The story of Fo Guang Shan is a complex one, just like with any other large organization. While its public expression may not be to my taste, the large scale events, "Buddhism for Daily Life" emphasis, and role that it plays as a custodian of Chinese culture seem to appeal to and nourish the aspirations of a broad swathe of Chinese people in Taiwan, the Chinese diaspora and increasingly Chinese on the mainland. The growth of the organization has been exponential- rapid over a short period of time. The industrialization of Taiwan took off at the same time- this has meant the real possibility of FGS becoming the primary global expression of Chinese Buddhism. But it has also meant many challenges, especially if FGS wishes to truly localize and participate in the cultures within which its branch temples operate, and not exclusively within the Chinese diaspora.
Even though it has a large base and global reach, FGS' resources are not unlimited and therefore tough decision have to me made about where to allocate resources - of time, money and education. FGS receives by far the majority of its financial support from people of Chinese heritage, and Stuart Chandler in his essay "Globalizing Chinese Culture" argues that even then, most branch temples rely on donations from families resident in Taiwan to be able to meet all of their expenses. Just as Westerners who give to Dharma organizations have a set of expectations and needs when they give money, so do the Taiwanese and Chinese devotees who give to FGS. This means FGS temples must to some degree act as an outpost of Chinese culture in foreign lands, where the diaspora can re-connect with their roots, and introduce their children to the heritage of their family:
The identity crisis felt by many in Taiwan is experienced in an even more acute form by those who have emigrated abroad, thereby leaving even the margins to enter lands with virtually no cultural connection with China. It then becomes imperative to find a means to return to one's heritage, at least to selective aspects of that heritage. Many who frequent the overseas branch temples do so, not so much as devote Buddhists, as expatriates seeking the familiar tastes, sounds, and sights of their mother country. Weekly services, monthly retreats, and large-scale Dharma functions are religious and social events. The Chinese language schools run at many of the temples are a major drawing card. Parents regard these schools, as well as the Boy Scout troops and other Foguang children's programs, as effective means to steep their children in the ethical values and cultural legacy of what otherwise would be a far removed birthright.
Venerables serve as important symbols for this reconstructed sense of home. Master Xingyun likes to quote the phrase, "By leaving home, one gains a myriad homes." In the past, this saying pointed to the fact that all bhikshus had the right to take up temporary lodging in any public monastery. So long as the monk had a certificate of ordination and pledged to abide by the monastery's rules, he could not be turned away. He was both homeless, and yet benefited from countless abodes throughout the country (Welch 1967, 306-310). For Foguang venerables, their own organization provides the myriad homes. These clerics, in turn, act as the channels to transmit traditional Chinese culture to the laity. Just as monks and nuns by leaving their biological relatives join a larger monastic family, Foguang devotees are told that, although they may have strayed far from the Chinese homeland, through joining BLIA, they have actually become part of a family that extends around the world. Each Foguang temple, as a center of Chinese culture, is home. It is not only a miniature pure land, but also a microcosmic, archetypal homeland.
So we should respect the community that FGS serves, and expect that their needs will be stressed as of course, they are the major supporters of the organization. There are many similar instances of this I can think of in my home city of Toronto- the Filipino Catholic Church where my cousin's boyfriend went with his family, the Viet Namese temple down the street from my university, the Ethiopian Coptic Church near my favourite restaurant, the Persian (don't call these guys Iranian) Mosque that rented out the gymnasium in my old elementary school to hold talks and lectures.
So how does FGS reach beyond this model, and is it really necessary or desirable for it to do so? If it does, how much resources should be allocated to such an endeavour? My feeling is that the FGS branch temples overseas will struggle to appeal to the broader communities outside their culture. Persons with exceptional interest in Chinese culture and language, or non-Chinese with a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend, husband or wife, might find the temples important in their lives. But for the average non-Chinese Westerner, the cultural emphasis of FGS' program (Promoting Buddhism Through Culture is part of its mission statement), might be too much for them to take on, when Tibetan and Theravada groups tend not to have such a strong cultural flavour- and other East ASian organizations, like that of Thich Nhat Hanh, seem far more willing to meet Western culture halfway.
FGS will eventually face a crisis of identity if Chinese migration numbers drop-off. The vast majority of the children of devotees, who may identify more with the culture of the country of their birth, rather than the culture of their ancestry, tend not to stay involved after marriage and moving away (according to what I have been told). The Youth activities in part address this but once kids are grownups and parents themselves, mom and dad cannot tell them they have to go to the temple. Something needs to be offered that is relevant to their lives.
FGS' response in one aspect has been very smart, in my opinion. It has entered the field of academia as the sponsor of courses on Chinese Buddhism within the Budddhist and East Asian studies departments of respected universities, most notably the University of Hong Kong, but also at the University of Toronto in Canada. It has also sponsored a small liberal arts college, called University of the West, in California.
Due to the respect for education in Chinese culture, devotees are willing to sponsor such projects. Due to the fact that these projects function within academic institutions of the host culture, they do not have to include the role of cultural expression and preservation that is demanded in the temples. Chinese Buddhism is a rich and under-represented field in academia, so it is wonderful that FGS has helped with these programs.
So what about the Westerner, or non-Chinese Asian person who seeks to enter monastic life? This is something I can speak to from experience. The first thing to understand is that FGS has, and does, make allowances (great allowances in its own estimation) for cultural differences amongst Sangha members. However, the college system in its present expression will be very difficult not only for most Westeners, but also Asians of other ethnicities (Cambodian, Ladakhi, Viet Namese) and Africans (from South Africa and the Congo) to endure.
“Master Xingyun believes that the people most competent to resolve these issues are natives of the respective non-Buddhist countries who have gone through intensive training in a Foguang college, preferably on the campus at the headquarters. Most ideal of all is to find such individuals who aspire to renounce. The Foguang Buddhist College has a special department to tend to the education of such candidates. As with all monastic college students, tuition, room, and board are provided free of charge. For those who come from an underprivileged background, airfare to Foguangshan is also taken care of. To date, however, Foguangshan has not been very successful in keeping such venerables within the organization. Non-Chinese monastics typically voice two frustrations: either they find it too difficult to acclimate to Chinese customs and values or they feel that their Chinese brethren do not take them seriously. The rate of attrition is consequently very high, many leaving within a few months of matriculating in the college, others making it through the period of training, but disappearing soon thereafter. Of the approximately one dozen Europeans and Americans who have tonsured under Master Xingyun, only two may still be found in the Foguangshan order. Efforts in Africa and India have also had very limited success. Fewer than half of the ten young men who in 1994 became Foguangshan's first shramanera from the Congo lasted through the year-long program at Nan Hua Temple Seminary and only one continued on afterwards. Of the sixty-three students brought to Nan Hua Seminary from Tanzania and Malawi in 1998, not even a dozen remained by year's end, of whom three persisted for two years.(29) The arrangement to bring young men and women from Ladakh, India to Foguangshan to be groomed as monastics has also suffered a high drop out rate.”http://www.globalbuddhism.org/3/chandler0201.htm
My experience was that people tried to be kind, but there was a deep belief that the solution to acclimatizing to the culture was through assimilation. From the POV of discipline I can understand this. Classes were all held in Chinese and though I was given language instruction, I was so tired from the rest of the routine (and trying to learn to fold that darned quilt to the standard required by our dorm monitor!) that it was very difficult to penetrate the language deeply. I was also the only beginner in the class (a repeat of my university experience with Chinese!-dropped the course after 3 months despite it being advertised as being for people with no background in the language).
In their kindness when I indicated feeling overloaded I was given a job helping edit English texts and talk to people on tours, and was quite happy to continue. However, I met one day a senior bhikshu of some clout who told me to enjoy my holiday but fully expect to re-enter the college and conform to the life there. For my own benefit, of course. This, along with many misunderstandings and I felt heavy-handed authoritarianism, made me eventually inclined to leave.
I would recommend the experience only for those with a very strong affinity for Chinese culture and ability to adapt to an extremely regimented lifestyle. With my low-self confidence at the time, having struggled with visas and lack of instruction in India, I needed more of a helping hand. The two Taiwanese monks who I felt closest to, one fluent in English (with an American accent), the other who I could speak to in Tibetan (he trained at Penor Rinpoche’s monastery for several years) both left. So I felt very much disconnected- I had only one friend, an older Western monk, but was the rest of the time reporting to and working with middle aged Chinese nuns- a huge cultural and gender divide- and trying to do this most of the time in broken, halting Chinese!
If one is a confident, strong and sharp person like Ven. Hui Feng, for example, FGS does offer many rewards and opportunities. An advanced degree at a university, and a role as an educator at a Monastically sponsored university.
Certainly in FPMT I would not have access to such opportunities. FGS also cares for its older monastics- one never has to worry about being out on the street or forced to work at a Coffee Shop to support oneself. If I ever lose my translation job, that could be a reality for me.
In short, FGS is a complex organization of many facets that takes deep patience and investigation to really understand. I certainly don’t think my 7 months at the HQ and 4 months at a branch qualify me for this.
If what Ven. Indrajala says about the Ladakhi nuns not being able to keep personal images on their shrines because they were Tibetan iconography, this is cultural chauvinism at its worst and FGS should apologize. This is exactly what the Chinese govt. tries to impose on Tibetans.
However, I know FGS well enough not to blame the entire organization for such a misstep. I imagine it was one overzealous person, young and new in their position, who acted in such a manner. I know several kind and nurturing monastics in the org. who would have been horrified.
In closing, if FGS were more forgiving of people who have left the fold, I would fully consider pursuing an advanced degree at one of its universities. They are of high quality and I would be spared a graduate studies debt I cannot afford on my translators salary of 200 Euros/month. However, one weakness of FGS is its inability to forgive those who leave, so I know this is a pipe dream.
That being said, I appreciate FGS in its full complexity- including the very good things it offers. Even one Ven. Hui Feng can work miracles in increasing the understanding of Chinese Buddhism in the broader academic community.
FGS provides a home away from home for many immigrants. As a foreigner living outside my country for the last 10 years, I understand how grounding and crucial this is.
I wish FGS all the best in its endeavours and with that I had the capacity of Ven. Hui Feng, then I would have been able to make more out of the experience. But for the average run of the mill Westerner like me, I would say that it is very difficult to really be able to fit into the organization.