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Buddhism is one of the major religions of Taiwan. Taiwanese people predominantly practice Mahayana Buddhism, Confucian principles, local practices and Taoist tradition. Roles for religious specialists from both Buddhist and Taoist traditions exist on special occasions such as for childbirth and funerals. Of these, a smaller number identify more specifically with Chinese Buddhist teachings and institutions, without necessarily eschewing practices from other Asian traditions. Around 35% of the population believes in Buddhism.
Taiwanese government statistics distinguish Buddhism from Taoism, giving almost equal numbers for both. In 2005, the census recorded 8 million Buddhists and 7.6 million Taoists, out of a total population of 23 million. Many of Taiwan's self-declared "Taoists" actually observe the more syncretistic practices associated with Chinese traditional religion which is based on Buddhism. Self-avowed Buddhists may also be adherents of more localized faiths such as Yiguandao, which also emphasize Buddhist figures like Guanyin or Maitreya and espouse vegetarianism.
Distinguishing features of Taiwanese Buddhism is the emphasis on the practice of vegetarianism, the influence of Humanistic Buddhism, and the prominence of large centralized Buddhist organizations. Four Buddhist teachers who founded institutions that are particularly influential are popularly referred to as the "Four Heavenly Kings of Taiwanese Buddhism", one for each cardinal direction, with their corresponding institutions referred to as the "Four Great Mountains". They are:
Following the Chinese Civil War, Buddhism experienced a rapid increase in popularity in Taiwan, attributed to Taiwan's economic miracle following the war and several major Buddhist organizations promoting modern values such as equality, freedom and reason, which was attractive to the country's growing middle class. Taiwanese Buddhist institutions are known for their involvement in secular society, including the providing of a number of public goods and services such as colleges, hospitals and disaster relief.
Buddhism was brought to Taiwan in the era of Dutch colonialism by settlers from the Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. The Dutch, who controlled Taiwan from 1624 until 1663, discouraged Buddhism, since idol worship was punishable by public flogging and banishment by Dutch law at the time. In 1662, Koxinga drove the Dutch from Taiwan. His son Zheng Jing established the first Buddhist temple in Taiwan. During this period, Buddhist practice was not pervasive, with Buddhist monks only performing funeral and memorial services.
When the Qing dynasty took control of Taiwan in 1683, large numbers of monks came from Fujian and Guangdong provinces to establish temples, particularly those devoted to Guanyin, and a number of different Buddhist sects flourished. Monastic Buddhism, however, did not arrive until the 1800s.
During the Japanese rule of Taiwan (1895–1945), many schools of Japanese Buddhism came to Taiwan to propagate their Buddhism teachings, such as Kegon (華厳宗), Tendai (天台宗), Shingon Buddhism (真言宗), Rinzai school (臨済宗), Sōtō (曹洞宗), Jōdo shū (浄土宗), Jōdo Shinshū (浄土真宗) and Nichiren Buddhism (日蓮宗). During the same period, most Taiwan Buddhist temples came to affiliate with one of three central temples:
As a Japanese colony, Taiwan fell under the influence of Japanese Buddhism. Many temples experienced pressure to affiliate with Japanese lineages, including many whose status with respect to Buddhism or Taoism was unclear. (Emphasis on the Chinese folk religion was widely considered a form of protest against Japanese rule.) Attempts were made to introduce a married priesthood (as in Japan). These failed to take root, as emphasis on vegetarianism and/or clerical celibacy became another means of anti-Japanese protest.
With Japan's defeat in World War II, Taiwan fell under the control of Chiang Kai-shek's government, resulting in contrary political pressures. In 1949, a number of mainland monks fled to Taiwan alongside Chiang's military forces, and received preferential treatment by the new regime. During this period, Buddhist institutions fell under the authority of the government-controlled Buddhist Association of the Republic of China (zh:中國佛教會). Originally established in 1947 (in Nanjing), it was dominated by "mainland" monks. Its authority began to decline in the 1960s, when independent Buddhist organizations began to be permitted; and especially since the 1987 lifting of martial law in Taiwan.
Buddhism experienced rapid growth in Taiwan following the war, which has been attributed to the immigration of several Buddhist teachers from Communist China after the defeat of the nationalists in the Chinese Civil War and the growth of Humanistic Buddhism (人間佛教). ‘Humanistic Buddhism’ promotes a direct relationship between Buddhist communities and the wider society. Also known as Socially Engaged Buddhism, its focuses on the improvement of society through participation in aspects such as environmental conservation. Humanistic Buddhism is the major distinguishing trait of modern Taiwanese Buddhism.
Humanistic Buddhism traces its roots to Chinese monk Venerable Taixu (1890-1947), who wanted to reform the continuous focus on ritual and ceremony. Taixu promoted more direct contributions to society through the Buddhist community and was a significant influence for Master Ying Shun, who is generally considered to be the figure who brought Humanistic Buddhism to Taiwan.
These two figures were the major influences of the Buddhist teachers that shaped modern Taiwanese Buddhism. One of the first private networks of Buddhist centers was that of Hsing Yun, who was directly inspired by Taixu. Hsing Yun first attained popularity through the new medium of radio broadcasts in the 1950s and later through publication of Buddhist audio on phonograph discs, leading to the founding of Fo Guang Shan in 1967. Another major figure was Master Cheng Yen, a direct student of Ying Shun, who founded Tzu Chi, which would become Taiwan's largest Buddhist organization and charity.
During the 1980s, Buddhist leaders pressed Taiwan's Ministry of Education to relax various policies preventing the organization of a Buddhist university. The eventual result was that in the 1990s—flush with contributions made possible by Taiwan's "miracle economy"—not one but half a dozen such schools emerged, each associated with a different Buddhist leader. Among them were Tzu Chi University, Hsuan-Chuang University, Huafan University, Fo Guang University, Nanhua University, and Dharma Drum Buddhist College. The regulations of the Ministry of Education prohibit recognized colleges and universities from requiring religious belief or practice, and these institutions therefore appear little different from others of their rank. (Degrees granted by seminaries, of which Taiwan has several dozen, are not recognized by the government.) In a reversal of the older historical relationship, these Taiwanese Buddhists would later play a role in the revival of Buddhism in mainland China later in the century.
In 2001, Master Hsin Tao opened the Museum of World Religions in Taipei. In addition to exhibits on ten different world religions, the museum also features "Avatamsaka World," a model illustrating the Avatamsaka Sutra.
In recent decades, Vajrayana Buddhism has increased in popularity in Taiwan as Tibetan lamas from the four major Tibetan schools (Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya and Gelug) have visited the island, including the 14th Dalai Lama, who visited the island thrice in 1997, 2001 and 2009.
The Koyasan Shingon sect of Japan also maintains its own practice centers and temples in Taiwan, some of them historically established during the Japanese period of Taiwanese history, while others were established in the post-WWII era in order to re-establish an orthodox Esoteric Buddhist lineage that was long eliminated during the Tang Dynasty.
The True Buddha School, founded in the late 1980s by Taiwanese native Lu Sheng-yen, is one of the more well known of the Vajrayana sects in Taiwan, although at least seven established Buddhist organisations have charged that the group functions as a personality cult.
Statistics provided by the Interior Ministry show that Taiwan's Buddhist population grew from 800,000 in 1983 to 4.9 million in 1995, a 600 percent increase. In contrast, the population grew about twelve percent over the same time period. Additionally, in the same period the number of registered Buddhist temples increased from 1,157 to 4,020, and the number of monks and nuns was up 9,300 monks and nuns, up from 3,470 in 1983.
Scholars attribute this trend to a number of unique factors in Taiwan, including the activity of the various charismatic teachers who were active during this time, as well as the migration of devout lay Buddhists fleeing religious persecution in Mainland China. On top of that, several officials in the government of Chiang Kai-Shek were devoted Buddhists who helped support Buddhism when the fleeing Buddhist leaders arrived in Taiwan. Other factors scholars cite for the rapid growth include a general search for identity among Taiwanese citizens, increased urbanization as well as a sense of isolation in an increasingly impersonal society.
The growth of Buddhism rose most sharply in the late 1980s when the Taiwanese government became much more liberalized. Aside from societal influences there have also been a number of developments when it comes to the Buddhist community. The modernization of Taiwan coincided with the rise of Humanistic Buddhism. The growth of Buddhism in Taiwan was spearheaded by a number of organizations developing during this period led by various teachers who took a socially engaged approach in accordance with Humanistic Buddhist philosophy. As Buddhist groups become more involved in people’s everyday lives there has been a general push to make the teachings of Buddhism more relevant and applicable to modern- day issues such as environmental protection, human rights and stress management. These developments helped create an image of Buddhism as being highly relevant in the modern world to the Taiwanese population.
Rapid economic growth and general prosperity has also been an important factor for Buddhism in Taiwan. As people acquire time-saving goods such as cars and appliances, extra time can be allocated to an activity which can help provide meaning or a goal to people’s lives. This has been speculated as being the case in Taiwan where people look for deeper satisfaction beyond the immediate and the materialistic. Economic prosperity has also meant that donations and volunteering have increased throughout a number of Taiwanese communities.
While other religious groups, such as Christian churches, took similar approaches and had many of the same societal benefits in Taiwan during this period of Buddhist resurgence, a major advantage Buddhism had was that it had long played a role in Chinese history and culture. Groups such as Christian churches were seen as foreign and therefore Buddhism had much greater appeal to the young people in Taiwan at the time who were looking for a sense of ethnic identity and to fill the ideological needs of the more socially conscious public as Taiwan modernized. Another advantage Buddhism had over other religious groups was that the growth of Buddhism in Taiwan was being led primarily by large Buddhist organizations such as Tzu Chi and Fo Guang Shan. Organizations such as these were headed by charismatic leaders such as the "Four Heavenly Kings" and the size of the organizations allowed for large scale fundraising and public events, giving the major Buddhist organizations an advantage in terms of resources and publicity. In addition, most of the contemporary Taiwanese Buddhist organizations leading the resurgence were known for their use of modern technology to appeal to the masses and some were known for championing popular progressive causes at the time.
Significant funding and a more liberal approach to religion allowed folk religions and Buddhism in particular to prosper in Taiwan during the post war era. This is in contrast to the severe restrictions Buddhism and religion faced in mainland China between 1949-78. Buddhism, among other aspects, was seen as an aspect of Chinese culture that was holding the nation back. Many monks and nuns were forced to give up their monastic lives and become part general society. It wasn’t until 1978 that Buddhism has been able to re-surface in mainland China. The much different environment in Taiwan allowed Buddhism to have a very significant religious presence in Taiwan since the late 20th century. Many scholars now consider Taiwan to be the center of Chinese Buddhism with many schools, temples and shrines established all over the island by many prominent Buddhist leaders.