I spent a lot of time growing up studying the various forms of Buddhism and how the philosophy varied from country to country - That interest ultimately led me to become involved with Shambhala, a Buddhist group started by a Tibetan Lama who had escaped to the west just after the 1959 uprising in Tibet. I don't consider myself a Buddhist, nor do I follow any other religion, but I have a lot of respect for the core values of the philosophy.
I didn't actually spend that much time learning about the spread of Buddhism in Taiwan so when I arrived in Taiwan, one of the things that quickly became a hobby was visiting all the various temples and taking the time to enjoy the treasure troves of traditional Taiwanese art inside them. I often tell people that there is not much you could learn in a museum about Taiwanese history that you wouldn't learn from a Taiwanese temple.
One thing that interests me about the temples here is that you often find several different religions all housed within the same building coexisting peacefully.
People have argued with me that all these religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and various folk religions) all are more or less derived from each other or at least related therefore there is no need to have conflict with each other- but to that I would counter: Are Judaism, Christianity and Islam not related?
I personally believe that this is not a reflection of the religions you find here, but a testament to the kind of people you find in this country and that these trivial arguments and wars we have in the west over religion are pointless.
When it comes to Buddhist monasteries in Taiwan however I start to get a bit confused as to what is actually going on inside them. Buddhism is rooted in a philosophy of living a simplistic non-material life, and if you become a monastic, that simplicity and lack of materialism is supposed to go to the extreme.
I find that the major Buddhist organizations in Taiwan (Dharma drum mountain (法鼓山), Fo Guang Shan (佛光山), Tzu Chi (慈濟) and Chung Tai Shan (中台山) all seem to subscribe to some strange notion of modernity and take the Vatican’s “bling bling” approach to religion which to me seems a bit ironic considering the way Buddhists should adhere to a lack of attachment to worldly objects.
Any visit to these monasteries in Taiwan tends to be a bit overwhelming at the displays of opulence put on by these organizations. These displays of monetary wealth likely go hand in hand with Chinese culture and I guess it shouldn't be that surprising to see that they take the “go big or go home” attitude towards life that is a reflection of the Chinese notion of having “face.”
I think the the majority of the money spent on these massive palace-like monasteries would be better spent on charity and improving the lives of the poor.
One group that doesn't seem to go overboard with their decadence is the “Yuan Kuang” (圓光) Ch'an Buddhist group here in Taoyuan.
Ch'an Buddhism (禪宗) is better known in the west as “Zen” and had its origins in 6th Century China before it spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam centuries later.
The Yuan Kuang temple was established in 1918 during the Japanese Colonial period by a monk named Miao-Guo who was so influential at the time that he was invited to Japan to teach the Japanese royal family.
When he came back to Taiwan he built the Yuan Kuang Temple here in Zhongli (中壢) and through it he attracted young people to experience monastic life while at the same time offering high school and college education courses to them. Since 1987 the temple has been renovated and they have started to expand the school to an area near the monastery where they are now offering graduate courses.
The design of the main temple stresses simplicity. When you walk in you are greeted by a statue of the Laughing Buddha known here in Taiwan as Mi Le Fo (彌勒佛) with a paved walkway to the steps of the temple with a garden on both sides. The front of the temple has a modestly sized statue of the Buddha of Compassion Guanyin (I say modestly sized because most of the temples mentioned above have statues taller than 75 meters.)
When you walk up the stairs you are greeted by the entrance to the shrine/meditation room with some small statues of the Buddha at the door as well as an incense burner in the middle.
The shrine room is beautiful, but once again it stresses simplicity and doesn't go overboard like the other monasteries I've visited. It's very quiet inside and there is always a nice breeze coming in through the windows. For an organization that has obvious weath, its refreshing to see the Yuan Kuang group maintaining a simple monastery and not expanding to the extent that many of the other monastic orders in Taiwan have succumbed to.
If you plan on visiting the temple, you are more than welcome, but I stress that this monastery has quite a few monastics, so turn off your cellphone ringer and be quiet to respect the people who are trying not to fall asleep while meditating.
If you're travelling through Zhongli, the Yuan Kuang temple is a nice stop over for an hour or so. The people there are kind and they don't push religion on you, tell grandiose stories or ask for donations like so many other places like this do.
The map below shows how to get to the monastery, it is a short drive from Zhongli or the Taoyuan High Speed Rail station. I don't think there are buses that run through the area, so it would be best to arrange your own transportation.
Website: 圓光禪寺 (Chinese-Only)