Menu Close

Category: Taiwan

Tremendous Emphasis on Reading and on Education

Although most countries put a heavy emphasis on the economy coming first, Taiwan stands out as a privileged place where culture and education occupy a central place. The level of knowledge displayed even by young children is impressive and the fact that this largely results from a national policy is visible from various angles. It is a private enterprise but let me begin with the remarkable example of the bookstore called Eslite (Chéngpǐn 誠品), which is open twenty-four hours a day and attracts flocks of people of all ages. Many of them enjoy reading in a cosy atmosphere, sustained by refined classical music.

Here is an exterior view of the building:

The twenty-four hour bookstore called Eslite (Chéngpǐn 誠品)

Now, as an example of public policy, it is rather surprising to find a branch of the Taipei Public Library in the subway mall, appropriately called “Intelligent Library” (Dōngqū Dìxiàjiē Zhìhuì Túshūguǎn 東區地下街智慧圖書館). This type of intelligence, however, also refers to the insight cultivated in the Buddhist tradition (prajñā). In any case, encouraging people to read books with the explicit aim to help them expand their knowledge and their wisdom is inspiring. The Chinese verb used for “to study” is niànshū 念書, which also has the meaning of “reading books” (kànshū 看書). A government pushing its citizens to become more educated or even literate deserves to be praised. Maybe the American policy-makers could learn something from Asia!

A section of the Taipei Public Library in the subway mall

Here is a picture with a better definition.

Seated Meditation at Pu De

Thanks to the introduction and support of many new friends, I went yesterday to the Pu De Meditation Center (Pǔdé Jīngshè 普得精舍) in the Daan District of Taipei. This is one of the centers affiliated with the Chung Tai monastery (Zhōngtái Chánsì 中台禪寺), which belongs to the Chan (Zen) tradition like most major Buddhist schools in Taiwan. The same organization has an impressive network of centers in Taiwan and abroad. See http://www.ctworld.org.tw This was a refreshing experience, with about 50 participants, most of them regular members (it requires a certain level of commitment). Participants included roughly half males and half females, seated in two different rows. The ritual bows involve a distinctive sequence, which evokes the mudras (gestures) of Tantric Buddhism. The chanting of the sutras was uplifting and slow enough for new-comers to join the choir. Regarding the seated meditation, it probably lasted about 30 or 40 minutes but I lost track of time… Before beginning, when I asked the gentleman who was seated next to me how long the seating session would last, he just replied “as you wish” (suíbiàn 隨便). No clappers or directive bells, no keisaku (Ch. jǐngcè 警策) like in Japan. Overall, relaxed and dynamic atmosphere. The room is air-conditioned and even has humidifiers to keep practitioners comfortable. This was followed by a lecture by a female Dharma Master, Venerable Jianpin (Jiànpǐn Fǎshī 見品法師). Although my grasp of her words was still fragmentary, I recognized several Chan anecdotes she mentioned and was impressed by her energy and eloquence. We had a chance to exchange a few words after the talk. Teachers in this tradition display a phenomenal erudition, combined with their ability to connect in a modest way with ordinary people. They are skilled in using humour when it is effective and demonstrate the exemplary demeanor expected from authentic followers of the Dharma. The organization of this center seemed remarkable, in the sense that every single detail appears to have been taken into account. Even vegetarian meals are provided before the meditation for those who are hungry, and there is a light meal between the mediation and the Dharma talk. It seemed just the proper amount of adjustments to the needs of modern lay people who are engaged in a busy professional life and come after work to participate in these sessions. Yet the core content of the tradition does not appear to be adulterated.

Essential Yoga in Taipei

On January 12, I was fortunate to attend a wonderful yoga class directed by Lynn, a former dancer with a comprehensive experience in teaching “true yoga” (as opposed to the kind of physical exercise often mistaken for yoga in the West). A group of dedicated students is gathering in a studio near Zhongxiao Fuxing (Zhōngxiào Fùxīng 忠孝復興) every Monday evening. The in-depth sequence of āsanas is followed by meditation. Here is a picture of some of the practitioners who gathered that evening:

DSCN1444

This group is inspired by the Mahāyogi Mission in Kyoto and New York. For those in Taiwan who are interested in “true yoga” as a path to realization, please consult either websites:

http://www.mahayogiyogamission.org (in English)

http://www.mahayogi.org (in Japanese)

Inner peace begins with food and dedication

In a world shattered by senseless violence and fanaticism, it is comforting to see a society exuding poise at almost every corner. Without overrating the Taiwanese social fabric, which has to deal with its own set of problems, it manifests signs of equilibrium and purpose in unobtrusive ways. Two of these striking features are the average people’s relation with food and the degree of dedication to traditions exhibited in small stores everywhere.

Regarding food, vegetarian and vegan restaurants abound. One of the most remarkable ones, which makes my life here much easier, is the restaurant  Sùshí Tiāndì 素食天地 (The Heaven and Earth of Vegetarian Food) near Shida (National Taiwan Normal University 國立臺灣師範大學, abbreviated as Shīdà 師大). It provide an affordable buffet for lunch and dinner, which costs on average between 100 and 200 Taiwanese dollars depending on the weight (100 Taiwanese dollars roughly correspond to 3 US $). There are about 50 different dishes available every time, and they are different from day to day. Here is a view showing inside the restaurant, with a statue of the Bodhisattva Guānyīn 觀音 presiding over the buffet:

Inside Sùshí Tiāndì 素食天地

For a picture with a better resolution, see: http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-qxXWLsb/0/S/i-qxXWLsb-S.jpg

Regarding dedication to traditions, examples are visible on main avenues as well as in the tiny back alleys. Here is one illustration: a dry cleaning store with its striking bright altar.

Nearby dry cleaning shop with its altar

For a picture with a better resolution, see: http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-396j6HB/0/L/i-396j6HB-L.jpg

In relation to the delicate topic mentioned at the beginning of this post, displays of senseless violence feeding the media frenzy, today’s language class included an interesting exchange. As we discussed the premisses of the Buddhist tradition, I was asked whether even “bad people” such as “terrorists” also possess the Buddha nature. My unequivocal reply was that wúmíng 無明, “ignorance” or “nescience,” constitutes the root of all negativity. This entails asking the complex question of what can be done to remove the layers of ignorance covering the minds and hearts of the largest portion of mankind, beginning with oneself. Since providing a verbal answer will not suffice, this awareness ought to translate into action, educational, pedagogical, humanitarian, engaged, or otherwise.

A down to earth perspective of Taipei

Chinese religiosity is often characterized through its practical character. It tends toward realism in the sense of being anchored in concrete reality (shíjì 實際), as opposed to the taste for metaphysical speculation found elsewhere.

Thus, allow me to digress with a few practical adventures punctuating the day. It begins with having bought some kumquats (jīnjú 金橘, often written 金桔, kinkan 金柑 in Japanese) in a local grocery store, thinking that they would provide a welcome protection against the colds widespread in my surroundings. Unfortunately, once the plastic box was opened they proved not to be fresh enough to be eaten, and I thought that trying to return the item would provide a good opportunity to practice my language skills. Thus, I went back to the store and explained that because they were not fresh they were not edible, and therefore requested to return the fruits. Mission accomplished: the refund was granted without problem.
Getting used to living in a new country involves myriad of small things to learn, such as the above. Coming from Japan, I was also unused to having to watch for tea bottles labeled “unsweetened” (wútáng 無糖). Who would suspect that most teas including green tea would be full of sugar? Always learning through trial and error (chángshì cuòwù fǎ 嘗試錯誤法 , shikō sakugo 試行錯誤 in Japanese)…

Speaking of first experiences, today I took the subway, also called Taipei Metro, and more commonly known as the MRT (Metro Rapid Transit) or jiéyùn 捷運. Went to Zhōngshān 中山, where the Central Station for trains and buses is located. Very convenient rechargeable “Easy Card” (yōuyóukǎ 悠游卡, literally “leisurely and carefree card”). In the third basement floor of the shopping mall, there is a wonderful vegetarian buffet called Míngdé Sùshí Yuán 明德素食園 (English name: Minder Vegetarian). It is amazing to see that even in a busy food court there is a vegetarian stall: it really indicates that vegetarianism belongs to mainstream Taiwanese culture.

In class, I learned about Kuāfǔ 夸父, the giant who chased the Sun and died in the attempt. The expression Kuāfǔ zhúrì 夸父逐日 refers to someone who doesn’t know his own limits, evoking a form of Quixotism but linked more precisely to the lack of humility (qiānxū 謙虛), a cardinal virtue in the Confucian ethos.

Pictures taken tonight, mostly in the area of Gǔtíng 古亭, with its temple dedicated to Dìfǔyīn Gōng 地府陰公 (a deity of the underworld), have been posted here: http://www.smugmug.com/gallery/n-Fb44v/

From Laozi to Kongzi, and a first glimpse of Taiwan’s diversity

Second day of Chinese classes with the third of my dedicated teachers. Each of them has a distinctive background, a distinctive pedagogical approach, and seems to reflect a particular facet of Taiwanese society. Yesterday we discussed Daoist beliefs including the supreme deity Tiāngōng 天公, also known as Yùhuáng Tiāndì 玉皇天帝 or the Jade Emperor, and the matchmaker deity Yuèlǎo 月老 (Yuèxià Lǎorén 月下老人), whose story includes mentions of the “red thread” (hóngxiàn 紅線) used to tie the feet of love partners.
While reading chapters from the textbooks Chinese Traditions and Festivals and Chinese Myths and Folktales, we started exploring specific religious approaches and the ethnic composition of the island. Roughly, it can be summarized into four groups:

  • The indigenous people 原住民 yuánzhùmín, also known as the ancestors 祖靈 zǔlíng. During the colonial period the Japanese used the term 藩 fān, which is now taboo, to indicate the minorities. They further distinguished between those who were uneducated, called 生藩 shēngfān (“raw minorities”), and those who had received formal education, the 熟藩 shúfān (“ripe or mature minorities”).
  • The Hakka 客家人 Kèjiārén
  • Those who came from Southern Fujian 閩南人 Mǐnnánrén and spoke Taiwanese (台語 táiyǔ)
  • People from other mainland provinces 外省人 wàishěngrén, who spoke Mandarin (華語 huáyǔ).

Obviously, this also coincided with a wide range of religious backgrounds including, for instance, the cult of the deity Mazu (媽祖 Māzǔ), the goddess of the sea, who has a considerable following in Taiwan.
The following epic movie depicts the resistance of the aborigines under the Japanese colonial rule: Sàidékè Balái 賽德克巴萊 (2011). It portrays in particular the hero of the resistance, 莫那魯道 Mònà Lǔdào (1880–1930).
I will further discuss Laozi and Kongzi in later posts.

The picture below shows the view from my current room.
DSCN1398

Amazing Taipei

Intensive first day of Chinese classes, followed by the discovery of the back streets around Shida (Taipei Normal University). Guided by the HappyCow app and intrigued by the description of a vegetarian restaurant belonging to a group of Qigong practitioners, I landed in the Meimen Center for Arts and Ethics. Although the restaurant was closed to the public on Monday, a lady invited me to share their meal and provided me with a wealth of information. I ended up learning the basic movement of Píngshuǎi 平甩, and receiving an invitation to come any time or on Saturday during the formal Qigong practice in English. Not too bad for my second day in Taipei! Although this is a huge city whose air is more polluted than the places I am used to, it exudes considerable positive energy and an uplifting vibe. Youth and elderly people seen in the streets mostly look happier than in many other places. I suspect that this may be related to the deep layers of spirituality supporting this thriving culture. Young people may seem unaware of their legacy, with their usual vulnerability to superficial trends coming mostly from the U.S., but they are unknowingly participating in something much bigger, which has the potential to transform the world. I am eager to learn from everyone with great humility.