Is There Religious Fundamentalism in Chinese Culture? The Case of the i-kuan Tao in Taiwan Jen-Chieh Ting


A Brief History of the I-Kuan Tao and One of Its Divisions, Fa-Yi -Chong-De



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A Brief History of the I-Kuan Tao and One of Its Divisions, Fa-Yi -Chong-De

The development of the I-Kuan Tao in Taiwan is complicated and multifarious. Different divisions operate separately. This separation is partially due to its previous long-term illegal status, during which each division operated skillfully in its own local domain to escape from governmental intervention. Another reason for the disunity is that after the modern founder Zhang Tian Ran’s early death in 1947 (at age 58) the whole group split up. Now in Taiwan more than 30 divisions exist separately without any strong base for further unification.

However, all divisions have similar texts, doctrines, rituals, and etiquette’s. This is because the I-Kuan Tao’s eighteenth patriarch Zhang Tian Ran provided coherent guidelines for doctrines, daily ritual practices, and organizational management. After his death, all divisions followed these principles. These guidelines can be found in Zhang’s books Temporary Tao Etiquette and Questions and Answers on the I-Kuan Tao, which offer a coherent doctrine and simplified manuals for ritual practices, and these standardized guidelines played a crucial role in the I-Kuan Tao’s later rapid growth.

To join the I-Kuan Tao, one must pass through a special initiation ritual. Jordon and Overmyer (1986) have already documented this in detail. As the organization’s boundary is exclusive, one can participate in a division’s activities only once she or he has already initiated into the group.

No division is willing to tolerate a follower joining two or more divisions at the same time. For this reason, I temporarily have no choice but to conduct my intensively participatory observation on only one division. In the current study, my direct data was collected from a division called Fa-Yi-Chong-De (發一崇德, “Promote Oneness and Exalt Virtues”), a division descended from another main division, Fa-Yi. However, my discussion will be supplemented by the information and publications obtained from other divisions.

Inheriting doctrines and practices from Chinese sectarian movements since the Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644), the recent creation of the I-Kuan Tao can be traced to its fifteenth patriarch, Wang Jue Yi (王覺一; 1821-1886). However, its rapid development was generated by Eighteenth Patriarch Zhang Tian Ran (張天然; 1889-1947).

The Fa-Yi division originated from the Tong Xing (同興) Temple in Tianjin (天津), China. In 1948, the leader of Tong Xing Temple, Grand Senior Elder (Lao Qian Ren老前人, “emeritus division head”) Han Yu Lin (韓雨霖; 1901-1995) led several senior elders (qian ren 前人, “devision heads”) to Taiwan to propagate the I-Kuan Tao. Currently, there are 11 divisions that derived from the Fa-Yi group. Among them, the Fa-Yi-Chong-De, in which I participate, is the division with the most widespread growth in the Fa-Yi.

The Fa-Yi-Chong-De is led by Chen Hong Zhen (陳鴻珍; b. 1923). She arrived in Taiwan from Tianjian in 1946. She established Chong-Xiu (崇修) Temple in the tow of Douliu (斗六) as the headquarters of the Fa-Yi-Chong-De. In 1970, Chen Hong Zhen began to propagate the I-Kuan Tao to college students, especially those emigrating from rural areas to attend college in urbans area. Focusing on how to spread religious faith through college students’ daily activities and interpersonal network, Chen Hong Zhen generated a new form of missionary practice, the “vegetarian assembly” (huo shi tuan伙食團). It is usually set in the form of people sharing apartment rent and cooking vegetarian food by rotation, thus a small community of vegetarians can be a ground base for spreading the I-Kuan Tao to college students. In this way, the Fa-Yi-Chong-De has become the one subdivision that has attracted more young intellectuals than any other I-Kuan Tao division..

Since 1976, the Fa-Yi-Chong-De has spread to overseas, and it now have branches across five continents.

In Communist China, the I-Kuan Tao has never received legalized status. In Taiwan, the I-Kuan Tao was not legalized until 1987. Both in 1953 and 1963, the KMT (Kuomintang, “Nationalist Party”) government initiated a major campaign to ban the I-Kuan Tao’s spread. However, a legal ban can prohibit the I-Kuan Tao’s public activities yet it cannot prevent the existence and gradual spread of the organization. In 1987, martial law was lifted. Several months before the lifting, the I-Kuan Tao got governmental recognition as legally registered religion. The reason behind this is that in facing a legitimacy crisis, the KMT desperately needed the I-Kuan Tao’s help to mobilize and solicit votes.

Even with the constant confrontation between the I-Kuan Tao and the central government, the I-Kuan Tao always claims its superceding legitimacy in embodying the real mandate of heaven.2 The I-Kuan Tao holds the perspective that history has already passed through the eras of the Green Sun and the Red Sun and is now in the era of the White Sun. The cosmology and salvational scheme in the I-Kuan Tao follows the idea of “the Three Eschatological Periods,” which presumes the Third Eschatological Period is the coming of the White Sun’s era. This era is not only the last chance for salvation but also the most graceful one.

In this last salvation, the Eternal Primordial Mother (Wu sheng lao mu 無生老母) has already opened the door for universal salvation. Ji-Gong (濟公, a historical legendary figure or deity in Chinese folklore) at this time comes down from heaven to do the job of “collecting all the souls who are getting lost” (shou yuan 收圓). That is, now all sentinel beings can go back to paradise. Ji-Gong in this life has reincarnated as the eighteenth patriarch of the I-Kuan Tao. Even though the Eighteenth Patriarch Zhang Tian Ran passed away in 1947, it is believed that the mandate of heaven, or the Tao Lineage, now is transmitted to the human realm. The leaders of each division in the I-Kuan Tao, called senior elders, theoretically all are entrusted with this mandate of heaven.

Today, we can see that despite the development of high technology, disasters all over the world, according to the I-Kuan Tao, certainly show the sign of doomsday approaching. Therefore, everybody should be in a hurry to link to the mandate of heaven to get the last chance of being saved.

With regard to the I-Kuan Tao’s attitude toward traditional texts, on the very surface, it may looks contradictory. On the one hand, most of the in-group activities in the I-Kuan Tao are about reading and learning the Chinese classical scriptures. On the other hand, the organization always emphasizes that we should not stick too much to the literal meanings of texts. Besides, the I-Kuan Tao sometimes alters the words in the Classics, and it even often generates new scriptures. More about this issue later.

As we mentioned above, to be a follower of the I-Kuan Tao, one needs to pass through a secret initiation ritual (see Jordan and Overmyer 1986:222-236), that is, a process of gaining “the Three Treasures” (San Bao 三寶). The Three Treasures include the Holy Gate, Holy Mantra, and Holy Sign (Lin 2003: 8-33).

The Holy Gate means that during the initiation ceremony the so-called enlightening master or initiator (dian chung shi點傳師) points out a place between a follower’s two eyes that may lead the follower to a bright, enlightening path. This path is the narrow gate leading one back to heaven, enabling one to transcend the cycles of birth and death.

The Holy Mantra has five words, which are believed to have the utmost value and mystery in leading one to heaven. It is a powerful bond between one’s inner true self and the heavenly world (Lin 2003:19). The first three words of the mantra represent the three represents the three different levels of the cosmic order, and the last two signify the Maitreya Buddha, who is believed to be the Savior in the Third Eschatological Period.

The Holy Sign, or Holy Covenant, is a special hand gesture, which symbolically represents humans’ unification with the whole universe. It also significes a holy promise to God (Lin 2003:27).

The I-Kuan Tao postulates that we need to cultivate ourselves in two manners, through internal merits (neigong內功) and through external merits (waigong 外功). Whereas internal merits require cultivating one’s internal virtue, external merits require one to engage in doing goods for other people or society in general.

Institutionally, there are two tracks of hierarchy within the I-Kuan Tao. One is by the division of labor based upon missionary activities, from low to high: common followers, lecturer, hall chairman, initiator (or enlightening master), senior elder and so forth. The other track is by the level of training one has received, depending on what training courses one has accomplished. Each course lasts for one year, and from beginner to advanced level they are: class for being a new person (xinmin新民), class for achieving perfection (zhishan class至善), class for nourishing virtues (peide class培德), class for practicing virtues (xingde class 行德), class for worshiping virtues (chongde class 崇德), and class for becoming a lecturer. These courses across different levels cover basically three kinds of materials: the classical scriptures, procedures for ritual practices, and wisdom and philosophy for everyday life.

Since the very beginning, the religious teachings of the I-Kuan Tao have effectively stimulated its followers to be enthusiastically involved in missionary activities. The campaign is based upon the following interrelated statements: (1) the third and also the last eschatological period is coming, and if one wants to be saved, it is the last yet also the most graceful chance; (2) therefore, it is necessary to let everyone understand that this historical urgency is coming, thus there may be more people to be saved; and (3) most importantly then, since everyone can and should take the responsibility of a missionary job, each follower becomes an indispensable member of the missionary network. This of course, may enhance a follower’s willingness to learn more about the religious teachings and then also may enhance his or her self-expectation and self-pride.

In short, the I-Kuan Tao is a religious group with a highly participatory character. Although not every follower in the I-Kuan Tao shares the eagerness of a missionary, once a follower is involved in this democratic missionary network, he or she may easily develop a strong sense of participation as well as an unequivocal sense of religious identity.



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