Democracy’s Dharma and Buddhist Pluralism

Recently I read a really good Buddhist Book: Richard Madsen’s Democracy’s Dharma. I don’t read a lot of really good Buddhist books, because most Buddhist books are dreadful. This is because so many of them fly too close to New Age and self-help and are more concerned with making the reader feel good than communicating something new and vital.

Democracy’s Dharma has something to say. It is a study of four major religious groups in Taiwan: Tzu Chi, Fo Guang Shan, Dharma Drum, and a predominantly Daoist group called Xingtian. The three former groups, all very active in the United States, are often underrepresented in English Buddhist writing, and they each receive in-depth treatment in Madsen’s book. A study and analysis of each of these groups’ founders, culture, and history would be valuable in its own right, but the book is more ambitious: Madsen looks at how each group was fostered by the democractizing and industrializing forces of Taiwan over the last few decades, and how the culture and character of each group serves a specific segment of Taiwan’s changing society.

Each Buddhist group’s representation of a different aspect of Taiwanese society is not central to Madsen’s argument, but it was what I found most interesting. For example, the book argues that Tzu Chi’s ability to offer swift, organized relief around the world has as much to do with the founder Chengyen’s vision as it did with the emerging class of university-educated Taiwanese women living in a society with pronounced gender discrimination who were ready to fulfill it.

Great religious teachers surely do shape the world around them, but a greater part of their success is the ability to tap into something that is already present in the population: a need for something, be it answers to life’s big questions, community, service, peace, or whatever else. Though they are all Buddhist groups, Tzu Chi, Fo Guang Shan, and Dharma Drum are about very different things. And while these organizations may not have been designed for different kinds of people, they bring together different kinds of people based on their group culture and principles.

The whole method of analysis got me thinking about the unifying concerns of my own Buddhist community, and the similar stratification in the wider, American Buddhist community.

It is a gross oversimplification, but generally Madsen shows the Taiwanese organizations breaking down along occupational and socioeconomic lines: Tzu Chi for service workers, Fo Guang Shan for managers and entrepreneurs, and Dharma Drum for artists and academics. I’m not really done thinking through it yet, but it makes me wonder if these distinctions are more or less real than the assertion of “Two Buddhisms” in the United States, as it is variously defined. And if I find the socioeconomic distinctions in Democracy’s Dharma less problematic than the racial divisions among the Buddhist community in the United States, why is that? Should I?


  1. Bill says:

    Interesting: I’ve read a bit of this book, began practice with Dharma Drum, and currently go to a Fo Guang Shang temple. Never really left Dharma Drum, but moved. I still consider it my home. Fo Guang Shang is really great from what I can tell.

    I got to see Sheng Yen once, at a short retreat. Best. Dharma. Talks. Ever.

    Your comment about racist divisions in US Buddhism, or your question rather, is good. Racism in US Buddhism is my home problem, so that’s one reason it’s more pressing to me than others. I also think it’s most pressing, because whiteness and white privilege is not just a domestic problem in the US: it has deep foreign policy implications as I am certain you understand. That so many US white Buddhists, of whom I am one, are so totally blind to racism in US Buddhism greatly hinders the real struggle against racism. White Buddhists should be the prime example of white anti-racist self-reflection–in a liberating way–but we are not, as a group.

    • John says:

      Thanks for reading Bill! I’m curious, if you don’t mind sharing, having participated in both Dharma Drum and Fo Guang Shan, how would you yourself characterize the differences of the two congregations? Did you feel the two to be substantially different?

      • Bill says:

        I can’t yet, as I’ve only just started at Fo Guang Shan. My impression if very good so far but I haven’t gotten as much of a flavor. A woman I met there pointed out that Sheng Yen’s practicioners had the reputation of being really strong meditators, and that he emphasized this. Without any claims about myself, the emphasis is indeed there in Dharma Drum. The woman said that at Fo Guang Shan they emphasized chanting more, and when I went there to chant last weekend I can say that it was powerful.

        One thing I will say about Sheng Yen and his student I learned from: they emphasize going all the way with it. They don’t play with the practice. It’s not to feel good, it’s not to cope better, it’s to directly experience unmediated Mind. I haven’t been in an environment that emphasized this so strongly, and it was very good.

  2. arunlikhati says:

    That’s a couple of really great questions to ask. I’m going to be thinking about this post all weekend. And I’ll probably check out the book too. Thanks for this fantastic post, John.

  3. Warren says:

    Interesting post as Buddhism teaches about looking within and self reflection, but if there really is a racial divide in US Buddhism then it appears there’s a lot of reflection on the way people look.

    Its also interesting how the different Taiwanese organizations are breaking down along occupational and social economic lines and makes me wonder how they differ and how they appeal to each individual group? It looks like the world will be going through a lot of upheaval over the next year or so and I was hoping everyone would start to co-operate a lot more so the world could sort its problems out.

    • John says:

      If you are interested in how these different Taiwanese organizations reach out to their varied congregations you should really check out the book– it looks at the phenomena mostly from a cultural/sociological perspective. For example, Madsen examines how the ritual/ceremonial life of the different organizations attract their congregations based on how elaborate or intimate the ritual space is.

      Fascinating stuff! Thanks for the comment.

  4. - says:

    有关马來西亜,吉隆坡,甲洞帝沙再也 (暹寺) 三宝寺 Samnak Sambodhi Buddhist Association No.19-21 Jalan 38 Taman Desa Jaya, Kepong 52100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 所发生的纠纷, 经过阅读了,Venerable Phra Piya Thammo 和尚及叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook) 的双方书信之后, 再经实地旁听了觧,做为中间人,我要客观实事的说:

    1.当一个和尚、初出道 (小学生),在修行, 若有缺点, 那是难免.他马华公会鹅唛區会主地席叶金福律师(Yip Kum Fook),却心眼看不顺,就电招警万到耒佛教之圣地要扣畄和尚耒耻唇出家人, 这是绝对不许可, 除非是殺人放火之大罪悪.

    2.他身为马华公会鹅唛區会主席叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook),却反其道而行, 在佛寺不依佛法而軽视佛教的精神, 以傲慢的手段,帶领一般黑社会的人耒挑衅和尚打架, 这也是不该有、更不是佛教修行者的行为.

    3.佛教的圣地, 其主要的目地, 是让眾生修佛道, 不是政治争執的地方. 他马华公会鹅唛区会主席叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook), 却利用佛教之圣地当政治活动的场所。如此果敢冒犯佛陀的教誨,更是大大的罪悪。

    囯有囯章,彿有佛法,家有家规. 如果出家人有何不对之处, 他叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook), 为何不向主持和尚投?让出家人自依和尚的條规处理、却强权一味要显示他是马华公会鹅唛区会及三宝寺理事会主席, 无法无天的应用霸道手段践踏佛教之圣地.为什么。。。。。为什么.

    至今, 他叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook),不当不歉愧,还要狡辩, 这又证明了他说一套, 做的又是另一套, 囗是心非, 所谓的两舌, 相当阴险. 身为律师, 受高深教育, 却应用如此悪毒, 横蛮无礼的作风污辱和尚, 相等于是耻辱佛教伩仰者。他叶金福律师(Yip Kum Fook)不向主持和尚投诉, 却自承英雄,电招外耒者.请问,身为將近20年的三宝寺主持和尚兼顾问,也是第一位 自筹建寺的大功臣,在大马南傳泒中,是闻名遐邇的高僧.其脸要放在那裡?同样的,要是台湾星雲大师的佛寺沙彌犯錯, 理事会没有礼貌自作主张,电招警方要扣畄其沙彌.我敢请问!星雲大师的自尊是怎样的感受?他叶金福律师(Yip Kum Fook)是后耒者,担任理会主席也不久, 竟敢应用如此,目无尊長的方式对待住持,间接的就是告大家,强迫住持和尚必远離,雀巢鸠要佔。这种用心不良, 有老千之谋, 的确令人不敢恭维。

    縱观以上几项重点,我不是盲目的護持三宝, 而是要坦白的说;他叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook) 身受高深教育, 为律师者,本应通情达理才是,但遗憾的是, 却令人惊觉, 他厡耒就是彿书裡所讲的狡猾且残忍的此颣人。他叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook),利用他的专业知識, 懂得包裝自己的道德守則,以宗教为幌子手,到处募款,商业经营, 政治活动为重, 并没依循佛教宗教守则行事, 也没对人道作出任何貢献, 只不过借宗教之名捞取权和私利而己。

    在此, 我奉劝, 他马华公会鹅唛区会主席叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook), 好自为之, 免因果報应.

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