My volunteering experience at the Fo Guang Shan temple in Taiwan

· 10 min read >

In Taiwan there is a famous Buddhist temple of the Chan school (which is the one from which Japanese Zen comes), recently founded but which has expanded like wildfire to create 400 branches around the world. The general temple is called Fo Guang Shan and is located in the Kaohsiung province in southern Taiwan. The founder was a Chinese monk who, coming from the continent, started from zero to create a real empire. The temple is huge and houses more than 300 monks. During the main holidays, they welcome thousands of devotees every day. The mammoth architecture of the temple and museum make it an attraction from all parts of the world.

The Non-duality Gate
The Non-duality Gate

As I have explained well in this article and in my biography, I have a past as a monk in Italy, 7 years of intense life meditating every day and experiencing a demanding asceticism (without renouncing to the contact with people, fortunately). One of the reasons that led me to undertake this journey is precisely the desire to experience the hard way realities that I had purely studied in books to touch their essence and learn something new. When browsing through Workaway to find a place to volunteer for about ten days in Taiwan, I saw this monastery, I immediately contacted them for the opportunity to live in a Buddhist temple of Chan school, which is the current from which Zen was born; they replied quickly and cordially telling me that I was welcome.

Fo Guang Shan temple of Kaohsiung

A buddha is an idle person. He doesn’t run around after fortune and fame. What good are such things in the end? People who don’t see their nature and think reading sutras, invoking Buddhas, studying long and hard, practicing morning and night, never lying down, or acquiring knowledge is the Dharma, blaspheme the Dharma.

Bodhidharma
Fo guang shan
Main Hall
Inside of the main hall

Chan and Zen

Everyone knows Zen. There is no person who has never heard of it. Although, in fact, few people know what it really is, the term Zen has become synonymous with spiritual life, detachment, inner calm, wisdom. In reality, these things have little to do with the original Zen. For a more in-depth article, I refer here. Chan, on the other hand, is known only to “insiders”. In fact, Zen is the son of Chan who in turn is the son of Dhyana.

The latter is a Sanskrit term that means “meditation, contemplation” and refers to all those practices aimed at achieving a psychophysical state of alert mind while brain waves are extremely slowed down. Chan is a Chinese word meaning nothing, it simply picks up the sound of the word Dhyana. This is because this Chinese Buddhist school, attributed to the mythical Bodhidharma, placed meditation at the centre of the practice, as the main tool for achieving awakening, even more important than the sutras.

When the Japanese learned about this new school, they embarked on trips to China and invited teachers to the Land of the Rising Sun to spread this doctrine. Hence Zen was born, which is simply how the Japanese read the characters that the Chinese pronounce Chan. This revolutionary school was born around the VI-VII century CE in China. To give it importance, the founder is made to be Bodhidharma, of which it is not known whether he really existed, who is also the creator of the famous Shaolin martial arts, of the homonymous temple. After experiencing the Zen temple in Japan, I certainly could not miss the chance to go even further to the origins by embarking on this adventure with an ancient Chinese flavour. But let’s see if my expectations have been met.

Fo guang shan
Golden buddhas building
Fo guang shan
Fo Guang Shan

Introduction

The monastery is located in the Kaohsiung province in southern Taiwan, not far from the city. There are many buses from the centre to the temple and the nearby museum. Being a popular destination, there is no shortage of connections. The temple was founded by Hsing Yun in 1967, apparently out of nowhere, as he did not have many funds. Yet when you get close to it you can’t but notice the majesty of the buildings and ask yourself how all this was possible. Hsing Yun’s intent was to create a Humanistic Buddhism, adapting the famous millennial tradition with the needs of today’s times, of everyday life. They focus their rituals for the living instead of the dead (in the Chinese tradition, but in all Asian ones, worship for the dead is the predominant cult).

fo guang shan
The dwelling of the abbot

Brief history

Hsing Yun was born in China in 1927. At the age of 12, he becomes a Buddhist monk, a passion transmitted by his grandmother. Inspired by Buddhist modernism of 1945, he comes in contact with the master Taixu who was clamouring for reform in Buddhism and Sangha (the monastic community). In 1949, following the victory of the Communist Party of Mao, he flees to Taiwan along with many other comrades. He is arrested with them and released after 23 days.

In the following years, thanks to his teachings, he makes a large following of devotees and founds numerous monasteries. In 1966 he buys 30 hectares of land and begins the construction of the first building which was inaugurated in 1967. In a few years, the monastery expands, new buildings are built and branches established around the world. In 1985 Hsing Yun resigns from the role of the abbot and founded the Buddha’s Light International Association (BLIA) dedicated to lay devotees.

The monastery, headquarters of the organization, becomes the main advocate of Humanistic Buddhism. The monks engage in many social and voluntary activities: they have opened various schools, colleges, orphanages, hospices and are involved in rehabilitation programs in prisons. Unfortunately, Hsing Yun, and consequently Fo Guang Shan, has openly sided politically in favour of Kuomintang, supporting the party and supporting the candidate Ma Ying-jeou in the 2008 elections. Hsing Yun’s vision is that of One-China policy; he said openly that “there are no Taiwanese” and that “Taiwanese are Chinese.” Another highly criticized point is his vision of women: unfortunately, they are not seen on the same level as men, but their main role is to take care of the house and supporting their husband.

fo guang shan

Living the Chan in Fo Guang Shan

There is no Bodhi tree, Nor stand of a mirror bright. Since all is void, Where can the dust alight?

Huineng
Fo guang shan

Organisation

Unlike my experience in the Zen monastery, we volunteers, who were many, like about thirty, did not live with the monks. Indeed, our daily life was decidedly separate from the monastic one, in all respects, with the exception of meals. We slept in a room just for us, away from monks and nuns. Obviously a room for men and one for women, in two different buildings. This separation of the sexes is very marked and can also be seen in the offices: that assigned to women (to volunteers) is off-limits for men. We were managed by a layman, who had made time and energy available to manage us volunteers.

fo guang shan

Typical day

There was no real wake-up call. Those who wanted could participate in the chanting of the sutras of 5.30 in the morning but without obligations of any kind. Breakfast followed, always free. What was important was to be present for the work, which usually started between 8 and 9 depending on the days and the assignment. Around 11.30 there was lunch, which could have been the formal one with the monks or with the devotees in another building. After a break, we started to work again, usually around 14.00. We usually ended well in advance of the dinner, which was around 17.30, also, in this case, it could have been formal or not. After dinner, we were free and usually spent time among us volunteers to socialize. We went to sleep at around 22.

fo guang shan
A typical day of work

Dharma Service

I went to the temple during a particular week, called by the monks as Dharma Service. It is a time of year when the devotees gather at Fo Guang Shan to pray for themselves and their loved ones, whether they are alive or dead. The monastery was therefore full of people, thousands of devotees every day, in addition to the 300 resident monks. It has been a very intense and demanding but certainly interesting week. The times of the various ceremonies and events changed every day and it was not easy for us outsiders to stay behind; I must say that sometimes the organization wasn’t good and they changed our assignments and schedules at the last minute. Despite this, there were no problems whatsoever and indeed, it was an interesting experience.

Fo guang shan
Monks and devotees during one of the Dharma Service ceremonies
Final ceremony of the Dharma Service
The final ceremony of the Dharma Service
Final ceremony of the Dharma Service
The final ceremony of the Dharma Service
Final ceremony of the Dharma Service
The final ceremony of the Dharma Service

Work and days off

The tasks were of various types, from watering the plants of the various gardens, cleaning the Buddha statues, arranging the dormitories after the Dharma Service, cleaning, washing and tidying up. Working hours were limited and assignments were never heavy. Furthermore, working together helped a lot to pass the time in a pleasant way. It was never, or almost never, work done with the monks. We were always assigned to tasks totally managed by us. When it rained, outdoor work was suspended, sometimes they gave us the necessary equipment to not get wet in the rain. Two days a week we had our days off where we could do what we preferred, even leaving the monastery for both days and returning in the evening to be ready in the morning to resume volunteering.

fo guang shan
Another typical day of work
Relaxing time for volunteers

Buddhist practises

Thus organized, it did not give much space to experience monastic life, which was the peculiarity of volunteering in a Buddhist temple, but it became a simple Workaway like all the others. Fortunately, the monastic division that dealt with the volunteers was keen for us to practice Buddhism and always tried to organize extra activities just for us. I remember once they let us participate in a perfect Chinese style tea ceremony. At other times a monk taught us Chan meditation for how it is done in their temple. We were invited to the writing room to practice drawing the Chinese ideograms, too bad that there was no one to teach us, but we had to go at random. Finally, they allowed us to participate in the final Dharma Service ceremony and it was a really interesting experience!

Tea ceremony
Tea ceremony

Formal meals

As volunteers, we were free to participate in formal meals which are those where you eat with the monks following the monastic etiquette. We diligently get in line, behind the monks who are the first to enter and when it is our turn we take a position at a table. These are narrow and there is only room for a row of people, this to have no one in front and not to get distracted. It is eaten in silence, sometimes a monk chants the sutras during the meal otherwise they are chanted only at the beginning and at the end, by everyone. Bowls, chopsticks and plate must be arranged in a precise order. The food is strictly vegetarian. There are coded gestures to receive the meal, to return what you don’t want, to ask for more. Despite being a Buddhist canteen, the meal is eaten very quickly in stark contrast to the teachings of Buddha and the Zen modality that I have experienced in Japan. As they say, different countries, different habits.

Fo guang shan
Monastic canteen

In addition to the monks’ canteen, there were several other places where we volunteers could eat, always for free. In all these places the food was vegetarian, sometimes in the buffet formula, sometimes you could choose between two main dishes. In these environments, the situation was decidedly more relaxed and you could talk to those around you at the table. I, like many other volunteers, preferred this formula because during formal meals there was an unpleasant tension and atmosphere. The servant monks who ran filling the bowls, all who ate quickly, no sense of relaxation and a way to enjoy the food.

fo guang shan
Relaxation room for volunteers, where meditation was held

Buddhism of the Fo Guang Shan

Like all religions, Buddhism also had its moments of crisis. Moments necessary to develop a new conception of religion closer to man today. Thus was born the Humanistic Buddhism that Fo Guang Shan promotes and spreads, showing itself as one of the most important promoters of this movement. It is based on recognizing Buddha as a human and non-divine figure and therefore on meeting people in their daily lives, promoting equality, freedom and reason. Social commitment is a direct consequence and the temple has opened and manages various structures such as schools, universities, hospices, orphanages, hospitals and so on, allowing even those who cannot afford to use these services. The monks, therefore, instead of being closed in the monastery to pray, they dedicate themselves to various social activities and for this reason, they are very busy and difficult to approach.

In addition to taking care of others, humanist Buddhism is concerned with spreading the Buddhist message in a style similar to that of Christian proselytism. The monks write books, articles, hold conferences, participate and organize events to make the message of Buddha known to the world under this new humanistic interpretation. So what about traditional Buddhist schools? Fo Guang Shan, although it stands for Chan Buddhism, also claims to integrate and incorporate the 8 Chinese Buddhist schools: of the Pure Land, Tiantai, of the Flowered Garland, Lǜ, Fǎxiāng or Wéishì, of the Three Treatises, of the True Word, Chan. The essence of these schools is taken by getting rid of superstitions, rituals, adorations of various deities and spirits to bring Buddhism back to the origins of Sakyamuni’s teaching. There is clearly no shortage of criticism from traditional Buddhism.

fo guang shan
Writing room

Meditation

Although the monastery defines itself as Chan and the founder was of the Linchi school of Chan Buddhism, meditation is practised but it is not the fulcrum of their daily discipline. As in the Zen temple where I was in Japan, the recitation of the sutras remains the most important practice and is done in the community, with songs and musical instruments. Meditation is left for personal use and, apart from particular events, there is no moment of common contemplation. I honestly find it quite disappointing and against the original precepts of Chan, which were to put meditation above all things, even the sutras. Despite this, the few guided meditations made with a monk expressly for us volunteers have been interesting, although a little superficial for those who, like me, have a ten-year practice behind them.

fo guang shan
My favourite monk

The museum

One of the main attractions of Fo Guang Shan is certainly the museum. It is built on a plain in the mountains (it is said that a mountain was destroyed to build the museum …) and it is nothing but spectacular. The first building we meet, built in a traditional way, inside presents a whole series of shops in a shopping mall style. These shops sell souvenirs, sacred objects, food and there are also restaurants where you can eat. After that, you enter the esplanade which is flanked by 8 monumental pagodas, four on each side. Each pagoda has a symbolic name and presents various situations inside: a centre for events, one for art, one with the writings of the founder and so on. Precious Buddhist goods according to Chinese tradition are buried under one of the pagodas.

In front of the esplanade, there is a kind of pyramid with a square base with steps on which sits a giant Buddha statue. The pyramid is the actual museum that contains interesting archaeological finds, a phantom Sakyamuni tooth and interactive routes for adults and children on the life of Buddha, Buddhist holidays, etc. The use of technology and electronics is one of the elements of the Fo Guang Shan temple, which seeks to use modern progress for spiritual purposes. One of the questions that a common person would ask is how it is possible that a monastic movement that traditionally embraces poverty could have built something so mammoth and modern. And especially if maybe it wasn’t better to do something smaller and use that money for charitable purposes …

Museo
Museum
Museo
Museum
Museo
Musem

Conclusions

The experience at the Fo Guang Shan monastery was certainly different from what I expected. It may have been the least ideal moment (the week of Dharma Service) but the contact with a spiritual life has been decidedly far away. The clear separation between monks and volunteers does not really allow you to savour their life and although there is always at least one monk available to answer all your questions, many answers remain deliberately vague and elusive, as if they did not want to share some aspects of their daily lives. Despite this, I had a lot of fun mainly thanks to the nice group of volunteers who worked with me in the monastery and with whom I built interesting friendships, some of which persist over time.

Those looking for an isolated, peaceful and genuine place to have a spiritual experience I would say that it is not the best place. Those who are content with superficially lapping Buddhism and monastic life while remaining a spectator but enjoying good company and excellent food, and the opportunity to do some meditation and ask the monks a few questions, it can be the right place. I still have the doubt of how a movement born in 1967 from a poor family monk has spread like wildfire all over the world by building billions of euro buildings …

Il gruppo di volontari
The group of volunteers

For two articles on Taiwan: here is one of the curiosities of this unknown country, the other is on my trip and the places visited.

I remind you that it is possible to finance my travels and therefore my articles! Thank you!

History and spread of Buddhism

in Spirituality
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