Erenlai - 按日期過濾項目: 週五, 24 九月 2010

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 19:30

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 19:24

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 19:23

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.

週五, 24 九月 2010 19:22

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.

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.

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.

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 19:01

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.

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