In 1967, when Venerable Master Hsing Yun established the headquarters for his organization, Fo Guang Shan, in Taiwan, the first building he constructed wasn’t a temple or a shrine but rather a monastic college. “The Master has always had education in his heart,” says Venerable Jue Wei, a Ph.D. student at the University of the West (UWest), founded by Master Hsing Yun in 1991.
Today Fo Guang Shan is one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the world, boasting approximately two hundred branch temples across the globe and dozens of humanitarian projects. Yet despite its growth, Fo Guang Shan has stayed true to its roots and continues to emphasize education—education being, according to Master Hsing Yun, the only sound basis for social change and a major stepping-stone to enlightenment. Now, as part of its educational mandate, Fo Guang Shan runs a television station, libraries, publishing houses, museums, schools, and three universities, one of which—the University of the West—is located in the United States.
UWest was originally known as Hsi Lai University, because for the first five years classes were held at Fo Guang Shan’s Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles. Then Master Hsing Yun purchased what had previously been a Catholic seminary in Rosemead, California, where he established the new campus. The university is perched on a hill overlooking the San Gabriel Valley, surrounded by ten acres blooming with roses and birds-of-paradise.
Students enjoy not only the beautiful setting but also conviviality that is, according to Jue Wei, apparent to everyone, even if they just visit the campus briefly. “I went to the cafeteria for lunch today,” she says, “and I was just so touched by the people because they’re all so genuine. The students, the faculty, the staff—they’re here because they believe in transforming lives and purifying minds through education.”
Dr. Allen Huang, the president of UWest, says the Humanistic Buddhist philosophy that Master Hsing Yun adheres to is what makes the university such a warm place, and indeed it’s what gives life to all of Fo Guang Shan’s endeavors. “Fo Guang Shan is the operating system,” he says, “and Humanistic Buddhism is the software of that system.”
Humanistic Buddhist is a term that was first coined by Venerable Tai Xu (1889–1948). Yet as Master Hsing Yun has explained on various occasions, it isn’t a new form of dharma. The only thing that separates Humanistic Buddhism from other schools is that it focuses on bringing spiritual practice into daily life. “Most people think that Buddhists meditate on mountains or in temples,” says Dr. Huang. But he emphasizes that by devoting oneself to faith, hope, joy, and service, anyone anywhere can practice Humanistic Buddhism.
At UWest, Humanistic Buddhist principles are woven into every aspect of the curriculum, which covers a range of academic majors, including religious studies, business, history, psychology, and English. “For example, in the business department we educate our students on how to make money,” says Dr. Huang, “but at the same time we want them to experience social responsibility.”
UWest students aren’t required to be Buddhists or to take classes on Buddhism, and the faculty can likewise be of any faith. Two of the university’s four chairs, in fact, are non-Buddhists (one is Christian and the other is Muslim). “The Master is a very open religious leader,” explains Jue Wei. “He’s always told devotees that they don’t have to stop at one religion, as the Buddha himself took in people of different religions and he never said they had to give up their other teachings.”
Master Hsing Yun has also been a strong supporter of women. Fo Guang Shan is currently the Buddhist order with the greatest number of female monastics, and Master Hsing Yun has held full ordination ceremonies not only for nuns in his own tradition, but also for those of other Buddhist traditions that don’t currently offer women full ordination.
UWest has a remarkably diverse international student body. This year there are 233 students enrolled, and they come from every corner of the world. “In one class,” says Miroj Shakya, a Ph.D. student from Nepal, “you can meet people from ten different nationalities.”
Students who don’t have much in the way of financial resources, including those from developing countries, are able to attend UWest with the help of scholarships and also because Master Hsing Yun insists on a low tuition policy. “At this time,” says Dr. Huang, “literally every single one of our doctoral students has a scholarship.”
Master Hsing Yun himself grew up in poverty. Born in 1927 in a poor village in Chiangsu Province, China, he spent his childhood herding cattle and plowing fields. Then one day his father left to take care of some business and never returned. Searching for him, the future master, then age twelve, went to Nanjing where he visited a monastery and was asked if he wanted to become a monk. He immediately said yes and was tonsured by the abbot.
After receiving full ordination in 1941, Master Hsing Yun completed formal monastic training at Chiao-Shan Buddhist College, where he recalls being so poor that when his shoes wore out he replaced them with thick paper tied around his feet. At twenty, he left college and became the principal of an elementary school. By 1949, civil war was raging across Mainland China and he had to flee to Taiwan, where he began teaching the dharma and writing dharma books (to date, he has written over one hundred).
Today Taiwan is still Master Hsing Yun’s home base, but he visits UWest twice a year. He is president of UWest’s board of trustees and, along with other members, he exercises supervisory powers over the university; however, the administrative and academic functions are entrusted to the university president.
In February 2007, UWest was accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and now more American students are enrolling. “We are a growing campus in terms of infrastructure, both technological as well as physical,” says Jue Wei. “In the years to come, we are hoping to hit one thousand students. We are hoping that we’ll become the Nalanda of the West.”