Introduction: Taiwanese Buddhism in Contemporary Society

In this article, I will be exploring the role of Taiwanese Buddhism on society by reflecting on the historical past of Colonialism.   I shall demonstrate how Buddhism has become a religion that makes people aware of the modern world that they live in Taiwanese society. 

The Colonial History of Taiwan

Taiwan was a colony of Japan from 1895 - 1945. Before 1945 it was part of the Chinese Empire. In fact, Japan was the only non-white power to have an empire. It was also the only empire launching into the colonising of neighbouring countries.

Between 1945 and 1949 were the four years that Taiwan was a Chinese province. The pain of colonisation was then followed by the fantastic regime of the excile nationalistic party. So, what effects did this have on Buddhism and Taiwanese society? The Japanese launched into cultural imperialism. This means that after the 20's, they engaged in an experiment of social and cultural engineering - they wanted the Taiwanese people to literally become Japanese. This was because the civil war in China was reaching it's climax.  In 1937, a fully fledged war was declared. The Japanese did not want to allow a brotherhood emerging from shared linguistic or cultural roots.

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New Buddhisms in Taiwan

In 1949, many monks left mainland China, and Taiwan had 3 million immigrants. At this time, there were several very different types of Buddhism in Taiwan. Firstly, there was the vegetarian religion - Chia-Jiao (meaning vegetable teaching). Secondly was the institutional religion, which included the immigrants from mainland China. Thirdly, there was Japanese Buddhism. Fourthly, there was the 'new Buddhist' modernised clergy who emmigrated after 1949.

Chai-Jiao: The Vegetarian Religion

The Vegetarian religion had many influential strands. The vegetarian religion is a lay oriented practice where non-ordained take upon characteristic of the ordained Sangha. The vegetarian sisters are women who are past their fertile age who reproduce a monastic lifestyle and take care of a particular temple. The vegetarian religion thus blurs the boundaries of gender roles.They only gave up resistance to the Japanese towards the end, when they were faced with incorporation or destruction- they had to modernise temples and change their texts.

Taiwan - A Laboratory for Creating a New Buddhism

So, we see Taiwan as a laboratory for creating a new Buddhism. Taiwanese Buddhism was seen as part of a suspension between the Chinese and Japanese hemisphere. What we have emerging is a new Buddhism that is created after World War 2 and is very much with us now.

This Buddhism saw the impact of Chinese influencers such as Taixu. He sought to create a new global culture focused on self-cultivation effecting beneficial change in the world through hepling others. Taixu's three goals were...

  1. To establish a Sangha which would propagate Buddhism
  2. To inspire lay members to act in the world as a Bodhisattva would, thus achieving enlightenment themselves
  3. To elevate the principles of Mahayana Buddhism to a prime place in world culture.[3]

This new Taiwanese Buddhism generated popularisation and an attempt to use modern mass media and IT. It also incorporated into Buddhism practice elements of the Christian prosleytising strategies of music and television. The backbone of communal worship was a repetition of core hymns, which were composed (not an oral tradition) and sung by the clergy and leity together.[1]


The Clery and the Leity in Taiwanese Buddhism

The clergy has been very strong in Taiwan since the 1980's. In 1952, full ordination was reinstated in Taiwan (previous to this, they had to go to mainland China to be ordained). Nuns make up about 80% of the clergy in Taiwan today. Nuns have a high status, being well travelled and educated. They have a high political and social profile and great power and influence across the borders.

The leity in modern Taiwan produce strong lay organisations. They deal with many peace keeping and ethical issues. For example, nuclear warfare. Charity work is often carried out by members of the leity.

The Role of Taiwanese Buddhism in Education

Together with the japanese, the academic study of religion is carried out most successfully. Most Buddhist organisations have their own universities and sponsor people to study abroad. Buddhist study groups are set up in summer vacations. In 1966, a study group on Buddhist fundamentals attracted 120 students and one on the Heart Sutra attracted 60.[1]

The Buddhist Association of the Republic of China


BAROC is the Buddhist organisation of the Republic of China. It is seen by Raguin as the focal point of the Taiwanese Buddhist revival. It plays an important part in two main things. Firstly, the Taiwan based movement for the revival of ancient Chinese culture and secondly the world wide movement for the revitalisation and diffusion of Buddhism. In 1969, BAROC had 50,000 members, 1915 organisations and 13 study centres.[2]

Scientific Buddhism

There are also a number of Buddhist journals that reiterate Buddhism as Scientific. For example: the Torch of Wisdom, the Sound of the Tide (Haichaoyin) and Bodhedrum.

Conclusions on Taiwanese Buddhism

In conclusion, I would state that the role of Buddhism in modern Taiwanese society is one that incorporates modernity of the West, proslytising of Christianity and the blurred gender roles and lay orientation of the vegetarian religion. This new Buddhism, despite seeing 'Buddha-nature' as the ultimate task, has the role of making people aware of the modernised world in which they live.

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