Religions and Spiritual Groups in Taiwan

This is a chapter from my travel guide, (Taiwan, A Travel Guide for Vegans), which is available here. For my old article on Loving Huts and the Supreme Master Ching Hai, please see this post
 
Taoism Buddhism I Kuan Tao Supreme Master Ching Hai Others

Introduction

Taiwan's abundance of vegetarian and increasingly vegan street food and dining opportunities is largely a result of three religious / spiritual groups. Not only will a little understanding of these groups add another layer of understanding to your Taiwan experience, but it can also help to recognise the religion of the owner of a restaurant, and know what to watch out for if necessary. The three largest groups in Taiwan are presented in order of most to least popular which is, unfortunately, generally the order of least to most supportive of the vegan diet and philosophy.

Taoism & Confucianism

The majority of Taiwanese follow a fluid mix of Taoism (called Tao Jiao / 道教), Confucianism and ancestor worship, sometimes (somewhat condescending) called "folk religion" by Westerners. Western / Judeo-Christian religions are divisive more than inclusive, so a follower of the church in my hometown will know decisively that they're Christian (not Muslim), Protestant (not Catholic) and Anglican (not Presbyterian or Baptist). These traditional Oriental religions, however, merge into one common identity for the majority of Taiwanese, and if asked their religion many will pause, roll their eyes (as if never having thought of it before) and say “I'm Buddhist”. While they probably hold Buddhism in high esteem, and may worship Buddhist deities (among others) at temples, their beliefs and practices are very different to those promulgated by the large Buddhist schools I'll call 'Buddhism' in the next section. Most famous temples in Taiwan, including the Longshan, Baoan and Guandu Temples recommended in this guide, all follow this fluid mix, with many housing different deities under the same roof.

Guandu Temple, Northern Taipei

What unifies this broad set of religious beliefs and practices is the ritual of visiting a temple, whether a small local one which is home to a lesser-known “local god”, found all over the country, or a famous temple such as the Longshan Temple in Taipei, to bai bai, that is to burn incense, bow to statue of a god and make an offering, usually along with a request for a specific favour from the god. Common requests are success in business, high scores in exams (for themselves or their children) or a safe journey, especially before flying (Taiwanese airlines not being renown for glowing safety records, spare EVA Air). Different gods have different niches: fisherman and their wives pray to Matsu, the Goddess of the sea, for a big catch and a safe return, while businesspeople pray to Tu Di Gong, the Earth God, and those wishing to meet the right person and get married pray to the Elder Moon God. The wishes don't have to be benevolent: gangsters pray to Guan Gong, an ancient Chinese general famous for his loyalty and bravery, and you can too, at the world's largest solid bronze statue of him in Jiufen. And not all the gods themselves are benevolent either: the Chi Nan temple, reachable by the Maokong Gondola, should not be visited by unmarried couples as legend holds that if they do they will soon break up because the resident god Lu Dongbin, who has some longstanding jealousy issues, uses his Taoist sexual prowess to seduce unmarried women. (It used to be virgins, but he appears to have adapted his expectations to the modern era of later marriages and the introduction of love hotels from Japan.)

A roadside temple to the local land god in Miaoli (Central Taiwan).

Most traditional Taiwanese homes also feature an altar to worship ancestors and a local deity, but the 'shoebox apartments' inhabited by the younger city-dwelling generation don't have the space, so it's difficult to foretell if these in-home temples will last.
While followers of these traditions may eat vegetarian on certain days of the (lunar) month, or after the death of a relative (believed to help the deceased in the afterlife, even if they themselves were a big carnivore), few are vegetarian. Taoist temples accept non-vegetarian food for offerings and a small and fortunately dwindling number practices cruel religious "traditions" such as forcing live birds into hollow statues of deities and leaving them in there to die.

A pig is kept inside this Taoist Temple near Taipei. According to the posters he's very good at maths.

Confucianism is more a philosophy than a religion, and there are no altars to bai bai, but as the father of Chinese philosophy he is effectively deified in popular culture. For a greater understanding I recommend visiting the Taipei Confucius Temple or the larger Confucius Temple in Tainan.
Many Taoist temples function as community centres, especially in more remote areas. With due respect necessary for a religious centre, it’s perfectly acceptable to enter a public temple, use the toilets, fill your water bottle up from the filter, sit down and take a rest. This role is increasingly being taken over by convenience stores, especially in urban centres.

Buddhism (佛教)

Buddhism is the second-largest religion in Taiwan, and probably the most influential at a political level. Most Taiwanese (including followers of Taoism and I Kuan Tao) also worship Buddhist deities, and Buddhist Masters are frequently quoted in the mass media. In this discussion, however, by Buddhism I am referring to Buddhism as its own organised religion, not the worship of Buddhist deities among others at Taiwan's main (Taoist) temples. The purpose of Buddhist teaching and practice (and that of I Kuan Tao and Supreme Master Ching Hai) is to reach enlightenment (liberation from the cycle of birth and death) through good deeds (earning spiritual merits or good karma) and spiritual practice, rather than the earthly rewards of Taoism and ancestor worship.

Buddhist altar in a commercial building, Jiaoxi

Most Westerners are more familiar with Theravada Buddhism, which is practised in Tibet and Southeast Asia. It long ago traded the Buddha's emphasis on compassion for the convenience of eating animals, permitting the consumption of meat provided that certain excuses could be made, such as the animal not having been killed specifically for the monk about to eat it. While this may once have been necessary in countries like Tibet, it can't possibly justify the continued consumption of meat by Theravada Buddhists today. Mahayana Buddhism, practised in China, Korea and Taiwan, however, maintains Ahimsa (non-violence) as a fundamental tenet, and while many lay followers may continue to eat meat, food at temples is strictly vegetarian, and many Taiwanese are amazed to learn that Buddhist monks in Tibet, Thailand and Japan eat meat.

Philosophy and Animal Rights

Unfortunately, however, as far as I am aware virtually all Buddhist groups in Taiwan turn a blind eye to the suffering of dairy cows, and have taken to dairy products to a surprisingly large extent, given that it's not traditionally been part of the North East Asian diet. Many Buddhist restaurants in Taiwan serve so many dairy-based foods that they are often not vegan-friendly at all. Eggs are officially forbidden, but many Buddhists do eat them, and they are also often served at Buddhist restaurants (but usually labelled, unlike the dairy products).
While most Buddhist philosophy is quite in tune with animal rights (dairy issues notwithstanding) a controversial Buddhist practice which draws a line between Buddhists and animal rights activists is the buying of captive animals from breeders to release them, which is believed the bring good karma to the liberators. Most complaints have been over the harm done to the environment or danger to residents near the release points, but they also appear to miss the point that their purchase encourages the breeders to breed more. The worst cases, such as the release of live snakes within residential boundaries, are generally carried out by Masters on the fringe of the Buddhist mainstream and their followers, but Buddhism as a whole does support the purchase and release of animals, to the disdain of the growing animal rights community.

Buddhist Organisations

There are four large Buddhist organisations in Taiwan. The most famous is the Tze Chi organisation, which is based in Hualien (Eastern Taiwan). Its humble beginnings go back to 1966, when Dharma Master Cheng Yen teamed up with thirty women to donate money each month to help the poor families. It's grown into a global organisation of over ten million members in thirty countries, and is famous for its humanitarian work around the world. They run the excellent Tze Chi Hospital near Dapinglin Station (a great place to go if you need medical care), universities and recycling facilities, where they recycle PET bottles into clothing. They have been caught up in various scandals, most recently in February 2015 when they announced plans to use ecologically sensitive, protected land to build an emergency response centre and a blanket factory. The popular, newly-elected mayor Ko Wen Je criticised their plans as being illegal (which they were). A head nun lashed out at him and challenged him to “say the same remarks to ISIS”, which drew huge criticism from across the political and religious spectrum. Social movements also complain that as a result of their high profile they take most public donations left after World Vision takes the lion's share, leaving only a tiny fraction for environmental and animal rights organisations which engage with issues too sensitive for Tze Chi (and, of course, for World Vision).

Tzu Chi Hospital is a great place to go for medical care, but unfortunately the vegetarian foodcourt serves little vegan.

The Chung Tai Buddhist organisation runs a temple in Puli (埔里鎮), central Taiwan) which is the largest in-use religious building in the world, and attached elementary and high schools (see details for visiting below). Fo Guang Shan (佛光山), literally Buddha Light Mountain) are based in Southern Taiwan, and run the country's largest monastery in Kaohsiung. It's less open to visitors than the Chung Tai Temple, and at one point closed it to outsiders altogether to allow their monks to practice without disturbance, but some of the complex has been re-opened to visitors, and now includes a free 3-D theatre with teachings on the life of Buddha and the world's first vegetarian Starbucks and 7-Eleven. Attached is a Buddha Memorial Centre housing a Buddha Relic (tooth) donated by a Tibetan monk in 1998, which he'd been protecting since its temple's destruction at the hands of the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution.

Chung Tai Temple, the world's largest religious building currently in use.

Fo Guang Shan also do charitable work, but place particular emphasis on education, with facilities ranging from kindergartens right through to Fo Guang University, which offers generous scholarships to foreign students to study Buddhism (in English). Their founder spoke out against the abolition of capital punishment in Taiwan, on the grounds that it would interfere with the process of karma. Finally in the north are Dharma Drum Mountain, who run a large temple complex in Jinshan, north of Taipei, which was founded by the Chinese monk Dongchu, who fled to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalist Party in 1949 and established his first monastery in Beitou in 1955. Dongchu died in 1977, and his Dharma (Buddhist teaching) heir Master Sheng-Yen purchased the land in Jinshan which became the Dharma Drum Mountain today. It also focuses on education and runs three universities. Dharma Drum Mountain are generally held in the highest regard among the vegan community, but their centre, while open to the public, offers the least of interest to curious western-speaking visitors.

Dharma Drum Mountain temple complex

Buddhist Simplicity?

Many Westerners, especially those schooled in Theravada Buddhism, may feel uneasy about the size and scale of the Buddhist temples, especially the enormous Chung Tai temple in Puli, which is estimated to have cost over a hundred million US dollars to build. Their monks answer, however, that such a presence is necessary to have their important messages of compassion reach the public, and to raise the funds and profile to carry out their charitable work. If their success in promoting vegetarianism in Taiwan is anything to go by it's a very compelling argument, and I'd encourage any visitor to Taiwan with any interest in Buddhism to visit at least one Buddhist temple. 

Temple Visit

The Chung Tai temple is the most accessible to foreign visitors and offers guided tours in English. The complex also includes a shop, a simple cafe (which offers vegan food) and a posh restaurant. It's right in the geographical centre of Taiwan. Take a bus from Taipei West Bus Station Terminal B to Puli (埔里鎮). It takes about 3.5 hours, and costs NT300. From the Puli bus station there are a few buses to the temple each day, or it's a 7km taxi ride.

I Kuan Tao (一貫道)

Unless you've had significant contact with Taiwanese or perhaps members themselves, chances are you'll have never heard of I Kuan Tao (also Yi-Guan Dao), even though the owners of your local Chinese vegetarian restaurant are probably devout followers. It's the third largest religion in Taiwan, and its members own at least half the country's vegetarian restaurants, especially the smaller buffets and noodle stalls, however most walk-in customers will confuse them for Buddhist establishments. If a restaurant serves egg products it's a good indication that it's run by followers of I Kuan Tao, however some less-strict Buddhists also serve eggs.
I Kuan Tao is an offshoot of XinTian Tao (Way of Heaven), a Chinese religious philosophy dating back many centuries. It combines Taosim, with particular emphasis on Lao Tze's Tao Te Ching, with elements of Buddhism and ancestor worship, much like other Chinese spiritual groups. While many of its practices are shared with regular the Taoist practices of most Taiwanese, what contrasts I Kuan Tao to other Chinese religions is its exclusivity, and that its members actively work to convert new members, who are invited to attend classes to study The Tao. If they continue to show commitment and meet certain criteria (including being of an acceptable family background) they are invited to receive the Tao in a ritualised ceremony, during which the Tao is transmitted to them by a Tao Master. I Kuan Tao organisations only 'recruit' through trusted friends or acquaintances, so you won't find them chanting or evangelizing on the street, and they generally maintain a low profile, often describing themselves as Buddhist when asked of their religion by strangers whom they don't expect to know of I Kuan Tao.

an I Kuan Tao altar in a family temple

Lifestyle and Legal Issues

Followers usually have ornate altars in their homes, or separate temples (which look like ordinary buildings from the outside) at which followers carry out complex daily rituals involving bowing to the altar, reciting mantras and burning incense. Members frequently travel to other members' homes and temples for Tao classes, rituals and from my experience to enjoy delicious vegetarian food. The I Kuan Tao organisation as it exists today mostly dates back to Zhang Tienren, who led the Tian Tao organisation through a turbulent period in China during the 1930s, and is still worshiped around the world today. I Kuan Tao was outlawed in China after the communist revolution, during which time many followers fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong and further afield. While it's thrived in Taiwan ever since, it was only legalised in 1987 (with the official uplifting of martial law) and it is still illegal in China today, despite a large underground following. The organisation is made of many different groups and subgroups, many of which do not recognise each other's legitimacy (often describing others' Tao as “fake”) and compete for members. 

Vegetarian Restaurants

I Kuan Tao members opened many of the first vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan, proving the viability of the business model and leading the way for Buddhists to follow. They also promote vegetarianism much more strongly among their members than Buddhist groups do, so if you meet someone who's strictly vegetarian (but not vegan) there’s a high chance that they follow I Kuan Tao, especially if they also eat eggs. I Kuan Tao followers, however, eat both dairy and egg products, and as far as I know no effort is made to source free-range eggs. If you are invited to a home or temple for a Tao class it will probably be a very interesting cultural (or religious) experience, whether or not you choose to continue and ultimately to receive the Tao.
The typical non-religious vegan, however, is likely to find far more common ground with followers of Buddhism or especially Supreme Master Ching Hai than they are with members of I Kuan Tao. From my experience I Kuan Tao practitioners are also, on average (over thousands of meals) less likely to ensure that they don't serve products containing dairy or egg to vegans, both in Taiwan and abroad, as many “Chinese Vegetarian Restaurants” around the world are run by I Kuan Tao practitioners, mostly from Taiwan. Don't let this put you off the buffet over the road, but just watch out for mayonnaise in your spring roll and never trust that their fake meat is “only made from soybeans”.

Supreme Master Ching Hai (清海無上師)

If you're reading this guide then chances are you've eaten at a Loving Hut and already have a well-formed opinion of the Supreme Master Ching Hai and her millions of devout vegan followers around the world, mostly in Taiwan, Vietnam, the USA and China. While many vegans from Western countries find the mix of secular veganism and Eastern spiritual ideas and practices difficult to swallow - if not the burgers at their local vegan restaurant - many are surprised to learn that on virtually all earthly matters, from veganism and animal rights to politics and the environment, non-religious or Judeo-Christian vegans are likely to find as much common ground with followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai as they are with each other. And most followers speak very good English and will probably be happy to discuss such issues.

A billboard urging commuters at Taipei Main Station to "be veg, go green to save the planet" (2010).

I recommend not being put off by the spiritual teachings, or Supreme Master Television playing in restaurants, and engaging in conversation with members of the organisation (such as Loving Hut Staff) if and when the opportunity arises, because, spirituality aside, the rapid rise of veganism in Taiwan this organisation has brought about is an interesting phenomenon in itself. Followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai are very unlikely to try to “convert” anyone; the millions of dollars they spend on publicity is all on the “go vegan” message (not self-promotion) and as of 2015 the organization is no longer accepting new members. Much like I Kuan Tao, unless you have prior connections with members or go out of your way to ask for it (in which case they'll happily offer you a free booklet, in English, which they had just waiting for you on under the till) chances are the only contact you'll have with members will be by dining at their restaurants, which include most of Taipei’s best vegan establishments. They will never ask you to donate money or for any other form of support.

Background

Supreme Master Ching Hai was born in Vietnam to a Catholic Family, but she learned Buddhism from her grandmother. Her father was a naturopath, and from a young age she showed an interest in philosophy and spirituality, and benefited from her father's literary collection. During her youth she spent time volunteering in hospitals and caring for stray animals, and also associated with American soldiers during the Vietnam War, from whom she learned English. She went on to work in Germany as a translator for the Red Cross (translating English, German and Vietnamese) and later married a German doctor. She eventually left the marriage (with his consent) to pursue her spiritual path which took her to the Himalayas, where she was initiated into the Sant Mat spiritual order (which enjoys a significant following in the West today) and continued to practice meditation there. She then travelled to Taiwan and became a Buddhist nun. It was in Taiwan, during the 1980s, that she attracted a following of people seeking spiritual knowledge and enlightenment, from which her fame began. She then went on to lecture on spirituality, meditation, enlightenment and the importance of vegetarianism around the world, including to the United Nations, mostly during the 1990s. She now maintains a lower public profile, spending time in meditation or with her followers in various locations around the world. The organisation, while international, is still largely based in Taiwan, where it maintains meditation centres in most cities.
Teaching and Philosophy Supreme Master Ching Hai's teaching is very similar to Buddhism, and her meditation technique is the same as Sant Mat. The most significant difference, however, is that her most important requirement of her followers is that they maintain a strictly vegan diet and lifestyle; as far as I know she is the only spiritual teacher alive to advocate veganism. (She encouraged her followers to switch from being lacto-vegetarian to vegan in 2006.) They are also expected to follow the five precepts (from Buddhism): Do not kill. Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not commit sexual misconduct. Do not take intoxicants. Sexual misconduct is loosely defined, but in effect means not cheating on partners or indulging in sexual activity to the point that it hurts others or interferes with one's own life or meditation. Intoxicants are more strictly defined to include gambling, pornography and alcohol, which is why the majority of vegan restaurants in Taiwan do not serve alcohol (but many do serve a non-alcoholic beer). They are encouraged to open vegan restaurants or perhaps volunteer for the organisation’s charitable work, but there is no pressure to do so.

Supreme Master TV

The organisation used to run a television channel, Supreme Master TV, which is probably familiar to most readers of this book because it’s often played in Loving Huts and other restaurants. It broadcasted documentaries about vegetarianism and veganism, spiritual lectures and other programs about science, spirituality and a variety of positive news clips from around the world. Connections between agriculture, climate change and disease, which are fundamental to her message, were common themes in many of the programs. Lists of diseases linked to meat consumption, and scriptures from the world’s major religions endorsing vegetarianism, were often broadcast in commercial-like breaks between programs or segments. The channel has since mostly stopped producing new programs and broadcasting around the world (which came at enormous financial cost, because the channel had no advertisements) but it still offers a free archive of old programs, which are re-played at many restaurants.

A truck does the rounds promoting the vegan diet through posters and a loudspeaker (Kaohsiung, 2010)

Disaster Relief

The organisation also ran a disaster relief program, which sent rescue teams into disaster-stricken areas to deliver vegan food and other essential supplies, including Fukushima during the nuclear crisis and New York during the events on 9-11. The formal rescue team has been dissolved, but the organisation still supports the work of charitably organisations financially and through volunteer work. Supreme Master Ching Hai earned her living through the sale of paintings, jewelry, clothing and home décor, much of which is very expensive but excellent quality and value, but she has recently retired. While it's certainly popular among her followers, there is no expectation to make purchases, and she doesn't take any financial contributions from any of her members, much to the surprise of many Westerners (including myself).

Vegan Restaurants


The most significant aspect of the organisation for the vegan traveller is that the restaurants run by her disciples are strictly vegan, so if you need a meal and can't be bothered dealing with questions about what’s in the fake meat, then just find a Loving Hut (they're all on Happycow, and ones of interest to travellers are in offline maps in this guide). Most have English menus or English speaking staff, but even if not just take pot luck: at least your meal will be vegan. 
However, the purpose of Loving Huts is to promote vegan food to non-vegans, so many (especially the “fast food branches”) have menus heavy on fried food, burgers, fake meats and other ‘comfort foods’ likely to appeal to omnivorous Taiwanese more than long-time Western (or Taiwanese) vegans. It's a credit to the organisation that their food is not intended to appeal to its own members, many of whom prefer healthier, simpler, lighter food. I think of Loving Huts the way most omnivores think of McDonalds: a convenient but usually uninspiring, predictable, low-cost meal from a clean kitchen and restaurant. Of course the comparison ends there, with McDonalds the world's largest butcher and the Loving Huts the world's largest vegan restaurant chain, founded to promote veganism and lessen the suffering of animals and climate change. The Guangfu Loving Hut near Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall and Taipei 101 is a notable exception, and should be experienced by all visitors to Taiwan. So is the Taichung Loving Hut.

Since the Loving Huts manufacture their own processed foods from raw ingredients, everything can be trusted to be completely vegan, and they are the only restaurants where I ever eat fake meat products. While processed soy proteins are never going to be particularly healthy, their manufacture by Loving Hut restaurants ensures that they won't contain MSG or other harmful additives all too common in Taiwanese food. (Taiwanese tofu was recently pulled from shelves in New Zealand after it was found to contain an industrial dye not safe for consumption).
Besides Loving Huts disciples run several other restaurants in Taipei and around the country, including most of Taipei's top vegan restaurants. (A notable exception is About Animals, which is run by animal rights activists; the new Naked Food, which may use honey, serves wine but pretends not to know that it isn't vegan). Large photographs of her on the walls or her books such as The Birds in My Life, her paintings and other paraphernalia are a sure sign that the restaurant is owned by her followers so all the food is vegan. However, over the last few years many of her disciples have placed large banners outside vegetarian restaurants promoting veganism. As great as these are for their intended purpose, the word 'vegan' is often the only word in English, so many foreigners mistake them to mean that the restaurant is completely vegan.

These banners are great for promoting veganism. Contrary to a popular belief among foreigners, however, it does NOT mean that all the food at this restaurant is vegan.


Christianity & Others

Christianity is a small but influential religion with a long history in Taiwan. European missionaries converted most of the Aboriginal population to Christianity centuries ago, and the Dutch were very zealous in their missionary work, especially through the schools they established. Chiang Kai Shek and his family were devout Christians, frequently seen carrying their bibles in public, at least when it was time to ask for another cheque from the USA. The Presbyterian Church of Taiwan is quite influential in Taiwanese politics (on both sides) and it's not uncommon to see church groups singing hymns and evangelizing on the street. Mormons are famous for not only their conspicuous “elders” (generally men in their early twenties) who ride bicycles dressed in their trademark white dress shirts, but also for their superb Chinese and often Taiwanese language skills. Many Taiwanese will assume that Caucasian travellers are Christian and may be surprised – even disappointed – if told otherwise. Islam has a small presence in Taiwan, mostly among expatriates, foreign laborers and visiting businesspeople. Most major cities have one mosque; the Grand Taipei Mosque is located near Daan Park. Scientology recently opened its first branch in the country (in Kaohsiung) in December 2014.

Ramadan festival outside Taipei Main Station, June 2015

3 comments:

  1. Nice text. Very informative. But I guess Fo Guang Shan is the famoust Buddhist Organization from Taiwan worldwide, not Tze Chi.
    And I am curious about your statistics. On internet they say Buddhist is the largest religion, not Taoism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Carioca. In reality it's a grey area, as most Taiwanese (of all religions except Christianity or other smaller groups) follow Buddhist and Taoist traditions and worship Buddhist deities. Most Taiwanese identify as Buddhist, so I guess that's what the sites you go by use. However I separate Buddhism as an organised religion (those who are likely to be vegetarian) from followers of Taoism, whose practices are very different from 'Buddhists' but still worship Buddhist deities.

      Delete
  2. Nice text. Very informative. But I guess Fo Guang Shan is the famoust Buddhist Organization from Taiwan worldwide, not Tze Chi.
    And I am curious about your statistics. On internet they say Buddhist is the largest religion, not Taoism.

    ReplyDelete