Taiwan offers a wealth of options for helping to improve wellness and mindfulness.
In many countries, religious and spiritual retreats have become a counterweight to the relentless march of progress and materialism. The trend is especially evident in Taiwan, which is known for being a beacon of religious freedom and one of the world’s centers for Buddhism and meditation.
Temple stays, yoga retreats, and mindfulness centers are among the many options available to seekers of solace or enlightenment. The cost of an alternative lifestyle sojourn is generally reasonable, even free if you choose not to donate, and in the process of discovering some lesser-known part of Taiwan, you may even discover something new about yourself.
One of Taiwan’s myriad charms is the ability of its people to maintain an equilibrium between the old and new, tech and tradition. It is in this space that religion flourishes and retains its central position in the lives of most Taiwanese, who regularly pray for divine intervention or take part in quasi-religious festivals throughout the year.
Article 13 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief, and in practice this means about 82% of the population is affiliated with some religious organization or another. Most believe in a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, a syncretic embrace of tradition and new ideas. The welcome (prayer) mat is also rolled out for Muslims, and this year Taiwan was ranked as the third most attractive destination worldwide by the Global Muslim Travel Index.
“Taiwan is a really beautiful beacon for religious freedom,” according to the U.S. Commissioner on International Religious Freedom, Nadine Maenza, who attended the International Conference on Religious Freedom held in May in the city of Hsinchu.
Along with Thailand, Japan, and India, birthplace of the Buddha, Taiwan can claim to be one of the world’s great centers for Buddhism. While China boasts the largest number of adherents, the reality is that Buddhist practice there is usually in a state-controlled setting and can be quite commercial, with monks offering prayers or rites for money at some temples.
The “Four Great Mountains” of Taiwan refer to the country’s four major Buddhist organizations: Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山), Fo Guang Shan (佛光山), Tzu Chi Foundation (慈濟基金會), and Chung Tai Shan (中台山). The founders of these institutions are often referred to as the “Four Heavenly Kings.”
Dharma Drum Mountain World Center for Buddhist Education is about an hour’s drive from central Taipei, towards the north coast and then up a mountain shaped like a drum (hence its name). Arrive by car and you will be ushered through a series of checkpoints toward a set of modern buildings that includes a main hall, meditation hall, and memorial halls, plus a number of administrative buildings and dormitories for the nuns and monks. The 25-ton bronze Lotus Bell tolls during important ceremonies.
There’s also an underground “palace” beneath the main hall for storing relics, but on the instruction of Dharma Drum founder Master Sheng-yen (聖嚴), who passed on in 2009, it won’t open for another 80 years. Beside the small museum is an open-plan cafeteria, where meals are taken in complete silence. The temple complex is open to visitors without charge daily between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Based on traditional Chan Buddhism, a Chinese system developed from the 6th century onward, Zhonghua Zen Dharma Drum consolidates a variety of Buddhist teachings into what was a new school of thought. It emphasizes gaining knowledge of self in order to understand others, and letting go of attachments to find wisdom through meditation. As Master Sheng Yen put it: “If moment by moment you can keep your mind clear, then nothing will confuse you.”
We are greeted with a bow by the Venerable Chang Ji, a spry and well-spoken nun who shows us around the campus. Originally from Malaysia, she leads one-day English-language retreats at Dharma Drum’s Yun Lai Monastery (雲來寺) in Taipei’s Beitou district. It’s just one of the many meditation classes the organization runs, not just in Taiwan, but around the world from Adelaide to Sweden, Singapore to Toronto, and all points in-between.
Chang Ji introduces some of the basic tenets of meditation, and before long we are sitting at a simple table, hand in palm resting on the lap, becoming aware of our posture, our movement, our physical and mental selves. The aim of meditation, Chang Ji says, is “clarity and relaxation,” and when we understand our intentions we understand our mind.
There are many kinds of meditation, Chang Ji adds, including: still, sitting, eating, walking, and moving meditation. We try out the moving meditation, walking up and down the temple promenade for 100 meters or so with a full wooden bowl of water. The idea is to “put your mind where your body is,” “be aware and relax the whole body,” and not spill a drop of water. It’s harder than you might think and a form of strengthening the mind that develops focus – surely, an advantage in these smartphone inattentive times.
“The advantages of meditation for modern people, with mobile devices, is that we learn to become aware of our body and mind and where they are and what they are doing,” Chang Ji says. “The first step is to learn how to feel the body, notice any pain (such as from bad posture) or emotion and make the body relax, to change using the phone into something done mindfully.”
Chang Ji talks about fixating on happiness and how this almost drives it away. She says there are no shortcuts to meditation – the point is the doing and the practice. “People really do need to learn how to get on with themselves. With modern people there is more technology compared with, say, 10 years ago, and this means more obstacles, diversions and distractions, more things to spend our time on, like music, videos, games. But what this also means is we spend less time with other people, even ourselves. So, this is why we are not in touch with our minds or our bodies and this is what meditation can help with.”
“The material world is very rich, but in the end, this is not satisfying,” she continues. “In the beginning there is a struggle, just to feed ourselves, but when this is achieved we inevitably look for something spiritual. I think this is human nature. We want peace and happiness and this is worth a lot.
Dharma Drum’s International Meditation Group was started in 1994 after an American lawyer living in Taipei suggested the idea to Master Sheng Yen of meditation retreats for Westerners. Since that time the organization’s Nung Chan Temple in Beitou has been running beginners’ and one-day retreats, which continue to this day.
Among the three other “Great Mountains” of Buddhist thought in Taiwan, Fo Guang Shan Monastery is arguably the most active in popularizing its message of peace and spiritual discovery. Founded in 1967 by the now 91-year-old Hsing Yun (星雲), it promotes “humanistic Buddhism,” which is outward looking, fully engaged with the modern world, and famed for its adoption of technology, such as holograms that make the Buddha appear to float.
This has led to claims that it is too commercialized, but its considerable political influence and numerous charitable programs have embedded it in Taiwan society. Its simplified approach to Buddhist teachings and adoption of modern marketing techniques has also enabled it to have a presence in more than 50 countries. In China it has earned praise from the country’s leadership for promoting Chinese values.
If a Disneyfied approach to Buddhism sounds attractive, then staying at the world’s largest Buddhist temple, in Kaohsiung, could be a welcome change from work and the usual holiday routine of sea, sand, and fun. Visitors stay at the Fo Guang Shan Pilgrims Lodge, which opened in 1974. It has dormitory-style accommodations and larger shared rooms, with dining areas for up to 1,000 guests. In addition to the meditation, there are parks to wander around, an impressive 36-meter tall bronze Buddha, exhibitions, a museum, souvenir shops, and summer camps with programs that include singing, games, and films.
Little known, even among locals, is the fact that many of Taiwan’s temples can provide simple and cheap accommodation. A bit like a bed and breakfast or homestay, adherents who take part in religious processions or have connections can book in advance – though you will probably need to speak Chinese to arrange this.
Taiwan’s other major religion, Daoism, doesn’t lend itself so readily to popularization in the secular or Western world. Though Daoism is connected philosophically to martial arts such as bagua quan and tai chi, it’s not that easy to find retreats or holiday courses. One exception is the Dragon’s Gate organization, based in Taiwan and the Ukraine, which offers “Alchemy Tours” of temples and herb gardens, with basic tours for beginners, and advanced courses that look at exercise, longevity and medicines.
A mini-explosion has occurred in the number of yoga retreats and holiday courses in Taiwan. Like Buddhism, yoga is an imported idea from India, but of more recent extraction. Origin Yoga & Wellness markets itself as an opportunity to “connect with your natural self,” and focuses on spiritual growth and physical wellbeing.
A 40-minute drive from central Taipei and at the northernmost tip of Taiwan, Origin Yoga is based in the faded holiday resort surroundings of Baishawan, in New Taipei City’s Shihmen district. Run by the sister and brother team of Lydia and Edward Chang, the pair have cleverly turned their childhood home in an abandoned community, into a sanctuary for yoga, meditation, and retreats.
A mix of yoga, ocean therapy, ayurveda wellness (based on a thousand-year-old holistic system of diet, massage, and meditation), and curated local excursions, the retreats appeal mainly to foreigners. Christina Harley, for example, is from London and works for a well-known fashion brand. She had previously visited Taiwan, enjoyed the country, and wanted to return.
“I always wanted to do something like this because friends of mine who had done it in other countries said it was worthwhile. I had never done any wellness courses before, but wanted to do something for myself, something that was 100% beneficial,” Harley says.
“I would say the highlights were many. The yoga was great, the exercises were really good and I enjoyed the trips we did to the herb garden and waterfall. I found out a lot about myself and learned that I carried around too much stress and negativity. I cared too much about what other people thought about me and realized I needed to look after myself. The most important thing is that when I get back into the world that I maintain the things I’ve learned.”
Lydia Chang, who was formerly an accountant in Canada, says this kind of thinking is new to locals. That is why most of her clients come from abroad, though this is slowly changing. “With locals they need to know that what we are doing can be trusted. Slowly, through word of mouth, this is happening.”
She says the first point of contact for many people with yoga is at a gym, as a form of mild exercise on the mat for an hour. “At a retreat the experience is more holistic and we practice mindful eating, walking and spend time getting back to nature,” Chang says. “There are many different styles of yoga, but I tend to teach classical or hatha yoga (physical postures) because they are based on yoga scriptures and prepare you for meditation, which I think is important.”
The Business of Mindfulness
According to a recent Guardian Report, “The Mindfulness Conspiracy,” itself based on a book by Ronald Purser, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, Amazon has a catalogue of more than 60,000 books that mention “mindfulness” in the title. It is a US$4 billion business.
Meditation coaches are moving on from Silicon Valley and filtering into corporate environments, in the now widely held belief that they can reduce stress and increase productivity. They strip away the spirituality of meditation and its Buddhist roots, to teach what is effectively a self-help tool to improve concentration, making us better at our jobs and happier in our lives.
While wellness and mindfulness are compared to modern religions, they are also international growth industries and Taiwan is well poised to take advantage of this trend. The weather, lifestyle, diet and religious freedoms are all attractive to people looking for a new destination to make the most of their holidays and recharge their batteries, according to Lydia Chang. It also has an international reputation for Buddhism, which the “Four Great Mountains of Taiwan” have exported around the world.
As Taiwan’s tourism industry continues to develop, providing an improved range of accommodations and curated vacations, it will likely segment further, appealing to more people for different reasons. Industry insiders see a significant and increasing demographic looking for holidays that provide something different, spiritually nutritious, or a better work-life balance. Yoga retreats, temple stays, and mindfulness or meditation courses are part of this development.
For Chang, Taiwan is a “hidden gem.” “Part of the charm of Taiwan is that despite all the progress, a lot hasn’t changed,” she says. “Taiwan has largely retained its culture and is relatively untouched, so it can provide these authentic experiences. That’s very valuable, in many ways.”