Journal of Global Buddhism 2022, Vol.23 (2)

Flows of Innovation in Fo Guang Shan Australia and New Zealand: Dynamics Behind the Buddha’s Birthday Festival (1991-2019)

Juewei Shi ORCID logo

Nan Tien Institute

Sioh-Yang Tan ORCID logo

Nan Tien Institute


Fo Guang Shan (Fóguāng shān 佛光山 FGS), a Buddhist movement in the Chinese Mahāyāna tradition, has grown rapidly in the last fifty years to become a global network with nearly 180 branch temples. For almost thirty years, FGS Australia and New Zealand has invested heavily in the annual Buddha’s Birthday Festival (BBF) in the form of weekend-long festivals in public spaces across the region. FGS Australia and New Zealand has served as an incubator, exporter, and importer of innovations to make Buddhism accessible to the public through these festivals. This article maps the flows of such innovations across the Pacific among the headquarters in Taiwan, the branches in Australia and New Zealand, and other regional headquarters. We argue that far from being a passive receiver, Buddhism in FGS Australia and New Zealand is an active participant in such flows. Low-risk, incremental innovations percolate through the branches, and are further developed or adapted as skillful means to popularise the Buddha’s teachings according to local contexts. This article also examines some organisational and individual factors involved in balancing tradition and innovation in navigating the plural religious landscape of the region.

Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhism in the Pacific region today is the product of, and continues to be transformed by, a dynamic process that balances the wish to preserve core teachings and the need to adapt to external demands. This article examines the dynamics of flows and counterflows in Fo Guang Shan (FGS), a Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhist movement, as it negotiates tradition and innovation while adapting to the local contexts of Australia and New Zealand.

Fo Guang Shan (Fóguāng shān 佛光山 FGS) is a global Buddhist movement founded by Venerable Master Hsing Yun (Xīngyún dàshī 星雲大師, 1927-) in 1967. From its headquarters in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, FGS has grown rapidly to become a global network of 179 branch temples scattered over five continent (Fo Guang Shan 2011). The post-1960s global Chinese diaspora prepared the ground for the internationalisation of the FGS network, beginning with the establishment of Hsi Lai Temple (Xī lái sì 西來寺) in California in 1988. The stated objectives of this global network of FGS temples are to promote “Humanistic Buddhism” (explained below) and to foster peace and harmony among all peoples of the world. The monastic order of FGS is complemented by Buddha’s Light International Association (BLIA), an international non-government organisation largely composed of lay people founded in 1992. Headquartered in California, BLIA has 200 chapters in over seventy countries and regions (Institute for the Study of Humanistic Buddhism 2021).

Both FGS and BLIA support the global Chinese Buddhist diaspora by not only providing a home for their faith but also a connection to the “imagined homeland of Chinese culture” (Chandler 2005: 162). Further, they also endeavour to spread the Buddha’s teachings to local communities. Hsing Yun once described the monastics of FGS and the laity of BLIA as the wings of a bird, working together to “spread the seeds of bliss throughout the world” (Hsing Yun 2010a: 1). According to their understanding, FGS and BLIA strive to foster peace and harmony globally with four founding principles: propagating Buddhist teachings through cultural activities, nurturing talents through education, benefitting societies through charitable programs, and purifying human minds through Buddhist practices (Fo Guang Shan 2013).

FGS advocates Humanistic Buddhism or “renjian fojiao” (rénjiān fójiào 人間佛教), which literally translates as “Buddhism for the human realm.” According to Hsing Yun, Humanistic Buddhism is “what the Buddha taught, what is essential to human beings, what purifies, and what is virtuous and beautiful” (Hsing Yun 2016: v). This conception of Buddhism has been characterised as being able to engage with the modern world by practising the Buddha Dharma as a means of self-purification (Pacey 2005: 17). FGS is one of a number of Chinese Mahāyāna movements based in Taiwan that enacts the doctrine of Humanistic Buddhism, traceable back to Master Taixu (Tàixū dàshī 太虛大師, 1890–1947) during the early period of the Republic of China. Taixu started the reformist movement known as Buddhism for Human Life (rénshēng fójiào 人生佛教) in China. This movement refocused Chinese Buddhism away from repentance rituals as an economic activity and rebirth in Pure Land towards worldly concerns. It was also initiated to counter the hegemonic forces of colonial powers and Christian missionary in those times (Pacey 2005: 445; Yao and Gombrich 2017: 206; Reinke 2021: 21). The Humanistic Buddhism of Hsing Yun emphasises the present life and the present society. We suggest that FGS is a Chinese mode of Buddhist modernism (McMahan 2012: 160) in which discourses of modernity, such as rationality, science and democratic principles, are selectively appropriated, transformed and localised to the contexts of contemporary Chinese society.

Although the demography of FGS and BLIA is largely ethnic Chinese (Chandler 2005: 167), the religiosity of FGS challenges dualistic taxonomic typologies along the ethnic-convert (Numrich 1996: 63) or modern-traditional divide (Baumann 2001: 25). Instead, Jens Reinke refers to FGS as a globalised, transnational, modern reformist Chinese Buddhist movement (2021: 3). In his ethnographic study of FGS, Reinke describes the Humanistic Buddhist religiosity of FGS as one that incorporates both traditional Buddhist practices and rituals as well as contemporary social engagement (Reinke 2018: 5) to the extent that, “[this] particular entwinement of social engagement, communality, and religious cultivation … constitutes the modernity of Fo Guang Shan’s renjian Buddhist [Humanistic Buddhist] religiosity” (Reinke 2021: 116).

FGS established Nan Tien Temple (Nán tiān sì 南天寺), its Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) regional centre, in Wollongong in 1995 (Waitt 2003: 224). Hsing Yun was invited to build a temple in Australia, first by a Vietnamese Chinese expatriate Shi-Jiao Chun (Cùn Shíjiāo寸時嬌) in 1989, and again by the mayor of Wollongong, a regional town in New South Wales (NSW) in the following year (Nan Tien Temple Editorial Team 2017: 55). The time coincided with the internationalisation campaign at FGS that had started in 1988. Meanwhile, in Australia the Labor government was pursuing a deliberate multicultural Australia policy from 1982 to 1996 (Spuler 1999: 1). In this period the number of Buddhists in Australia increased almost six-fold, from 35,000 to 200,000, mainly due to large-scale migration from Vietnam after the war finished (Baumann 2001: 18). Despite the surge in the number of Buddhists, few Buddhist temples were established during this period.

To gain an insight into FGS Australia’s and New Zealand’s participation in the global flows of Buddhism, we used the translocative approach of Thomas Tweed to trace the movement of ideas, people and objects across the Fo Guang Shan network of temples (Tweed 2011: 24). Tweed coined the term “translocative” to describe religions as flows across space, always changing to establish their place in the world (Tweed 2008: 25). He argued for the need of a theoretical or methodological framework to make sense of the dynamics of religious dissemination in the era of global flows, as religious people, ideas and objects travel back and forth between their homeland and new sites. To interrogate the flows of religious practices and artefacts, he proposed five axioms which define areas to consider when studying contemporary Buddhism. These five areas are: following the flows, noticing those present and absent, attending to the objects of the senses, considering varying temporal and spatial scales, and noticing the structures that propel or impede the flows.

This multi-sited translocative approach was selected because it highlights movement and social relations, as well as contact and exchange, that culminate in different expressions of Buddhism. While Tweed’s study focuses on flows across Asia, America and Europe, we find the approach suitable for our examination of the flow of innovations in relation to Buddha’s Birthday Festival (BBF)1 across Asia, America and the Australia-New Zealand regions. The aquatic metaphor of flows and Tweed’s attention to border crossings fit well with our description and categorisation of how BBF innovations travelled across various BBF sites. In addition, Tweed’s five axioms for translocative analysis of religion helped us to reflect on how the innovations were re-contextualised and adopted as they travelled across regions.

This article focuses on a study of BBF because it has been one of the largest and longest running regular events held across FGS temples in the region. Between 1993 and 2019, FGS Australia and New Zealand invested heavily in the weekend-long festivals in public spaces across both countries. This involved months of planning and the participation of thousands of volunteers to welcome tens of thousands of visitors (Figure 1). As such, BBF is a major event for FGS to make Humanistic Buddhism visible to Buddhist and non-Buddhist members of the public.2 The continuous, significant investment of human and material resources into BBF by FGS Australia and New Zealand has produced innovations that intended to spread the “three jewels” of Buddhism – the Buddha, his teachings (dharma), and community (saṅgha) – to local interests.