In Search of Buddhism: The Emergent Temple

Winfried Corduan

With Lots of Thanks to Those Who Made It Possible

Friday, November 6th 2009


Heading Home!

Lots of stories to come!

This was the only public message that I sent while abroad. Even though I had internet connection from time to time, on the whole it was just a little too complicated to try anything like regular blogging. But I did manage to get out this little missive in Taipei on the day before we were returning to the U.S. We arrived back in LA on November 7, and I flew home to Indiana on the 8th. I had left my S-10 sitting in the long-term parking lot, and--needless to say--was extremely glad to be driving it home.

Obviously, I had no idea that it would not be too long before I would be travelling abroad again, specifically to Germany for my mother's funeral. What follows are the entries in my blog as I'm narrating the Taiwan trip. I'm leaving out most postings on other events, except insofar as I intertwined them with this little travelogue.]

Tuesday, November 10 2009


Made in Taiwan!

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: jet-lagged.

Map of TaiwanThose who have hung around my blog for a while know that I tend not to advertise overseas trips indiscriminately in advance.  Sorry if you're disappointed, let alone upset, if you got left out of the loop, which has a rather short diameter, but there are several strong reasons for it.  For those of you who knew, thanks for your thoughts and prayer support.  The objective of the trip was to visit a plethora of Buddhist temples in Taiwan and to talk to converts from Buddhism to Christianity.  The team consisted of Wyatt, who is my friend and has been my companion on several previous trips abroad, Ntchotchi (hereafter: "Ncho") along with her husband Intchutchuna (hereafter: "Nchi").  Oh yeah, you might not find them listed under those names in the phone book either.  I'm not meaning to be overdramatic (if I were, I would have to disguise my identity also and not publish any pictures), but just following some basic measures for publishing something unrestricted on the web.  In Taiwan, we were joined on most days by Wa-ta-wa (hereafter "Wa"), a Buddhist college professor, who opened many a door for us.  

For tonight, I will just give a quick summary and a few introductory pictures.  After spending a couple of days in Los Angeles, we enjoyed a 14½ hour flight to Taipei, which we followed up immediately with a five-hour bus ride down to Tainan, our headquarters for the next week or so.  Since most of our locations were around Taichung, we did quite a bit of commuting by train each day.  Then we went to Hualien by way of Taipei (the quick way of getting there), and finally spent our last few days in Taipei.

The trip was physically demanding, but everyone was looking out for me: making sure I was taking my meds, eating enough fruits and vegetables, and taking rests whenever possible.  

Taiwan is an intrinsically beautiful island, though in all candor I must say that much of the industrialized part of the west coast has taken on a somewhat disappointing resemblance to New Jersey with palm trees.  Nevertheless, much of the rest of it makes up in aesthetic appeal.   At that, I need to apologize for some of my pictures in advance.  Due to the virtually ever-present haze, photography became a little difficult at times.  In some cases, I've left the view as it was; in others I've enhanced it subsequently when I've wanted you to see details, creating a little bit of a spinach effect for the greenery.  You may substitute other vegetables of your choice as you see fit. 


 Ncho and Nchi

Chung Tai Temple




 Your Bloggist

 Coming up among other things:  what it's like to eat with the monks in their monastery, why calligraphy is not my strength, the difference between Pali and Sanskrit, and some thoughts on the "emergent temple."

Friday, November 13th 2009


The Medicine Buddha in LA

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Sticking to Reality
  • IN THE BACKDROP: Numb3rs

Our trip to learn about Buddhism in Taiwan began in L.A.  Not too far from Biola University (though undoubtedly not connected) there is a Buddhist temple, finished in 1988.  When I say "temple," I mean "temple complex," a number of buildings, halls, and exhibitions on what is a virtual Disneyland of Buddhism.  Wait!  Make that "Hsing Yun Land," and you're not far from the reality.

The actual name of the temple is "Hsi Lai," which means "Coming West" or "Moving West," an appropriate name for this mission from the East to the West.  From a material point of view, it definitely seems to be a success.  What we saw there is a phenomenon we encountered all along the way: a revised or adapted form of Buddhism that maintains traditional forms of thought and practice, but attempts simultaneously to appeal to a twenty-first century outlook.  This particular order is called Fo Guang Shan (Buddha's Mountain of Light), and, like most Chinese Buddhism today, its roots straddle early Chan (Zen) and early Pure Land Buddhism.  But don't confuse these Chinese versions with their later Japanese offspring.  This order was convoked by a monk named Hsing Yun in 1967, and its goal has been to establish a Pure Land on earth.  ("I really am for world peace!")


Welcome to the Move West

The Official Gate

Welcome to "Moving West"

Some of the "Sixteen Arhats"

Hero Hall

Some of the "Sixteen Arhats"

"Hero Hall" (The Main Shrine)

Medicine Buddha

Amitayus, the "Medicine Buddha"

For me the most intriguing item of interest was the importance of the "Medicine Buddha."  As is true for most Dhyani Buddhas, his role in Buddhism is highly variable, depending on geographical setting and historical linkages.  In the context of this particular tradition, he is called Amitayus, and he is the Buddha of the East, corresponding to Amithaba, who created the Pure Land of the West.  In other contexts, e.g. Tibetan Buddhism, Amitayus is a projective form of Amithaba, while the Eastern quadrant of the universe is governed by Akshobya, who built his own Pure Land of the East, providing a second opportunity alongside that given by Amithaba.  Regardless of his identification in the mythology, there is no question that the Medicine Buddha plays an important role in the lives of the common people.  He is usually pictured holding an object associated with immortality: a pagoda, a bowl filled with an elixir, or an orb.  

I decided on this, our first temple visit as a team, to be totally honest and let Wyatt and Ncho know as soon as I was too tired to go on and set up a pattern that I would find a place to rest while they could move along further to associated museums, gift shops, or whatever.  We were able to maintain that practice pretty much the whole trip, for which I was very thankful.  

Sunday, November 15th 2009


While I was gone . . .


Guis a la religiones del mundo. . . some good things came out.  Or should that be the other way around: while I was out, some good things came in?  Anyway, between reports on events in Taiwan, please allow me to mention quickly, a few items that happened on the publications front.  The Pocket Guide to World Religions went into its third printing.  In contrast to other publishers, InterVarsity Press always treats a new printing as a minor celebration and sends the author a newly printed copy with a little congratulatory note.  But much more fun with regards to the Pocket Guide was the fact that waiting for me at home was also the Spanish translation of the book.  Apparently it came out in June or so, but IVP hadn't been able to acquire samples to send to the authors of the Pocket Guide series.  

Furthermore, James Sire's fifth edition of his Universe Next Door was officially published.  (Taylor students and graduates may recognize it as one of the original sources for the "Foundations" course, previously known as "Freshman Seminar." The book and course have grown apart from each other to a certain extent; Mark Cosgrove, of course, has now published his notes in book form, and you can find them under the title of Foundations of Christian Thought at ChristianBooksBibles.com.) Anyway, over the years, Jim Sire has added quite a bit of material to his book, and some of you may remember that I wrote a chapter on Islamic theism for it during my last year of teaching.  It didn't rate mention on the front cover, but it's there as chapter 10 of the work.  Let me repeat, as I did a while back, that it is an honor to have been allowed to make a contribution to that classic work.  

Universe Next Door Chapter 10

That's all for tonight.  Oh, okay, I'll throw in a couple of pictures of Taiwan, just to keep the mood going.  You see here a composite, cleverly stitched together by your skilled, but humble, bloggist. Seasoned travelers will undoubtedly recognize the little plaza outside of the train station of Taichung.  


Monday, November 16th 2009


The Bodhisattva Temple


 Bodhisattva Temple

Front of Bodhisattva Temple

 The Boddhisattva Temple

 Guanin and Amithaba at the front of the temple.

Guanin on Cloud

Siddhartha contemplating leaving

 Airborne Guanin

 Prince Siddhartha in contemplation.

 The Venerable Master Huei Guang

 The Venerable Master Huei Guang

The first temple we visited in the Taichung area was undoubtedly the most personal.  As you can see in the picture, it occupied a little niche on a busy street. I removed (by the magic of Paintshop Pro) a huge light pole in order to give you a decent picture of the building, which very evidently is simultaneously serving as growth facility for various species of vegetation.  The external botany makes for a great effect from the inside, though, such as with the picture-window like front of the temple. You are looking at the guilded figure of Guanin (Kuan-Yin) in front of the standing Buddha Amithaba.  

For those who are new to this world, Guanin is a Chinese folk legend, who became known as the goddess of mercy.  When Buddhism came to China, her identity was merged with that of the Bodhisattva of Mercy, who has been known by the snappy name of Avalokitesvara. (I doubt that his name gets butchered all that much more than, say, "Winfried," does.)  Just as I had seen before in Hong Kong and Singapore, here in Taiwan also the two names and personalities were interchanged freely.  In other words, when people were not intending to be technically accurate, they might easily refer to a representation of the male Avalokitesvara as Guanin, or they might also speak of a Guanin statue as Avalokitesvara.  Please note the picture of the clever depiction of Guanin on a cloud on the external stairwell.

Furthermore, as long as we're addressing the basics, I trust my well-informed readers (a redundancy, to be sure) know that there are numerous Buddhas in the various schools of Buddhism. Amithaba, supervisor of the Western quadrant of the universe and artisan of the much-desired Pure Land, is one of the most popular ones.  

Then there was the statue of a person whose legs were not in the lotus position, and whose finger was pointing at his cheek. It is common knowledge that the various hand positions (mudras) and other bodily attitudes of Eastern divinities have specific meanings, and so it is in this case.  A statue under this description represents Prince Siddhartha after his chariot ride, agonizing over his impending decision to leave the palace and seek enlightenment.  

 The Master of this small temple was the Venerable Huei Guang.  At one time he was a science major at a university in the United States, felt called late in his studies to go into religion and philosophy, but decided to finish his science major before enrolling in seminary (in other words, his early educational biography was very similar to mine).  After several years as monk in the order of Fo Guang Shan (see last Friday's entry), he launched this new project, and he appears to be very popular.  However, note the sword-like tool at his side.  This is the instrument with which the master slaps his student meditators if they accidentally fall asleep during meditation practice.

After an hour or so of good personal conversation, we came to the usual exchange of gifts at the end of such a visit.  Wyatt had come to Taiwan prepared with a number of nicely wrapped Bibles, which would be one of our standard presents.  Master Huei Guang had just mentioned that he had never read the Bible, and that he dearly wished he had one, when Wyatt handed him one.  We broke Chinese custom and encouraged him to open the package right then and there, which he did, and you can see the result on his face.  It had been a long, long time since I have seen anyone so genuinely excited to receive a Bible.  May the Word of God exercise its power in his life and his ongoing search for truth.  

(Just in case you're wondering, we each received a shirt from the temple.)

Wednesday, November 18th 2009


Chung Tai Chan Monastery

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: headachy


Chung Tai Temple

A couple of points as I continue my reports on the trip to visit Taiwan.  First of all, let me clarify that the entire cost of the trip for me, including spending cash, was due to the generosity of some very wonderful people. It did not cost me a penny (or other units of currency). Even though the trip was physically hard on me, as well as emotionally difficult to some extent on both June on me, the amount of learning for me (and, I like to think, some little contributions I was able to make) definitely made it worth it.

Second, one purpose of the trip included visiting with local Christians, some of them converts from Buddhism, which--as in most parts of the world that declares itself to be ever-so-tolerant--can bear a painful price tag. We made some great contacts, but for the most part I will not discuss those visits.

Backbone of the DragonThird, if you're waiting for stories on what we did for fun, you apparently never took my regular world religions class (before my energy started to give out), and so you aren't aware of the fact there is nothing more fun for me than visiting temples (. . . well, and playing music and watching auto races and doing web sites . . . ). Anyway, we spent an enormous amount of time just traveling back and forth, and I used a lot of that time for zombying out. We did not go surfing or rock climbing.

A number of the local highways led through tunnels.  These conveniences of transportation have, however, raised some serious opposition from citizens in a traditional Chinese mode of thinking.  You see, a mountain represents a dragon, and a tunnel that goes right through it would break the backbone of the dragon, which is a bad idea, both for the dragon himself and for the larger world whose balance is being upset by the loss of dragons.



Now, then, our next temple was the huge Chung Tai temple.  It fit the pattern of most of the places we visited: it was built recently under the guidance of a contemporary leader.  In this case, it was a man named Wei Chueh, in the direct succession of Zen masters, going back to the remarkable Bodidharma who brough Zen (Chan) to China and whose spiritual genealogy can be traced back to Mahakasyapa, the Buddha's first successor and presumably also the first patriarch of Zen.  Wei Chueh founded a separate monastery in 1987 and this place in 2001.  As you can see by the pictures, they are doing quite well.  Over the last twenty years, more than 15,000 monks and nuns have received full ordination from him.  These are roughly the same figures we heard in the context of other new Buddhist orders in Taiwan.  

Our guide was a nun who went by the name of "Simplicity," who turned out to be originally from Hanover, Germany.  She took us up all thirty-two floors of the temple; fortunately most of the stages were accessible by elevator.  Regular visitors and worshipers were only allowed on the first floor, which contained most of the normal statues, some of which I'll come back to shortly.  It included the representation of the earthly Buddha (Sakyamuni) depicted below. Then on the second floor there was a statue of the Buddha's spiritual body, much larger and more impressive.  Occupying stories nine through fifteen was the Buddha's Dharma body, a huge all-white statue that leaves you breathless, even if you take the elevator and not the stairs.  Going further up, there is a pagoda dedicated to the Medicine Buddha.  It would be a large building just if it were standing by itself outside; here it is a large building occupying the top floors of a huge building. It is constructed entirely of wood without any nails.

The globe on the very top is dedicated to all Bodhisattvas.  As an interesting by-product of the spherical construction, if you stand in the very center of the room and speak, you can hear your voice as it would be heard by other people.  There is no particular religious significance to this phenomenon, and if you don't like the sound of your own voice, it's an annoyance.  


Sakyamuni (The Buddha)





Let me come back to the statues on the bottom level.  Many depictions of the various Buddhas have them accompanied by two Bodhisattvas.  In the case of Sakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama, the "regular" Buddha), these are often two of his first disciples, Mahakasyapa and Ananda.  We already mentioned the former, who assumed leadership after the Buddha's death and is considered the first patriarch of Zen.  According to the tradition, Ananda had not yet found enlightenment by the time of Buddha's death because he was too hung up on intellectual questions.  He was supposed to have had a tape-recorder-like memory. Mahakasyapa finally brought him to the point of realization, and Ananda eventually became the second patriarch.  Ananda is credited with being the source of much of the enormous collection of the Buddha's teachings, called the "Three Baskets." This brings us to the so-called Pali canon, of which I can tell you next time because it was, in fact, an unplanned destination on one of our excursions.  

Chung Tai Temple

Monday, November 23rd 2009


The Pali Canon

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: exhausted

View from Dharma DrumSo, as I was saying, we found ourselves unexpectedly running into the Pali Canon on one of the last days of our trip through Taiwan.  Specifically, we were at Dharma Drum Temple, to which is attached Dharma Drum University.  As you can see by the picture, if you choose your university by its view rather than its worldview, it has a lot going for it (perhaps tempered a bit if I tell you that the big building across the valley is a crematorium).  

Before going on I might just note that this entry is somewhat long and technical; perhaps even "geeky." Please bear with me.  It all leads up to some worthwhile points.  

The so-called Pali Canon is a collection of writings of truly encyclopedic proportion. The name is simply based on the fact that its largest and most likely oldest surviving version is in the language called "Pali," which is possibly the language that the Buddha spoke.  Pali is one of the several languages that spun off Sanskrit. The Pali Canon is also called Tipitaka, the "Three Baskets," because it has three divisions: rules for Buddhist monks, teachings of the Buddha, and scholarly analysis of Buddhist teachings. 

As we mentioned last time, according to tradition, much of the teaching material was recollected and dictated by Ananda, Buddha's own disciple, at the first Buddhist council in the early fifth century B.C.  If a particular issue came up, or if someone was trying to recollect specifically what Sakyamuni had said, Ananda would concentrate, begin with the words "Thus have I heard," and then start to recite what was supposed to have been pretty much verbatim the words of Sakyamuni.  Of course, many scholars, particularly those who are having a hard time believing that there even was a historical Buddha (Sakyamuni), question the accuracy of these alleged recollections.  However, as I keep contending, we Christians need to be careful not to buy into the unfounded skepticism of religious scholarship that we so heartily reject for the Bible, when it is applied to other religious texts.  Furthermore, I've known people who have had the kind of auditory memory that is being ascribed to Ananda.  So, to put things cautiously, it is credible that the Pali canon does, indeed, contain some of the direct teachings of Sakyamuni.

Still, over the centuries, the Tipitaka swelled by constant addition of new material.  Some of it, no doubt, consisted of the rewriting of popular traditions into Buddhist thought forms.  The complete Pali canon stems from no earlier than the first century B.C.  The Pali version of the Tipitaka is the most complete, and although some of it may be a fairly accurate rendering of the first generations of copies of the original as well as the first appearances of additions, there are other versions of it, some of which include different material: several in Sanskrit, and others translated into Chinese, Korean, and Tibetan.  The overarching problem for scholars analyzing the early manuscripts is not textual precision--that is a lost cause---but simply identifying passages that may or may not have been a part of the original.  Starting about the thirteenth century, there are wooden print blocks of it in Chinese and Korean, and so from that point on the translated texts into those languages have stabilized themselves. 

Joe and the LibrarianSo, anyway, since the visit to Dharma Drum came towards the end of the trip, I won't get into the specifics now, except as they impinge on this discussion.  I never really caught our guide's name (a volunteer, not a monk), but his name tag revealed that it was .  Let's call him "Joe" since that's a little easier on the orthography.  I guess I must also mention that we distinguished ourselves a little bit by asking our friend some questions early on in the tour that he couldn't answer, and so he called in an American professor of Tibetan Buddhism at Dharma Drum University.  He answered them in the common academic manner by providing nomenclature rather than insight, but we had a pleasant chat.  Regardless, my point is simply that we manifested a bit more intellectual curiosity than they were used to.

(Jimm W., skip this paragraph please.  )  Based on that impression, after lunch, Joe suggested that we visit the library, a thought that did not particularly inspire me since it was located several hundreds of steps up a hill, and libraries are not usually places you visit for just a few moments, and you have to be really quiet, and you have to be extra careful not to spill anything, and they never ever let you run, not that I wanted to. But since I did not particularly stress those matters, I was out-consensused, and we made our way up and entered the bibliophilic premises.

library caseI changed my mind.   

The part of the library that Joe wanted us to see was a collection of various versions of the Pali Canon: some authentic ancient ones (to which we did not have tactile access), reproductions of ancient ones, and multi-multi-volume translations into both ancient and modern languages.  Wyatt had been excited all along, and now all my fatigue left me instantaneously.  We could have spent hours there.  Joe and a very pleasant librarian (who, by the way, never once shushed us), offered to xerox for us a page from the Pali version, and I've copied it here.Pali Sutra  

It is the beginning of the Mulapariyaya Sutta, for which you can find a complete translation and introduction by Thanissaro Bikkhu on the website Access to Insight: Introduction to Theravada Buddhism, literally the Sutra about the Conversation on the Root

Here is where I'm asking you to hang in, even if this looks pretty off-putting at first, and you've never seen anything like this before nor would you have chosen to.  As you will see, this is a lot like a game, actually.  If you've had any experience with Hindi or Sanskrit, you will immediately recognize that Pali uses the Devanagari alphabet.  The most obvious difference that strikes the eye is the dissimilarity in the spelling of various words.  Not that there aren't also grammatical differences to Sanskrit, but it's the spelling that really stands out.  

Okay, novices and budding experts togther, let's start with the word sutta.  It is, of course, the Pali variation of the word sutra.   So, in the title



the last part reads sutta  (sutta) rather than sutra   (sutra)  as it would in Sanskrit. The little dot over the final character in the Pali means that the "a" is nasalyzed.  By the way, the thing that looks like a question mark is the numeral "1," and the period after it is a concession to Western conventions.  It is, after all, a contemporary printing.  

So, what did we notice with the word "sutra" as it was transformed into Pali? Pali became more nasal in its pronunciation, but--much more importantly, it dropped the "r" and doubled the consonant.  This is a pattern we encounter throughout. Here is an example from the top of the second page:

paragraph 2

I highlighted two uses of the word dhamma  (dhamma), which is the Pali version of the word  dharma (dharma), whose meaning includes everything from the fundamental rules of the universe to the truth of Buddhism to the means towards enlightenment. If you read the Venerable Thanissaro's translation of this sutra, you'll see that in this case it refers to the rules of the nobility (lit. the Aryans) and the righteous men (lit. the "sannyasin," i.e. monks who have withdrawn from the world), of whose dharma the hypothetical common person is ignorant.  But to come back to the language, the Devanagari alphabet has many ways of indicating the letter "r," which is considered a semi-vowel.  In dharma it is indicated by that half loop over the last character, which is a "ma." So dharma in Sanskrit becomes dhamma in Pali.  Sometimes the consonant changes slightly as well.  Thus, for example, nirvana (Sanskrit) becomes nibbana (Pali).

So, with a little bit of luck you can take a Pali word and make an educated guess as to what its Sanskrit predecessor might have been.  I called the "Three Baskets" the Tipitaka.  That is the Pali word for it.  What might it be in Sanskrit?  You're right:  It's Tripitaka. Since there were no doubled consonants, the original "r" must have been at the front of the word, and so we just needed to add it there. The syllable tri also shows us how nicely Sanskrit lines up with general Indo-European patterns.  We didn't get the use of "tri" to indicate "three-ness" from Sanskrit, nor did they get it from us nor the Romans nor the Greeks; it's a part of our common I-E heritage.  

 Let's now take a quick look at the first paragraph.

Paragraph 1

The quotation marks, commas, and dashes, not to mention the footnote indicator, are additional accommodations to Western style. Classical punctuation consisted of only two signs: the first one designating a short break, such as after a line in a poem, the second one calling for a full stop (thus resembling a comma and a period respectively).  The first words constitute the famous formula ascribed to Ananda and copied by imitators and forgers ever since:  eva me sutam Eva me sutam.  ("Thus have I heard.") It occurs to me that there could be some confusion between suta here and sutta earlier. sutta sutta ("sutra")and sutasuta ("heard") are two different words. See if you can find the little line that doubles the letter "t." in sutta !

sutam and shrutiOk, then, if you try to revert suta back to Sanskrit and follow the previous formula, how would you do so? You have only one consonant in the middle, and if you just add an "r," you would get the same word sutra again.  But that wouldn't make sense for Sanskrit any more than we just said it would for Pali.  So, just like with tipitaka/tripitaka, we have to look at the front of the word again. But in this case it's just a little more complicated.  To turn the Pali back into Sanskrit, you also have to change the type of "s" from the straight-forward hissing sound to one that's better transliterated as "sh," and then you do add the "r" to it, resulting "shr."  I drew a little red rectangle around the little bar that stands for the "r" in this instance. Now make one further grammatical adjustment and you get shruti, the word that is used in Hinduism to refer to the holiest texts, such as the Vedas, those that were supposed to have been "heard" by the rishis  ("holy semi-divine seers") of ancient days.

Now we get to the pay-off. What does the little formula, "Eva me sutam--Thus have I heard"  really indicate then? It's a reappropriation of the notion of shruti, indicating that the text that is about to follow is the real shruti.  Buddhism is sometimes considered to be one of the two "heretical" schools of Hinduism (the other one being Jainism), primarily for two reasons.  It rejected the caste system, which was already finding its place in Indian society in the sixth century B.C., and it rejected the authority of the Vedas and their accompanying texts, all of which are considered shruti.  So, instead of the Hindu shruti, we get the new shruti, except that it is now expressed in Pali with the phrase: eva me sutam.  In other words, the new formula may be a compliment to Ananda's memorization skills, but that's neither here nor there.  More significantly, it is a dramatic claim: "You are about to hear the genuine revealed truth."

shruti to sutam

This is, of course, only a relatively minor insight, which presents little surprise in the history of religions.  And I could have simply told you this right at the beginning without confusing you with all those illegible symbols. ---- But wait!  What makes them illegible? They are, after all, languages, encoded in an alphabet.  If they are illegible to you, it's because you don't know the languages, and I don't blame you if you don't.  Most likely, you've never even had much of an opportunity to learn them.  I've had to teach myself.  

Thus, we come to my polemic.  Serious evangelical Christian seminaries have their students become competent in all three biblical languages: Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and we justifiedly react negatively to those who interpret the Bible in direct contradiction to what it plainly says in its original languages or to those, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, who clearly distort the Greek text in order to support their heretical doctrines.  Furthermore, some of the best schools offer the opportunity to delve deeper into the ancient languages prior to and coterminous with the Old Testament: Moabite, Akkadian, Edomite, Egyptian, etc.  This is very good because it contributes to our understanding of the biblical text and biblical history.  I would not want one less credit unit of these ancient languages offered or taken.

However, here is another point to consider.  For quite a while now, neither Moabites nor Akkadians have provided too many significant intellectual challenges to the truth of Christianity.  Whatever is written by them is past history.  On the other hand, Buddhism is alive and well and intent on swallowing up Christianity, and if we want to do any meaningful apologetics, we have to be able to read their scriptures in their languages.  How do I know whether Ven. Thanissaro's very elegant translation of the Root Sutra is accurate or whether he is deliberately covering up items that could possibly turn off the people he might be trying to reach? How can we know whether the Theravada Buddhism presented on that site really is Theravada Buddhism or just an accommodation to Western tastes? (For what it's worth, from my vantage point, this appears to me to be an excellent site and a good translation.) Without knowing some Pali, we won't be able to make such assessments.  Many of the more popular translations of Eastern scriptures into English bear only a faint resemblance to what they say in their originals.  For example, a popular translation of the Bhagavad Gita makes references to churches and mosques.  Are they really there in the Sanskrit text?  How will you respond to someone who brings up that passage (without writing an e-mail to me )?  

And I'm wondering--and this is a radical thought--are any Christian schools at all contemplating training their students in classical Eastern languages?  

This has been a long entry, written sporadically over a strenuous weekend trip visiting June's aging and ailing Mom in Michigan.  I thank you for reading this, and I hope that you might catch both my excitement for this kind of study and the ache in my heart for those who need the truth.  I'm praying that Christians who are excited about apologetics would also become excited about the hard study necessary to do apologetics well. We cannot afford another generation of American Christians who spread the absurd notion that Buddhism is a form of pantheism.  Buddhism has come too close to us to keep getting it wrong.  (Hint: Look at the courses offered at major universities these days.)

Next time a culinary topic: Lunch with the monks and nuns at the monastery.  

Tuesday, November 24th 2009


Luncheon at the Light Mountain

That is, of course, luncheon at the monastery and temple of the Order of Buddha's Light Mountain. --- Where have you heard that term before? Would it help if I told you that the Chinese translation is Fo Guang Shan? --- Very good! That'll be five extra credit points for whoever remembered that this is the same order that has built the massive temple complex in the Los Angeles area. In terms of size, if I were to rate the Hsi Lai Temple in LA as large, this one would easily be double-X. It claims to be the largest Buddhist temple in Taiwan, and I wouldn't dispute it, though it must be a close call in competition with Chung Tai Chan and Dharma Drum.

Just to remind ourselves, this order was started in 1967 by Master Hsing Yun. Similar to Wei Chueh, the founder of the Chung Tai Temple, he stands in the direct succession of Chan Zen masters along the branch called Linji Chan, which in Japan eventually issued in Rinzai Zen.

The Buddhist professor whom I'm calling Wa-ta-wa in this blog (see the entry of Nov. 10) saw to it that we would be able to participate in the daily lunch at this monastery. This was supposed to be quite a ceremony, to which we looked forward. We were told ahead of time that it would be vegetarian, but that had been true for quite a few meals already, so that prospect didn't bother us at all. When we heard that we needed to receive instructions for lunch, I, for one, thought that such training should be unnecessary. I was wrong.

Our guide on this day was a nun who had been in the order for twenty-six years. Once again I need to confess to striking out on catching the name; my best reconstruction is "Ijir" or something similar-sounding. The first thing she did was to give us directions on how we were to eat lunch when the time came: to maintain complete silence, to finish any food once we had started it, to place the dishes into the correct positions on the table in front of us to indicate a) whether we were still eating of it, b) finished with it, or c)  wanted more, etc. She used a set of paper dishes that could be moved around various transparent pockets on an easel to give us visual illustrations. After she had finished the long and complicated set of instructions, she assured us with a twinkle in her eye that, if we made a mistake, we would surely be forgiven.

There was only about an hour or so left before the procedure would begin. Remember that one of the ten precpts of Buddhism holds that monks should not eat too much and not after noon; so, the meal would have to be over by that hour. We spent the time beforehand touring through a museum-like exhibition hall, most of which was given over to to exalting the spiritual qualities of the Venerable Hsing Yun. (I shall come back to that phenomenon of the person-cult in a future entry). When it got to be surprisingly close to noon, the monks, nuns, faculty and students of the adjoining university, and lay workers hired by the temple, filed into the huge dining hall. While we were watching, I casually asked Ijir, "This is the last meal of the day for you, right?"

To my surprise she answered, "No. We take dinner also. It is considered 'medicine': 'medicine' for hunger."

I said nothing, but my thoughts immediately turned to the several students over the years who, as a project for the Eastern Religions class, had attempted to follow the ten precepts for a week, and how hard it had been on them not to eat anything after luch. They didn't realize that a late night trip to Ivanhoe's (an ice cream restaurant in Upland, Indiana) could perhaps be construed as taking medicine. Let me assure you, though, that there are many Buddhist orders, particularly in the Theravada tradition, that do not make use of such an interpretation.

We visitors entered last. The room was divided into halves with the tables and chairs on each side facing the other. Each place had empty dishes in place already. There was complete silence until from nowhere there came the sound of a gong and someone chanting "AUM" just one time. It was so unexpected and loud, it almost startled me out of my seat. Then, as the deep silence resumed, a great number of food workers, reminding me somewhat of house-elves at Hogwart's, bustled around and provided everyone with their portions of the day's repast. I'm afraid, I cannot remember everything that they set before me. I can recall two items that looked like variations on the theme of boiled cabbage, chestnuts, something big, dark, and fungioid, chestnut soup, and a large dumpling wrapped in green leaves, but I'm sure I'm leaving out one or two other things.

Rice, of course, for one thing. How could I forget about the rice? It's a hungry person's life-line if everything else on the table looks like it needs a lot of explanation.

Now, the key for my decisions on what to try was the rule that if you start an item, you must finish it (though I had already decided that if something would turn out to be utterly impossible to get down, I would bank on the forgiveness that had been promised earlier).

  • So, did I dig into the dumpling whose real identity was hidden by the leaves? Obviously not.
  • Did I sample the fungioid-looking substance? I know that all things made by God are good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with prayer and thanksgiving, but I have never been able to receive anything from the fungus group as food with thanksgiving. (Penicillin is a different story, assuming we're reverting to the traditional distinction between food and medicine.)
  • I started and finished the cabbage-like entities and the chestnuts. To be honest, I like boiled cabbage.
  • I had not yet finished the chestnut soup (and was wishing I didn't have to), when suddenly there was that gong and the "AUM" again; the meal was over; I was off the hook; and everyone filed out again, still maintaing the same silence. The whole procedure had lasted only about ten minutes.

Ijir had sat two seats down from me, and I assumed that I had been out of her line of sight, but apparently Buddhist nuns have x-ray vision, just as mothers do. When our little group reassembled, she came up to me and expressed her concern that I might not have eaten enough to keep up my strength. She may very well have been right, but I felt fine and told her so. Then the real tour of the temple premises began, and I shall tell you what I learned about meditation, calligraphy, and temple gift shops, and how I had the opportunity to share the gospel, the next time or two.

By the way, I have felt really awful since coming back from Michigan (though I'm sure Michigan is not to blame) Sunday evening. There was a change in medication, which apparently has taken me in the wrong direction. When I called Dr. B's office early this morning to be reminded of what time today my appointment would be, the office lady disclosed to me that it had been yesterday. I really dislike it when I do things like that, but I'm not sure I could have driven to the doctor's yesterday anyway. The lady was nice about it, but couldn't find another slot for me until February. Well, I'm scheduled for several appointments with other doctors before then, so I'm sure someone will put me back on the right track fairly soon. I will also mention that the stress caused by the precariousness of the material side of our lives is not helping. As always, June and I appreciate your prayers.

Friday, November 27th 2009


Meditation at Fo Guang Chan


When I left off with my account of the trip to Taiwan, we had just finished our 10 minute silent finish-what-you-started lunch. Now, as I said, the real tour of the temple facilities began. As usual, we walked up a lot of steps, past the beautiful Bodhisattva Hall, to stop at the Meditation Hall. For some pictures and a little editorial commentary, go through the slides in the frame below. Each time that you click on a picture, it will advance by one frame.

I won't drive the point on the last frame into the ground, but this was definitely a thought that kept running through my mind. You do this; you do that; you discipline yourself; you achieve an alert mind or a state of no-mind, and so forth. I don't mean to denigrate any of that, at least for the moment (thus, postponing pointing out some items that ought to bother a devoted Buddhist as much as they do me). Even if all of these concepts were true and good (which some are and others are not), they do not address the central problem of humanity: our alienation from God due to sin.

Bodhisattva Hall

You see, that's why I keep insisting that it cannot possibly be true that all religions are identical at their core while coming in different guises on the outside. At their very cores, they begin by attempting to find answers to different questions. For Buddhism, the (general) issue is how to escape from the apparently never-ending cycle of suffering, and the (general) answer is by becoming detached from this world. Christianity addresses the problem that in our fallen state, we cannot have a relationship with God, and that Christ's atonement in history has made that reconciliation possible. Thus, Jesus is not a Bodhisattva, and the Buddha is not an inconsistent Christian.

Well, it looks like the flow of time and a lack of energy are making me stretch out things a little more than I had planned. Then again, I hope you're enjoying the variety I'm trying to put into these entries, such as the "i-frames" tonight. So, next time, we'll still be at the Fo Guang Chan Temple

Monday, November 30th 2009


Farewell to Fo Guang Chan!

Group photoSo, after having visited the meditation hall at Fo Guang Chan Monastery, we (Wyatt, Ncho, Nchi, Watawa, Ijir, and your allegedly underfed bloggist) took some time to sit, chat, and--needless to say--drink tea.  At the outset our conversation had, of course, been limited to the normal superficial topics, such as Ijir's observation that I didn't eat enough at lunch. By this time we had hung around with her long enough to be comfortable with more personal remarks.  Performing my function as the Hermione of the group (the point being to make sure that we didn't get talked down to, but to keep the conversation at a level at which we would really learn things), I said something or other that struck Ijir as profound or knowledgeable, and she called me a Bodhisattva.  I responded by saying that I was not a Bodhisattva, but a saint, since I had been sanctified by the blood of Jesus, but she didn't respond to that assertion, probably more because she was being distracted by the tea being brought in, than out of lack of interest.  

We then talked about Buddhism and human relationships.  The example came up of Siddhartha leaving his wife and son in order to seek enlightenment.  Buddhist monks and nuns are supposed to treat their family no differently than strangers, which can be extremely hard on both sides.  I stated my usual incredulity about the part of the story when Siddhartha finally returned home, now as Buddha, and the wife he had abandoned immediately (as I understood it) welcomed him back, knelt down to him, and begged him to join the order.  Ijir laughed and said that it couldn't have gone that way.  There had to have been a time of uneasiness and "negotiations" prior to their meeting up again.  Her order's master, the Venerable Hsin Yun, has written at length on the episode and the complex psychological dynamics involved.  

Then, as her eyes were getting moist, Ijir talked about what it was like for her just the previous weekend when she had returned to her home town to give a public talk.  It was her first time back after twenty-six years, which also meant that it was the first time that she had direct contact with her mother, who was in the audience. Her mother had been deeply hurt and resentful, when Ijir had chosen to become a nun.  But when her speech was over, her mother stood up and publicly affirmed Ijir and the decision she had made.  It was a great moment for both Ijir and her mother, and it was a good moment for us to hear Ijir share this personal experience.  

As the conversation continued, Ijir turned to me and asked me how I became a Christian.  This time I got to tell the whole story---not my story, which is devoid of externally dramatic events, but the whole story of the gospel.  I told her that I had grown up in a Christian home, but that we don't believe that anyone is a Christian by birth.  Each person has to place their own personal faith in Christ.  Then I related how, when I was eight years old, an evangelist had come to our church and provided a special session for children.  He showed us several differently colored pieces of cloth, beginning with a really dirty, stained, yucky-looking piece of fabric, which stood for what our hearts are like because of all the sins with which we have defiled ourselves.  Then he covered that cloth with one that was all red, representing the blood of Jesus shed on the cross.  Next came a pure sparkling white one, showing how the blood of Christ totally cleanses us.  Finally he showed us a gold cloth indicating heaven, our final destiny, not because of what we could do, but entirely on the basis of the blood of Jesus.  That night I asked the Lord Jesus to come into my heart and cleanse it, and I have had the assurance of being saved by God--not by my own acts of piety--ever since.

Wyatt in front of the Sakyamuni statue There is no telling what was going on in her mind as she next turned to Wyatt and asked him about his story.  Wyatt knew potential overkill when it was lurking, and gave a more abridged version of his conversion, but also highlighted that he did not become a Christian until he was in college.  After a little more conversation, we moved on to the big Buddha Hall.

Actually, you can have your choice as to whether you want the adjective "big" to describe the Buddha or the Hall; they were both enormous.  Better yet, I should say that all three Buddhas were enormous because once again we had the triad of Sakyamuni, flanked by Amitabha, the constructor of the Pure Land, on his right, and Amitayus, the Medicine Buddha, on his left. You can get a little bit of an idea of the size of the hall by looking at the picture with Wyatt standing in front of Sakyamuni, adding a Buddha of similar proportions and adequate separation on each side, and then leaving enough space on each side to accommodate possibly two more such figures.  

By the way (an expression that people usually use when they're about to say something that's anything but "by the way" to them), please don't even think of letting my use of the word "triad" above lead you to speculate on some sort of "trinity" of divine beings in Buddhism, not even similar to the trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) in Hinduism, let alone the tri-unity of divine persons in the Christian trinity. There is no such thing in Buddhism. The closest you can come to a three-ness in Buddhism is the triple-body (trikaya) of the Buddha, but that's an altogether different conception, and it would take not just one, but several tours-de-force to create such an artificial equivalence.  That fact, of course, does not mean that this tube hasn't been squeezed multiple times by those who wish to promote the similarity of Christianity and Buddhism regardless of the manifest evidence.  Insofar as they use a method for doing so, it is the John-Hickian one of pointing out that two religions or beliefs are similar just so long as you ignore the differences. They wind up having to appeal to something mystical or deeper than what the religions say about themselves (the numinous), and, thus, remove themselves from the possibility of meaningful critique.  You can find a refreshingly rational, though apparently not entirely self-aware, discussion of this topic at the Religious Roundtable. It seems to me that the only item that remains solid across the board is that religious people like the number three.  So do baseball pitchers, fans of the late Dale Earnhardt, and proverbially anyone who likes all good things.  I would have added comedy writers, but that would have been self-defeating. (I wonder how many people other than Jennifer H. and Nick understand that last remark.)

Temple Wall 

Temple lights 

Most of the walls of this enormous temple are covered by little lights.  You can rent one of them for a fairly steep fee on an annual basis.  Once turned on, they promote your {pick one or more: good fortune, blessings, closeness to the Buddha, efforts at refocusing your mind, etc., depending on your level of spiritual maturity}.  Personally, I admire the ingenuity of this money-making technique, practiced by temples of various religions all over Asia.  Before I rush to judgment, I need to remind myself that I have encountered these opportunities for acquiring blessings at a price uncountable times on my trips, but I have not usually seen them tied to a Prayer-of-Jabez-like warning that, if you do not do this, you may miss out on something wonderful that God or some other spiritual being has in store for you. Having reminded myself that Christendom is not exempt from dubious money-raising practices, I shall now allow myself to judge that in any such case, genuine believers of the religion in question should find them objectionable.

It was getting to be time to be heading down the hill slowly, one stair step at a time, holding on to the rail.  It is in descending stairs that my imbalance tends to become most obvious.  We were passing by the calligraphy building.  Ijir pointed it out to us and mused that we were probably not interested.  Playing Hermione once again, I guess, I immediately said that we would be if we got a chance to try it, not really thinking that it would be a possibility.  However, Ijir excused herself for a moment, disappeared into the building, and reappeared pretty quickly.  "Your wish has been granted," she said, and we proceeded into the building.

Calligraphy students 

Calligraphy set 

 As it turned out, they were prepared for total novices, and they probably use the facility regularly for school children.  I don't recall Ncho participating (I think she may have taken the pictures), but Wyatt, Nchi, and I tried our hand at it.  There was a young woman (not a nun, possibly a teacher) in charge.  She provided each of us with a little set consisting of a piece of paper, a weight to hold it in place, a little inkwell, a brush, and a laminated sheet with instructions on a) in which direction to make your strokes, and b) in which sequence.  The outlines of the characters that we were supposed to cover with ink were already printed on the paper.  Each stroke was supposed to consist of a nice, smooth, and  steady single movement.  As we got started and I picked up the brush, the teacher immediately corrected how I was holding it.  Simultaneously I became aware of the tremor in my hand (which is both passive and active), and I thought, "Calligraphy with Parkinson's. What a dumb idea!"  The thing is that I have an uncontrollable physiological correlation between doing something with my hands that they don't want to do and a sudden feeling of depression; so, for a minute, I had to fight a battle of mind over mind (or perhaps serotonin uptake against serotonin uptake inhibition), but my good sense won out, and I had fun.  Wyatt did a good job; Nchi was fabulous at it, and he disclosed to us that growing up in Taiwan he had always been the best at it in his class.  Mine turned out as expected.  I have deliberately included a close-up to make the point that I shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge that, which other people see anyway, and, furthermore (and this is paradoxical, not mystical), I shouldn't let a moment of physiologically induced depression spoil my fun.

My calligraphy sheetAfter we had produced our master (Nchi), journeyman (Wyatt), and pre-apprentice (your bloggist) pieces, the teacher dried them, gave them an official stamp, and wrapped them up as little scrolls.  In case you're wondering, the text we were copying says,

Give people confidence.
Give people happiness.
Give people hope.
Give people comfort.

I do not believe that it is derived from any classical sutra, and if it should have religious connotations it would simply be the "Hallmark" facet of it, which every large religion possesses.  (This would make an interesting research study, I would think.  We acknowledge that religions usually have their textbook forms and one or more folk religion versions.  Obviously, this distinction can be fairly muddy, and, even if there were crisp and clear distinctions, it would still not be necessary that there are clear categories  where the calendars with quotations, greeting cards, jewelry, placemats, etc. fit in, but I'm wondering if there is a trend or a predisposition towards one side or the other.  I have my guesses, but it would take some serious research to confirm them. Viz. please don't answer unless you've done the research.)

Close-upOur last stop at the temple grounds was the gift shop, which, similar to most gift shops around the world, contained a lot of stuff made in Taiwan, though they passed it off as home-made here.  (Sometimes I truly crack myself up.)  The shop was actually a little sheltered outdoor nook with some soothing Chinese music in the background. Ncho sought for and purchased one of those wide Chinese straw hats.  As soon as we entered the premises, Ijir gave some directions to one of the workers there, who immediately changed the music to a rather catchy tune sung by a group in English.  The lyrics were of the standard "let's-change-the-world-with-the-dharma-of-unity" variety.  Actually, I remember more of the words a little more accurately. Furthermore, both Wyatt and I, though neither one of us is terribly knowledgeable when it comes to contemporary Christian music, were pretty convinced it was originally a Christian song of relatively recent vintage, apparently adopted and adapted by the Chinese temple to provide a more attractive ambience for Western visitors.  I am simply relating our impressions, and I won't give any more details because there is a difference between being personally fairly certain of something and being able to swear to it in court.  For all that I know, although it seems unlikely to me, the Buddhists may have bought the rights to the song.  My main point is that the Buddhists are learning the skill of contextualization.  

It had been a long day, longer than anticipated, and we were sad to say good bye to Ijir, who very evidently had grown as fond of us as we had grown of her.  (To my surprise, I realized on this trip that, even though Parkinson's somewhat impairs facial recognition and the reading of facial expressions, I am just a little better at discerning the facial language of Chinese people than that of others.) As usual, Wyatt gave her a copy of the Bible.  If you're reading this as a Christian, please pray for Ijir.  I am fully aware that evangelism usually takes time, effort, friendship, availability, and a lot of clarification of Scripture; nevertheless, I am hopeful that we may have planted a little seed that may eventually grow.

And, thus, we may finally say farewell to the Fo Guang Chan Monastery and Temple. 


Thursday, December 3rd 2009


De Hanc et Illad¨Sententiae


That's "Thoughts on This and That," as anyone reading this who had your multilingual bloggist as magister a long, long time ago should not need to be told.

Salvete amicae et amici!

First of all a big thank you to Jim Garringer for that very, very, nice article about your flattered bloggist in Taylor Magazine.

[The rest of this entry continues with matters other than Taiwan; so I won't go on with it here. You can always consult the original entry if you're curious. However, I included a number of pictures from Taiwan, not directly tied to Buddhism or religion, so I shall leave them here. Also, I had the ducktor make one of his rare appearance, and I can't bring myself to cut his shtick out of this entry either.]

We haven't seen the Ducktor in quite a while, so let's welcome him center-stage as he plays a double role illustrating what happened around that time. (You may need to wait a few seconds for the beginning to come around again.)

Well, that's all we need to include of this interlude entry. Next time we'll get back to Taiwan. What do you say, let'stalk about pirates and not just one, but several emperors and the pirate's son who becomes a god? And it won't be one of those kissing stories either.

Friday, December 4th 2009



  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: staying up too late

Straits of Taiwan

Once upon a time there was a dread pirate named Zheng Zhilong. You can pronounce his name as djang- djeelong, or you could also call him Nicholas Gaspard, the name he was given when he was baptized in Macao at age eighteen. I guess "The Dread Pirate Gaspard" would sound more frightening to Western ears, though he spent most of his life working for the Chinese. Before he became a pirate, he was a successful businessman who inherited a fleet of ships from his boss and put himself and his ships to work for the Dutch. And the vocation that the Dutch had in mind for him was to work as pirate in the Taiwan straits, the idea being to make access to Japan as difficult as possible for other European ships. Their interests at the time coincided with that of the Chinese; so, for a while, he made a good living at it.

---Maybe I've jumped into this story a bit fast. First let me clarify that the time when this whole story occurred was the seventeenth century, so--despite what some of you may think--I can't attest to any of these matters personally. There are two major historical trajectories intersecting at this point:

  1. The colonization of the Far East by European powers. The Portuguese were already settled in Macao, and the Dutch were attempting to acquire Taiwan.
  2. The instability of the Chinese government that eventually led to the shift from the Ming dynasty to the Manchu or Qing dynasty.
Koxinga riding

---Second, I guess you might want to know the reason why I'm telling you the story. After a straight week of visitations and interviews, interrupted only by the flight and bus ride, Ncho's schedule was giving us the weekend off: Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, three days to rest my weary body. Well, the problem is that when you're somewhere interesting, and the chances are pretty good that you may never be there again, you need to take advantage of what's available. Thus, weary body or not, Saturday was given over to sight-seeing and shopping, as well as some good eating. I need to add that the team did put in an early-afternoon break, just for me. The day started with visiting the temple erected to worship the son of the dread Pirate Gaspard as a god. Watawa was not with us, but she told us the story on the previous evening on the way home from the Fo Guang Chan temple. There was also a well-informed guide, a retired doctor, who showed us around and explained a number of things that we would have overlooked on our own. (And I've studied a certain amount of supplementary material since that time, as well.)- ---

Tagawa Matsu

So, to return to this story, Zheng Zhilong's duties as official pirate on behalf of the Dutch colonists took him to Japan, where he fell in love with and married a beautiful woman, whose name may have been Tagawa Matsu (transformed in Chinese into Weng-shi). One day, when running along the sea shore seeking sea shells, she suddenly went into labor pains and gave birth to the child who would eventually be known as Zheng Chenggong at home and as Koxinga to the outside world.

Meanwhile back at the palace in Beijing, the emperors of the Ming dynasty were having a difficult time keeping their seats on the throne. There was a vindictive fellow named Li Zicheng who had once been humiliated by a public official. He made himself popular among the peasants by the time-honored technique of making promises that no one in their right mind would think that he could or would keep, such as dividing the land equally among everyone and abolishing taxes. Or maybe it was just his charisma, or that he portrayed himself as a Beijing-outsider. Regardless, he managed to recruit an army of sufficient size to take over Beijing temporarily. The emperor of the Ming dynasty committed suicide. Prepared by his earlier career, which had ranged from shepherd to iron worker apprentice, Li Zicheng now declared himself to be the next emperor, hoping to start a whole new dynasty, which would be known as the Shun dynasty.

Unsurprisingly, his plans came to naught. He lasted less than two years on the throne. But it was not the Ming dynasty reasserting itself who put an end to his plans. It was a whole new group of people, the Manchus, who had come to take over all of China. Their home was in the northeastern province of Manchuria, and they are ethnically distinct from the majority of Chinese, who are usually known as Han Chinese. Such a thing had happened at least once before, back when the Mongols had ruled China. In this case, the Manchu or Qing (pronounced "ching") dynasty turned out to be the last set of emperors that China would ever have, lasting right into the beginning of the twentieth century (assuming no rebirth of the empire qua empire, though one never knows).


So, now the battle was on between the Ming and Qing, with the Dutch lurking in the background, appropriating territory wherever they could. As the Ming were pushed further and further, whoever was next in line to become emperor would assume the throne in absentia and ultimately be killed as they lost battles to the Qing, only to be replaced by the next already-doomed aspirant. By this time, Zheng Zhilong had retired from piracy as a career and was instead gainfully employed as general on behalf of the Ming dynasty. He was joined by his son, Zhen Chengong (Koxinga), who had also distinguished himself as military leader. Father and son bravely defended the ever- renewing Ming emperors to the best of their ability, though the cause was quite clearly lost.

Well, you know what they say about pirates. If not, click here. One day Zheng Zhilong received an offer from the Qing side that he couldn't refuse, namely the governorship of two provinces, and he switched sides. This action of his is the reason that I cannot show you any pictures of him because to this day, he is considered a traitor, and the temple dedicated to his son totally ignores him. No one else of his family followed him, not even his wife, Ms. Tagawa.

His father's treason allowed Koxinga to show what he really could do, given an opportunity and a free hand. By this time, the Dutch had made themselves completely at home in Taiwan, with their main fortifications located on the sea coast just outside of present-dayTainan (our town of residence for the first week, you may remember).


There were two forts. The bigger one, Fort Zeelandia, now known as Fort Anping was located on a little peninsula stretching out into the sea. The Dutch were trading easy access to their ships for easy access to fresh water. Those of you who have been reading my blog for years, as I've been talking about the battles in the Old Testament and elsewhere, know by now that it is axiomatic that any military force, regardless of its size, can only be as successful as it has supplies (food and water), and to build what is supposed to be a military installation while limiting your ability to get fresh water is surely a blockhead move.

The other installation, Fort Provintia, was smaller, but was apparently considered to be virtually invincible. In order to reach it by sea one could only come through one of two channels. One channel was protected by the massive Fort Zeelandia, the other one was too shallow for ships to get through, or so the Dutch thought.

Koxinga had the advantage that the local population sided with him. Whether it was his own knowledge or something conveyed to him by local people, he knew that the supposedly shallow area could be navigated at high tide. So, he waited for just the right time and gave the residents of Fort Provintia the fright of their lives as his ships suddenly appeared. They had no choice but to surrender right then and there.


Next came the siege of Fort Zeelandia, commanded by Frederick Coyett, governor of Taiwan on behalf of the Dutch East India Tea Company. The outcome was only a matter of time, which in this case was a rather lengthy nine months. Not only was the fort in a strategically bad position, the "Company" never sent any help or reinforcements. Finally, Coyett had to surrender by signing a treaty that included their exodus from all of Taiwan. Frederick Coyett was punished for surrendering by the same company that had not given him aid (sounds a little familiar, doesn't it?), but--more importantly for our story--Koxinga claimed all of Taiwan in the name of the Ming dynasty, who by now had lost pretty much all power on the mainland. He himself took on the title of "King of Tungning," using an earlier term for Taiwan. We would now say that he was King of Taiwan, though he saw his reign as the opportunity for supporters of the Ming dynasty to build a base of support in Taiwan. He died at the young age of thirty-seven, and there seems to be concensus that the cause was malaria.

So, what about his being a god? There has been nothing in this story of his being an incarnation or anything like that. Well, in traditional Chinese religion, the part that we call Daoism, it works the other way around. Being a god is something that you earn, and you can work your way up in the rank of deities, pretty much mirroring a human bureaucracy. Everyone who has died, theoretically gets a little shrine and receives veneration. (More on that in another entry.) When someone important for an entire community dies, the shrine becomes communal. Furthermore, if it becomes apparent that praying at this shrine or to this deceased seems to bring about particularly successful results, it becomes clear that the deceased has become a god. The more and better results he or she is alleged to provide, the higher a rank of deity he must have achieved.

On the grounds dedicated to Zhen Chenggong (Koxinga) in Hainan, his image couldn't help but remind me of the Lincoln Memorial, probably mostly because he is shown sitting. But this is not just a memorial; it is a temple, and Koxinga is its main deity.

Sunday, December 6th 2009


Excursion into Daoism, part 1


What a relief it was when I discovered that I could spell the name of this religion with a D by following the pinyin system of romanization, rather than having to write it as Taoism, in accord with Wade-Giles and then tell my students that it's pronounced as "Daoism"!

Under W-G, leading consonants by themselves tend to get softened, so that T's are pronounced as D's, K's as G's, J's as R's, and so forth. To clarify that a consonant should be pronounced in the hard form to which we English-speakers are accustomed, it is followed by an apostrophe. Thus, W-G has us pronounce Taoism as "Daoism," but t'ien (heaven) as "tian."

The People's Republic of China constructed the pinyin system as an aid, if not outright substitute, for traditional Chinese writing. This system became officially mandated in many geographical areas and institutions since the 1980's, and it is quickly finding its way into the hearts and word processors of people around the world. Thus we can now write Daoism or tian, just the way we more or less say them. The goddes Kuan- yin (W-G) is now Guanin, more in accord with its pronunciation, and the Confucian principle of harmony among people, which was spelled jen under W-G, though pronounced "ren," may now be spelled ren.

But remember: pinyin was not invented for our convenience, but for Chinese-speakers, and so the distinction between ch, zh, x, j, and q, for example, all of which receive variations along the "ch"-"sh" spectrum in pronunciation, are still going to be difficult for us to appreciate or imitate. Furthermore, most of the time when you see pinyin romanizations, they will ignore the all-important tonalities of spoken Chinese, which can be marked by various accents and diacritical marks.

In case you're getting late into this sequence, let me clarify that I'm slowly making my way through an account of four of us Christians, whom I'm calling Wyatt, Ncho and Nchi (a Taiwanese-American couple), and your adventurous bloggist, joined by Watawa (a Buddhist education professor), as we were traveling to various places in Taiwan in order to receive more first-hand exposure of Buddhism for the sake of a ministry, which I don't have time discuss at the moment.

Longevity, Prosperity, and Posterity

Although the cities of Taiwan in which we spent any time (Tainan, Taichung, Taipei, and Hualien) all seemed to be fairly similar, there is no mistaking them for either Singapore or Hong Kong, which are distinctive in their cultures. In particular, Singapore* is quite different due to its multi-ethnicity (Chinese, Malay, Indian), and it appeared to me that the relationship between Buddhism and Daoism is somewhat different as well. For one thing, the Buddhism in Singapore, insofar as it exists as an independent entity, is of the more conservative Theravada variety, while Buddhism in Taiwan counts itself on the Mahayana side of the ledger. As we have seen, over the last few decades, huge temples and widely-growing Buddhist orders have established themselves in Taiwan. Consequently, my perception is that either a) there is not nearly as much fusion between Daoism and Buddhism in Taiwan as in Singapore, or b) the fusion is coming apart somewhat due to the way in which Buddhism has segragated itself with its new structures--both with its organizations and buildings. I'm more inclined to accept the second tentative explanation for my subjective perception. In Singapore, many temples are both Daoist and Buddhist; it seemed to me that in Taiwan, they tend to be one or the other. (*As an aside, Singapore is also distinctive inasmuch I'm still hoping for the Lord--most likely through human agency--to provide a good cause and the means for me to revisit that little foretaste of paradise.)

Temple Roof Dragon

Daoism as a religion has an interesting history insofar as it began as a philosophy and slowly assumed its present form at least to a great extent in competition with Buddhism, which imported the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas- -divine beings in the form of humans. Prior to that time, there were certain deities whose homes were on the stars, as well as Shangdi, the supreme skygod, but gods such as the Jade Emperor were not known prior to the first millennium A.D. At the same time, Daoism incorporated various aspects of Chinese culture, such as ancestor veneration and divination, though it has no monopoly on them.

I mentioned last time that on the first of our days off from visiting temples, we began the day with visiting the Daoist temple for Zhen Chenggong. An aspect of that temple, which I didn't mention, is that it also incorporates elements of Japanese Shinto, due to the fact that Koxinga's mother was, as you remember, Japanese.

Japanese Stuff in the Daoist templeDaoist Deity

The next day, Sunday, was a genuine day off (as it is supposed to be). Wyatt and I did, however, have a fairly short time of music and singing together, and we did go for a tiny little walk to get some lunch, buy a few necessities, and--wouldn't you know it (we did!)--there just happened to be a small Daoist temple halfway down the block. So, we stopped and took some pictures. Chinese temples are different in multiple ways from Hindu or Buddhist ones. One of the differences is that, whereas in the aforementioned ones, you can pretty much count on a set of stock deities to be represented, here you have--in addition to the regular residents--also numerous local gods, representing a particular village or neighborhood in the divine hierarchy. There is an iconography, but I'm not certain on much of it.

I'm trying (once again) to maintain a no-posting-after-midnight policy, so we'll pick up with a few more observations on the side-excursions into Daoism with the next entry.

Thursday, December 10th 2009


Excursion into Daoism, part 2.

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: unbelievably tired and frustrated

[In the meantime my dad called to let me know that my mom in Germany had suffered a probably fatal aneurysm.]

First, an update on my mother: I did not get any phone calls from Germany today, which means that nothing has changed. She is in an irreversible coma due to the aneurysm she suffered yesterday, unresponsive and, according to the doctors, insensitive to any external stimuli. She is on life-support (respirator, etc.), which will be continued as long as there is brain activity, but there will be no extraordinary measures to preserve her biological life. So, if her going into the presence of the Lord is dependent on there being electrical discharges in her brain, there's no telling when that will be. Please continue to pray for my dad, my brothers, and all of her grandchildren! My dad is continuing to counsel me to hold off flying over because of the uncertainty of timing. She could pass officially tomorrow or in a month.

My dad has been a real witness to everyone involved by his assurance in her (and, for that matter, his own) eternal destiny and his confidence in the providence of the Lord. (1)

Speaking of the assurance of salvation, Daoism takes us into the very opposite direction. Look at the three very popular gods in yesterday's entry: longevity, prosperity, and posterity, who exemplify the people's aspirations. You want to live a long, physical life; you want to be materially comfortable, and you hope for many children and grandchildren. These things sound like what most people look for. Nonetheless, even these items are tied to concern for what happens after you die. Life after physical death, just on a different plane and fraught with many, if not more, of the same uncertainties as physical life. Whoever first said, "You can't take it with you," certainly did not adhere to traditional Chinese thought. In fact, the Chinese version is "You must take it with you." For an an optimal after-life, you should:

Longevity Live a long life and establish an honorable legacy among those whom you leave behind. Prosperity Accumulate wealth so that your family can afford to supply you with its equivalent for the afterlife. Posterity Have several generations of descendants so that all of the proper rites will be maintained on your behalf.

In Chinese popular religion, where the distinction between Daoism and Buddhism is not strictly observed, funerals can be conducted by either Buddhist monks or Daoist priests. In either case, the point of the ritual is the same: to prepare the deceased for the after-life. (Yes, I know that that's not textbook Buddhism, but that's how it goes in Chinese popular religion.)

Buddhist-led Funeral Daoist-led Funeral
Buddhist-led Funeral Daoist-led Funeral

He or she is typically supplied with a house, lots of amenities, and many treasure chests filled with underworld currency. All of this is burned at the same time as the body is cremated. A part of the soul remains behind and indwells a tablet, which is usually kept on a little shrine in the survivors' home or in a temple, where it receives daily incense offerings. Any neglect can have serious repercussions.







Ancestor Tablets

Well, you get the picture. I can't help but think that, once you let go of your confidence in Christ and start looking at your own works, there's no telling where it's going to stop. One corollary is that it doesn't even stop with yourself, but other people feel the obligation to continue the rituals even after your death.

Just listen to the words of Paul:
Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Also through Him, we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, 4 endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. 5 This hope does not disappoint, because God's love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Romans 5:1-5 HBC

Don't let anyone talk you out of your assurance. No human being is cleverer than God, and our certitude comes from him.

(1)Remember that the confidence for our salvation is based on the reliability of God's promise, not on our own performance. Muslims also claim that God is ultimately the decision-maker, but they think that it is impious to claim assurance because to do so is tantamount to dictating to Allah what he must do. Most religions leave you in even greater uncertainty, as do many Christians who don't want to give up that particular tool of manipulating people. I mean, if you forfeit the chance to threaten Christians with the possibility of doom, what do you have left? Well, purgatory maybe. Or a lack of rewards or a paucity blessings. You couldn't possibly leave it up to the Lord to transform people through His Word as applied by His Holy Spirit.  A special nod of admiration needs to go here to the so-called New Perspective theologians who, from my not-so-new perspective, manage to restore the whole issue of justification back to unmanageable ambiguity. They take us right back to the regrettable mindset of the Canons of Trent, which are extremely difficult to reconcile with each other (probably because they are contradictory). Luther wasn't right because he was a Reformer; he was a Reformer because he was right. We are saved by grace through faith, which means "trust in Christ."  Good works are the results that God produces in us as evidence of our salvation. 

Sunday, December 13th 2009


Travel: Past and Future

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: tired, insecure

Update on my mom: As of this morning, her organs were failing, but she was still clinging to life. Sometime within the not-so-distant future, your itinerant bloggist will be in the air, flying to Germany. I am so thankful for the many, many folks whose thoughts and prayers are with all of us.

I can't help but think off and on of The Stranger by Albert Camus (incidentally one of the most misunderstood and mistaught books in twentieth- century literature). In case you don't remember, Meursault, the main character, wound up being convicted of the murder of an Arab man. A large part of the evidence that clinched the case against Meursault consisted of how he deported himself earlier during his mother's funeral; e.g., that he drank café au lait during the wake. So, in the insecurity induced either by the Parkinson's or the medications for it, I wonder whether people will be watching me, taking note of whether I show the proper quantity and quality of grief and distraughtness, which is really silly, I know. But I'm thinking that I may have gone through much of that grieving process way back in 1970 when my parents went back to Germany and I (by my choice) remained behind in the United States.

So, let me pass the time by continuing my travelogue on the trip to Taiwan to study Buddhism and interact with Christian converts out of Buddhism.

As I'm sure you remember,  (Ncho, Nchi, Wyatt, and your not-pseudonymous bloggist) had three days of rest (Saturday, Sunday, Monday) from temple visits, though we visited the Zhen Chenggong Temple on Saturday, and Wyatt and I paid a brief visit to a local Daoist temple on Sunday. Otherwise, Sunday was a day of rest, and the intent was that so would be Monday. However, there was a change of plans. I was awakened on Monday morning with the news that the person whom we were to meet in Hualien was expecting us on Tuesday morning, not Tuesday afternoon, as we had thought.

So, Monday turned into a travel day, and I suspect I probably got more rest sitting in the trains than I would have staying in Tainan. The arrows on the map indicate our route to Hualien. Even though it's a lengthy track and backtrack, it's still the quicker way to go than to try to cut across.

We took the bullet train to Taipei. It did in about 2 hours what the bus had done in 5 hours previously. Then, unfortunately, the only train to Hualien that we could get was neither akin to a bullet nor any other projectile, but a village-to-village train, which took about four hours to get us down to our destination. The compensation was, though, that we now got to see the beautiful part of Taiwan.   Thus a slower pace was no hardship.

By the time that we got to the hotel, it was already dark out. I keep working on getting night-time-lights pictures right, so here was an opportunity to practice. Here is the night view from the little balcony attached to my hotel room (on the outside). Click on the frame to see the view that greeted me in the morning. Click again to get the night lights back.

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

A Morning with Mr. Formosa


[I am omitting a number of entries here that were related to the passing of my mom and my trip to Germany.]

Liu Wing-muDon't you hate it if it ever happens to you that you wake up in the morning and suddenly realize that you are hurting all over?  Well, that didn't happen to me today.  There was no surprise this morning because I was already hurting all night with every trigger point and every bump and cyst on my body feeling on fire.  I did have a long-standing appointment with Dr. I today, and, as usual, it was a good one, but there simply is no magic potion for these outbreaks, which are not directly related to the Parkinson's, but aren't helped by it either.  In a while, this inflammation will cycle itself out again. I'm not whining, just reporting, so that the world will know why I might not have done today what the world might have thought I would do today.

Here is one more installment on the trip to Taiwan.  There will be two more, so--if I got this right--this is the antepenultimate segment of that series.  (It is followed by the penultimate, which, in turn, precedes the ultimate, while the installment before this one was the preantepenultimate.)

I left off the account of the trip to Taiwan with having to change our schedule so that we would be in Hualien by Tuesday morning of the second week.  So, who was this person in Hualien, whom we wanted to meet so badly? I told you that I would not report on meetings with various converts out of Buddhism to Christianity, but all along I planned on this one being an exception. He is quite well-known already, and--for that matter--enjoys exposure, as shown by the fact that he now calls himself "Mr. Formosa."  His actual name is Liu Ming-Wu, and he is an artist who has traveled and lectured around the world, including the United States.  A long time ago, his occupation was to make Buddhist temple decorations, which he gave up when he became a Christian, thanks to the woman who would eventually become his wife. I am happy to tell you that his conversion did not mean that he now produces so-called Christian art, by which term I'm thinking of the kitchy luminescent paintings that defy the laws of light, whose appeal lies on the "Velvet Elvis" level.  Liu Ming-Wu has not used his Christian faith as an excuse for shoddiness; he is a serious artist who does not have a set of employees applying paint to predrawn forms.  

At that, Liu Ming-Wu is not opposed to commercial success.  His pictures now sell for up to a million U.S. dollars.   Unfortunately, I have no photographs of his two-dimensional work to display for you here. He is actually a ceramicist, and he has made use of his expertise in that area for his  pictures as well.  His "canvas" is clay, and his "paints" are ceramic glazes, so that the actual colors do not come out until his work has gone through the kiln.  

I wanted to find out more about his technique, but 1) it didn't seem to be a topic of deep general interest, and 2) I couldn't think of the term "bisque glazing," so I really didn't know how to ask what I really wanted to know without sounding stupid.  In "normal" pottery, such as what my friend J. R. used to do, each piece actually goes through the kiln twice.  First there is the bisque glazing, which stabilizes the piece and gives it a pretty interesting kind of purplish appearance.  Then the potter applies the actual glaze that makes the piece become shiny and gives it whatever its final color is supposed to be. Anyway, I did not learn whether Liu Ming-Wu utilizes that two-step process or whether--more Japanese-style--he does it all in one burning. The result is extremely interesting because at the same time as the glazes settles into the clay, it crackles, and the finished picture looks a lot like a mosaic.

While we were chatting, I asked him for advice on some of my illustrations for a web-site that is still months away from being uploaded officially, and he shared his expertise with me. Subsequently it occurred to me that I could now claim to have studied under one of Taiwan's greatest living artists.  Of course, that's silly, and I won't.*

We had a good visit that morning.  In the afternoon we did some shopping for necklace pendants made of that green material, which left us---are you ready? I hate to do this, but I can't help myself---somewhat jaded.  

*Nevertheless, sadly, similar strategies of decorating one's resumé are mutatis mutandi not unheard-of in the world of evangelical philosophy (examples available privately only.)  Back to text.

Friday, January 1st, 2010


The Integration of Faith and Learning

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: cold and tired

The Integration of Faith and Learning.  Please forgive me for starting this entry with such a potentially overused, if not downright hackneyed, slogan among Christian colleges in the United States.  Almost every college with some Christian connections, no matter how faint they may be, seems to claim it.  Whether it is actually implemented in a meaningful way depends among other things on what the school understands by "faith," how much the various disciplines are willing to put biblical truth ahead of acceptance by the academy, and how much support faculty members receive from their administrations in attempting to do so.  (A surefire way to keep any reasonable efforts of integration to happen is for an allegedly Christian school to hire non-Christian faculty or to soft-pedal its Christian affiliation for the sake of attaining respectability from those who will never grant it.) *

In this case, however, we're talking about the the integration of Buddhist faith and learning, and a university that appears committed to do so thoroughly, Tzu Chi University of Hualien, Taiwan.  Before closing out our all-too-short visit to colorful Hualien, early Wednesday morning we visited the Tzu Chi center, which includes a university, an administrative center with temple/sanctuay, and a hospital.  We skipped the hospital and started out with the university because our tour of the main center was going to be coordinated with a visit by some senators from the country of Nigeria.  The gentleman who coordinated the visit for us had to do some serious multitasking trying to keep on schedule, so he turned us over to the public relations official of the university.  

The representative of TCU could not have fit better into his role if he had been selected by a Hollywood casting agency.  He combined just the right amounts of enthusiasm for the school, devotion to its Buddhist commitment, sincerity towards us as visitors (who, for all that he knew, might at any moment open our checkbooks for a sizable donation), and the dignified bearing of a professional and experienced undertaker.  Even though the last attribute may sound just a bit overstereotyped, it turned out that it was, indeed, highly appropriate for his function.  

You see, Tzuchi University has had a medical school for several decades.  But they've had a definite gap in their curriculum: until the late 1990's they have had to teach medicine without a course in gross anatomy, traditionally the course in which medical students first dissect a cadaver.  But they didn't have any cadavers.  That's kind of like trying to teach automobile mechanics without any engines or transmissions to take apart.  But what can you do in a culture where the experimentation on preserved corpses is practically unthinkable?  So, a part of this gentleman's job is to recruit people and their families to donate their bodies for medical research.  So, after we saw . . .

. . . the facilities for teaching the tea ceremony . . .

 . . . and the meditation garden . . .

. . . he and his beautiful assistant . . .

showed us a lengthy video to that end.  I must say, it got a little wearying. June and I have signed off on our mortal coils being used for anatomical and medical research for years, and the whole frame of reference, whether cultural, religious, or pragmatic, didn't fit the world view that the four of us Western(ized) Christian travelers brought along.  

I see that I must hang it up for tonight since it's getting later than I'm wanting to permit myself, so I shall continue narrating our experience at Tzu Chi next time.  

*Of course, there are many other ways, which are virtually as surefire, but this is not the entry for this topic. Back to text.

Sunday, January 3rd 2010


More on the Tzu Chi Society

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: sleepy, if not sleeping

We left off last time with a visit to Tzu Chi University, a visit that began enjoyable enough with viewing the tea ceremony facility and an indoors meditation garden.  Then it turned somewhat morbid when the school's PR advocate and cadaver-procurer-in-residence had us watch a lengthy video, the upshot of which was that they would love to have their medical students view and dissect our remains, followed by the reverent storage of our cremains (which was a new word for me).    

As I mentioned, the video became somewhat wearisome, but the promotion of this exciting opportunity did not stop there. You would think that there would be much more to see in this school than their body-acquisition program, but next we paid a visit to the anatomical lab, where we saw not much more than the storage facilities.  Having worked as orderly in hospitals a long time ago, when a part of my job was to take the deceased into the morgue and store them in the refrigerated compartments, there was nothing new here for me.  (BTW, remind me to tell you all about that duty some day.)

The pretty assistant continued to follow us dutifully; I'm not sure she was exactly stimulated by this routine, of which she had probably been a part dozens of times.  Finally, still on this topic, we paused before a statue of Ksitigarbha, the Boddhisattva of Great Vows. When our tour was over, the assistant and I chatted a little bit on the way back to the center, just the usual superficial verbiage; I'm only mentioning it because I remember how hard it can be to talk to someone who is wearing a surgical mask the whole time.  This is a fairly common practice among Chinese people in order to protect themselves from germs, and I believe it has increased somewhat with the appearance of the h3N1 virus, but it definitely makes face-to-face talking more difficult.  

Once we were back at the main center, our original guide took over again.  We had no sooner entered the premises, than we were greeted by a group of five women who had attained the highest status as members of the Tzu Chi society.  In an effort to contextualize their welcome to us Christians (and perhaps because one or more of them had seen Once Upon a Time in China, part 1, starring Jet Li--highly recommended by your bloggist), their greeting consisted of their chanting "Hallelujah" multiple times.  A word of caution to anyone:  you don't necessarily build a bridge to another culture or religion by repeating phrases out of their argot in a meaningless way.  As we learned subsequently, these women had attained the highest ranks in the society, which is based on participation in so many world-wide acts of rescue, which can take the form of contributing a great amount of money as the society carries out its mission.  

We then got to sit around the table and sip tea (of course), while our host explained to us the nature of the society.  It exists primarily for the sake of stepping in wherever catastrophes strike around the world and providing humanitarian aid.  A good example was the typhoon, which had caused great devastation on Taiwan itself not too long ago.  Members of the Tzu Chi society were the first ones there to lend assistance to those who were in need.  We learned that they were known the world over because of their readiness to help immediately wherever it is necessary, and, thus, it is no wonder that they have received many large donations from all over the world.  The center, then, was a hub for coordinating their many emergency interventions and to provide a highly visible display of how they were helping the world.  

After a time, we were joined by the expected team of senators from Nigeria.  As Wyatt pointed out to me, the dynamics changed immediately, as these men and women were obviously accorded higher standing than us and took precedence (actually I did not get the feeling from them that they saw it that way; after all, they got to meet the great Wyatt in person, but that's what the dynamics were).  They sat in front of us for another lengthy video, and they received a greater amount of attention than we did. We didn't get snubbed, and the atmosphere suited us fine. It was just interesting to see the layers of respect emerge when we toured the building. It had a lot of glass-encased representations of the Tzu Chi society at work.  We rested in a pretty sizeable sanctuary with padded seats, which was dominated by a picture of a Buddha or Bodhisattva figure who was caring for the world, the idea being that the society, thanks to the Buddha, would create a "pure land" on earth.  Our guide took questions, and all of them, as I recall, came from the Nigerian delegation.  In contrast to our group, they were not particularly acquainted with Buddhism, and a lot of what they asked about had to do with the basic tenets of Buddhism and particularly with reincarnation.  

When that part of the program was over, I was just gathering my camera stuff, when I noticed that one of the senators had stayed behind (the gentleman in the light blue suit in the picture) to talk to me, maybe because he had picked up somewhere along the line that I was a Christian theology professor.  He expressed to me that he was a Christian, and that he was rather skeptical about this whole notion of reincarnation.  I was able to reassure him that, indeed, reincarnation was incompatible with the teachings of the Bible, and we wound up chatting just a little bit more until it was time for his group to move on.  I do not know any American senators personally at this time, but I'm thinking that I probably prefer their Nigerian counterpart.  (More reflections on Nigeria possibly at some other time. Also, I would love to hear from a U.S. senator or two, if any of them ever read this blog,)

Now, I need to pause here for a moment for some careful reflection.  For many years now, I have maintained that, even though the world loves to blame Christianity for many alleged evils, not many groups other than Christians go out and serve others sacrificially, especially when they are not of their faith and the chances of conversion are slim.  Where are the Soka Gakkai hospitals for lepers or the Islamic fund raising activities for non-Muslim victims of the Tsunami a little while ago?  There are a few groups, such as the Ramakrishna Society, that have attempted to imitate Christian missions of mercy with limited success, but on the whole, non-Christian religions are as likely to interfere with Christian missions of mercy as they are unlikely to undertake their own initiatives.  

I once heard a rather well-educated Hindu lady claim that Mother Teresa was inspired to do her work by the typical Hindu altruism, as exemplified by Swami Vivekananda.  This is difficult to believe for a number of reasons. It is true that Vivekananda talked a whole lot about his sympathy for the poor than is the norm for Hinduism, but even he did not get much beyond talk. And as for the notion of Hindu altruism . . . I cannot help but applaud those Hindus who are supportive of such a notion, but it certainly is a novel idea.  (Read Mary Ann Lind's dissertation on the British Mimsahibs.) 

In any event, does the Tzu Chi society provide a clear counterpoint to my assessment?  Sadly, I don't think that they have attained that point yet, based on information I learned outside of the center as well as while there. I cannot countermand their claim to be the first helpers to arrive at a scene of a disaster since I have no evidence to the contrary, but I do have anecdotal evidence that they also tend to be the first to leave after they have paid for having their pictures taken.  So far, at least, they appear to be paying a higher premium on receiving recognition than on providing effective aid.  Do you remember the Tzu Chi society's active role in caring for the victims of 9-11 at Ground Zero on that tragic day?  Neither do I, though this is one of their claims.  Now, as I said, I need to be careful.  Maybe someone from Tzu Chi was there on 9-11, and not just as a victim or onlooker.  Maybe he or she was shunning publicity.  But that would be strange because so far publicity appears to be what the Tzu Chi society is mostly about.  Needless to say, generalizations are extremely hazardous, and I'm certainly not saying that there are no supposedly Christian organizations that aren't even more egregious than my assessment of the Tzu Chi society in putting publicity ahead of altruism.  

So, let me put it this way:  If the society really does what they claim to do, I am delighted, honored to have visited their center, and I promise to call further attention to their contribution to human welfare.  But if at this point they are not much more than an extremely elaborate Potemkin village (which is my impression), I trust that sooner rather than later someone with high standing in that group will discover the deeper satisfaction that comes with really helping , and that their efforts will become less superficial.  

Tuesday, January 5th 2010


Once More: A Dharma Drum Roll

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: somewhat numb

Once More: Dharma Drum Roll.  Right after our visit to the Tzu Chi campus on Wednesday morning we said farewell to Hualien, speaking for myself at least, somewhat regretfully, and rode a fast train (somewhere between Monday's bullet and milk trains in speed) to Taipee, this time actually to stay there. Then, on Thursday we visited Dharma Drum Mountain. I had jumped ahead to this visit earlier on in this report in connection with their library with its enormous collection of various versions of the Pali Canon, viz. the earliest Buddhist scriptures, which were probably originally written in the language of Pali.  Returning to this visit to the mountain gives me a chance to add a few further complications.  The sample of Pali at which we looked at the time, came to us in Devanagari script, the alphabet used for classical Sanskrit and contemporary Hindi.  This is not a bad alphabet for Pali, though one needs to add a few characters to make it work out completely.  Actually, there is no single script left to us, which is uniquely applicable for Pali.  Consequently, one could just as well leave it in Romanized script, as the standard Pali-English dictionary has done.  Other resources use Cambodian, Laotian, or Burmese versions of ancient scripts, as exemplified by this header to a website on the Pali language:

Nevertheless, as one site states, "It is generally believed that Pali has never had its own alphabet." I don't know whether that judgment is true, but it seems plausible to me.

The bus ride to Dharma Drum Mountain, once we had left the outskirts of Taipei behind us, was a little bit like National Geographics in motion.


I already mentioned in that previous entry, some of the little events connected with our visit to Dharma Drum: the discussion with our guide, talking to the professor at Dharma Drum University, and the visit to the library dedicated to the Pali Canon.  The beauty of the surroundings was also reflected in the beauty of the monastery and temple. The statue of Kuanin, shown below, is located in a shrine behind a shallow pool of water.  We did not get to hear the bell get rung; apparently that is done only on special occasions, and it takes several people to do so.  The statue of the Buddha was located on a little hill facing the campus. To get a little bit of a feeling for its size, compare it to the human person, who is visible in the third frame of the animation.  

 Just as with Fo Guang Shan, we had the opportunity to participate in the communal luncheon, but this time it was not as strictly regulated for us.  In fact, we got to sit in a separate room.  As I recall, we also had a little more choice on the vegetarian food, and I had quite a bit of fruit.  

 Let me address one other matter that sticks in my mind with regard to this visit.  In retrospect, I think I would have enjoyed it quite a bit more if it hadn't been preceded by the visit to Tzu Chi the day before, and I hadn't been waiting for the shoe of self-praise to drop a lot harder most of the time.  As it turned out, although each of the large temples and their societies were huge edifices to the self-promotion of the founders and leaders, Dharma Drum struck me as being on the level of the other ones we had previously visited, but short of the extreme aggrandizement we saw at Tzu Chi.  

Let me develop this thought a little bit more and think of all the large temple complexes we had visited.  By specifying "large," I can rule out the Bodhisattva Temple, our first site in Taichung (and thereby our first visit to a temple in Taiwan). It is the newest, and--short of reading Master Huei Guang's mind, which is not within my capacity -- I do not know what his long-run intentions are.  On the other hand, we went to two versions of the Fo Guang Shan Monastery and Temple (one in L.A. and one in Taiwan, and may conceivably visit the one in Boston, MA later on this year). There is no denying that, at least the others have global aspirations, beginning with the personal appeal of the founders. Each of them mentioned somewhere along the line that they intend to establish a Pure Land on earth.  To do so, would put them in their own way into the same category as the Buddha Amitaba, which is not bad company to keep.  For what it's worth, here is a list of the organizations and their founders.  



Bodhisattva Temple

Venerable Master Huei Guang

Chung Tai Chan Monastery and Temple

Venerable Master Wei Chueh

Fo Guang Shan Monastery and Temple

Venerable Master Hsing Yun

Tzu Chi Society

Venerable Master Cheng Yen

Dharma Drum Monastery and Temple

Venerable Master Sheng Yen

Thus, for example, the Venerable Master Sheng Yen, founder of Dharma Drum, discloses in the introductory video that we watched there that a number of years ago he decided that he was done promoting religion and would do nothing except to teach the dharma all over the world.  Leaving aside the tricky question of how one can separate the dharma to which he was referring from the religion of Buddhism, this resolve is typical for the new kind of Mahayana Buddhism that's coming out of Taiwan.  Is this a challenge that Christians ought to take seriously and respond to?  I believe so, and I shall address it in my summing-up entry soon.  


Saturday, January 9th 2010



  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: wishing it was spring

Areopagus JournalNo, it never wears off. I am always excited when something I have written appears in print. And I still get totally goosebumped whenever someone whom I've never met sends me an e-mail and tells me that the Lord used whatever I may have written in his or her life. So, I'm pleased that I've received my copies of the May/June issue of Areopagus Journal (I think they're somewhat behind), and that it contains my article, "Hinduism: Empty Diversity," followed by Keith Yandell (University of Wisconsin) on Buddhism and by Pat Zukeran (Probe Ministries) on Confucianism and Daoism. The issue also contains a good exposition on the sometimes famous, but almost always misrepresented, Falun Gong by Clete Hux of the Apologetics Resource Center, the group that publishes Areopagus Journal.

I'm also thankful for the weather and roads having cleared up somewhat after the heavy snowfall over the last twenty-four hours. We've had some snow--at least flurries--virtually every night since my coming back from Germany, but on Thursday we were treated to about 5-6 inches. Still, it was no problem getting to the hospital today for June to have yet another mammogram. As I keep saying, I am happy that the doctors keep such close tabs on her.

Now, for my final reminiscences on the trip to Taiwan. The point of the trip, as I mentioned at the outset, was to study Buddhism in sito, as it were, as well as to meet with Christian converts out of Buddhism in preparation for a future ministry. Thanks to assistance from local people, particularly Wa-ta-wa, our experiences exceeded our expectations. Even though this series has turned into a large number of entries, I still feel that I left out easily half of what we saw and what I learned. Sometime over the next few days I intend to collect and edit all of the relevant posts and upload them into a single webpage.

In the International Journal of Frontier Missions (10,3:106), James C. Stevens cites Notto Thelle quoting a Buddhist friend of his, "Christianity has been through many ordeals. It has endured the fire of persecution, and has through 2000 years exposed to various cultures and philosophies. It has been tried by the fire of science, philosophy, skepticism, and anti-religious thought, and have somehow managed to get through. However, it has not yet been through the fire of Mahayana Buddhism. When that happens I have no doubt that Christianity will enter a melting pot in which it will be thoroughly transformed by Buddhism."

Now, I do not believe for a minute that genuine Christianity can or will be obliterated due to assimilation by Buddhism, but I do believe that it is highly plausible that in the near future Christianity will have to learn to distinguish itself further and to become particularly clear of its teachings in contrast to those of Buddhism. If you think of Buddhism as nothing more than a handful of bald men in orange robes meditating in the forest, seeking to convince themselves that they do not exist, there's little chance that this version will have a lot of impact on American culture in general. Theravada Buddhism will probably always remain restricted to those ethnic groups where it is at home already, plus a few aficionados. Similarly, Soka Gakkai has seen its heyday and will probably continue to maintain a consistently small number of members, but only if it keeps an equilibrium among members leaving and new members being recruited. Japanese Zen, as imported into the West, appears more to be a pastime than a religion. Tibetan Buddhism has received a temporary lift in appreciation due to the superficial popularity of the Dalai Lama, but the center in Bloomington has a hard time paying its bills, which leads me to think that in its true form it will ultimately be limited in impact to its ethnic constituencies, just like Theravada.

However, if you consider the Mahayana Buddhism as we encountered it in Taiwan, that's a different story. This is Buddhism intentionally shaped to appeal to contemporary thinking. Let us ask ourselves, apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit through Scripture, what do people look for in religion? The following items occur to me:

  • moral exhortation without condemnation;
  • an optimistic view of the future;
  • association with other like-minded people with the degree of commitment being entirely at their discretion;
  • the opportunity to declare one's affiliation as needed without such a declaration necessarily entailing a lot of knowledge;
  • impressive, colorful edifices;
  • the opportunity to engage in music (one of the most significant additions to the contemporary Mahayana menu);
  • if so desired, the opportunity to engage in "full-time devotion" and to be able to dress up in robes and demonstrate one's piety;
  • to be able to express one's love for Jesus without thereby having to declare what everyone else believes as false.
The new emergent Buddhism provides all of that and more.

With regard to the status of Jesus Christ, the emergent Buddhism has no problem accommodating him as one of the Bodhisattvas. These are beings who are one step removed from complete Buddhahood, but have willfully, out of compassion and benevolence for all other beings, refused to take that last step that would lead them to Nirvana, and thereby out of reach. Boddhisattvas will do whatever is necessary, including suffering, for the sake of our salvation. Of course, salvation in Buddhism means something different from what it means in Christianity, namelyto be released from the cycle of reincarnations.We will continue in that cycle so long as we allow ourselves to be deluded that we exist, or--in most Mahayana schools-- that the entire universe exists, and, as long as we are caught in the cycle we are suffering. Buddhist literature frequently refers to this endless suffering as "hell." Thus the classic vow of the Bodhisattvas is that they will forego their own enlightenment until the last soul has been rescued from hell.

In short Jesus can be considered to be the prototypical Bodhisattva because he has gone out of his way, purely out of his love, to rescue us from the hell of reincarnations. I have heard this same description of Jesus and his work given both by someone who considers herself a Christian and someone who considers herself a Buddhist. Thus, this emergent Buddhism does not require you to renounce your Christianity (in the sense of Jesus being the greatest Bodhisattva), while engaging in all of their colorful practices.

So, what do we do about this? Ultimately, we don't do anything except what the church is supposed to do anyway:
a) Towards the outside world, to be faithful in presenting a clear, biblical gospel so that people will have the opportunity to respond to it. Doing so entails being able to demonstrate why Jesus cannot be a Bodhisattva and why Buddhism and Christianity are not just two sides of the same coin.
b) Internally, we need to continue to teach a clear biblical message so that Christians will be able to grow in Christ without slipping into doctrinal or moral error.
We need to do both in the coming years with a greater awareness of how false Buddhist ideas may contaminate the truth that God has revealed in the Bible.

I have decorated this entry with a number of pictures of roosters, which were sitting (apparanetly in semi-storage) outside of the Fo Guang Shan temple. The rooster is an important symbol in Buddhism because a Buddha is oftentimes thought of as "an awakened one." But let me turn around the message of the rooster for a moment as a symbol of alertness. We need to be on guard to maintain biblical truths vis-à-vis any number of popular distortions, including the accommodation to Buddhism, which I believe is going to take on far greater magnitude in the not-so- distant future. Let there be no doubt about it, Buddhism, if not a Buddhist mind set (or should I say a Buddhist "no mind set"?) is increasing in the United States. Buddhist philosophy is becoming one of the standard subjects in college curricula. Furthermore, Buddhist building complexes, such as the Fo Guang Shan Temple in Los Angeles, present a new and far more appealing picture of Buddhism in the United States than has been true before. We must prepare for this increasing influence of Buddhism. Let me reiterate: I am not for a moment saying that the time has come to be icky to Buddhists. (Sadly, any number of evangelical Christians believe that the best way of relating to Muslims is to be impolite to them, and the same attitude could conceivably become the case for Buddhism as well.) What I am saying is that a) we need to get to know our new Buddhist neighbors so that we can demonstrate the love of Christ to them; b) we must learn biblical truths so as to be able to distinguish it more clearly from Buddhist error; and c) we need to present the gospel with integrity, so that neither Christians nor Buddhists will have any problem understanding the difference.