For one semester, I taught and conducted research in a Buddhist Pure Land! I spent the 2016 fall semester on Dharma Drum Mountain, a green mountainous Buddhist community located in Jinshan District, north of Taipei. This Buddhist community includes the Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts, where I taught a graduate seminar on Comparative Religious Texts. The Dharma Drum Mountain is also home to a 4-year Sangha University to train Buddhist monks and nuns as well as the international headquarters of Dharma Drum organization, known as the Dharma Drum Mountain World Center for Buddhist Education and the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies
Life on a Buddhist Mountain
My life on the mountain was ideal for health, contemplation, and research. I ate the simple Buddhist vegetarian meals of rice, tofu, and vegetables—eating breakfast and dinner in silent rows with everyone facing the same direction. At times, I found the Chan Buddhist practice of eating in silence a surprising relief from struggling to keep up with Chinese conversations at meals. I was welcomed to eat lunch with the faculty in their dining room, who were the only ones who spoke during noontime meals. But even there, I felt that there was a level of comfort or even appreciation of silence during meals. Living in a community with so many monks and nuns who are focused on mindfulness in their daily lives means that people often greet each other with a simple bow of the head or a quiet “Omitofo.” The environment and landscape of the mountain promote a meditative life. The view from my office window, the lush green mountains of northern Taiwan, felt like an invitation to quiet reflection.
The peaceful view from my office window
For a professor from a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, the resources for me to expand my knowledge of Buddhism felt unlimited here. The Buddhist Studies Department was filled with scholars of Chinese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Pali scriptures, Sanskrit, and Tibetan texts. I could observe the daily rituals of a Chan monastery and the annual ritual of the Water and Land Repentance Ceremony. This annual ritual was held in late November for 8 days and attracted around 10,000 people to the mountain, where they slept in sleeping bags and engaged in all-day rituals. What most surprised me was watching the rapid building and then later dismantling of a temporary structure on the soccer field to accommodate those 10,000 people. It was the largest temporary building that I had seen in my life.
The complex and well-organized Water and Land Repentance Ceremony led me to reflect on the many roles that this Buddhist mountain plays in Taiwanese Buddhism. The mountain is a place for academic study, for monastic training, for Chan meditation retreats, for Buddhist scholarly conferences, and for communicating to lay Buddhists through ritual and pilgrimage the organization’s understanding of modern Chan Buddhism.
The Buddhist Mountain as a Pure Land on Earth
Dharma Drum Mountain is a Buddhist Pure Land on earth in two ways. For the founder of the organizations, Master Sheng Yen, the mountain is a purified space through the purification of the mind. He quotes the Vimalakirti Sutra: “With the purification of the mind comes the purification of the Buddha land.” He and others in the Institute and the Sangha University focus on Chan (better known in the West as Zen) practice as the center of Buddhism and the means to transform both oneself and one’s environment. Social and environmental transformation of this world begins with the transformation of the mind of the individual. They emphasize Master Sheng Yen’s teaching of protecting the spiritual environment that starts with meditation and moves outward to society and the whole environment.
With graduate students in the Buddhist Studies Department
A second way to understand this Buddhist mountain as a Pure Land on earth comes more from traditional Chinese Buddhism. Many visitors and volunteers that I talked to on the mountain told me how lucky I was to live there for a semester and how blessed they felt to volunteer there once a week or once a month. The volunteers serve as kitchen assistants, tour guides, gardeners, greeters, and countless other unseen roles. I found them frequently worried that, as an obvious foreigner, I might need help with directions. I learned from them the joy that they felt from contributing to the natural beauty and compassionate service of this Buddhist mountain. The volunteers whom I spoke to saw themselves transforming the mountain into a pure land on earth in both material and spiritual ways.
The Buddhist Pure Lands of scripture promise a rebirth where the conditions are ideal for attaining enlightenment, primarily the presence of a Buddha who teaches the liberating wisdom to all who are born there. The beauty and jewels of the land are used as metaphors for the beauty and value of the teachings of the Buddha. The popular Smaller Sukhavativyuha sutra describes the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha in this way:
there are lakes of the seven gems, in which is filled water with the eight meritorious qualities. The lake-bases are strewn with golden sand, and the stairs of the four sides are made of gold, silver, beryl, and crystal. On land there are stories and galleries adorned with gold, silver, beryl, crystal, white coral, red pearl and diamond [lit. agate]. The lotus-flowers in the lakes, large as chariot wheels, are blue-colored with blue splendor, yellow-colored with yellow splendor, red-colored with red splendor, white-colored with white splendor, and (they are all) the most exquisite and purely fragrant. (translated by Nishu Utsuki, public domain)
The beauty of the Dharma Drum campus emphasizes the beauty of nature rather than stairs of gold and silver. The beauty is still important. On their website and in their bookstores, one finds videos and photographs specifically highlighting the natural beauty of the mountains and the rivers. And the simple beauty of the neutral-colored buildings that were designed to blend into the natural environment. The temples in this pure land on earth are not like the typical brightly painted and carved Taiwanese temples; instead, they are simple architectural structures that complement rather than dominate the mountainous landscape.
Just as in the Pure Land of Buddhist scriptures, the pure land on earth of Dharma Drum Mountain is filled with Buddhas and bodhisattvas. There are statues at the entrance and peak of the campus as well as many others. The buildings all have buddhas as well, including several in the faculty dormitory in which I lived.
The Buddha Hall decorated for the New Year
The ongoing presence of the founder of Dharma Drum, Master Sheng Yen, is still felt on campus, even after his death in 2009. Faculty, staff, and students who knew him will tell stories about him or quote his teachings. The university also offers courses in his Chan Buddhist form of humanistic Buddhism. His teachings are everywhere: in free booklets in the world education center, books in the bookstore and library, videos of his dharma talks on display, and striking pieces of his calligraphy. There are no statues or relics of the master, at his request, but there is a large painting of him by Li Bin that elicits bows from those who walk by.
The deceased founder, Master Sheng Yen, teaching the Dharma on video
Challenges to Buddhist Colleges and Universities
My research in Taiwan focused on the development and self-identity of Buddhist colleges and universities founded in Taiwan since the 1990s. Until then, there were no modern Chinese Buddhist colleges. The modernization of Chinese Buddhism was delayed: first by revolution, then by civil war and the war against the Japanese, and finally by government suppression by the Chinese Communist Party in China and to a lesser degree by the Nationalist Party in Taiwan. Until the lifting of martial law in Taiwan in 1987, there was limited freedom for religious groups or other private groups to organize or to found degree-granting institutions. After the lifting of martial law, a series of new laws gave Buddhists greater freedom to develop accredited colleges and universities that allowed the teaching of Buddhist studies.
Unfortunately for the new Buddhist colleges and universities, just as they joined the rapid expansion of higher education since the 1990s, Taiwan’s decreased birth rate brought about a reduction in the number of college-aged students. Throughout Taiwan, colleges and universities are encouraged to merge or otherwise plan for significant reductions in their student populations. This reduction in enrollment makes growth and even survival of the newly accredited Buddhist colleges like Dharma Drum difficult. Like other institutions of higher learning, Dharma Drum has encouraged the enrollment of international students, especially from Southeast Asia. While I was there, I met students from Vietnam, Malaysia, and Ireland. I also met visiting students from the People’s Republic of China, Germany, Ireland, and the U.S.
The Department of Buddhist Studies on the left; the faculty dormitory on the right
Looking to the Future
One of my favorite daily experiences at Dharma Drum was walking by the gender-segregated computer labs for monastics and watching the monks and nuns hard at work behind computer screens. Buddhism in general has embraced technology to preserve and spread their scriptures, but Dharma Drum is truly an example of the enthusiastic pursuit of digital humanities. The curriculum offers courses in computer skills to aid in the research and dissemination of Buddhist texts. Dharma Drum hosts the innovative CBETA, an enormous project of digitizing and marking up the entire Chinese Buddhist canon plus newer texts. The Dharma Drum organization as a whole embraces new technology to further Buddhist values.
The Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts only came to exist in its current form in 2014 with the merger of the Dharma Drum Buddhist College and Dharma Drum College of Humanities and Social Sciences. The Department of Buddhist Studies offers undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees in Buddhist studies with a strong emphasis on studying texts and classical languages of Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan in addition to classical Chinese. The Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences offers four master’s degrees that I see as the application of modern Chan Buddhist wisdom to solve societal problems of the 21st century: Master of Life Education, Master of Community Empowerment, Master of Social Enterprise and Innovation, and Master of Environment and Development.
Dharma Drum Mountain will clearly thrive in this vibrant period of Chinese Buddhist revival. Since the Institute that hosted me is so young, it is hard for me to see what its particular future will be as it faces the demographic pressures of Taiwan. I can imagine changes to its curriculum and degree programs as it figures out its place in the rapidly changing landscape of higher education in Taiwan. But the Dharma Drum Sangha University and the World Education Center will certainly continue to thrive with the growing interest in modern Buddhism throughout the Chinese-speaking world. I look forward to visiting Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts in a few years to see what path it has taken. I especially look forward to keeping in touch with the friends that I have made there.