Erenlai - Focus: Snapshots of Religious Innovation in Asia
Focus: Snapshots of Religious Innovation in Asia

Focus: Snapshots of Religious Innovation in Asia


eRenlai has whipped out the ol' Polaroid camera and taken some 'Snapshots of religious innovation in Asia'. We've put together a colourful album that highlights some of the lesser known sites in the Asian religious landscape. So crack open a beverage, kick back and join in as we fire up the slide projector for a stimulating night in. Religion in Asia is constantly evolving. Old ideas are reinvented, repackaged or renewed, ready to re-enter the market. This fascinating aspect of public life isn't always easily accessible to those of us out of the loop. Take this chance to learn a bit about religious innovation in Asia. Who knows - one of these groups might becoming to a city near you...

週五, 24 九月 2010

Brainwashing! Suicide! Drugs! Abuse! Or, how to understand religious innovation in the modern world

To the casual observer, the first four words in the headline might come to mind when thinking of new religious movements (NRMs), or to use the pejorative term generally used by the media, cults. It seems that such groups are easy fodder for editors, given the mainstream media’s lack of expertise in the field and willingness to generate eye-catching headlines to boost circulation.

Indeed, it is the controversial groups that dominate the public sphere. Be they ‘classics’ of the field such as the People’s Temple at Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate or the Branch Davidians, or somewhat ‘mysterious’ groups from East Asia such as the Moonies, Aum Shinrikyo or Falun Gong. These are the groups that the average person will most likely have come across in newspapers and magazines and on current affairs shows.

Religion remains an ever-evolving phenomenon. Of course, what is now old was new once upon a time. As a high school student in 1993, I remember watching TV reports of the Branch Davidian siege at Waco and thinking of the group’s leader, David Koresh, “What if he is right? What if he actually is the messiah?”. Who can actually prove this? If, like Koresh, Jesus Christ arrived in the time of satellite TV (and now the internet), would he have met a similar fate?  The Waco stand-off was a profoundly unfortunate and complicated event. While this is not the place to examine that further, the event gave law-makers, the media, the public and other religious groups much to think about.  Perhaps one of this biggest issues to come out of Waco was the importance of successfully engaging with religious groups.

Even after thousands of years, the spiritually legitimacy of figures such as Christ, Buddha and Mohammed remain hotly contested. No one needs to be reminded of just how passionate people can be in defending their faith, against attacks real or perceived. Religious conflict is an ongoing and unfortunate fact of life for many people around the world and it occurs on every different scale - from nations to neighbourhoods.

When it comes to NRMs, be they old religions in a new setting or with a new organisational structure (Tibetan Buddhism outside of Tibet, Indian gurus in the West) or a whole new conception of reality (Scientology), one common thread is public misunderstanding. Not that the public necessarily wants to misunderstand, it's just that sometimes a broader perspective can be hard to come by.  And this misunderstanding is amplified when tragedies occur. Not only does sexual misconduct and financial deception remain a problem in all religions – new and old, East and West – it continues to do so in many other facets of society. Schools, places of employment, social clubs, even (gasp!) families can be dangerous to one’s well being. Anti-social behaviour is by no means limited to religious groups.

And it is this unyieldingly unsatisfying world that drives people to seek solace in faith, something that many around the world now have a choice in. These groups – NRMs, traditional religions, self help courses, the New Age movement and so on – all help people find some meaning in their life, give them some way of negotiating the highs and lows that come to all of us every day. When a scandal occurs in a religion – and they do – the adherents of that particular religion are likely to be as shocked, if not more so, than the general public is. Individuals and families can be left devastated by the actions of unscrupulous religious leaders.

This edition of eRenlai is not to tell you which faith is the holiest and most efficacious or threatening and secretative.  Nor is it an advertisement for NRMs. Rather, it is a chance to look at some of the new forms of spirituality that have evolved in Asia in recent times. By looking at some of the innovations in religion over recent decades, hopefully we can better understand the methods that people are employing to make sense of life on this planet. Better still, next time a religious group becomes a tabloid controversy, hopefully we can look beyond the headlines and try to appreciate the underlying forces at work.

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All photos by P. Farrelly

週五, 24 九月 2010

An introduction to the Lord of Universe Church

Stacey Hsieh is a member of the Lord of Universe Church (天帝教, Tiandijiao).  Here she introduces the origins and beliefs of the church.

Stacey also discusses her long-term retreats and the church's experience in China.

週五, 24 九月 2010

Product of Taiwan

Ask someone what they know about Taiwan and you will get any number of answers.  There are many things that people associate with the place – the world’s second tallest building, the Cold War icon Chiang Kai Shek, a fragile relationship with China, lots of factories, bubble tea, that chubby guy with a fringe who sings Whitney Houston songs.  But the details are probably still a bit sketchy.  Did you know that the Giant bike you rode around the lake on the weekend was made by a Taiwanese company?  Or that the Asus/Acer/BenQ laptop and D-Link modem that you are using right now are also Taiwanese products?  Probably not.  Taiwan’s ubiquitious electronic gadgets are but just one product of the recent decades of reform and development. Religion has also boomed there.

Taiwan’s religious groups have expanded extensively. The Foguangshan Buddhist group has built several large temples around the world and a university in Los Angeles.  Tzu Chi, ‘the Compassion Society’, dispatches aid teams to disasters across the globe and has been granted Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.  It has also been active in disaster relief in China for over a decade.

While not quite reaching the ubiquity of Taiwan’s hi-tech brands, Taiwan’s religious groups are out and about establishing themselves around the world.  And it is not just the big groups either.  The New Testament Church, a radical Protestant group who are based on their own Mount Zion in southern Taiwan, have built a small network of sacred lands (that double up as organic farms) throughout Asia and the Pacific.  The Taiwan-based Supreme Master Ching Hai had paid for a large poster in the Canberra airport warning Australians of the danger of rising sea levels.  Have you looked at the flyers and books that your local vegetarian restaurant has by the front door?  These pamphlets could well have been placed there by a religious group from Taiwan.

Taiwan’s religious scene is illuminated by the innovation that certain groups invest to spread their message.  The Taiwanese community has spread across the world, as has the Chinese, and abroad these religious groups first find their feet in immigrant communities.  ‘China towns’ around the world are havens of new religious movements and it is from there that these religious groups take their first steps in a new country before trying to find acceptance in the wider community.

Not to forget the potential of China.  Taiwan’s colossal neighbour has long been an abundant market for Taiwanese capitalists and entrepreneurs to invest in.  The centuries’ long immigration between the two lands reached a peak when hundreds of thousands of Chinese fled in 1949 with the rise of the Communist Party.  Now, with cross-strait relations appearing to slowly thaw, the opportunity is better than ever before for Taiwanese religious groups to also take the plunge into China.  The cultural, linguistic and religious bonds are so strong between these two political foes that China is a ‘religious market’ that can no longer be ignored, and in fact is ripe for the taking.

But building a temple in Shenzhen is not the same as opening a hi-tech factory there.  Despite the gradual concessions that the atheist Communist Party of China has given religion in recent decades, the religious scene in China remains subject to a net of bureaucratic controls, something that ambitious foreign groups are well-served to abide by.

How Taiwan’s religious groups navigate the tremendous opportunity that China offers, yet manage to keep themselves (and their adherents) within the boundaries of the law will be fascinating to watch.

To find out more, please watch the following videos, where representatives from the Lord of Universe Church and Huang Ting Chan talk about how their groups are seeking to make inroads into China:

(Photo by C. Phiv)

週五, 24 九月 2010

What is Huang Ting?

Based in the mountains south of Taipei, Huang Ting Chan is a retreat centre where traditional Chinese religiosity and modern psychology come together. In this interview, Huang Ting Chan's founder, Mr Zhang, introduces the concept of huang ting and explains how despite the advances of modern science, traditional Chinese concepts of the mind remain important.

週四, 30 九月 2010

Spiritual tradition, presentation and power in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

In the secretive state of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a look into the past reveals some explanations for the present state of things.

Snooping around for information on the DPRK isn't really rocket science, but you have to read between the lines. With the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, in bad shape, both international and domestic media have been quick to cover recent shifts in power and the promotions of his son, Kim Jong-un. Taking into consideration the amount of energy that was invested in building up Kim Jong-il’s reputation as a gifted, nurturing and obvious choice for his father’s successor, it’s unnerving to think that the state has neglected to strike up an equivalent propaganda campaign for his son in DPRK media, nor has his inherent genius been lauded to the point of conviction. Considering the high levels of ideological indoctrination in the DPRK, the state seems to be neglecting necessary prerequisites for a legitimate leadership.

The state ideology, Juche, is often simplistically translated by one-time analysts as ‘self-reliance’. Others have mislabeled it a state religion. Based on these perceptions, the fear of instability is warranted. But despite the lack of fanfare surrounding Kim Jong-un, the true mechanism of power is likely to remain unchanged.

The state claims that Juche is based upon concepts developed by Kim Il-sung during his time spent as a guerilla in Manchuria. However, Juche wasn’t standard vocabulary until the early-to-mid 1960s when Soviet relations with their North Korean brethren cooled and Kim Il-sung was obliged to seek friends in the Third World. These ideas were then later refined by Kim Jong-il who published his contribution, ‘On the Juche Idea’, in 1982. There is a significant amount of debate surrounding whether or not the works of the Kims are original; nevertheless, these ideas touch on a number of socio-political subjects, with arguments based in ad hoc interpretations of history. The dichotomy that analysts often neglect to observe is between what was originally written as a guide to Juche, and how media coverage of the leadership and publications of their ideas have since conveyed the purpose of the State. On the books, Juche is political and devoid of overtly religious statements, but its presentation and the tone of the media support claims that North Koreans are living in a politically religious state.

When Mussolini was intent on spreading the idea that the state should be number one in people’s hearts, his propaganda machine began producing stories that borrowed from preexisting Italian concepts of spirituality. Coverage of soldiers in the field employed similar vocabulary as that used to describe Christian martyrs and crusaders. The Soviets replaced icons in Orthodox ceremonies with pictures of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. In the DPRK, Juche and its institutions draw on a number of ideas based in religions that existed on the Korean Peninsula prior to its murky inception in the late 1940s.

Academic work by Kim Jong-il and press coverage in the media often utilize teleology; references to ‘the completion of the revolution and construction’ at some undisclosed point in the future is related to the Cheondogyoist (The Religion of the Heavenly Way) concepts of Gaebyeok, a term that, simply put, refers to the bonding of heaven and earth that will occur when all people understand Cheondogyo, an indigenous Korean New Religious Movement.

Kim Jong-il’s legitimacy as a ruler is reinforced by Confucian concepts of morality. The media builds up the Leader’s credentials, presenting the case that he (Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in their respective eras of rule) is unquestionably the leader of choice. There is apparently no one more suitable for the role than the leaders themselves; there is logically no need for pluralism. The state also legitimizes the Kims’ cults of personality by utilizing culturally familiar concepts of the family-state to show that the leader is a paternal leader who loves the people.

The choice of words that is associated with the leadership in numerous articles harbours rather obvious connections to Christianity. Articles in the Rodong Sinmun (the mouthpiece of the Korean Worker’s Party) often refer to the Generals as “saints”: “(Kim Jong-il) is indeed the great saint of revolution who gives ineffable affection to those once he met and blooms their life.”[1] Unblushingly, the father receives an even higher status, “Kim Il-sung is the most outstanding thinker and theoretician produced by the 20th century and the master of leadership who performed such exploits as winning one victory after another and a great revolutionary saint in the 20th century possessed of extraordinary personality and charisma that fascinated all the people.”[2] In the Korean version of the text, seongin, or saint, is not exactly the same prefix given to Christian saints in the Bible seongdo. However, other major religions of Korea do not use the word seongin when addressing enlightened individuals in their texts. Cheondogyo reserves the title of Daesinsa and Sinsa for its historically influential leaders. Buddhist acolytes are referred to as sami.

Terminology aside, the state is also intent on linking political thought with morality. The moral obligations of the people are strictly defined along political lines. The goods and evils of society are absolute. People are obliged to follow based on prefabricated concepts of morality rather than law. North Koreans are lead to believe that internal and external enemies threaten their revolutionary progress. Because of the perceived gravity of the situation, the question of morality and ethics in the DPRK is passionately polarized. The people are constantly reminded of the unquestionable goods associated with their leadership and traditional Korean culture. On the other hand, through state-run media, they are informed daily of the ever-present dangers associated with the sycophantic worship of foreign powers and the ever-present threat of imperialistic interventions. Examples of model citizenry are held in the highest esteem and historical references often reiterate the characteristics of model citizens.


Lyrics change, but the song remains the same.

classSince 1994, Juche has become less and less commonplace in the media, even though the state’s style and presentation has remained consistent. In need of military support following the death of his father and waves of natural disasters that wreaked havoc upon the population, Kim Jong-il was obliged to introduce Seongun Cheongchi, or military-first politics. It has come to dominate the slogan banners around Pyongyang although the occasional reference to Juche still manages to makes its way into the limelight.

Slogans and policies reflect the shift from the old guard of the Korean Workers Party to the military. In addition to this, the rift between the party and the military seems to be growing.

This shift away from the Party concerns China's top dogs. See the May 8th article covering Hu Jintao's speech at the DPRK/ PRC banquet during Kim's most recent visit ( Hu repeatedly mentions the partnership of the Parties as the root for success and growth of the two countries. China's invitation to Kim in the midst of an investigation into an act of war was a clear signal that he was China's man and they would not support internal or external moves to change that.

In the tug of war for the balance of power, North Korea's military has, however, claimed its own victories. Pak Nam-gi, the financial director of the Workers' Party Korea Central Committee and a close adviser or Kim Jong-il was sacked in January and subsequently executed for his alleged responsibility in the currency reform bungle that wiped out family savings and brought public anger to a boiling point. In North Korean media he was often mentioned as an accompanying member of numerous facility tours by the Dear Leader. Yet there are other names that often come up, and they are nearly always mentioned first:

'Kim Jong-il inspects cattle farm of KPA unit' Nov 20, 2009

'...Central Committee of the He was accompanied by KPA [Korean People's Army] Generals Hyon Chol Hae, Ri Myong Su and other commanding officers of the army, Secretary of the WPK Kim Ki Nam and Department Directors of the WPK Central Committee Pak Nam Gi, Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Thaek.'

The Generals, Hyon Chol Hae, Ri Myong Su, are always present (at least in writing) on inspection tours of local KPA garrisons or facilities, they are often with him in non-KPA-related inspections, and they have been with him (minus Pak Nam Gi) in Kim's most recent tour. To name a few:

Kim Jong Il Inspects Hamhung Chemical Industry Univ. -- May 21, 2010
Kim Jong Il Inspects Taehongdan County -- May 19, 2010
Kim Jong Il Watches Football Match -- Nov 03, 2008
Kim Jong Il Appreciates Performance Given by State Symphony Orchestra -- Nov 27, 2006

Kim Jong-un might be the face for the new regime, but the real decisions will be made by the two men pinned to the gills with medals standing on either side of him. If they outlive the Dear Leader, from what little information we will be able to gather on them, Hyon Chol Hae and Ri Myong Su are two potential regents to watch.

The State will continue to utilize spiritual concepts to prop up the leadership. Although somewhat uncreative and excessively repetitive, propaganda in the DPRK works as a well-oiled machine. Its word choice and methodology stem back to pre-DPRK times and will employ the same strategy to prop up the leadership in the future. To the disappointment of both China and pundits predicting the imminent collapse of the DPRK following the death of Kim Jong-il, the state will putter along as it always has. Although the people will still be reading about the New Leader’s ability to instruct farmers how to grow more crops or, say, his gifted talent in foreign literature, Seongun Chongchi will continue to dominate the ideological arena and the military will continue to enjoy an internal position of strength in relation to the Party and the Kim Family.

[1] Seung Jae-sun and Pak Nam-jin, “Uri inmineun hyeongmyeongjeok insaenggwaneul chejilhwahan uidaehan inmin ida,” Rodong Sinmun, Dec 2, 1997.

[2] “Sun’s Day Observed,” Rodong Sinmun, April 15, 2001, KCNA online database:

週五, 24 九月 2010

Lord of Universe Church - from China to Taiwan and back again

Stacey Hsieh is a member of the Lord of Universe Church (天帝教, Tiandijiao), which as one of its key tenets, aims to reunite China and Taiwan.  Here Stacey discusses the church's relationship with China and some of its experiences there.
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Stacey also introduces the church here and discusses the time she has spent on long-term retreat.

週五, 24 九月 2010

Sunday afternoon at Hai Tze Tao

Hai Tze Tao is a new religious movement formed in Taiwan in 1984.  Paul Farrelly had the opportunity to visit their temple in suburban Taipei and film the Sunday afternoon service.  This video includes footage of the service, as well as a brief introduction to Hai Tze Tao and its beliefs.

週五, 24 九月 2010

A New Age for China

The Lama Temple (雍和宮) on Yonghegong Street in Beijing’s inner north is one of the most impressive temples in Beijing.  Built over 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty, it now serves the dual purposes of being both an active Buddhist temple and a popular tourist destination.  Camera-toting tourists mingle with incense-offering devotees, marvelling at the impressive and sprawling compound, before heading over to the nearby Confucius Temple (孔廟) for some more happy snaps in a slightly more serene atmosphere.

Anyone approaching the Lama Temple from the nearby subway station will be struck by the number of stores selling impressively large packets of incense, not to mention the hawkers prowling around the subway exit, ever ready to pounce on potential worshippers and try to offload a packet of incense or two.

Indeed, Yonghegong Street and the surrounding hutongs (alleys) are not only filled with incense vendors, but a whole range of stores selling statues, prayer beads, Tibetan religious curios and items of worship (My favourite was a solar powered prayer wheel).  There are also a few vegetarian restaurants in the area.  Add to this a large number of Daoist fortune tellers and geomancers and the neighbourhood has a strongly Chinese religious appearance.

I was then quite surprised to come across 智慧之光 or ‘Wisdom Light – the New Age Shop’, a mere 100 or so metres south of the Lama Temple and nestled next to a vendor of Taiwanese tea.  To anyone who has perused the advertisements in a Western New Age magazine or attended some sort of New Age ‘gathering’, this location might make perfect sense – “Fengshui and astrology – *tick*.  Tibetan artefacts – *tick*.  New Age trinkets and tchotchkes – *tick*”.  But I was not walking down the main street of a hippie town on the East Coast of Australia or one of Canada’s Gulf Islands.  I was in Beijing.  A place that in recent decades has seen little of the type of religious experimentation and social conditions that spawned the West’s now nebulous and pervasive New Age movement.

While it is tricky trying to define the New Age movement (NAM) as a religion, it is certainly influenced by religious thought.  The NAM is a loose collection of ideas and philosophies – often contradictory – with the general intention being to engender personal or societal change.  Lorne L. Dawson wrote that the NAM often utilises “processes of self-discovery that have either been invented or recovered from numerous traditional and usually pre-modern or marginalized groups of the world”[1].  How such a group would fit into the rigidly defined Chinese religious landscape (with  state-sanctioned religious groups limited to Buddhist, Daoist, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic) is not clear.  It would not be inconceivable for a New Age group elsewhere to include aspects of two or more of these five groups, not to mention influences from Chinese and Tibetan religiosity.  This ‘recycling’ of spirituality – the NAM in the West takes a Chinese idea and reconfigures it to be suitable for Western audiences and now attempts to market this back in China – is fascinating.  In discussing the potential of the NAM in Asia, Lee writes that individuals seeking to give meaning to their sense of being may “turn to enchanted traditions as a form of resistance to state attempts in enforcing the processes of disenchantment”[2].  Such a state of affairs could be possible in China, where the Communist party continues to reign supreme and oversee a rapid modernisation of society.  Of course, with China being the vast place that it is, not all areas are modernising at the same rate and not everyone has the same opportunity to engage in some form of spiritual practice.

The nascent NAM in China most likely began through contacts with Hong Kong and Taiwan, often through businessman assigned to Chinese posts.  The NAM really began to develop in Taiwan after Martial Law was lifted in 1987[3].  Significantly, all the printed material in ‘Wisdom Light’ was published in traditional Chinese (the script used in Hong Kong and Taiwan) rather than simplified Chinese (as used in mainland China).  Photocopies of books were also available for sale.  I was told that the books were primarily printed in Taiwan.  Returning to the store one day, I spied some new flyers advertising Reiki courses in Hong Kong, left earlier in the day by a Reiki representative.

Singing-bowls-for-saleBesides literature, the store offered an eclectic range of products and services - bell chimes, angels, pyramids, crystal singing bowls, herbs, Native American dreamcatchers, DVDs, CDs and aura photography. The shop’s staff were not too sure about their boss’ New Age background or credentials, but did know that he owned another business.  Compared to the other shops on Yonghegong St, ‘Wisdom Light’ was not too busy.  However, perhaps the boss has recognized a niche market.  As long as China’s middle classes continue to grow and relative religious freedom remains, the New Age has the potential to be quite profitable.  China’s moneyed class just needs to be convinced to buy the crystal singing bowl from ‘Wisdom Light’ instead of a copper one from the Tibetan merchant across the road, even though it might be several times more expensive. At this stage, ‘Wisdom Light’ only sells products, not having yet expanded to offer courses.

One could ask, is the NAM suitable for China?  The experience in Taiwan and Hong Kong, similar cultures to that of China, suggests so.  In Taiwan one can purchase a wide range of New Age books at the most mainstream of outlets.  But if we shift the focus back to Yonghegong Street, then perhaps we might reconsider the NAM’s short term prospects in China.

China’s thawing religious landscape offers hints. Ten years ago Yonghegong Street might well have looked considerably different.  It was only in 2002 that the Beijing Religious Regulations were amended to allow fortune tellers and palm readers to be considered as ‘cultural heritage’, rather than feudal superstition[4].  While these businesses are now ubiquitous, it was not that long ago, certainly during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, that they would have been more difficult to find.  Now packaged as ‘cultural heritage’, palmistry and the like might not seem so alien to the average Chinese citizen.  And it is making this cultural connection that foreign religious groups in China must do.  As long as something is seen as alien, its relevance will be questioned and acceptance will be slow, if at all.  Christian and Catholic missionaries in China have long recognized this.  The NAM is no different.  To take hold in China, the new ideas that the NAM encompasses and how entrepreneurs promulagate them will have to be adapted to Chinese society.  Translating some of the available texts into simplified Chinese might be a good start.

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[1] Lorne L. Dawson.  Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements.  Oxford University Press. Toronto. 1998. Page 191.

[2] Lee, Raymond L. M., The reenchantment of the self, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 18:3, 351-367, 2003.

[3] Chen, Shu-Chuan and Beckford, James A., Parallel glocalization: the New Age in Taiwan, page 3 (available online)

[4] Chan, Kim-Kwok and Carlson, Eric R., Religious Freedom in China, Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, 2005, 15.


週五, 24 九月 2010

Traditional Chinese religiosity repackaged and exported... to China: How Huang Ting Chan does it

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Based in the mountains south of Taipei, Huang Ting Chan is now regularly conducting workshops in cities on the Chinese mainland.  Here Huang Ting Chan's founder, Mr Zhang, provides some insight into how his Taiwan-based philosophy/psychology group is able to operate in China.



For an introduction to Huang Ting Chan and the concept of huang ting, please watch this video.

週五, 24 九月 2010

A Tour of Taiwan's Temples

When driving through Taiwan's country side or catching the train, one is struck by the incredible number of large and ornate temples that dot the landscape.  Get on board with Paul Farrelly as he introduces some of the more notable New Religious Movement temples that the island has to offer.

週三, 06 十月 2010

The Native Evolution of Jingliao Church

Translated from Chinese by Conor Stuart

"I think the future of architecture does not lie so much in continuing to fill up the landscape, as in bringing back life and order to our cities and towns."
——Gottfried Böhm

Holy Cross Church: Made in Germany for Taiwan

In 1955, the German priest Eric Jansen, of the Franciscan Order, was sent to the Houbi township in Tainan County to establish the parish of Jingliao. For locals, this á-tok-á [Taiwanese language semi-derogatory term that uses “big nose” to describe foreigners] was quite entertaining: he could play the accordion, and imitate the calls of lots of different animals and often used a slide projector. However, what heightened their curiosity towards him was his unexpected decision to build a Catholic church in this small township. At the time everyone was primarily interested in seeing what foreign buildings looked like, no-one anticipated (not even the priest himself) that decades later the church’s presence would have such a dramatic effect, and become such a prominent tourist attraction, and the reason for this fame would be another foreigner.

Through the recommendation of another priest from Sinying (新營) Parish, Jansen managed to get in contact with a young architect called Gottfried Böhm. Böhm is from the south of Germany and was born into a family of architects, a family particularly known for church design. After a period of correspondence, Böhm agreed to Father Jansen’s request. At the end of 1955 the blueprint was completed, and in 1960 the work was completed and the church opened for use. The people of Jingliao were, from then on, free to frequent a very peculiar church.

In 1986 Böhm won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is seen as an equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the architecture world. However very few people are aware that one of his works in in Taiwan, and it is said that even Böhm himself forgot about it.The plans were only unearthed three years ago, and everything that Jingliao Church had gone through in the intervening years was made public, which made people flock there in large numbers, to see this sacred shrine of architecture.


The silver hall amongst the billowing rice plants

In Jingliao, the Holy Cross Church leads somewhat of a distinctive existence: The silver grey of the steeple rises suddenly above the rice plants towering over them. On top of the steeple there are different decorations all replete with religious symbolism including a cockerel, a dove, a cross and a crown, so as to indicate respectively the belfry, the baptismal font, the sanctuary and the resting place of the Blessed Sacrament. Beside the church is a dormitory and a kindergarten, all enclosed within the same compound, and interlinked.

bohm_church_4When designing the Holy Cross Church, Böhm was heavily influenced by Modernism, with its simple lines as well as the abundance of natural light and open space. However his family trade was architecture, so the basic traits of European Catholic Churches are still noticeable in the entire Church, like for example, in the steeple, the baptismal hall and the wall mosaics, the convention of having the Baptismal Hall separate from the main church has also been adopted.

In addition, one can also observe Böhm's attentiveness to detail in terms of Circulation Design, the way from the belfry to the church is low, until after it winds around the holy water font, then the entire space becomes brighter and more spacious.

Finally when one arrives at the altar, radiant light spills down from the steeple, falling exactly where the cross and the altar lie, the altar is lighted from the windows behind it, bestowing a natural sanctity to the ambiance. Böhm also designed the decoration and religious vessels, making the architectural structure consistent with the interior. The presence of these decorative features, not only enriches the structural details, but it also endows the entire space with a certain integrity. Even so, the very tangible European style of the church looks out of place in the surrounding scenery, so how could it be integrated as an everyday space for local residents, and become a part of their community? The way in which this happened is perhaps the most interesting of all.


Reinventing piece by piece an alien concept of the local

bohm_church_3All the plans by Böhm were completed in Germany, and he never set foot on Taiwanese soil. In the plans, with the exception of a few embellishments like a few palm trees in the background, and a few notes in German detailing the interior of the church, like "Formosan window lattice" on the plans for the main chapel, it's not known what image he had of this exotic island, and how much of this imagined image that he incorporated into his design concept. For example, the altar in the church is octagonal; according to the present Parish Priest, the inspiration for this design was the Eight Diagrams derived from the Classic of the I-Ching, which is familiar to all Taiwanese. However he also mentions that many altars of many European churches are octagonal, said to symbolize the Eighth Day of Creation, which is often used within the church as a metaphor for new beginnings or rebirth.This ambiguously double layered symbolism helps to bridge the gap between foreign architecture and localism.

There is also a more active local reclamation of the church, which manifests itself in the addition of “native” features after the fact.The incense burner is a good example of this; as one approaches it, the burnt remnants of joss sticks are clearly visible. The priest states that incense has been used in the mass traditionally, so using an incense burner during rituals is not particularly inappropriate. However, due to its proximity to an icon of the Holy Mother, this attacks our notion of what constitutes “the Western Church”, with the appearance of red ancestral tablets sitting on a table inscribed “These tablets are in commemoration of the ancestors of Houbi township”. Despite the fact that Catholic Church permits an altered form of manism amongst its Chinese congregations, seeing this kind of offering in plain view gives an uneasy feeling of novelty. Since Vatican II, which advocated the integration of local customs into the Church, incense burners and manistic tablets have been pouring into churches, which is very effective in decreasing the distance between the church and the people.

The current appearance of the Jingliao Church is actually the result of the 40 intervening years of reconstruction efforts. First, the humidity of the climate caused certain parts to collapse and come apart, the only solution was to switch to more climate friendly materials to repair them. The belfry by the entrance had collapsed in a natural disaster and was rebuilt, the new pillar was painted in five colours, and it bears a striking resemblance to a part of the neighbouring kindergarten.The window behind the altar has been boarded up, the reason for this being that a former priest of the parish had found the light too irritating to the eyes during mass.As for the steeple, the internal structure of which was formerly visible, due to rotting of the Chinese juniper timber used, the steeple began to leak, so it was sealed off. Faced with the rigours and demands of regular use, the aesthetic beauty and creativity of the design cannot but yield to practicality.


Returning to the realities of life

From the perspective of local residents, this compromise is not wholly inappropriate; to them, this bizarre church has already become an integral part of their lives. On weekdays children come to attend the kindergarten, adults come to mass to hear the priest preach in Taiwanese. On holidays the tourists flock to catch a glimpse of the famous church, and they are also the object of the discussions of residents. When the annual "Jingliao Dowry Culture Festival" (菁寮嫁妝文化節) arrives, couples clad in phoenix crowns and scarlet gowns can come here to be married, as the priest holds a stick of incense, and prays on the altar laden with the ears of rice plants. When attending a festival, there's usually an old resident who is familiar with the history of the church who will inform whoever will listen of the "Formosan window lattice" once changed for a dull aluminum door, fortunately now changed again for a red oriental style window lattice, they will point at the stained glass and remark that every pane is different, and ask visitors if they think it’s pretty, and without waiting for a response they will mutter, “it’s much more fitting with the style”.

It is evident therefore, that Böhm's aspirations were realized: the church is able to survive in a foreign land, it subsists not as a result of its unique aesthetic, but rather as a result of its incorporation and adaption to the reality of the local setting.


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Photos: Jingliao Church and C. Phiv
Plan provided with courtesy of Taiwan National Museum

週五, 24 九月 2010

Months in the mountains: on retreat with the Lord of Universe Church

Stacey Hsieh is a member of the Lord of Universe Church (天帝教, Tiandijiao).  In 2009 she completed a 100 day retreat and returned in 2010 for a 55 day retreat.  Here Stacey shares her motivations in going on retreat and what it meant to her.

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For more on the Lord of Universe Church, please watch this introduction and account of their experiences in China.

週二, 23 六月 2009

The Shrine of Cutting Bonds

Shinto Shrines (Jinja:神社 or sometimes Jingu:神宮 in Japanese) tend to be full of wooden prayer tablets (ema:絵馬), which can generally be bought for a few hundred yen, allowing the patron to write a prayer to the kami (神god, spirit) of that particular shrine, hang it on the ema rack, and hope for the best. Although some shrines are known for having specialties, such as education (specifically, passing exams), romance, health, etc. most shrines tend to have a pretty repetitive mixture of prayers based on these commonplace themes. There are exceptions though, with the best I have run across being Kyoto’s Yasui Engiri Jinja (安井の縁切り神社, official name is Yasui Konpiragu:安井金比羅宮).

While you may find an occasional prayer for good grades or such by someone who doesn’t quite realize where they are, the majority of ema at Engiri Jinja, appropriately enough, contain prayers related to the theme of engiri, literally meaning “cutting of bonds”-which is commonly used today in reference to the ending of relationships, especially romantic ones. The first part of the word, en (縁) has a few different meanings, including “edge” or “porch-like area in old Japanese buildings”, but most importantly the Buddhist concept of pratyaya which I have not read up on but has something to do with causation, and by extension is taken in reference to such concepts as “fate”, “destiny”, “familial bond”, or “relationship”. The second part, giri or kiri (切り) simply means to cut or sever. This concept of severing “en” originally meant something more along the lines of cutting away the threads of negative destiny to relieve one’s bad luck, but today has come to refer primarily to the more conceptually simple act of severing personal relationships.

Roy_shrine2Every ema at Engiri Jinja is a story, with many variations on the general theme including people praying for their own bad relationship to end, people hoping for a friend or relative to break off a bad relationship, jealous people hoping for the object of their affection to break up with their current partner, and even a few people following the old-fashioned meaning of “cutting away” their general bad luck.

Amusingly, the shrine has attracted a cluster of love hotels, which seems to me somewhat counter-intuitive. Who is really going to be turned on by the idea of being brought to a hotel to have sex right next to a shrine devoted to the ending of relationships? Are these half-dozen or so hotels exclusively used by couples in self-acknowledged illicit relationships, stopping by Engiri Jinga to fill out a quick prayer card hoping for their official partner to let them go easily before going into the hotel for some passion?

(Photos by R. Berman)

週五, 06 二月 2009

Remembering Master Sheng Yen

This morning I prayed for the followers of Master Sheng Yen.

Master Sheng Yen’s passing will be mourned by many in Taiwan and throughout the world—including his many friends and admirers in the Catholic Church—but it will be feIt especially by his disciples.

I prayed that his disciples might be comforted as they adjust to the painful departure of their beloved Master. Even good Buddhists, whose beliefs and practices help them overcome their desires and emotions, are still human beings and need time to process the loss of someone so close and important to them as Master Sheng Yen.
But I prayed especially that these students and disciples of his might continue the work and spirit of their teacher. Master Sheng Yen had a unique, humble, and effective way of imparting wisdom and peace to others.

We met many years ago on the set of a TV talk show hosted by Lee Tao and broadcast live by CTS on Sunday noon. I was a bit nervous because I had never spoken with Master Sheng Yen and was worried that I might not understand his Buddhist terminology, or that I might inadvertently say something inappropriate and offend this revered Buddhist teacher.

But my fears were unfounded. After a few minutes of conversation and discussion, I could sense Master Sheng Yen’s profound good will and gentle warmth. He smiled at the stories of my sometimes awkward experiences in Buddhist temples or with Buddhist friends. He nodded approvingly when I related how Zen meditation had become an important part of my spirituality and prayer life. He shared my desire that religion play a leading role in improving the moral life of the people and the healthy development of society.

As the program was ending, after bidding good-bye to the audience, Master Sheng Yen rose and came towards me. I felt drawn to him like a magnet and had to restrain myself from giving him a big, Italian-style hug. (I know that Buddhist monks are very restrained in physical expressions of affection.) Still, he reached out and grasped my arms in a warm expression of friendship. And there we were, before a large TV audience—a Buddhist monk and a Catholic priest—locked in an embrace of mutual friendship and respect.

There were many others happy meetings and experiences with this extraordinary spiritual leader. After our program at CTS, Master Sheng Yen visited us at Kuangchi Program Service to learn how TV programs are produced. I was honored to join him in his multi-media campaign on "protection of the spiritual environment" ("心靈環保"). He chose Kuangchi to help him produce his TV program series. Last year, once again he came to our studios to film a series of TV commercials on social morality.

That was the last time I saw my good friend and mentor—Master Sheng Yen. Even while suffering from kidney disease, he had the same bright spirit, peace and warmth that has inspired so many.

So I hope you will understand and forgive me if I permit myself a few tears as I pray for this spiritual Master and all his followers, asking my God that He keep the bright light of Master Sheng Yen shining on us in this world, as he passes on to another.

Photo courtesy of KPS


週四, 24 十二月 2009

Mount Zion and Typhoon Morakot (Part I)

Mount Zion in Kaohsiung County is the home of the New Testament Church and, as the church believes, venue for the tribulation.
Mount Zion was damaged during Typhoon Morakot and seven church members lost their lives. While this was a great disaster for the family and friends of the deceased, the church sees them as saints who worked for the glory of God up until their death and have now ascended to heaven, thereby setting an example for their fellow church members.

週二, 19 一月 2010

Mount Zion and Typhoon Morakot (Part II)


Mount Zion in Kaohsiung County is the home of the New Testament Church and, as the church believes, venue for the tribulation.
Mount Zion was damaged during Typhoon Morakot and seven church members lost their lives. While this was a great disaster for the family and friends of the deceased, the church sees them as saints who worked for the glory of God up until their death and have now ascended to heaven, thereby setting an example for their fellow church members.

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週五, 11 六月 2010

Falun Gong protests in Taipei: An interpretive slideshow

In April 2010, Paul Farrelly visited Taipei 101 and Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall to observe the various ways that Falun Gong adherents protest against the Chinese government.  The actions of these protestors transform these popular venues into contested spaces, where tourism, spirituality and politics intersect.  His photos and commentary aim to illustrate the uneasy balance that these powerful forces somehow maintain.





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