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Part 9


By Stewart Redi

Zen patriarch displayThere is a newly emerging movement of Buddhism, which is growing and making headway around the globe. It originated in Taiwan and continues to be centered there, but it is aiming to influence the entire world.

Sometimes it goes under the name of “Humanistic Buddhism.” This movement claims to take portions of every form of Buddhism since the time of Siddhartha and to integrate them into one coherent body of thought. Paradoxically, one can often hear the claim that it is has left behind "religion" and is focusing entirely on the "dharma," implying a distinction from Buddhism. There can be no doubt, however, that it is based thoroughly on the Buddhist Mahayana tradition and embraces the Mahayana ideal of the Bodhisattva.

Part of what marks this movement as different is that its self-representation to the world includes a well-conceived adaptation of Buddhism to modern cultures, particularly those of the West. Its goal is to reach more people than those who are inclined towards intellectual speculation on abstract truths. Thus, rather than setting forth Buddhism as a collection of teachings and truths to know, this Buddhism appeals to modern sensibilities and interests such as doing good, relaxation and meditation, charity work, healthy living and eating, unity among people, care for the environment, building community, and various other popular concerns. It then teaches its doctrines within the context of these causes.

Chung Tai 37 floors

Some of the temples that have been built within this movement are quite large and architecturally impressive. An example of this is the Chung Tai temple founded by the Venerable Master Wei Chueh in 1987. The temple was completed in 2001 and stands 136 meters tall. This organization has about 90 meditation centers worldwide, including 8 in the United States. It is second only to Fo Guang Shan in size and number of disciples. It counts itself as connected to the tradition of Chan ("Zen") Buddhism, but also exemplifies some of the new and progressive elements of this modern emergent Buddhism. A common theme among these new groups is to "create a Pure Land on earth," by which they refer to working towards an ecologically pure planet, a respectable cause even if it is not actually tied to the more ancient meaning of the Pure Land in Buddhism.

Three Buddhas at Chung Tai

Fo Guang Shan Mix

Fo Guang Shan (Buddha Light Mountain) or the International Buddhist Progress Society is also headquartered in Taiwan. Founded in 1967 by Venerable Master Hsing Yun, the order promotes Humanistic Buddhism so as to make Buddhism relevant in the world and in people's lives and hearts. It claims to be a mixture of eight different schools of Buddhism (including Chan). Its temples and derivative organizations have been established in 173 countries throughout the world, and it has by now ordained more than 3,500 monastics. The organization has Buddhist colleges, libraries, publishing houses, translation centers, art galleries, teahouses, mobile medical clinics, a children's home, a retirement home, a high school and a television station. There is a large temple complex with multiple buildings located in Hacienda Heights near Los Angeles. It is a Fo Guang Shan temple named Hsi Lai, which means "Coming West," and it plausibly claims to be the largest Buddhist temple in the United States. The facility also serves as the center for BLIA (Buddha’s Light International Association) and uses the language common to most progressive organizations (“promoting education and raising gender equality, providing medical services and emergency relief, and supporting environmental sustainability”; cf. Huge temples attract thousands of tourists and interested people. The alternating pictures on the left illustrate the dynamic interchange between the new and the traditional.

Display of world-wide Fo Guang Shan Centers

Here are some pictures illustrating Fo Guang Shan's American presence:

Moving West! Main Building
Bodhisattva Hall Fo Guang Shan Center Cambridge

According to Hsing Yun (The Fundamental Concepts of Buddhism, 2008), Humanistic Buddhism should include the following convictions: 

  1. The Buddha was a real human being who displayed his wisdom in living a compassionate human existence. 
  2. Buddhist teachings should relate to daily life 
  3. It should maintain the bodhisattva ideal of having the interest of others in mind. 
  4. It should be characterized by joyfulness. 
  5. Buddhism is relevant to this present generation as well as to all generations. 
  6. Buddhism is universally relevant to all people. 

He concluded the lecture on which this booklet is based by saying: 

I have just presented six different ways of how Humanistic Buddhism embodies the traditional teachings of the Five Vehicles; the Five Precepts and Ten Virtues; the Four Boundless Vows; the Six Paramitas and the Four Great Bodhisattva Virtues; cause, condition, effect, and consequence; Ch'an, Pure Land, and the Middle Path. As this conference on Humanistic Buddhism gets underway, I offer these thoughts to you. May everyone be blessed!

Taixu (Wikimedia)                                 Yin Shun (Statue at Tzu Chi Center)                     Cheng Yen (Tzu Chi website)

In the life's works of Hsin Yun and others like him, the thought of their intellectual predecessors came to fruition. Those men originated the ideas, but were without the means or opportunity to implement them. One of the pioneers of Humanistic Buddhism was the Venerable Taixu (1890-1947). He was a Buddhist activist and advocate for a renewed form of Chinese Buddhism. He was essentially a modernist who wanted to create a Pure Land here on this earth and wanted to see a Buddhism for the human world. Taixu incorporated Christian concepts and methods into his own practices, thereby setting a pattern for most emergent Buddhist groups. One of the leaders of the next generation influenced by Taixu was Master Yin Shun. He, in turn, encouraged Cheng Yen, the woman who started the world-wide Tzu Chi movement. After witnessing much suffering herself and accepting a challenge from some Christians, she devoted her life and the organization she built to the alleviation of suffering.

In Taiwan, there are four masters and their movements that embody this emergent Buddhism:

1) The Venerable Sheng-yen of the Dharma Drum Mountain. Represented here by the huge bell on the temple site.
Bell at Dharma Drum

2) The Venerable Wei Chueh. Represented by the Chung Tai Monastery and Temple
Chung Tai Temple

3)The Venerable Cheng Yen of Tzu Chi. Tea ceremony room at Tzu Chi University.
Tzu Chi Tearoom

4)The Venerable Hsing Yun of Fo Guang Shan. Bodhisattva Hall at Fo Guang Shan Temple
Bodhisattva Hall at FGS Temple

Critics of this new humanistic or emergent Buddhism are suspicious of it as “Buddhism Lite.” The guarantee of no real struggle to escape suffering seems too easy. There is no real deep toil in meditation they say. Volunteering to help other people, these critics say, is not really a hard work, almost a fun substitute for what should be striving. The idea that you can live a normal consumer lifestyle, have kids, a nice job, a good house and a nice life now with a little neighborly help for some other people and then easily step from this life to the Pure Land –this concept and ideal seems to them to be a remake of Buddhism. It appears to some to be a shortcut in a negative sense. They are suspicious of being comforted by an easy life, and being taken by the gracious Buddha from a life of little suffering into a nirvana without any real karmic struggle. The proponents of this new form are undeterred and convinced they are helping people to discover the Noble Truths, helping them find the grace of the Buddha and to work for genuine merit according to the ideal of the Bodhisattva.

Mahayana Buddhism

1. Introduction to Mahayana

2. Tendai and the Lotus Sutra

3. Understanding the Buddha's Teachings in the Lotus Sutra (E. Bennett)

4. The Universal Opportunity for Buddhahood

5. The Multiplication of Divine Beings

6. Transcendental Buddhas

7. Bodhisattvas, Sunyata, and Compassion

8. Yogacara and Madhyamaka

9. The New Mahayana (S. Redi)

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