It might be surprising enough for many Taiwanese to see a European praying to Tudigong (土地公, the God of the Land), but even more surprising is that he came to Taiwan more than 40 years ago as a Catholic missionary.
Austrian Max Gufler first came to Taiwan in 1967 as a Jesuit missionary. However, instead of spreading his religion, he gave it up in 1980.
“I was disappointed and disillusioned at the hierarchy in the Church,” he said in an interview with the Taipei Times on Dec. 30 at his suburban home in Hsinchu City.
“Don’t get me wrong — there are a lot of great nuns and priests around the world who are devoted to helping people. I respect them a lot, but I’m just disappointed at the hierarchy,” he said.
Gufler is opposed to strict religious rules.
“I believe what really matters is how you act and what you do, not which god or which religion you believe in,” he said.
While describing himself as a “non-religious” person, Gufler stressed that he still believed in some kind of spirituality, and found Buddhism and local beliefs closer to his ideas.
His previous religion has left no trace in his life. Walking into his house, one finds a piece of red paper with the Buddhist chant Namo Amitabhah written in gold on the door. A wooden statue of Tudigong stands on a table. Above the statue a picture of the Taoist deity Lu Tung-pin (呂洞賓) hangs on the wall, with one of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara above it.
For Gufler, praying to Tudigong is more a gesture of showing respect to the spirituality in his own mind and to nature.
“I think Tudigong actually saved me a couple of times,” he said.
He said that once when he was preparing to do pull-ups on the huge trunk of a tree in his front yard as usual, “a voice told me: ‘Not today.’”
He heeded the voice and only stood around in the front yard.
“All of a sudden, the trunk fell off — if I were there, I could’ve been killed,” he said.
Gufler’s life in Taiwan is not only about praying to Tudigong — he has been an environmental activist, an advocate for organic food and a social worker. He has also been teaching English, German, French and Russian in universities and private institutions around the country.
“I’m a jack of all trades, and actually a master of some,” Gufler said, smiling. “In a way, I’m still a missionary, but I’m a missionary for environmental protection, a healthy lifestyle and concern for the underprivileged.”
“The most spectacular thing I did was when I was teaching at National Chunghsing University [in 1983],” he said.
One day that year, Gufler smelled a peculiar odor in class. He took five students with him and they marched to a nearby factory that was the source of the odor.
“I told the factory owner that his factory was producing pollution and damaging other people’s health, and asked him to improve it or close his factory,” he said. “The owner responded that he needed to survive as well, so I told him: ‘If you don’t do anything, I’ll have your factory closed next time.’”
Although Gufler is not sure what exactly happened, the factory moved away the next year.
“Every mayor of Hsinchu knows me, because I always file complaints whenever I see pollution,” Gufler said.
Once, he woke up at around 4am and rode around on his bicycle to locate the source of an odor. After locating the source, he wrote to the mayor.