Starting this blog off presented challenges, for if I were to initially have focused on the overly ostentatious display of spending that went into the new(ish) Buddha Memorial Hall at Fo Guang Shan, an outlay of cash that could/should have easily been allotted to more worthy endeavors, such as for the building of schools in impoverished lands afar or providing famine victims in sub-Saharan Africa with daily sustenance, then supporters and members of Fo Guang Shan’s sect would, naturally, be “disappointed” by my perspective (Wouldn’t it be ironic if my criticism of a Buddhist sect pissed off its supporters?). However, if I had begun with a nod towards the tourist draw that Fo Guang Shan has become–primarily because of the recently-opened Buddha Memorial Hall, with its entrance pavilion, which all visitors seemingly must pass through, one that houses a Starbuck’s, a high-end chocolatier, and a 7-11, then I would surely detract from the benefits of the charity work that the sect does apparently do. Yet, if I were to commence this blog with only accolades for the social, medical and education programs the foundation supports, I simply wouldn’t have felt very good about using that approach, for even though this is one of Taiwan’s biggest charity organizations, one has to wonder if the pompous grandiosity of the memorial hall complex really reflects Buddhist principles.
Both my wife and I felt overwhelmingly peculiar contradictions of emotions when we entered the complex on a recent visit. For one, there was a sense of awe in how vast and impressively designed the grounds are, yet we were immediately disgusted by the presence of the aforementioned Starbuck’s and 7-11 inside the visitor’s building, which further begat a sense that this place isn’t for worship, devotion, and spiritual connection. It felt more like an amusement park. The countless tour buses parked outside the main gate had even served as a red flag upon pulling up to the place ten minutes earlier. How could this be? For years before, being a middle school geography teacher at the time, tailoring my classes to include world cultures and religion, I had brought my students to the nearby Fo Guang Shan monastery–which existed before the new memorial hall complex, and there there was tranquility and peace of mind, even if some visitor’s came to explore the grounds. On visits to the monastery section of the vast property, I never felt overwhelmed by tourists. Yet this newly developed area does just that, at least to me and to my wife. If you want to venture there to see what it is all about, then you surely need to ignore the entrance pavilion, or, if there is a way, skirt around it somehow.
Although there are bus loads of folks nowadays, one simple fact helped me cope with the crowds. Many, if not most, Taiwanese will stay out of the sun and head towards the shade (dark pigmentation of the skin is evil stuff for many)–even though it was only a mid-70’s day when we visited, so I strolled the center pedestrian thoroughfare leading up to the main hall on the opposite end of the massive plaza from the entrance building, and I only passed a small handful of folks along the way. One of the photos below proves just how barren the walkway was although school and tour groups were visiting en masse, strolling, themselves, along the outer, shaded walkways. To saunter along the center sidewalk offered a nice respite from the hordes of folks who’d inundated the visitor’s center moments before. However, walking along the perimeter pathways 20-30 yards to the west, cast mostly in shadow from trees, covered walkways and four grand pagodas, visitors streamed along in a steady flow to the same destination (and back to the main entrance). To have walked there with them, instead, would have meant I would have felt like simple cattle myself.
Naturally, one has to visit a place to get a feel for it. My perspective is just that, perspective, and you might totally disagree with me about the new memorial hall’s overall vibe. For those of us who live in southern Taiwan or in Kaohsiung, specifically–or for visitors coming from afar–it may just be the change you need or an option to get you out of the city center. Simply put on your blinders as you pass through the entrance pavilion, past its convenient stores and coffee shops. Perhaps practice a bit of what the Buddha preached himself and resist temptation, holding back from enjoying a grande Chai Tea Latte on the way in.