Saturday, September 24, 2005

Buddhist Nuns in Taiwan

Betcha didn't know...

One notable feature of Buddhism in contemporary Taiwan is the large number of nuns. It is estimated that between 70 and 75 percent of the Buddhist monastic members are nuns; many of them have a higher education background.(1) Many Buddhist nuns hold high esteem in the society, such as the artist and founder of Hua Fan University, bhiks.un.i- Hiu Wan, and the founder of one of the world's biggest Buddhist organizations, bhiks.un.i- Cheng-yen.(2) While bhiks.un.i- Hiu Wan and bhiks.un.i- Cheng-yen are known as highly-achieved individuals, the nuns of the Luminary nunnery are known collectively as a group. During my fieldwork in Taiwan in 2001, many informants mentioned Luminary nuns to me as group of nuns well-trained in Buddhist doctrines, practices, and precepts. The term Luminary nuns seems to be equivalent to the image of knowledgeable and disciplined Buddhist nuns. In this paper, I will talk about the significance and influence of Luminary nuns, and why I think theirs is a feminist movement. But first, I will give a short introduction of the social-historical background of Buddhism in Taiwan. [READ ON!]
This interesting paper not only discusses the history of Buddhism in Taiwan, but also looks at how being a nun can be a feminist act.

It is worthwhile to mention that the structure of zhaijao allows women an escape from the rigid and severely patriarchal Chinese family system. Marjorie Topley reports that women in the rural Kwangtung province of Southern China during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century could choose a life without marriage by taking up zhaijao vows and entering a zhaijao residential place after retirement(12).

The same phenomena occurred in Taiwan, too. That 1919 survey by the Japanese colonial government noticed the presence of a large number of female zhaijao members.(13) They tended to observe a certain number of precepts, vegetarian diets, and celibacy.(14) The existence of the large number of female zhaijao members might be explained by the fact that Taiwan during the early periods did not have enough qualified monks and nuns to give formal Buddhist ordination. Also, the laws of the Qing dynasty forbad women under the age of forty to be ordained as Buddhist nuns.(15)

Nevertheless, the presence of the large number of female zhaijao members indicates that it is wrong to perceive women as passive actors. Whenever the situation allows, women might have grabbed the opportunity to seek a life outside the traditional and patriarchal social arrangements. For example, Marjorie Topley noted that the economic structure in the rural Kwangtung in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century provided women the ability to make a living outside of family, and many women, indeed, sought the opportunity to choose a living arrangement independent of family or male supervision.(16)

1 comment:

David said...

I haven't read the article in full, but the strong order of nuns is not just important for Taiwan. They have had a considerable influence on Buddhism throughout the world.

Buddhism is as patriarchal a religion as any. Throughout Buddhist history nuns have always played a secondary role to monks. Whether this reflects the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha or simply reflects the inherint prejudice of his followers is open to debate.

The order of nuns actually died out in the southern Buddhist countries. The unbroken lineage only survived in China and is now strong in Taiwan and Korea.

The nuns in Taiwan have played a key role in supporting the reestblishment of the bhikkhuni lineage in the southern Buddhist countries. In particular they have successfully restored the lineage in Sri Lanka. The lineage is also being reestablished in Thailand although it is at an earlier stage there.