Buddhism is a major religion in Taiwan. More than 90 percent of Taiwanese people practice the Chinese traditional religion which integrates Buddhist elements, Confucian principles, local practices and Taoist tradition.  (Roles for religious specialists from both Buddhist and Taoist traditions exist on special occasions such as childbirth and funerals). Of these, a smaller number identify more specifically with Chinese Buddhist teachings and institutions, without necessarily eschewing practices from other Asian traditions. One study proposes that 7 to 15 percent of Taiwanese are Buddhist in the strict sense.  A distinguishing feature of this form of Buddhism is the practice of vegetarianism.
Taiwan government statistics distinguish Buddhism from Taoism, giving almost equal numbers for both (in 2005, 8 million and 7.6 million, respectively, out of a total population of 23 million). Many of Taiwan's self-declared "Buddhists" actually observe the more syncretistic practices associated with Chinese traditional religion. Self-avowed Buddhists may also be adherents of more localized faiths such as I-kuan Tao, which also emphasize Buddhist figures like Guanyin or Maitreya and espouse vegetarianism.
Four local Buddhist teachers whose institutions are especially significant are popularly likened to the "Four Heavenly Kings of Taiwanese Buddhism." They are:
- North (Jinshan, Taipei): Master Sheng-yen (聖嚴, d. 2009) of Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山)
- South (Dashu, Kaohsiung): Master Hsing Yun (星雲) of Fo Guang Shan (佛光山)
- East (Hualien): Master Cheng Yen (證嚴) of the Tzu Chi Foundation (慈濟基金會)
- West (Nantou): Master Wei Chueh (惟覺) of Chung Tai Shan (中台山)
Several of these figures have been influenced by the Humanistic Buddhism (人間佛教) of Master Yin Shun (印順), a theological approach which has come to distinguish Taiwanese Buddhism. (Sheng-yen's tradition is formally Zen Buddhist; Yin Shun was inspired by Taixu 太虛, who is less well known in Taiwan.) Their missions have branches all over the world. In a reversal of the older historical relationship, these Taiwanese Buddhists have played important roles in the revival of Buddhism in China.
Buddhism was brought to Taiwan in the time of the Ming dynasty by settlers from Fukien and Kwangtung Provinces. It was discouraged by the Dutch colonial rulers who controlled Taiwan from 1624 until 1663, until Cheng Cheng-kung (Koxinga) drove the Dutch from Taiwan in 1663. His son Cheng Ching established the first Buddhist temple in Taiwan.
When the Qing dynasty took control of Taiwan by defeating of Cheng Ching's son, Ching Ning, in 1683, large numbers of monks came from Fukien and Kwangtung provinces to establish temples, and a number of different Buddhist sects flourished. Monastic Buddhism, however, would not arrive until the 19th century.
During the Japanese period (1895-1945), most Taiwan Buddhist temples came to affiliate with one of three central temples:
- North (Keelung): Yueh-mei Mountain (月眉山), founded by Master Shan-hui (善慧)
- Center (Miaoli): Fa-yun Temple (法雲寺), founded by Master Chueh-li (覺立)
- South (Tainan): Kai-yuan Temple (開元寺), also founded by Chueh-li
As a Japanese colony, Taiwan fell under the influence of Japanese Buddhism. Many temples experienced pressure to affiliate with Japanese lineages, including many whose status with respect to Buddhism or Taoism was unclear. (Emphasis on the Chinese folk religion was widely considered a form of protest against Japanese rule.) Attempts were made to introduce a married priesthood (as in Japan). These failed to take root, as emphasis on vegetarianism and/or clerical celibacy became another means of anti-Japanese protest.
With Japan's defeat in World War II, Taiwan fell under the control of Chiang Kai-shek's government, resulting in contrary political pressures. In 1949, a number of mainland monks fled to Taiwan alongside Chiang's military forces, and received preferential treatment by the new regime. During this period, Buddhist institutions fell under the authority of the government-controlled Chinese Buddhist Association (中國佛教會). Originally established in 1947 (in Nanjing), it was dominated by "mainland" monks. Its authority began to decline in the 1960s, when independent Buddhist organizations began to be permitted; and especially since the 1987 lifting of martial law in Taiwan.
One of the first private networks of Buddhist centers was that of Hsing Yun, who first attained popularity through radio broadcasts in the 1950s. Another key figure was Cheng Yen, a nun who was ordained by the aforementioned Yin Shun and later founded Tzu Chi, Taiwan's most important charity organization. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of her personal example on the image of Taiwan's sangha. Tzu Chi runs several hospitals in Taiwan, and conducts worldwide relief work. A 1999 earthquake centered in Puli brought praise for Tzu Chi for its effective response, in contrast with that of the Taiwanese government.
During the 1980s, Buddhist leaders pressed Taiwan's Ministry of Education to relax various policies preventing the organization of a Buddhist university. The eventual result was that in the 1990s--flush with contributions made possible by Taiwan's " miracle economy"--not one but half a dozen such schools emerged, each associated with a different Buddhist leader. Among them were Tzu Chi University, Hsuan-Chuang University, Huafan University, Fo Guang University, Nanhua University, and Dharma Drum Buddhist College. The regulations of Taiwan's Ministry of Education prohibit recognized colleges and universities from requiring religious belief or practice, and these institutions therefore appear little different from others of their rank. (Degrees granted by seminaries, of which Taiwan has several dozen, are not recognized by the government.)
In 2001, Master Hsin Tao (心道) of Ling Jiou Shan opened the Museum of World Religions (世界宗教博物館) in Taipei. In addition to exhibits on ten different world religions, the museum also features "Avatamsaka World," a model illustrating the Avatamsaka Sutra.
In 2009 Taiwan lost one if its most influential Buddhist teachers when Sheng-yen of the Dharma Drum Mountain monastery died.
In recent decades Vajrayana Buddhism has increased in popularity in Taiwan as Tibetan lamas from the four major Tibetan schools (Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya and Gelug) have visited the island, including the 14th Dalai Lama, who visited the island thrice in 1997, 2001 and 2009. The True Buddha School is the largest Vajrayana sect in Taiwan, although at least seven established Buddhist organisations have charged that the group functions as a personality cult.
Statistics provided by the Interior Ministry show that Taiwan's Buddhist population grew from 800,000 in 1983 to 4.9 million in 1995, a 600 percent increase against an overall population rise of about twelve percent. Additionally, in the same period the number of registered Buddhist temples increased from 1,157 to 4,020, and the number of monks and nuns was up 9,300 monks and nuns, up from 3,470 in 1983.14. This trend can be attributed to the activity of various charismatic teachers, such as those mentioned above.
- Chandler, Stuart. Establishing a Pure Land on Earth: The Foguang Buddhist Perspective on Modernization and Globalization. University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
- Government Information Office (Taiwan), Republic of China Yearbook, 2002.
- Hsing, Lawrence Fu-Ch'uan. Taiwanese Buddhism & Buddhist Temples/ Pacific Cultural Foundation: Taipei, 1983.
- Ho Erling, "Buddha Business" (article 2002.
- Jones, Charles Brewer. Buddhism in Taiwan: Religion and the State, 1660-1990. University of Hawaii Press, 1999.
- Madsen, Richard. Democracy's Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan. University of California Press, 2007.
- "真佛宗是附佛邪教 七大佛團列六不法舉證". Sin Chew Daily. 2007-10-25. http://www.sinchew.com.my/content.phtml?sec=1&sdate=2007-10-25&artid=200710243467. Retrieved 2007-10-25.
- "真佛宗是附佛邪教 七大佛團列六不法舉證 (archive)". Sin Chew Daily. 2007-10-25. http://www.klangweb.com/bbs/archiver/?tid-100.html. Retrieved 2009-09-09.
- Lin, Diana. "As Buddhism Grows, So Grows Its Impact," Free China Review, 9.
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