A Buddhist master straddles the Taiwan Straits

During a crowded six-day visit to China, the chairman of Taiwan’s Kuomintang met many important people including President Hu Jintao, Politburo Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin -- and an 81-year-old Buddhist monk named Hsing Yun, one of the world’s most influential Buddhist leaders and a man courted by politicians in both Taipei and Beijing.

Beijing in particular is promoting Hsing Yun, who welcomed the Kuomintang leader Wu Poh-hsiung, the Kuomintang leader, to his sprawling temple and library complex next to a lake and bamboo forest in Yixing, near Nanjing.

That is because Hsing Yun is pursuing two of China’s goals – reunification of Taiwan and China and the rebirth of a Buddhism that doesn’t challenge the government, unlike Tibetan Buddhism, for instance. Through it, the government hopes to reach his followers in Taiwan. For Hsing Yun, the opening to China is a historic opportunity to help rebuild the temples, monasteries and communities of Buddhism on the mainland and recover its place in the hearts of ordinary people.

The monk has an estimated 10 million followers around the world. They belong to the Fo Guang Shan (the shining mountain of Buddha) movement he founded in Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan, in 1967. It has 200 branch temples in 20 countries around the world, a university in Los Angeles and a daily newspaper, publishing house and television station in Taiwan. He has written more than a dozen books, which have been translated into 10 foreign languages.

Of the four Buddhist masters in Taiwan – known as ‘the four high mountains’ – Hsing Yun is the most political and the most openly pro-unification – to the point, in fact, that critics have suggested his politics have led him considerably far afield from traditional monastic concerns. He was a member of the central committee of the Kuomintang and in 1994 persuaded Wu not to run as an independent in the election for provincial government, to ensure a Kuomintang victory.

“All conscientious Chinese people want a unified China,” Hsing Yun said in a recent speech. “Prior to unification, the following must be completed – mutual strengthening of the economy: cultural dialogue: respect for religion: political democracy. China is not the exclusive property of a few. The country is the convergence of the majority.”

Born in a small town in Zhejiang province in 1927, Hsing Yun was admitted into a monastery near Nanjing in 1939 and was ordained a monk two years later. After graduating from one of China’s top Buddhist colleges in 1947, he became principal of a primary school in Yixing. He fled to Taiwan in 1949 and, because he had no clear affiliations, was suspected of being a spy and put in prison for 23 days.

It goes without saying that very clearly religion as the Chinese Communist Party sees it is meant to serve the interests of the state. The revolution under Chairman Mao Zedong was atheistic. Beijing issued regulations last September, for instance, stipulating that senior monks cannot be reincarnated without government permission, particularly “Living Buddha” reincarnations with a “particularly great impact,” which would presumably include the next Dalai Lama, the current one, Tenzing Gyatso, now being 73 years old. In 1995, the Chinese authorities kidnapped Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family, just days after the Dalai Lama recognized the six-year-old boy as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, one of the most revered figures in Tibetan Buddhism. He has never been seen again in public.

Nonetheless, for Hsing Yun, building Buddhism means involvement in politics. “In the history of China, Buddhism has suffered persecution several times, but each revival of Buddhism has come with the support of high-ranking officials,” said. He has followed this principle in the mainland, as in Taiwan, and indeed in the United States. In 1996, the master’s Hsi Lai (coming to the west) temple in Los Angeles was embroiled in controversy when it held a fund-raiser for Vice-President Al Gore. The money, channeled by Taiwanese-Americans in California through the temple, was deemed to be an illegal political contribution.

Hsing Yun first returned to the mainland in 1989 when he led a delegation of monks to meet senior Buddhist officials, but he ran into trouble when he gave sanctuary in one of his American properties to Xu Jiatun, former head of Xinhua in Hong Kong and the highest Communist official since 1949 to defect to the west.

This made the master persona non grata for a period but he was soon allowed back. Ultimately the government gave him 133 hectares of land near Yixing to build the ‘Temple of Great Awareness,’ complete with an art museum, meeting hall and a giant statue of the Buddha. The local government offered to rename a nearby lake after him, but he refused.

“The development of China cannot rely alone on material things and the economy,” he said. “It is very important to purify the spirit, control the temperament, cure the heart, have a global outlook and raise the level of morality.”

The Buddhist movements of Taiwan were among the fastest to bring aid and raise money for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake last month. Public and private donations from Taiwan exceed 780 million yuan, the largest amount of any country outside the mainland – despite the more than 1,000 missiles in Fujian and Zhejiang pointed at Taiwan, which could be fired at a moment’s notice. Hsing Yun’s movement was prominent among those that have raised money and sent blankets, body bags, tents, sleeping bags and other relief goods.

The disaster has brought the peoples of China and Taiwan closer together: they are united in their common grief and determination to help the victims. At the Great Awareness Temple last Friday in Yixing, Hsing Yun and Wu led prayers for the souls of the dead and to help those who had lost their loved ones. Among the congregation was Ye Xiaowen, the director of the Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council, and hundreds of the Buddhist faithful.

“We pray that the scale of disaster will not expand,” Hsing Yun told the crowded congregation. “We pray that this kind of catastrophe will not recur. The love and care of Taiwan people demonstrates the compassion and goodness of humanity, a sign that blood is thicker than water.”

Just as he built his empire in Taiwan in the shadow of martial law and its aftermath, so the master hopes to do the same thing in China. The election of a KMT president, the warming of cross-straits relations and a Beijing government that promotes Buddhism – for its own uses or no -- are signs that the moment is ripe, he feels.