Charismatic Hsin Yun looks to expand Buddhism by making it more secular

Seventy-seven-year-old Master Hsin Yun marked an event to celebrate his 50th year of advocating and spreading the Dharma to the world with a story.

A 16-year-old monk living on the top of mountains was suffering from malaria. There was a serious lack of materials and resources on the mountain and there was no one to care for him. When he could not stop vomiting, he felt at life’s lowest and lamented about his looming death.

At that moment, his teacher sent someone to bring him salted vegetables to eat with rice porridge. The young monk was overwhelmed and deeply moved by the gesture, since it was very difficult to procure any salted vegetables at the time. He consumed the vegetables in tears and with a grateful heart.

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“At that point I promised to devote myself to the promotion of Buddhism to return the master’s favor,” Hsin Yun said at the press conference last week to celebrate his 50 years of teaching.

He made good on his promise. Hsin Yun and his Fo Kuang Shan monastery in Kaohsiung have become visible symbols in the world for Buddhism over the past 50 years and maintained a dynamic relationship with secular society. Last week President Chen Shui-bian visited Fo Kuang Shan for the third time to pay his respects to the Buddhist master.

Hsin Yun, or Lee Kuo-shen, was born in Jiangsu Province in 1927. He became a monk at the age of 12 and organized a monk emergency-treatment team to come to Taiwan in 1949. He started preaching the Dharma publicly in Ilan in 1952 and founded Fo Kuang Shan in 1967.

When he first became a monk, he was given the Buddhist name Chin Chieh, meaning awakening today.

He later read about the explanation of nebulas in a dictionary, saying before the cosmos was formed, countless nebulas were linked together: great, ancient, boundless. He was attracted by a boundless world, and with the hope of bringing others light, he renamed himself Hsin Yun, meaning nebula.

Hsin Yun has broken from the the Buddhist tradition of shying away from secular world. He has been keenly involved in world affairs and run his Buddhist organization more like a business. His internationalization of Buddhism was previously unimaginable. There are Fo Kuang Shan branches on five continents.

KMT Deputy Chairman Wu Po-hsiung, the head of the Buddha’s Light International Association Taiwan branch, said that Hsin Yun had become an important figure in Buddhism for his international promotion of the religion. The association is an international Buddhist organization originating from Fo Kuan Shang.

“I become even more awed by master’s influence when I am abroad. Once when I was in Johannesburg, I visited the Nan Hua temple and recited the Dharma with the local monks. I felt that our hearts were close and was deeply moved,” Wu said.

Senior media worker and political commentator Pu Ta-chung said Hsin Yun was a charismatic leader and that his followers sometimes worshipped him like ordinary people worship idols.

“He likes to get acquainted with as many people as possible. He is good at utilizing his relationship with the media and politicians and using his social network to root Buddhism deeply in society,” Pu said.

Pu said Hsin Yun’s relationship with Wu was a good example. While Hsin Yu loved to make friends with political figures, his enthusiasm almost got him in deep trouble.

In 1996 after then US vice president Al Gore attended a fund-raising luncheon at the Hsi Lai temple, a Fo Kuang Shan branch in Hacienda Heights, California, a question was asked about whether the donations made during the luncheon were legal.

“Hsin Yun thought it was not a bad idea to know Al Gore, so he agreed to hold the luncheon in the temple. People who attended the luncheon were local Chinese Democrat members, and some without knowing gave away more than allowed by law to the Democratic Party,” Pu said.

“It was not done on purpose. Hsin Yin had fought long and hard to have the Hsi Lai temple built at that place, and after 10 years of wrestling with the local council, he knew not to break the law,” Pu said.

Hsin Yun’s close followers also lauded him as a selfless and caring master.

“The master always shows goodness toward others,” Chueh Nien, secretary to Hsin Yun, said.

“There was one time in Fo Kuan Shang when he was walking, a believer asked to take his picture, and the master agreed willingly, despite sweating all over. Then when the photo was taken, the master immediately said that another should be taken because the first one was shot with the lights in the opposite direction,” Chueh said.

Another secretary to Hsin Yun, Man I, said, “The master is selfless and he does not have his own personal time. He always puts the public first.”

“All the facilities Fo Kuang Shan has established came from followers’ requests. When they ask for education, the master builds schools. When they ask for solutions for old age, the master builds a pensioners’ apartment,” Man said.

Hsin Yun has shown determination to continue his work promoting Buddhism.

“In the future I will continue to push for the modernization, secularization and internationalization of Buddhism,” Hsin Yun said.

“I also want to work on making the temples more like schools, encouraging the public to read and pushing for a book-loving society,” Hsin Yun said.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Taipei Times (Taiwan), Taiwan
Aug. 18, 2003
Debby Wu, Staff Reporter
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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday August 19, 2003.
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