Thu, Apr 20, 2017 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Buddhists in the digital age

‘Figures of Buddhist Modernity in Asia’ is a remarkable collection of profiles of individuals who combine religious tradition with contemporary life

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Modern technology also features in his teaching practice. The Fu Yan Buddhist Institute has a Web site that contains “all the notes” of Houguan’s and other teachers’ lectures as downloadable files. It also has its own channel on YouTube where Houguan and his colleagues can be watched lecturing in regularly uploaded videos.

The third Taiwanese Buddhist celebrity to be featured in this book is Terry Hu (胡因夢). Born in 1953, she was once a popular movie star, but then went on to be a promoter of the books of the Indian Theosophist called Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895 to 1986). However, she had her own take on his writings, re-launching him in Taiwan as an essentially Buddhist figure.

Having the popular touch is central to Hu’s style. At one public meeting in Taipei in 2013 she was accompanied on the platform by a physics professor and tai chi exponent and a cosmetics entrepreneur. Earlier in her life, in 1979, she’d met the prominent Taiwanese writer and public intellectual Li Ao (李敖) who she “quickly married and divorced,” according to the author of this profile.

After working in the US, she returned to Taiwan in the 1980s and became deeply involved in the emerging New Age movement. In her 1987 guide to the New Age, Ancient Future (古老的未來), she criticized what she saw as the authoritarian tendencies of Chinese culture in Taiwan. She also argued that Krishnamurti’s later work exemplified the essence of Zen Buddhism, despite his never having used the term. She also stressed how anti-authoritarian in general New Age teachings were, and introduced Buddhist terminology wherever possible in order the make the movement more accessible to her Taiwanese readers.

Also profiled is Columbia University’s Yu Chun-fang (於君方), author of the monumental Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avolokitesvara (2001). Her grandmother had been an ardent devotee of Guanyin (觀音), but following the family’s move from China to Taiwan Yu was moved to comment that from the 1950s to the 1970s Buddhism had a far lower profile in Taiwanese universities than Christianity. It was only when she realized that the perspective in American academic life was very different that she felt ready to embark on her great work.

This is an exceptional book as regards its sheer range, but its Taiwan-related material is especially insightful. Its position is that Taiwan is unique in the way it combines progressive modern technology and its related attitudes (almost always libertarian) with ancient, traditional Buddhist insights. As such, it is positioned to be the Asian leader in such matters, if it hasn’t already become so.

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