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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

A Buddhist Master Straddles the Taiwan Straits

June 5, 2008

Mark O'Neill
Asia Sentinel
June 4, 2008

Hsing Yun seeks to make reunification Buddhism's sixth precept -- at
least for Beijing

china-hsing During a crowded six-day visit to China, the chairman of
Taiwan's Kuomintang met many important people including President Hu
Jintao, Politburo Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin -- and an
81-year-old Buddhist monk named Hsing Yun, one of the world's most
influential Buddhist leaders and a man courted by politicians in both
Taipei and Beijing.

Beijing in particular is promoting Hsing Yun, who welcomed the
Kuomintang leader Wu Poh-hsiung, the Kuomintang leader, to his
sprawling temple and library complex next to a lake and bamboo forest
in Yixing, near Nanjing.

That is because Hsing Yun is pursuing two of China's goals --
reunification of Taiwan and China and the rebirth of a Buddhism that
doesn't challenge the government, unlike Tibetan Buddhism, for
instance. Through it, the government hopes to reach his followers in
Taiwan. For Hsing Yun, the opening to China is a historic opportunity
to help rebuild the temples, monasteries and communities of Buddhism
on the mainland and recover its place in the hearts of ordinary people.

The monk has an estimated 10 million followers around the world. They
belong to the Fo Guang Shan (the shining mountain of Buddha) movement
he founded in Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan, in 1967. It has 200
branch temples in 20 countries around the world, a university in Los
Angeles and a daily newspaper, publishing house and television
station in Taiwan. He has written more than a dozen books, which have
been translated into 10 foreign languages.

Of the four Buddhist masters in Taiwan -- known as 'the four high
mountains' -- Hsing Yun is the most political and the most openly
pro-unification ­ to the point, in fact, that critics have suggested
his politics have led him considerably far afield from traditional
monastic concerns. He was a member of the central committee of the
Kuomintang and in 1994 persuaded Wu not to run as an independent in
the election for provincial government, to ensure a Kuomintang victory.

"All conscientious Chinese people want a unified China," Hsing Yun
said in a recent speech. "Prior to unification, the following must be
completed ­ mutual strengthening of the economy: cultural dialogue:
respect for religion: political democracy. China is not the exclusive
property of a few. The country is the convergence of the majority."

Born in a small town in Zhejiang province in 1927, Hsing Yun was
admitted into a monastery near Nanjing in 1939 and was ordained a
monk two years later. After graduating from one of China's top
Buddhist colleges in 1947, he became principal of a primary school in
Yixing. He fled to Taiwan in 1949 and, because he had no clear
affiliations, was suspected of being a spy and put in prison for 23 days.

It goes without saying that very clearly religion as the Chinese
Communist Party sees it is meant to serve the interests of the state.
The revolution under Chairman Mao Zedong was atheistic. Beijing
issued regulations last September, for instance, stipulating that
senior monks cannot be reincarnated without government permission,
particularly "Living Buddha" reincarnations with a "particularly
great impact," which would presumably include the next Dalai Lama,
the current one, Tenzing Gyatso, now being 73 years old. In 1995, the
Chinese authorities kidnapped Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family,
just days after the Dalai Lama recognized the six-year-old boy as the
reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, one of the most revered figures in
Tibetan Buddhism. He has never been seen again in public.

Nonetheless, for Hsing Yun, building Buddhism means involvement in
politics. "In the history of China, Buddhism has suffered persecution
several times, but each revival of Buddhism has come with the support
of high-ranking officials," said. He has followed this principle in
the mainland, as in Taiwan, and indeed in the United States. In 1996,
the master's Hsi Lai (coming to the west) temple in Los Angeles was
embroiled in controversy when it held a fund-raiser for
Vice-President Al Gore. The money, channeled by Taiwanese-Americans
in California through the temple, was deemed to be an illegal
political contribution.

Hsing Yun first returned to the mainland in 1989 when he led a
delegation of monks to meet senior Buddhist officials, but he ran
into trouble when he gave sanctuary in one of his American properties
to Xu Jiatun, former head of Xinhua in Hong Kong and the highest
Communist official since 1949 to defect to the west.

This made the master persona non grata for a period but he was soon
allowed back. Ultimately the government gave him 133 hectares of land
near Yixing to build the 'Temple of Great Awareness,' complete with
an art museum, meeting hall and a giant statue of the Buddha. The
local government offered to rename a nearby lake after him, but he refused.

"The development of China cannot rely alone on material things and
the economy," he said. "It is very important to purify the spirit,
control the temperament, cure the heart, have a global outlook and
raise the level of morality."

The Buddhist movements of Taiwan were among the fastest to bring aid
and raise money for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake last month.
Public and private donations from Taiwan exceed 780 million yuan, the
largest amount of any country outside the mainland -- despite the
more than 1,000 missiles in Fujian and Zhejiang pointed at Taiwan,
which could be fired at a moment's notice. Hsing Yun's movement was
prominent among those that have raised money and sent blankets, body
bags, tents, sleeping bags and other relief goods.

The disaster has brought the peoples of China and Taiwan closer
together: they are united in their common grief and determination to
help the victims. At the Great Awareness Temple last Friday in
Yixing, Hsing Yun and Wu led prayers for the souls of the dead and to
help those who had lost their loved ones. Among the congregation was
Ye Xiaowen, the director of the Religious Affairs Bureau of the State
Council, and hundreds of the Buddhist faithful.

"We pray that the scale of disaster will not expand," Hsing Yun told
the crowded congregation. "We pray that this kind of catastrophe will
not recur. The love and care of Taiwan people demonstrates the
compassion and goodness of humanity, a sign that blood is thicker than water."

Just as he built his empire in Taiwan in the shadow of martial law
and its aftermath, so the master hopes to do the same thing in China.
The election of a KMT president, the warming of cross-straits
relations and a Beijing government that promotes Buddhism -- for its
own uses or no -- are signs that the moment is ripe, he feels.
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