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FOGUANGSHAN . Founded in 1967, Foguangshan (Buddha's Light Mountain) had by the beginning of the twenty-first century developed into one of the most influential Buddhist organizations in Taiwan (the Republic of China, ROC) and had opened more than 150 temples in nearly thirty countries around the world. Approximately 1,300 clerics were within the Foguang ranks in 2004, and the order's lay society, known as the Buddha's Light International Association (BLIA), had a membership in the hundreds of thousands. Activities sponsored by Foguangshan and BLIA draw more than three million participants annually.

The order's founder, Master Xingyun, was born in 1927 in Jiangsu province of mainland China. He took his vows of renunciation at age twelve in Qixia Temple, Nanjing. Ten years later he accompanied the Nationalist army as it retreated to Taiwan. Unlike most monks who had come from the mainland, Master Xingyun did not remain in Taipei (the province's capital), but instead took charge of a small temple in a more rural location and eventually established Foguangshan in Kaohsiung county. For his followers, the master symbolizes the transmission of a revitalized version of traditional Chinese culture from the mainland to Taiwan. He has kept tenuous ties with the mainland through the years, returning to his ancestral temple in 1989 and again in 2000.

Foguangshan is regarded as a leading exponent of Humanistic Buddhism (renjian fojiao ), by which is meant a refocusing of daily practice to more directly deal with the challenges of contemporary life. The this-worldly pragmatism that serves as the focal point of Humanistic Buddhism significantly affects Master Xingyun's interpretations of Chan (Jap., Zen) and Pure Land practice. Although a forty-eighth generation holder of the Linji dharma scroll, only in recent years has the master encouraged devotees to make formal meditation an important part of their cultivation. Up through the 1980s, he considered Pure Land recitation a more suitable expedient means (Chin., fangbian ; Skt., upāya ) to attract lay followers, given their busy lives, low education level, and scant understanding of the dharma. Clerics were similarly dissuaded from spending too much time in the Chan hall, for to do so was regarded as contrary to the bodhisattva spirit of serving all beings, not just attending to one's own liberation. Only in the early 1990s, when many lay Buddhists (and even non-Buddhists) were turning to meditation as a means to relieve stress, did Master Xingyun more actively discuss the value of such practice, backing up his rhetoric by constructing Foguangshan's beautiful Chan hall.

The form of meditation that Master Xingyun considers to be most compatible with Humanistic Buddhism is "active Chan" (dongzhong chan ). Master Baizhang's maxim "A day without work is a day without food" has been broadened radically so that, rather than only justifying farm work as suitable for monastic life, at Foguangshan it has become a paean exalting industriousness as an essential part of religious practice. "Work is nutrition," exclaims the master, while "the most miserable person in this world is one who does not have any work; the greatest privation in life is the loneliness of boredom." Foguang laity are therefore exhorted to maximize productivity in their occupation as a means to serve society and, through generously contributing the resulting wealth, to support Buddhism. For Foguang clergy, active Chan occurs through vigorously attending to the multitudinous projects initiated by monastery leadership to promote the dharma. In the view of Foguang monastics, it is theyand not those clerics who sit in absolute silence for hours on end in some isolated monasterywho practice in such a way as to attain the most profound level of Chan realization.

The Humanistic Buddhist perspective has led Master Xingyun to regard the teachings of the Pure Land school in a new way as well. Rather than exerting their energies toward being reborn in a pure land in a different dimension of the universe, as is usually advocated by the Pure Land school, people are urged to transform our own immediate world into a Pure Land and thereby personally embody the bodhisattva aspiration for universal enlightenment. Master Xingyun pronounces that advances in science, technology, and medicine, as well as the global trend toward democracy and human rights, all foster the conditions of security, peace, and well-being required for cultivation. The notion of humanity's steady progress through history to ever-higher levels of comfort, freedom, ethical consciousness, and rationality is a central feature of the master's philosophy. Master Xingyun believes that radical, confrontational reforms are not an effective method for achieving such progress, since such tactics create too much suffering and remain within dualistic thinking. Instead, he espouses gradual amelioration through each person engaging in a daily regimen of contemplation, meditation, and self-reflection, while simultaneously devoting his or her energy to improving the welfare of others. Hence, Foguangshan periodically leads large-scale campaigns aimed at societal regeneration through moral persuasion and sponsors a variety of civic enterprises, including an orphanage, a medical clinic, several preschools, a high school, and a liberal arts university.

Although improving people's material and societal conditions is seen as essential to establishing a Pure Land on earth, the key to realizing such a utopia nonetheless remains cultivating people's wisdom and compassion through exposure to the dharma. Naturally, the master sees Buddhism in general, and Humanistic Buddhism as propounded by Foguangshan in particular, as being at the forefront of this movement. Each Foguang temple is regarded as a miniature Pure Land whose wholesome influence will slowly radiate outward to positively influence its surroundings, until eventually the entire world can be transformed into a realm of bliss.

Master Xingyun asserts that the key to extending such purityor as he would phrase it, "spreading the Buddha's light,"is implementing effective educational programs, both for the clergy who guide the process and for the laity who assure its widespread dissemination. Foguangshan is therefore especially well known in Taiwan for its system of monastic colleges and its publishing empire. By 2000, Foguangshan had a dozen seminaries with more than five hundred students enrolled. While most of the students come from within the Foguang ranks, a variety of smaller temples around Taiwan also send their novices to these seminaries for training. Foguangshan's publications include an edition of the Buddhist canon (with punctuation added), a six-volume encyclopedia of Buddhism, and scores of books, cassettes, videos, and CD-ROMs explicating Master Xingyun's version of Humanistic Buddhism. The organization also devotes considerable resources to maintaining its many websites and television station.

Foguang projects are typically undertaken in cooperation with political and corporate leaders. Large-scale Foguang activities in Taiwan, which can attract tens of thousands of participants, often take place at government facilities and have as the guests of honor top political officials, military brass, and business elite. Because of this, Master Xingyun's detractors have saddled him with the pejorative labels of "political monk" and "commercial monk." The former epithet gained especial salience after the master publicly endorsed one of his disciples in 1996 in the Republic of China's first open election for the presidency and then, later that same year, hosted U.S. vice president Al Gore at a banquet at Hsi Lai Temple (Hacienda Heights, California) for what turned out to be a fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee. The label "commercial monk" came about not only because of the master's many wealthy devotees, but also due to his penchant to create high-profile, glitzy facilities and events. Foguang headquarters' eight-story-high statue of Amitābha Buddha, its Pure Land Cave (which was modeled on Disney's "It's a Small, Small World"), and its annual New Year's Festival of a Myriad Lights have over the years attracted millions of pilgrims and tourists. Master Xingyun is of the firm opinion that attracting society's elite to Buddhism and providing wholesome entertainment with a Buddhist theme are both effective expedient means for spreading the dharma. Nonetheless, partially in response to adverse press concerning his organization's forays into more secular spheres, the master decided in 1997 to henceforth allow only groups of Foguang devotees participating in organized pilgrimages to enter the headquarters' compound. Since that time the general public has been welcome to visit Foguangshan's many branch temples, but the headquarters in Kaohsiung has largely remained off limits.

Master Xingyun and his organization are not only influential in Taiwan, but since the early 1990s have played an increasingly prominent role in providing religious instruction and a sense of cultural identity to overseas Chinese. The beginnings of Foguangshan's globalization are to be traced to the master's visit to the United States in 1976, at which point he recognized the great potential for serving the rapidly expanding Chinese-American population. Twelve years later, the master opened the doors of Hsi Lai Temple, the largest Buddhist monastery in the Western hemisphere. In less than a decade after founding that temple, Foguangshan opened ninety-five overseas branches: twenty-seven in Asia (excluding the sixty temples in the ROC), thirteen in Australia and the Pacific Islands, nineteen in Europe, seven in Africa, five in South and Central America, and twenty-four in North America (nineteen in the United States and five in Canada). By the close of the twentieth century, Master Xingyun had decided to hold off on constructing other centers, so the number of Foguang temples has remained fairly steady since that time. This network is supplemented by the Buddha's Light International Association, which in 2000 had some 110 chapters worldwide.

Foguang temples may be found virtually anywhere a relatively large expatriate population from the ROC has coalesced. The reach of BLIA is still farther, extending to areas with even small communities of Taiwan emigrants. The only Chinese Buddhist organization with a comparable overseas network is Ciji Hui, which at the beginning of the third millennium had offices in twenty-eight countries. The two organizations differ from one another in that Foguangshan has stationed clerics, and therefore opened temples, while Ciji Hui has relied upon its impressive array of lay leaders to establish "offices." Foguangshan's international network of temples exceeds not only that of other Chinese Buddhist institutions, but is one of the most extensive of any Buddhist group.

Although the vast majority of devotees in Foguang branch temples outside of Taiwan are overseas Chinese Buddhists (with most having emigrated from Taiwan, although small numbers have come from mainland China, Vietnam, and Hong Kong), the organization has also devoted considerable energy to bringing others into its fold. Hsi Lai Temple, Nan Tien Temple (Wollengong, Australia), and Nan Hua Temple (Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa) have been at the forefront of Foguangshan missionary endeavor. Hsi Lai Temple and Nan Tien Temple both maintain BLIA chapters serving several dozen non-Chinese members. Nan Hua Temple has undertaken the ambitious task of establishing a seminary and orphanage. In the early years, at least, Foguangshan's efforts to attract non-Chinese to its lay membership or monastic corps has had only limited success.

Foguangshan gave formal symbolic imprint to its self-avowed role as leader of the global Buddhist community in 1997, when it sponsored an international Triple Altar Ordination in Bodh Gayā, India (site of the Buddha's enlightenment). One hundred and fifty novices representing Theravādin, Tibetan, and Mahāyāna lineages flew in from countries around the world to take the three sets of vows. The vast majority of participants were women, a significant fact since neither Theravādin nor Tibetan Buddhism provides women with the opportunity to take the necessary precepts for full ordination as a bhikuī nun. In the following years, Foguangshan sponsored several other ceremonies in which dozens more such women underwent bhikuī ordination. Only time will tell whether this campaign will gain momentum and have a noticeable impact on Theravādin and Tibetan Buddhist communities.

Master Xingyun and Foguangshan remain highly influential in Taiwan, enjoy a significant following among overseas Chinese, and to a more limited extent have influenced non-Chinese Buddhists around the world.


Chandler, Stuart. Establishing a Pure Land on Earth: The Foguang Buddhist Perspective on Modernization and Globalization. Honolulu, 2004.

Jiang Canteng. Taiwan Dangdai Fojiao. Taipei, 1997.

Jiang Canteng. Dangdai Taiwan Renjian Fojiao Sixiang Jia. Taipei, 2001.

Jones, Charles Brewer. Buddhism in Taiwan: Religion and the State, 16601990. Honolulu, 1999.

Laliberte, Andre. "The Politics of Buddhist Organizations in Taiwan, 19891997." Ph.D. diss., University of British Columbia, 1999.

Pittman, Don Alvin. Toward a Modern Chinese Buddhism: Taixu's Reforms. Honolulu, 2001.

Stuart Chandler (2005)