A Buddhist monastery is a tourist winner for Taiwan. ELISE RANA gets an insight into the lives of those at Fo Guang Shan, part of the Buddha’s Light International Association that promotes the religion

The Venerable Man Ho smiles benevolently at the travel-bedraggled group decanting out of the van and into the balmy pre-dusk air. The traffic-choked motorway from Taipei is instantly forgotten as she welcomes us into a scene of pure serenity: candles beginning to flicker in the stately temple buildings, robed and shorn-headed figures padding along walkways lined with bodhi trees (the species under which the Buddha attained enlightenment), a sense of peace all around. You have to hand it to the Buddhists of Fo Guang Shan – they make the right impression.

Then again, they’re used to visitors. Established in 1967 by Chinese-born monk Hsing Yun to promote Humanistic Buddhism, this now-vast complex is one of the major tourist attractions in southern Taiwan. It’s also the hub of the Buddha’s Light International Association, a worldwide concern that’s continuing to expand. Business, as it were, is booming.

A few decades ago people here only thought of monks and nuns when somebody died. They were scared to say they were Buddhists themselves,” Man Ho explains. “Now it’s different – people need Buddhism. We advocate compassion and wisdom. With compassion and wisdom there would be no conflict.”

Man Ho won’t disclose her age, only that she has been ordained for 18 years. Formerly a secretary, she wasn’t religious, or even Buddhist when she came to Fo Guang Shan to study. “I didn’t intend to stay for life,” she says. “But after talking to my master I felt so happy! My parents were against my becoming a nun – my father wouldn’t talk to me, my mother cried every day. Then she came here, met my teachers and schoolmates and she felt better.”

We’ve reached the main shrine. Standing in front of three gigantic golden Buddha statues, Man Ho hands us sticks of incense and asks if would we like to pray for world peace. With loaded questions like that, visitor participation isn’t something you can opt out of.

A mammoth operation
Having viewed pictures of the monastery’s much-prized Buddha tooth relic (one of only four in the world, a memorial shrine is being built to house it), we’re gradually getting an idea of the dizzying scale of the organisation. We pass the block from which the Beautiful Life satellite channel is broadcast, and see enormous posters for the Merit Times, the newspaper that never brings bad news. “It purifies the mind and makes people start the day happy,” says Man Ho, gazing on a headline that reads: ‘Old people living even longer!’

The dining hall seats 3000. “It looks like a scene from Star Wars,” whispers one of our group, as students, novices, monks and nuns suddenly begin to appear from the darkness in neatly-ordered lines, each rank immaculate in their robes of black, white or brown, and file silently into the hall. Only the discipline master may speak during the meal.

Not quite ready for the vow of silence, fortunately we’re guests at the Pilgrim Lodge, where a separate café serves up a delicious vegetarian buffet (and talking is allowed). Holding court is a tall, cheerful Austrian-born monk who gave up his life as Gerhard to become the monk Hue Shou- ‘protector of wisdom’ – and whose European language skills keep him increasingly busy looking after visitors like us. Over soup, he explains the programme: evening service at 7pm, morning service at 6am, followed by breakfast, followed by T’ai Chi, followed by calligraphy. It’s like a religious retreat crossed with a finishing school crossed with Butlin’s.

Evening entertainment
The nuns are already chanting as we enter the Jade Buddha building for evening service. Taking up our floor cushions, we’re handed hymnbooks and pointed to the right verse, though eventually I give up trying to follow and try to join in with some vague humming. If there is a set tune, it’s the most complicated one I’ve ever heard. I give up trying to hum along and just lose myself in the atmosphere – lie back and smell the incense, so to speak.

Afterwards we take a stroll around the building, peering at beaming photographs of the Most Venerable Master Hsing Yun alongside the Pope, the Dalai Lama and, er, Al Gore. Hue Shou regretfully tells us it’s too late to explore the museum he describes as ‘Buddhist Disneyworld’ so we can walk up to ‘Great Buddha Land’ instead. Overlooking the grounds, this little park is somewhat spooky by night, peopled as it is by hundreds of identical golden Buddha statues – to remind you that you’re part of a group”, Hue Shou says. Looming from their midst like a golden colossus is the ‘Big Buddha’, complete with warning beacon for passing planes. “Normally the third eye lights up too,” says Hue Shou proudly, “but the bulb’s gone .”

Unsurprisingly, folks turn in early around here.

Morning prayers
Rising at 5.30am seems like saintly behaviour in itself, and after a half-hour of pre-dawn chanting and meditation in front of the giant gold Buddhas I feel purified enough to join the silent masses in the dining hall. Briefed by Hue Shou, we follow the rules: if you don’t want it, push the bowl to the side – but be sure to finish what you start. Dutifully I savour every morsel, even the congee (a lukewarm, watery rice porridge that’s an acquired taste at the best of times).

And after that – what better way to kick off the morning than with T’ai Chi on the steps of the women’s college, then a crash-course in traditional penmanship at the Sutra Calligraphy Hall?

Browsing the Buddha statues and chanting CDs in the gift shop as we wait for our ride out of here, it’s certain that Fo Guang Shan hasn’t been what we’d expected from a Buddhist monastery. It’s an unusual overnight stay on any itinerary, yet it’s a fascinating highlight of our time in Taiwan. As Hue Shou waits to bid us farewell, he tells us about his former life, his conversion to Buddhism and, to our surprise, his teenage son who he sees occasionally – even though he lives in the compound’s children’s centre. I still can’t decide whether I find the whole thing eerily cultish or inspiringly pure. The important thing is that we’ve been able to join in, ask questions and make up our own minds.

“I had everything in life, and realised that even then it doesn’t make you happy,” Hue Shou tells us. Heaven knows he doesn’t seem too miserable now. •
• Return flights to Taipei via Bangkok start from £550 with EVA Airways (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com). For more information on Taiwan, call 020-7928 1600 or see www.taiwan.net.tw. For more information on Fo Guang Shan, see www.fgs.org.tw/english.”