement of the image of the Sangha in public, the academic study of Buddhism too, has gained some prominence. Today more than 300 scholars are working in the field of Buddhist studies, many of them specialising in Southern (Pali) or Northern (Tibetan) Buddhism. There is an intensive exchange and co-operation between university departments and Buddhist <pb n="140"/>institutes, and many teachers teach in both institutions. A large number of projects and conferences are organised in co-operation between public and religious institutions, something that would have been a rarity 20 years ago. To give but one example, the “Digital Buddhist Library and Museum,” that was started as a joint project of National Taiwan University and Dharma Drum Mountain, has become one of the central clearing houses for Chinese Buddhism on the web.[42]


3.2.2 The digitisation of the Chinese Tripitaka

In February 1998 a group of researchers met in Taipei under the auspices of the Centre for Buddhist Studies at the National Taiwan University and created the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA) under the leadership of Professor Ven. Hengjing and Ven. Huimin. The immediate aim was to digitise the Chinese Tripitaka and distribute it free of charge. For that purpose CBETA received the copyright for electronic publication from the Japanese publishing house that produces the standard Taishō edition.[43] Though the scope of the project was challenging, the work was completed successfully in only three years. Today a CD on which the Taishō volumes 1-55 & 85 are available in different formats is distributed by CBETA. These volumes comprise all texts by Indian and Chinese authors in the Chinese canon.


The digitisation of the Chinese script is comparatively more difficult than that of texts in an alphabetical language. The most immediate problem was how to cope with the many so-called ‘missing characters” (quezi) that are not available in any of the current fonts. Various strategies had to be devised to make sure the user of the digital version can view even the strangest version of a Chinese character exactly as it appeared in print. The “missing characters” were described in co-operation with the Mojikyō Project.[44] For the digitisation CBETA used a XML compatible mark-up the standard developed by the <pb n="141"/>Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), which has proved to be a suitable solution. As a result the digital version of the Chinese canon is now extremely flexible and it is e.g. possible to link different the original with other Tripitakas, different versions of one Tripitaka, translations or even research papers.


The challenge of digitising the Buddhist canonical scriptures has to be seen in the larger context of the communication revolution we are experiencing. As our understanding of what a “text” is slowly changes with the advent of digital text, it is obvious – though not widely discussed – that Buddhist studies and the humanities in general will be deeply influenced by these changes. For the time being we might still look at a CD as a digital copy of some authoritative book. Soon, however, books may become a printed snap-shot of a digital “text”, which in turn will be more open, more complex and (hopefully) more accessible than any of our canons were in the past. This is, however, not only a technological question, but also something to be willed and decided on a social and political level. The current trend in the interpretation of copyright for instance, is neither in the interest of the public nor the author, but heavily skewed towards the purely financial interests of media corporations. If this trend continues, the chance to greater freedom and availability of information will be wasted. Nevertheless there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the changes the age of digital text will bring. Among other things, one consequence that is to be expected is a certain empowerment of the reader. Because digital text, once produced, needs but a computer to be stored, used and developed, its potential availability is far greater than that of books. Since our work is usually financed by the public, it is part of our academic responsibility to make the results available to as many people as possible. The trouble is that the usual way of publication via expensive journals and books makes sure that a majority of the world’s population will not be able to access the results of our research. Digital publication, rightly used, might contribute to diminish the information inequality that mars global society just as deeply as economic inequality for which it is partially responsible.[45]

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4. Conclusion

From the above one can see that Taiwan has emerged as a centre of Buddhism as well as of Buddhist studies. For now, Taiwan is a place where Chinese Buddhism is, allowed to seek its own path into so-called modernity. Free, after many centuries of governmental control and Confucian hegemony, Chinese Buddhism on Taiwan has again found a favourable environment to prosper and develop.


Chandler, Christopher Stuart: Establishing a pureland on Earth: The Foguang Buddhist perspective on modernization and globalization (China, Taiwan). PhD-dissertation Harvard University, 2000. 397 pages.

Chen Meihua (= Chern, Meei-Hwa) 陳美華: “Linglei dianfan: dangdai Taiwan biqiuni de shehui shijian另類典範﹕當代台灣比丘尼的社會實踐 [The other paradigm: The social practice of Taiwanese Buddhist nuns.]” Zongjiao zhuantong yu shehui shijian zhongxing yantaohui宗教傳統與社會實踐中型研討會. Taipei: Institute for Ethnical Studies Academia Sinica中央研究院民族研究所, 1999.

Chern, Meei-Hwa: Encountering Modernity: Buddhist Nuns in Postwar Taiwan. Unpublished PhD-thesis. Temple University NY, 2000.

Günzel, Marcus: Die Taiwan-Erfahrung des chinesischen Sangha. Göttingen: Seminar für Indologie und Buddhismuskunde, 1998.

Hsing, Lawrence Fu-Ch'üan: Taiwanese Buddhism and Buddhist Temples. Taipei: Pacific Cultural Foundation, 1983.

Huang, Chien-yu Julia: Recapturing charisma: Emotion and rationalization in a globalizing Buddhist movement from Taiwan. PhD dissertation, Boston University, 2001. 342 pages. The dissertation examines the “Ciji” (Tzu-chi Gongde Hui) (Compassionate-Relief Merit Society), a Taiwanese transnational Buddhist humanitarian foundation with a charismatic female leader.

Hubbard, Jamie; Swanson, Paul L. (Eds.): Pruning the Bodhi Tree – The Storm over Critical Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Jiang Canteng 江燦騰: Xiandai zhongguo fojiao sixiang lunji 現代中國佛教思想論集 [Aufsatzsammlung zum Denken des Chinesischen Buddhismus der Gegenwart]. 2 Bde. Taipei: Xinwenfeng 新文豐, 1990.

Jiang Canteng 江燦騰: Xiandai zhongguo fojiaoshi xinlun 現代中國佛教史新論 [Neue Betrachtungen zur Geschichte des Buddhismus im heutigen China]. Gaoxiong: Ren jingxin Foundation 人淨心文教基金會, 1994.

Jiang Canteng 江燦騰: 20 shiji taiwan fojiao de zhuanxing yu fazhan 20 世紀台灣佛教的轉型與發展 [Wandel und Entwicklung des taiwanesischen Buddhismus im 20. Jahrhundert]. Gaoxiong: Ren jingxin Foundation 人淨心文教基金會, 1995. 

Jiang Canteng 江燦騰: Riju shiqi Taiwan xin fojiao yundong de duncuo yu zhuanxing  日據時期台灣佛教文化發展史 [Entwicklungsgeschichte der buddhistischen Kultur Taiwans unter der japanischen Kolonialherrschaft]. Taipei: Nantian 南天, 2001 (a).

Jones, Charles Brewer: Buddhism in Taiwan – Religion and the State 1660-1990. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 1999.

Kan Zhengzong 闞正宗: Taiwan fojiao yi bai nian台灣佛教一百年 [Hundert Jahre Taiwanischer Buddhismus]. Taipei: Dongda東大, 1999.

Kuo Liying: “Aspects du bouddhisme contemporain à Taïwan.” Études thématiques 6 Renouveaux Religieux en Asie (École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 1997). 83-105.

Lan Jifu 藍吉富: Ershi shiji de zhongri fojiao二十世紀的中日佛教 [Chinesischer und Japanischer Buddhismus im 20. Jahrhundert]. Taipei: Xinwenfeng新文豐, 1991.

Lan Jifu 藍吉富: Liangan foxue jiaoyu yu foxue yanjiu huigu yu qianzhan 兩岸佛學教育與佛學研究回顧與前瞻 [Buddhist education and Buddist studies in Taiwan and China. Retrospect and prospects]. Unpublished conference paper distributed at the cross-straits conference on Buddhist education Liangan foxue jiaoyu yanjiu xiankuang yu fazhan yantaohui兩岸佛學教育研究現況與發展研討會, 10 - 11. 11. 2001, in Taipei.

Lan Jifu 藍吉富 (Ed.): Zhonghua fojiao baike quanshu 中華佛教百科全書 [Encyclopedia of Chinese Buddhism]. 10 vols. Taipei: Zhonghua fojiao baike wenxian jijinhui中華佛教百科文獻基金會, 1994.

Li, Yu-chen: Crafting women's religious experience in a patrilineal society: Taiwanese Buddhist nuns in action (1945--1999) (China). PhD dissertation, Cornell University, 2000. 425 pages. This dissertation explores the cultural and religious implications underlying the enthusiasm of Taiwanese women to Buddhist bhiksuni (the fully ordained Buddhist nun) in post-war Taiwan.

Luo Guoming羅國銘: Taiwan dangdai zaijia fojiao zhong deweiman zhuandao xiehui 台灣當代在家佛教中的維鬘傳道協會 [Die Organisationen zur Verbreitung der Lehren der Sutren Vimalakirti und Srimala im Laienbuddhismus des heutigen Taiwan]. Unveröffentlichte MA-Arbeit.??

Ting, Jen-chieh: Helping Behavior in Social Contexts: A Case Study of of Tzu-Chi Association in Taiwan. University of Wisconsin dissertation, 1997 (UMI #9722734).

Wang Shunmin王順民: “Dangdai taiwan fojiao bianqian zhi kaocha當代台灣佛教變遷之考察 (The Change of Buddhism in Contemporary Taiwan).” Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal 中華佛學學報, Nr. 8 (1995).

Welch, Holmes: The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 1900-1950. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Yang Huinan 楊惠南: Dangdai fojiao sixiang zhanwang 當代佛教思想展望 [Überblick über Denkansätze im heutigen Buddhismus]. Taipei: Dongda 東大, 1991.

Zhu Wenguang 朱文光: Fojiao lishi quanshi de xiandai zongji 佛教歷史詮釋的現代蹤跡─以印順判教思想為對比考察之線索 [The modern traces of hermeneutics of Buddhist history – Using the Panjiao thinking of Master Yinshun for comparative studies]. Unpublished MA-thesis, Zhengzhi university (Taipei), 1996.

[1] Especially Jiang Cantang (s. bibliography). The most accessible accounts in Western languages are Jones (1999) and Günzel (1998).

[2] For outlines of the three Zhaijiao sects on Taiwan see Jones (1999), 14-30, and Lan (1994) vol.9, 5753-5756.

[3] The ‘five pungent herbs” are onion, garlic, leek, scallion and chives.

[4] Lan (1994) vol.9, 5755.

[5] There were a number of these associations (Jones (1999), 66-80). The most important being the South Seas Buddhist Association (Nanying fojiao hui) that represented the most comprehensive Japanese approach to organize Buddhism in Taiwan. It was hardly more than an agency of the colonial government, its newsletter, however, became the main organ for a comparatively open discourse on Buddhism in Taiwan.

[6] The Buddhist Youth Association for example was steered by Ōishi Kendō, the chief of the Taiwan branch of the Sōtō School.

[7] Jones (1999), 36.

[8] The four most famous were: Shanhui (1881-1945), Benyuan (1883-1946), Jueli (1881-1993), and Yongding (1877- 1939).

[9] There are said to have been 789 monks 1919, and more than 2000 in 1950 (Günzel (1998), 20).

[10] The most famous and influential of them was of course Yinshun (1906*). On him and Taixu see the final part of this paper.

[11] Diary records of Ven. Daoan as cited in Yang (1991), 35.

[12] There are no reliable statistics as to the number of temples. Lan Jifu (Lan (1991), 23) mentions 850 temples in 1960 compared to 4020 in 1990. Wang Shunmin (Wang (1995), 322) has counted 1264 temples for the year 1977 and 2060 for 1993.

[13] Christian missionaries of all sects had started proselytising in Taiwan right after the retrocession and are extremely active until today. The role of the Christian other” in the development of 20th Buddhism is often understated. The trend towards a socially engaged Buddhism, usually attributed to Buddhist thinkers like Taixu or Yinshun (s.b.), is also in part, an adoption of Christian missionary methods.

[14] There are clear parallels between the situation in Taiwan and Korea. The Korean Sangha too successfully restored its former Vinaya practices after the Japanese capitulation (though, it seems with more difficulty than in Taiwan).

[15] For the first see Günzel (1998), Ch.3, for the latter Ch.4 and here below.

[16] Ven. Dongchu as cited in Yang (1991,5).

[17] I follow Welch’s translation (1967), 261-281. Cf. Günzel (1998), 38-45. It is called “hereditary” because temple assets are in fact inherited and controlled by a strictly defined group. This differed from the large so-called conglin-temples that belonged to the Sangha as a whole. In the conglin system ideally the abbots were elected. One could not enter the order by way of a tidu-ordination to prevent the development of relationships, as they existed in a hereditary temple.

[18] It seems no one has done this so far. The printed version of the Annual Statistical Yearbook of the Interior does not give a figure at all. While from time to time one hears figures of up to 30000, the upper limit of 17000 for 1999 based on the ordination figures is actually the only hard number we have.

[19] To calculate the number of nuns and monks more accurately one would have to account for the following unknowns: monastics who died before 1999, monastics who returned to lay-life, and the few monastics who were ordained outside Taiwan. In the early fifties before the BAROC ordinations there were an estimated 2000 monks and nuns on Taiwan (not including the Zhaijiao nuns). The population of Taiwan is c.22 Mill.

[20] There have been several studies in English of the topic. Chern (2000) and Li (2000) are the most recent.

[21] Until 1986 c. 9000 nuns and monks were ordained, compared to c. 17000 in 1999.

[22] Lee, by now (Dec 2001), of course has left this party and founded his own group.

[23] This is not peculiar to Foguang Shan, but common practice in many Buddhist temples in Eastern Buddhism.

[24] Chern (2000), 118.

[25] This and the next figure see Günzel (1998), 119 n.

[26] According to their own website (http// This is up from 63 centres in 1996 (Günzel (1998), 119n). The headquarters of Buddha’s Light International are in the large Hsi-lai temple near San Francisco.

[27] There is a recent dissertation (Chandler (2000)) on Foguang Shan’s attempt to globalisation.

[28] Presently (2002) their website (http// has no English page, and, though nicely designed, is not very informative.

[29] In English there is Huang (2001) and Ting (1997).

[30] As of 1994 Ciji had 3,5 Million members (Jones (1999), 208).

[31] See http//www/ (Dec.2001) for more information.

[32] Chern (2000), 119.

[33] The ambitious plan is outlined on the their Chinese website (

[34] The first symposium on Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan was held in autumn 2001 at the Academia Sinica, Taipei. On Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan see also Lan (1994).

[35] Panjiao is an important feature of Chinese Buddhism since its introduction from India. It is used to organize the variety of Buddhist schools that came to China into a coherent whole. At the same time the author of the panjiao-hierarchy uses his model to strengthen the claim to orthodoxy of his own school.

[36] For an extensive treatment of Yinshun’s position in Chinese Buddhism see my dissertation on Yinshun (forthcoming 2004).

[37] Dhatuvāda is a neologism coined in the debate on Critical Buddhism in Japan that was started by Hakyama Noriaki and Matsumoto Shiro. For a thorough presentation of the state of the discussion see Hubbard & Swanson (1997).

[38] Cf. Zhu (1996).

[39] The figures in the following section are taken from Lan (2001).

[40] Especially his Encyclopaedia of Chinese Buddhism (Lan (1994)) deserves mentioning.

[41] The first Sanskrit classes in Taiwan started only in the late eighties.


[43] The late Prof. Ejima (Tokyo University) contributed greatly to the success of these negotiations.

[44] The Mojikyo team has been working on the digitisation of CJK characters for a long time and its numbering system has become a standard in the field. The project, however, has lost some of its lustre with the arrival of Unicode and certain proprietary changes.

[45] Nobel Prize winners George Akerlof, Michael Spence, and Joseph Stieglitz coined the term “asymmetric information.” Their work has had great influence on development economics, where the link between economical and informational poverty plays a significant role in analysis.