“Materializing the Lotus Sutra in Architecture: Compassion, Charity, and Buddhist Visual Culture in Contemporary Taiwan”

Shi Zhiru

Thursday, February 24
Shi Zhiru, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Pomona College, addressed the session on the Buddhist Compassion Relief movement (Ciji), a Buddhist reform movement in Taiwan.  Her presentation focused on the leader Zhengyan as well as the architectural imagery of the Ciji monastery in Hualian. 

The Ciji movement began in 1966 with a small group of local women.  Since then, it has grown into a global movement with a membership of four million in Taiwan and ten million internationally.  There are several branches in North America and elsewhere in the world.  The Buddhist Compassion Relief Ciji foundation focuses on charity, medicine distribution, and education much like the Red Cross.  Over a hundred nuns in Hualian provide religious guidance and inspiration to the lay people who carry out the foundation’s day-to-day work.  The multimillion-dollar transnational welfare foundation is one of the most influential non-profit organizations in Taiwan.

The group was found by Zhengyan, a Buddhist nun with questionable credentials.  She left home in 1962 and shaved her own head before becoming a fully ordained nun.  Seeking ordination from a national Taiwanese Buddhist association, she was turned down on the grounds that she had shaved her own head and had no formal teacher.  She then met Yinshun (1906-2005), a prominent intellectual of the reform movement of the late imperial period in China and Shi Zhiru’s grand teacher.  He accepted Zhengyan as his disciple, and she was formally ordained in 1963.  After her ordination, she settled in the poverty-stricken city of Hualian, where she attracted a small group of women.  When Catholic nuns criticized Buddhism as a passive religion unconcerned with society, Zhengyan founded the Buddhist Compassion Relief Merit Society.  Among its first projects was building a hospital to treat neglected Taiwanese aborigines.  Zhengyan and her work have become so popular that many have urged her to seek the presidency of Taiwan.

The architecture of the Hualian monastery displays a uniquely Taiwanese Humanistic Buddhist identity created under Zhengyan’s leadership.  Illustrated below are selected images of the monastery from Shi Zhiru’s presentation. 


The Hall of Still Thoughts, departing from traditional Buddhist Chinese architecture, exemplifies architectural innovation.  Its name also articulates a dynamic interaction between the idea of contemplation and action, as “thought” in Buddhism means “mental action.”  The theme suggests that it is contemplated mediation that inspires social engagement.  Visualized in the Hall of Still Thoughts is a mural called the Illustration of the Buddha Healing the World designed by Tanghui, a mainland Chinese artist.  The Buddha in this mural is depicted as the Buddha in this world preaching the Lotus Sutra while all emanations of the Buddha are returning to the world from the other lands.  The world is consequently transformed into a place of wealth, happiness, and peace.  This depiction of the worldly Buddha, inspired by the Lotus Sutra, represents new age art through which the Buddha is portrayed as the cosmic Buddha, one that transforms the world beginning in Taiwan.  Zhiru also pointed out the Flying Celestials that surround the main hall of the building.  Just as the Buddha is presented as the Buddha of this world, flying celestials are depicted as earthly people.  This visual representation breaks from Indian Buddhist tradition in which flying celestials usually represent otherworldly beings.  The Ciji architecture design creatively transformed traditional Buddhism into a national Buddhist identity in relationship with Taiwanese culture and society.

Questions for consideration:

1.    The Ciji movement presents itself as “this-worldly” Buddhism.  To what extend and in what ways do they engage the Lotus Sutra in order to accommodate a radical Taiwanese Humanistic Buddhist ideology?

2.    Given the story of the founder and leader Zhengyan, what does her biography represent in relationship to the Lotus Sutra? How does it serve as a source of authority in the process of Ciji identity formation?

3.    Shi Zhiru presents Buddhist architecture as a location of identity and power.  How might one consider visual culture in terms of scripturalizing?


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