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Category: Taiwanese Chan

Taiwanese Chan in Japan and Reflections about Purity

Everyone living in Japan is bewildered by the unusual status of the clergy in this country, where Buddhist monks (there are also very few nuns) do not pay attention to the monastic precepts of their own tradition. A convergence of complex historical factors created this situation but the result is that supposedly ordained individuals are not held in high regard by the Japanese population, and that they are the object of ridicule in other Asian countries. Being currently conducting research on Taiwanese Buddhism, it was natural to visit one of their branch temples in Japan. Thus, I went to Pǔdōng Chánsì 普東禪寺, the Japanese branch temple associated with Zhōngtái Chánsì 中台禪寺, which is located in Kadoma-shi 門真市, slightly outside the center of Osaka. Here is a picture showing the outside of Pǔdōng Chánsì:

Pudong Chansi in Kadoma-shi, Osaka Prefecture

Pudong Chansi in Kadoma-shi, Osaka Prefecture

I was fortunate to be allowed to discuss with the Abbess, Venerable Shì Jiànxuān 釋見瑄, who speaks fluent Japanese because she used to be a teacher of Japanese in Taiwan. Among the topics discussed, I had to touch the delicate question of possible interactions with the Japanese Buddhist schools and ask whether any exchanges were taking place. The reply was that there were no such interactions, because both perceptions of values (kachikan 価値観 ) are so radically different. This was a very diplomatic way to hint at the gap separating a strictly monastic, celibate, and vegetarian clergy from the Japanese pretense of monkhood. More than a century ago, the Indian monk Swami Vivekananda was attracting attention worldwide after his spectacular interventions at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago and the following lectures he gave across the United States. Among Japanese figures impressed by his charisma and spirituality was Okakura Kakuzō, who hoped to invite him to Japan. Unfortunately, because of health issues, this project never came to fruition (although Vivekananda made a brief stopover en route to Chicago). In any case, barely one month before his passing, on June 14, 1902, Vivekananda sent a letter to his disciple Dhira Mata, also known as Mrs. Ole Bull or Sara Bull. It included the following passage relevant to the Japanese situation:

Modern Buddhism—having fallen among races who had not yet come up to the evolution of marriage—has made a travesty of monasticism. So until there is developed in Japan a great and sacred ideal about marriage (apart from mutual attraction and love), I do not see how there can be great monks and nuns.
(accessed March 30, 2015)
I think that it bluntly expresses what most observers feel about the hypocrisy of wearing a robe without making the corresponding commitment in terms of adhering to monastic principles. This boils down to the fundamental concept of “purity,” śauca in Sanskrit, often translated into Chinese as qīngjìng 淸淨. It also constitutes the first of the five observances (niyama) in the Yoga approach to training, which emphasizes mental and physical purity.
The puzzling question is why, although there are a few individual exceptions, there is no articulate movement within the Japanese clergy to return to the original Buddhist precepts. Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, I fear that this may be linked to the current crisis of Japanese Buddhist institutions, where they are compelled to close one temple after another because they lack resources and support from the public.

Celebration of the Buddha’s Awakening at Zhongtai

Mirroring the diversity of Buddhist traditions across Asia, the celebration of the Buddha’s Awakening takes place on various dates, depending on the country. In Taiwan and in the Chinese cultural sphere relying on the lunar calendar (nónglì 農曆), it occurs on the day corresponding to the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, which this year was Saturday, January 24, 2015 (year 104 in the Taiwanese calendar beginning in 1912). Thanks to the kind invitation of a Dharma friend, I went to attend the celebration at Zhōngtái Chánsì 中台禪寺 in Pǔlǐ zhèn 埔里鎮, central Taiwan, one of the flagship Chan monasteries known for its magnificent architecture and the quality of its teachers.

View of Zhongtai Chansi from the front

Since I had no idea about what to expect, I was there for a surprise when finding out that more than ten thousand followers were gathering for the occasion, with hundreds of buses full of people coming especially for the occasion, often travelling more than four hours (one way) to come from remote hometowns. I simply had never seen so many people in a Buddhist temple! We were not allowed to take pictures inside the monastery, but this may give an idea of the first few buses who had arrived around 4 p.m.

Buses parked at the rear of Zhongtai

Participants were grouped in different units, identified with jackets featuring distinctive colors and indicating the subsection from which they came. The leader of the group, carrying a placard, would be responsible for taking care that the individuals in his or her group would stay together. Here is one example:

Groups of followers gathering in front of the main hall, flanked by giant video screens

Around 5 p.m., everyone moved into different spaces, including the huge dining hall in the basement of this structure, fully equipped with video screens retransmitting live all the events taking place in the main hall. The highlight was the arrival of Great Master Wei Chueh (Wéijué Héshang 惟覺和尚), who gave a substantial address to his many guests. At the age of 86 his speech is still precise and his memory phenomenal. He often illustrates his teachings with poetry quoted from his vast repertoire.

This was followed by several performances, in particular by pupils attending the neighboring schools belonging to this denomination. The banner in the dining hall read “Friendly Gathering and Dharma Assembly of the Year 104 Zhongtai Chan Monastery Celebration of the the Buddha’s Awakening” (Zhōngtái Chánsì yìbáilíng nián Làbā wéilú fǎhuì 中台禪寺一百零四年臘八圍爐法會). It is interesting to see the expression wéilú 圍爐 (tentatively translated as “Friendly Gathering”) being used in this context, because it literally refers to a circle of people [chatting] around a fireplace or hearth. The Taiwanese climate usually does not warrant setting fireplaces but I imagine that this must be a remnant of traditions from colder areas in mainland China. In any case, this provided an invaluable glimpse of the vitality of lay supporters coming from all wakes of life, including teenagers, young parents, and children. The gorgeous vegetarian meal was far from frugal and included the traditional làbāzhōu 臘八粥, a nutritious rice gruel enriched with nuts and dried fruits.

Night view of Zhongtai radiating laser beams evoking beacons of truth

To return to the various approaches to the Buddha’s Awakening, this joyful gathering around a dinner table contrasts with the more austere way the same event is celebrated in Japan. In Japanese Zen monasteries, it is called Jōdōe 成道會 (Ceremony [to commemorate] the Realization of Awakening) and takes place at the end of the harshest meditation retreat known as Rōhatsu Ōzesshin 臘八大攝心. The ceremony is usually performed at dawn on December 8, after a whole week during which practitioners barely slept and were pushed far beyond their usual limits. This week of extreme asceticism stands in stark contrast with the laxism prevalent in the way Buddhist precepts are practiced, or rather disregarded, by the modern Japanese clergy. In Southeast Asia, they have regrouped the three celebrations of the birth, awakening, and passing of the historical Buddha on a single day called Vesak. An official United Nations Day of Vesak (UNDV) has even been established. This year an academic conference will coincide with the event and will be hosted by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University in Thailand between May 27–31, 2015. This plethora of interpretation begs the question of whether it may be more accurate to speak of “Buddhisms” in the plural, as suggested in scholarly circles.

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 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.