The New Buddhists

Review of Democracy’s Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan by Richard Madsen.

Christopher Queen
1 June 2008

Democracy’s Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan
By Richard Madsen
University of California Press, 2007
191 pages; $21.95 (paperback)

The global reach and growing influence of the three Taiwanese Buddhist organizations featured in Richard Madsen’s new book, Democracy’s Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan, will come as news to some American Buddhists. Others will recall them in different contexts. Do you remember Vice President Al Gore’s visit, during the 1996 presidential campaign, to the Hsi Lai Temple near Los Angeles—the largest Buddhist temple in North America—when a substantial campaign donation led to congressional hearings into possible improper connections between the Democrats and the temple’s sponsor, Buddha’s Light Mountain of Taiwan? While some fundraisers were prosecuted, neither the party nor the temple were charged with wrongdoing. Three years later, college students organized campus benefit concerts across the country for the Tzu Chi Buddhist Compassion Relief Association following the devastating earthquake in Taiwan on September 21, 1999. Within months, Tzu Chi raised more than $250 million worldwide to support the work of the 200,000 volunteers who provided medical treatment and temporary housing for tens of thousands of victims.

Closer to home, a neighbor of mine told me that he drives from Massachusetts to New York once a month to attend meditation retreats with Chan master Sheng Yen, the founder of the Dharma Drum Mountain temple in Queens. My friend confided that his Buddhist practice had restored his health and connected him to Chan students in Taiwan, where Dharma Drum is based, and to the group’s charitable projects around the world.

While these Taiwan-based Buddhist organizations may not yet have the visibility in the U.S. of mainstream Vipassana, Zen, and Vajrayana groups, Richard Madsen, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the “Humanistic Buddhism” (renjian fojiao) of Taiwan—reflected in Buddha’s Light Mountain, Tzu Chi, and Dharma Drum Mountain—offers a unique and timely model of progressive religion in a world increasingly marked by religious strife, or religious irrelevance.

All the elements of democratic civil society—respect for the individual; the individual’s obligation to serve others; and the values of social justice, tolerance for diversity, rational inquiry, and nonviolent dispute resolution—are supported by these powerful Buddhist organizations, both in their internal governance and in their relations with society and the state. Yet these elements are not the legacy of centuries of Western colonialism and Christian missions in Asia, as some might assume, but rather the evolution of core Buddhist values, intertwined over the centuries with Confucian civil society and Daoist naturalism, and sharpened and transformed during the twentieth century by the great Chinese Buddhist reformers, Taixu and Yinshun. The spiritual heirs of this evolution, as Madsen shows, are the monastic founders of the three Taiwanese sects: Master Hsing Yun of Buddha’s Light Mountain; Ven. Cheng Yen of the Tzu Chi Foundation; and Master Sheng Yen of Dharma Drum Mountain. He contrasts the progressive values of these groups with the “hybrid modernity” of the Hsing Tien Kung, or Enacting Heaven Temple, with its Daoist ritualism, “bourgeois Confucianism,” and cult worship of the merchant-warrior deity, Lord Guan.

In the preface, the author charts the deep fault lines separating the Republic of Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China, in which a “vigorous but fragile democracy” emerges from a period of authoritarianism, corruption, and ineptitude, and the indigenous Taiwanese people come to terms with the Mainlanders who immigrated after China’s civil war in 1949. In the end, Humanistic Buddhism offers Taiwan’s 23 million citizens the creative means to integrate the agrarian values of the past with the urban and global challenges of the future. Madsen places these tectonic pressures in the largest possible context: “The rise of Asia as the world’s most dynamic center of wealth, power, and cultural creativity is perhaps the single greatest challenge for a global order that has for centuries been dominated by Europe and now the United States. A breakdown along some of the fault lines centered on Taiwan could, in the worst-case scenario, become the epicenter for a catastrophe of global proportions.”

The rich historical and phenomenological detail offered in Democracy’s Dharma never obscures Madsen’s overriding argument, that the progressive religious values embodied in Taiwanese Humanistic Buddhism are compatible with the political and social agendas of civil societies in the twenty-first century. Chapter headings point in this direction: “Tzu Chi: The Modernization of Buddhist Compassion”; “Buddha’s Light Mountain: The Buddhist Contribution to Democratic Civil Religion”; and “Dharma Drum Mountain: Transcendent Meaning in a Broken World.” More telling are the parallels of worldview, organization, and implementation that link the three religious orders. All three Mahayana sects embrace the bodhisattva vow to save all beings and the belief in a Pure Land for all. But the cosmic dimensions of the traditional vision—encompassing many lifetimes and distant Buddha realms—are collapsed to the here and now.

Serving others in this life is the essence of the new Buddhism, equally appropriate for venerables and laypeople, and the only Pure Land worth having is our dear Planet Earth—purged of poverty, injustice, tyranny, and war. A mark of the immediacy and intimacy of this ethic can be found in Ven. Cheng Yen’s wish that Tzu Chi volunteers hold the earthquake victims in their arms and wipe their tears, not as dutiful strangers but as loving family members. “By envisioning the nation and even the world as a family,” Madsen observes, “Tzu Chi enables its Taiwanese members to feel at home, in continuity with the best of their traditional values, even as they experience the typical material and spiritual dislocations of a globalized modernity.”

The robust institutionalization, efficient bureaucracy, and extraordinary wealth of the new Buddhist sects may seem foreign, if not disturbing, to American Buddhists, who would prefer not to purchase the empty church building on Main Street to accommodate (or attract) a growing sangha. The four million Tzu Chi members are organized in ranks, starting with volunteers, who wear blue shirts, white pants, athletic shoes, and hard hats with the blue Tzu Chi logo. Working at disaster sites all over the world—even in the United States, where Tzu Chi volunteers came to the aid of New Orleans residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—these volunteers fly the Tzu Chi flag (white lotus and sailing ship on a blue field) and sing work hymns expressing the joys of service.

In the ranks above the volunteers are the nearly one hundred Commissioners, laywomen who have served with Ven. Cheng Yen since the 1960s, when the organization was founded. The Faith Corps, a men’s security team, was formed to direct traffic at work sites in the 1990s; members typically come from professional backgrounds and contribute mid-level administrative and organizational skills as well as logistic support. Above the Commissioners and Faith Corps are the Honorary Board and the Religious Affairs Committee, made up of business and financial leaders responsible for funding the five hospitals, secondary schools, medical college, and multimedia outlets that comprise the $1 billion-plus Tzi Chi enterprise.

Finally, at the top of the pyramid, working in a modern building called the Hall of Still Thoughts, is Ven. Cheng Yen herself, still a simple nun who, like Shakyamuni, ran away from home as a youth, lived in voluntary poverty, and meditated and studied Buddhism on her own. She later vowed to open a hospital for the poor when she became aware of the widespread suffering on the island.

Madsen’s critical account of Buddha’s Light Mountain and Dharma Drum Mountain, like that of Tzu Chi—detailing their major international affiliates, temple and monastic compounds, college campuses and communication networks, and most importantly, their evolving beliefs and spiritual practices—is sufficient unto itself. Yet I miss having any reference in the book to the many Engaged Buddhist movements in neighboring Asian countries, such as the Nichiren-inspired peace and justice movements of Japan—Soka Gakkai, Rissho Koseikai, Nipponzan Myohoji—which share many of the values, administrative talents, and the global reach of the Taiwanese groups. There is clearly work to be done in comparing and contrasting the widespread Engaged Buddhisms of Asia and the West with the Humanistic Buddhism of Taiwan.

The sharp pain we feel in witnessing the seemingly hopeless struggles of Buddhist monks and laity in Burma (Myanmar) and Tibet, the continuing marginalization of the new Dalit (ex-untouchable) Buddhists in caste-bound India, and the undermining of Sarvodaya Shramadana’s relief and peace work by the worsening civil war in Sri Lanka, to name but a few examples, is quenched for a time by reading of the sincere idealism and the strategic successes of the new Buddhists of Taiwan. But Madsen’s work poses new questions for those who would follow the buddhadharma in the West: Where does service to society figure in our spiritual practice? Do Western Buddhists inhibit the dharma by focusing on retreats and meditation, at the expense of public witness and social action? And is our mistrust of wealth, power, and influence at odds with the skillful means of Asian Buddhists—beginning with the Buddha himself—who reach out to mobilize rulers, merchants, and intellectuals in support of the sangha and in service to the world?

Christopher Queen

Christopher Queen is a lecturer on the study of religion at Harvard University and president of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. He is the author of Engaged Buddhism in the West and co-editor of Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia and Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism.