Chinese Culture through Foreign Languages: Religions
Religious Beliefs in Taiwan
Numerous temples and churches of various kinds on streets of all sizes and in neighborhood alleys attest to the strong influence of religion on Taiwan society. We all know that spiritual beliefs and ordinary human life are intimately bound together. The popularity of local temples is evident in the size of the crowds they attract at certain important periods of transition. Women glowing in the final months of pregnancy visit temples before giving birth. Students pay their respects to the deities of their choice before examinations. Prospective brides and grooms, entrepreneurs, people with troubled personal lives or those about to move into a new residence, people experiencing the highs and lows of prosperity all flock to temples to beg for heavenly blessings.
According to government statistics for the year 2009, Taiwan has approximately 15,000 temples with upwards 1,550,000 adherents. The number of churches is approximately 3,000. Considering various religious traditions, Taoists probably account for the largest single group of believers, and number about 790, 000. The figures come from individual temples, however, and may be a bit inflated.
Taoists outnumber all other single groups of believers, closely followed by Buddhists. Christians from various Protestant denominations from the west and Roman Catholic faithful are comparatively fewer in number. An assimilation of elements important to both Taoist and Buddhist believers has also become common. The many devout believers of the goddess Mazu, for example, at one time regarded the Deity as part of the Taoist tradition. Yet nowadays we often find the presence of Mazu in full display in Buddhist temples. Aborigines also have their religious beliefs. Various tribes worship specific deities. Truly Taiwan is an island country that has opened her doors to a great variety of heavenly beings.
Taiwan has managed to accumulate a number of spiritual traditions from both China and the west. Taoist and Buddhist temples make themselves of service to a spate of divinities. Regardless of the original source of a divinity, it is likely to have found a place of honor in one temple here or the other. Some temples therefore have become loosely known as a “spiritual hall,” with channels to virtually every divine power in the universe.
A general introduction to Daoism and Buddhism follows. In the end, with the advantage of long years of history, it seems impossible to distinguish in our daily lives any significant differences between these religions.
The most popular spiritual faith in Taiwan is Taoism. In the daily life of Taiwanese, however, Taoism cannot be completely severed from Buddhism. Taoism was the traditional religion of the Han Chinese. Here the spiritual tradition has centered on the tao or “way.” The term tao(dao) refers as well to a fundamental truth, a sense of the root and origin of all being, which unites the entire universe with human life itself. In the past, human beings strove to follow and cultivate tao in their lives. This spiritual achievement was considered the penultimate of all ideals.
Given practical realities and present day lifestyles, not everyone in Taiwan seeks self-cultivation but, for many, belief in the spiritual realm fulfills hopes and desires. Those who believe in the tao may turn to the divine power to spare their ancestors and deceased loved ones suffering in the afterlife and to bless them with redemption. To know the will of various Taoist deities (for there are many strains of Taoism and numerous deities in its tradition), believers must seek the assistance of Taoist priests or jitong. These priests are mediums with the supernatural world. They priests offer spiritual counsel and pass on messages to the faithful from above. They also transit the hopes and sufferings of people to the divinities.
Buddhism came to China during the Western Han dynasty. It is said that Buddhism moved from the Fujian province to Taiwan. The history of Buddhism in Taiwan is therefore fairly long. Later, Buddhism on the local scene assimilated Japanese characteristics during the period of the Japanese occupation. After World War II, the religion exploded with additional changes.
In Taiwanese society, Buddhism and Daoism are in some ways greatly different. With a particular emphasis on a sense of spiritual group or community, Buddhism is noted for its many activities. Among these activities, the most important are “social service,” “international development,” and “the advancement of knowledge.” Of the three movements, the most representative Buddhist organizations are Tzu Chi Foundation in Hualien, founded by Master Cheng Yen; the Light of Buddha Mountain in Kaohsiung, founded by Master Hsin Yun; and Dharma Drum Mountain (or the Zen Buddhist Fagu Shan) in Taipei, founded by master Sheng Yen. The contributions and various activities of Tzu Chi to serve local society have been especially numerous. In times of natural disasters, both within and outside the country, the organization has responded with volunteers and other types of robust assistance. Dharma Drum Mountain has been involved with a score of international activities, and has promoted a wide range of international contacts, thus raising its status around the world. The main characteristic of the Branch of the Mountain Society is its focus on knowledge. The Society devotes its many activities to the spread of learning and education.
- What are the religions in Taiwan with the most followers? Why is this so?
- What is/are the core concept(s) of Taoism?
- What sort of developments has Buddhism gone though recently in Taiwan?
- Do you often go to a church or Buddhist temple, or do you only go under special circumstances?
- Many divinities are worshiped in the temple, please name these divinities.
- There are many religions in the world. Please state some good and bad effects that religion brings to the world.