On Friday, the Museum of World Religions (世界宗教博物館) opens in Yungho, Taipei County. The NT$2 billion museum represents the culmination of efforts by both professional museum workers and religious figures over the last decade.
With religious leaders from around the world set to attend the opening, a Global Commission for the Preservation of Sacred Sites is being launched at the same time. Arising out of the religious and secular worlds' failure to prevent the destruction of the Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan earlier this year, the commission hopes to work closely with UNESCO and the World Monument Fund, and gain the support of religious organizations around the world.
Both the museum and commission are the work of a Taiwanese Buddhist group based on Lingjiou Mountain near Fulung, Taipei County. A relatively new but fast-growing group on Taiwan's religious scene, the Wusheng Monastery (無生道場) is home to more than 100 monks and nuns.
Unlike some other Buddhist organizations that devote their time to studying sutras and reciting prayers for the dead, or adding temples to the nation's skyline, the Lingjiou monastics are better known for practicing a modern form of "engaged Buddhism."
Their modern lifestyle of world travel, new cars and expense accounts has raised some eyebrows. Some Buddhists have also raised objections to the spending of so much money, all of it donated by local followers, to glorify the religious beliefs and protect the cultural artifacts of other people.
"If I had been building a temple, hospital or even a bridge, it would have been easy," explains Master Hsin Tao (心道法師), Wusheng's abbot. "But because I want to spend money presenting the glories of other religions as well as Buddhism, some people opposed the project."
The Museum of World Religions started as a collection of Buddhist artifacts and items relating to Taiwan's popular religious practices. It now claims to evenhandedly present "the world's 10 major religions" chosen by size and antiquity. These are Hinduism, Shinto, Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, ancient religions (initially represented by Egypt) and indigenous religions represented by Mayan beliefs.
While the museum may be the most obvious evidence of Hsin Tao's ecumenical world vision, a trip to his mountain retreat will confuse anyone expecting a traditional zen dojo. Mahayana images, such as an Eleven-faced Bodhisattva statue on the summit, appear next to Thai and Burmese-style Hinayana stupas, Tibetan prayer flags and prayer wheels, Taoist bwey (筊) divination blocks and even Jewish and Egyptian symbols. At weekend meditation classes, the instructor may well be a Tibetan lama, Myanmar monk or Vissipana teacher.
Such an approach has made Hsin Tao unpopular among some who feel he risks diluting traditional ideas. There may also be a measure of envy in his detractors, as this "broad church" has attracted a following of hundreds of thousands.
"I am drawn by Master Hsin Tao's warmth and love," says a woman surnamed Dai (戴), who is a fairly typical member of Hsin Tao's following. Normally worshiping at the Taoist Lungshan Temple (龍山寺) in Taipei, she occasionally visits the Buddhist monastery, walking the last few kilometers up Lingjiou Mountain to spend the day among the stupas, prayer flags and sea breezes.