Written by Scott Pacey.

The Buddhist nun Zhaohui (1957- ) is known as an outspoken social critic. In one of her more well-known acts in 2001, she publically declared the eight rules for nuns (ba jing fa) to be in conflict with the Buddha’s teachings. Meanwhile, eight associates tore them to pieces. In 2006, she called for Buddhists to accept same-sex relationships (Taiwanese Christian groups had strongly opposed legislation aimed at legalising same-sex marriage that year.) Although it received no legal recognition, in 2012 she presided over a Buddhist wedding ceremony for two women. And more recently, she defended the nun Zhengyan against netizens seeking to draw her into the Ting Hsin cooking-oil scandal, likening them to “Red Guards”.

What explains Zhaohui’s social engagement? In the past, Confucians had often criticised Buddhists as ‘social parasites’—a charge they had always denied. In the Twentieth Century, this opposition took on new forms. As the Communists edged closer to victory over the KMT in 1949, a cohort of monastics—who were disciples of the monastic Taixu (1890 – 1947)—fled the mainland to Taiwan. Taixu felt that Buddhists over-emphasised funerary ceremonies and recitation of Amitābha Buddha’s (Amituofo) name, hoping for rebirth in his Pure Land. In response to this, Taixu articulated a vision for Buddhism that he called ‘Buddhism for the human world’ (renjian Fojiao). He urged adherents to see Buddhism as a set of teachings for life, rather than a way to secure a better post-mortem existence. He also exhorted them to create an earthly Pure Land through their behaviour, ethics and ideals. Taixu called this utopian society the ‘Pure Land in the human world’ (renjian jingtu).

To an extent, Taixu saw his ideals mirrored in some of the political ideologies of his time. While he rejected Marxism, he saw certain parallels between it and Buddhism. In 1928, he instead modelled his framework for practice on Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (Nationalism, Livelihood and Democracy). The ensuing scheme entailed new standards for monastics, as well as the drive to create a new Buddhist culture and society. Besides the Three Principles of the People, Taixu was influenced by Christianity, with its emphasis on the social gospel, education and philanthropy.

Taixu’s approach did not gain traction on the mainland during his lifetime. While a reformulated Buddhism for the human world now serves as a guiding principle for the Chinese Buddhist Association in the PRC, interpretations of it differ from those in Taiwan, where Taixu’s disciples began promoting his ideals soon after their arrival on the island. Key among these were Yinshun (1906 – 2005) and Dongchu (1908 – 1977), who developed his vision further. Yinshun was a prolific lecturer and writer. Dongchu founded the magazine Humanity (Rensheng), which was a platform for Buddhist social commentary. From his monastery in Beitou, he also engaged in charity projects.

Today, the legacy of Taixu and other engaged Buddhists is apparent on the island’s dynamic religious landscape. A prominent example is Xingyun (1927-). After having been broadly influenced by Taixu on the mainland, he began implementing his socially-engaged ideals soon after his arrival in Taiwan. Some of his activities included founding a Buddhist kindergarten and cram-school (buxiban), releasing Buddhist records, and proselytising around the island. In 1967 he founded Foguang Shan (Buddha’s Light Mountain), which expanded to become a major monastic complex and tourist destination. Since then, they have taken on a vast array of projects, including launching a television channel and publishing a newspaper—the Merit Times (Renjian fubao)—while also maintaining schools and universities.

Dongchu’s disciple, Shengyan (1930 – 2009), left his monastic life on the mainland and arrived on the island with the KMT army’s Signals Corps. Ten years later, he re-joined the clergy under Dongchu and began advocating Buddhism for the human world. In 1975, he obtained a PhD from Rissho University in Japan, and had soon begun teaching Chan (Zen) in New York. He founded Fagu Shan (Dharma Drum Mountain) in Taiwan in 1989, providing him with an institutional platform for articulating an engaged approach to meditation, describing how Chan cultivation could purify the mind and, through this, solve social and ecological problems.

Perhaps the best-known Taiwanese exponent of socially-engaged Buddhist practice is the nun Zhengyan (1937 – ). In 1966, she founded the group Ciji, which focused on medical philanthropy. Today, they maintain two television channels, and in addition to its university and schools, preside over a network of hospitals and clinics. The organisation also carries out aid and disaster relief in Taiwan and around the world. Most notably, after the 921 earthquake in 1999, the organisation rebuilt 51 schools.

Social engagement often extends into political participation. Although each of the above Buddhists has been influenced by a common philosophical approach, the extent of their political activities differs. Yinshun and Shengyan, for example, were not overtly political. (However, both engaged in heated debates with Christians in the 1950s and 1960s.) Zhengyan does not openly discuss politics, and forbids Ciji members from joining political demonstrations. Nevertheless, political figures have sought audiences with her and with other Buddhists, engaging them in dialogue and capitalising on their popularity.

Other monastics are, however, more politically engaged. Zhaohui draws attention to socio-political issues, such as sexism and animal rights. (When she tore up the eight rules for nuns in 2001, it was at a conference on Buddhism for the human world. Her action generated much controversy at the time.) Meanwhile, Xingyun has cooperated closely with the KMT, although he supported Chen Li-an after he left the party to run in the 1996 presidential election. He has also engaged with colleagues in the PRC, most recently participating in the World Buddhist Forums in 2006, in 2009 (when it was jointly held in the Chinese city of Wuxi and in Taipei), and again in 2012 in Hong Kong. The Taiwanese monastic Weijue (1928 – ), whose Zhongtai Chan Temple was completed in 2001, also participated in these events.

Although advocates of Buddhism for the human world have different political views and methods of social engagement, they share a commitment to social activity beyond the monastery or convent. Of course, there are also many Buddhists in Taiwan who do not pursue such activities, or who do so in other ways. However, they too are participants in the debate on the place of Buddhism—and religion—in contemporary Taiwanese society. Either way, their essays, blogs, speeches and television appearances comprise an important part of Taiwan’s social discourse. Theirs are some of the many voices that are interpreting Taiwan’s past, shaping its present, and deciding its future.

Scott Pacey is Lecturer in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and member of the TSP. Image Credit: CC by tomscy2000/Flickr