A Buddhist master straddles the Taiwan Straits

Hsing Yun seeks to make
reunification Buddhism’s sixth precept – at least for

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 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

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

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.

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

“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.

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