The Politics of Buddhist Organizations in Taiwan, 1989-2003: Safeguarding the Faith, Building a Pure Land, Helping the Poor

By Pacey, Scott | The China Journal, January 2005 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Buddhist Organizations in Taiwan, 1989-2003: Safeguarding the Faith, Building a Pure Land, Helping the Poor


Pacey, Scott, The China Journal


The Politics of Buddhist Organizations in Taiwan, 1989-2003: Safeguarding the Faith, Building a Pure Land, Helping the Poor, by André Laliberté. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. xii + 178 pp. £60.00 (hardcover).

Academic interest in Taiwanese Buddhism has grown steadily in recent years, with an increasing number of Western-language doctoral dissertations, journal articles and monographs appearing on the subject. André Laliberté's book is an important contribution to this burgeoning field. It explores the political behavior of three important Taiwanese Buddhist organizations between 1989 and 2003: the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Association (Ciji), Buddha Light Mountain (Foguangshan) and the Buddhist Association of the Republic of China (BAROC). Laliberté asks why these three Buddhist organizations have adopted such divergent political behavior.

With the passage of the Law on Civic Organizations in 1989, BAROC, the smallest of the three, became the official representative body for Buddhists in Taiwan. One of its roles was to act as a conduit for communication between the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the island's Buddhists. It was also the only body that could officially ordain members of the Buddhist clergy. However, its political influence has steadily waned with the rise of other groups such as Ciji and Foguangshan.

Laliberté divides contemporary Taiwanese Buddhist thought into two categories. He describes the first, represented by BAROC, as theologically conservative. Unlike Ciji and Foguangshan, BAROC is opposed to the involvement of lay Buddhists, and supports government legislation regulating religion. Laliberté describes how it has lobbied the government to enact legislative change that would allow it to regain the degree of power and prestige it formerly held, through a grant of greater authority over the island's Buddhists. On the other side, Zhengyan (the founder of Ciji) and Xingyun (the founder of Foguangshan) draw philosophical inspiration from the thought of Taixu (1890-1947) and Yinshun (1906- ), who may be considered the architects of the "humanistic Buddhism" (renjian fojiao) that now forms the mainstream of Taiwanese Buddhist thought. Both of these reformers advocated greater roles for both the clergy and the laity in the social sphere.

Despite sharing these common philosophical roots, Ciji and Foguangshan engage in quite different forms of political behavior. Members of Ciji are discouraged from engaging in politics, and Zhengyan herself steers away from direct political participation. Even so, Ciji has contributed greatly to improving the health care system of the island, running four hospitals.

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