Faithful partake in famous Buddhist mountain retreats

By Steven Crook, Taiwan Journal, Oct 16, 2008

Taipei, Taiwan -- Taiwan's social freedoms and religious diversity have led to a proliferation of sects, faith-based charities and evangelical organizations. One of the best known is Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association, founded in 1989 by revered monk Master Sheng Yen.

According to one of its Web sites, the Buddhist association is "committed to serving humanity by working to relieve human suffering--physical, emotional and spiritual." The association, which has affiliates in several Asian and Western countries, also aims to "eliminate conflicts and barriers through global interaction, dialogue, and collaboration." Dharma Drum members practice Chan Buddhism, a form better known as Zen.

The association's main base is in Jinshan, a coastal township north of Taipei City. Called the World Center for Buddhist Education, it includes Dharma Drum Sangha University, which trains monks and nuns, Dharma Drum Buddhist College, the Chung Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies, and the Museum of Buddhist History and Culture.

"We do encourage people outside Taiwan to join retreat activities held in the World Center for Buddhist Education," said Ivy Cheng of the association's Division of International Relations and Developments. "We don't actually calculate the exact number of people from overseas who join retreat activities," she added explaining, though, that most of the people who attend are ethnic Chinese, and include Dharma Drum followers from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

"Most of the retreats held in the center are conducted in Chinese. People who cannot speak Chinese can contact us and we can help arrange interpretation. The retreats range from two days to 49 days, designed for beginners and intense practitioners," she said.

Applications to join a retreat need to be sent at least two months in advance, and those hoping to join a Dharma Drum activity need to have some retreat experience, Cheng advised.

"People interested in a one-day retreat can consider participating in our International Meditation Group, which holds a meditation activity every Saturday afternoon." The group meets at Nung Chan Monastery in Taipei City's Shihlin District.

The association can also organize retreats for groups of 20 or more people. If the retreat is to last two days or longer, applications should be submitted six months beforehand. People who want to visit Dharma Drum Mountain and learn about Buddhism can make reservations for half-day English-language tours.

According to Sherry Lin of the organization's visitors service center, English- and Japanese-language tours are increasingly in demand because the association's founder, Master Sheng Yen, has established monasteries in the United States and attracted disciples in Europe, Japan and Russia.

"Booking in advance is required, because all our tour guides are volunteers," Lin said.

During the first eight months of this year, 169 overseas groups totaling 2,804 people visited Dharma Drum Mountain, said Cheng. "Half of them were overseas Chinese or Dharma Drum lay followers. Most of them were recommended to visit our center by other followers or friendly organizations."

The organization promotes its retreat activities through media as well as its Web sites in Chinese, English and Spanish.