Buddhism Gets Down To Business And Politics

Anxious times feed the temples' membership--and clout

It's easy to mistake Fokuangshan Temple in southern Taiwan for Disneyland. A temple exhibit about the Buddha, modeled on Disney's "It's a Small World," features cave-like rooms with gold Buddhas surrounded by painted plaster children and animals that burst into song when visitors walk by. In one cave, hundreds of life-size bodhisattvas meditate on fake hillsides, like so many stalagmites, while colored lights swirl around the head of a gigantic Buddha. As visitors exit to the sounds of mechanical birds chirping, a Buddhist nun clad in gold stiffly waves goodbye. The "Pure Land" exhibit and the 36-meter-tall golden Buddha that watches over the scenic compound attract thousands of paying visitors on weekends.

There's a direct connection from this Buddha light show in Taiwan to the Democratic National Committee's fund-raising activities in the U.S. The organization's branch in Los Angeles, the Hsi Lai Temple, is being investigated by the Federal Election Commission regarding its questionable fund-raiser featuring Vice-President Al Gore. It's not clear that the event was anything more than an attempt to boost the temple's prestige in the U.S. What is clear is that Taiwan's biggest temples are increasingly wielding considerable clout among millions of followers and having an impact beyond the confines of the island. "These are not the traditional temples we used to know," says Chu Rong-kuei, a researcher at the Academia Sinica think tank. "It's an industry. It's big business."

CHANGING ECONOMY. Fokuangshan is one of many large Taiwanese Buddhist organizations benefiting from a changing Taiwanese society. Unlike traditional ancestral worship and meditative Buddhist practices, the new-style temples are organized around a central, often charismatic personality. They draw people who are seeking answers in uncertain times: an unresolved relationship with China, a changing economy, a society adjusting to Western-style freedoms. They also are attracting huge amounts of money from Taiwan's growing middle class. They operate like large companies, earning substantial income from publishing and other promotional ventures. Their influence is so highly regarded that politicians court their political support.

Like some evangelical groups in the U.S., several temples have become enmeshed in financial scandals. That has sparked a wave of national soul-searching over religion's role in society. Newspaper editorials have questioned whether Taiwan's society is "sick." Religious organizations large and small have mushroomed since the 1980s. A recent survey shows spiritual beliefs, from geomancy to reincarnation, rose sharply from 1990 to 1994. "Taiwan has changed so much, so quickly, people don't know how to identify themselves in present society," says sociologist Lin Mei-rong. "There's a kind of emotional need to grasp something they can identify with."

Taiwan's democratization process has brought religion and politics closer together. Politicians use temples as key places to shop for votes at election time. Unlike the Presbyterian Church, which has actively supported Taiwan independence and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan's established Buddhist temples quietly back the status quo by declining to criticize the ruling Kuomintang (KMT).

CHAT WITH THE CHIEF. The 70-year-old leader of Fokuangshan, Master Hsing Yun, is considered one of Taiwan's more political religious leaders. He has historical ties to the KMT and is a member of the largely honorary KMT Central Advisory Committee. But he backed a candidate leaning toward reunification with China against the more independence-minded President Lee Teng-hui during March's presidential election. In a move that showed how politically important temples such as Fokuangshan are, Lee paid visits before and after the election, to show there were no hard feelings. Gore, while a U.S. Senator, visited Fokuangshan in 1989. Fokuangshan officials say the temple does not give money to U.S. politicians, but members of the U.S. temple have donated on their own.

Fokuangshan officials won't say how much money the temple raises, but the organization supports 120 branches around the globe, including nine in the U.S. It boasts four universities, 13 Buddhist colleges, 22 libraries, and 1 million followers. Its charities include retirement homes, an orphanage, overseas disaster relief, and health care for Taiwan's rural areas. To charges the temple is more business than religion, Yi Kung, director of Fokuangshan's cultural department, says the temple depends on its income to support its good works. "Our principle is, the money comes in from all directions, so it should also go out in all directions," she says.

Since September, leaders of various cults have been charged with swindling followers out of millions of dollars. One temple leader, Sung Chi-li, used doctored photographs to show himself with a halo-like aura, standing simultaneously on the Great Wall in China and in Taiwan. He allegedly amassed a $100 million fortune. Sung admitted cheating his devotees after he was arrested and questioned by police. Followers of yet another group accused leader Huang Chi-hsiung of selling bogus land deals in Belize. Both are awaiting trail for fraud.

Justice Minister Liao Cheng-hao has vowed to "clean up religion," and there are calls for regulations to separate "legitimate" from "false" groups. Such talk raises concerns about the heavy hand of a government that historically has quashed dissent. But as the wealth and fears of a newly rich society grow, the delicate balance between church and state will have to be carefully negotiated.

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