In the picturesque hills around Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, a community of devoted Buddhists thrives in peaceful harmony. Their days are marked by quiet meditation, the soothing chants of ancient sutras, and the aroma of incense that wafts through the air. The monastery, a group of serene and elegant temples characterized by its understated beauty and housing large Buddha statues, serves as the heart of their spiritual endeavours.

Led by a venerable monk who exudes wisdom and compassion, these Taiwanese Buddhists follow the teachings of Buddha with unwavering dedication. Every morning, they gather for mindful rituals, expressing gratitude for the new day and seeking enlightenment on their path.

The monastic community extends their kindness beyond their walls, engaging in charitable works that uplift the surrounding neighbourhoods. From providing support to the less fortunate to organizing educational initiatives, their actions reflect the core values of compassion and selflessness that Buddhism imparts.

As the sun sets over the tranquil hills, the sound of bells resonates from the main temple, a reminder of the impermanence of life and the need to cultivate mindfulness. With hearts filled with gratitude and a commitment to kindness, the Taiwanese Buddhists continue their spiritual journey, leaving a positive impact on both their lives and the world around them.

Over one-third of Taiwanese identify as Buddhists. And the influence of Buddhism is evident in the rest of Taiwanese society, even among non-Buddhists. The teachings of the Buddha were first heard over two millennia ago. Today, it is the foundation of the world’s fourth-largest religion. In Taiwan, it is by far the leading wisdom tradition.

The Buddha’s own heavily mythologized story is a great source of inspiration. That story began with privilege, followed by disenchantment, deep suffering, and, finally, liberation. It continues to serve as a guide for millions of Buddhists in Taiwan and around the globe.

Main hall of Taipei's Dharma Drum Mountain monastery.
Dharma Drum Mountain in Taipei, Taiwan

The Prince

Two and a half millennia ago, under the starlit sky, Queen Maya of the Shakya, situated in the borderlands of present-day India and Nepal, experienced a dream that would shape destiny. In her dream, a splendid white elephant gracefully entered her womb, marking a prophecy that her forthcoming child would either emerge as a remarkable conqueror or a venerable sage.

In due course, Queen Maya gave birth to Prince Siddhartha, yet her life ended just seven days thereafter. At merely a week old, Siddhartha Gautama faced the loss of his mother. Despite this, his father, the reigning king, was resolute in preserving his heir’s life from all forms of suffering. The king was determined that Siddhartha would embrace the path of a ruler, not that of a spiritual guide. Fearing his son might forsake his legacy in pursuit of a spiritual journey, the king vowed to shield Siddhartha from suffering’s grasp.

Siddhartha’s upbringing occurred within the sheltered opulence of a palace, a realm that catered to his every wish and whim. Shielded from the harshness of suffering and any perceived imperfections, he was safeguarded from encountering life’s painful truths. Much like contemporary parents seeking to shield their children from the world’s unsettling realities, Siddhartha’s father cared for his well-being with the natural intentions of a parent. At 29, Prince Siddhartha married and embraced fatherhood, and all appeared serene and content.

Statue of Buddha on the banks of a river or pond.

The Disillusionment

One day, the prince, by accident, witnessed an elderly person outside his palace walls.

“What’s that?” He asked his loyal attendant.

“Oh, that’s aging,” came the reply. “It happens to everyone, including me and even you, your Highness; and your father, our king, as well!”

In his sheltered existence, this encounter marked the first fracture in Prince Siddhartha’s idyllic worldview. The reality of aging pierced through the carefully curated bubble of youth that had surrounded him. The seeds of contemplation were sown, and the prince’s curiosity blossomed.

Driven by a newfound desire to understand the world beyond the palace, Siddhartha embarked on secret excursions, seeking to grasp the truths of existence. On one such expedition, he encountered a man bedridden by illness, his feeble body a stark contrast to the robustness of the prince’s own life. The suffering etched across the man’s features struck a chord within Siddhartha, making him ponder the fragile nature of life.

As he continued his clandestine explorations, Siddhartha’s path led him to a funeral procession. The sombre procession, with mourners grieving a departed loved one, ignited a deep contemplation on the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death. The superficiality of his sheltered existence crumbled further, revealing a world of pain and suffering that had previously been kept at bay.

Finally, the prince encountered a wandering ascetic, a monk who had renounced material possessions in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. The monk’s serenity and detachment from worldly concerns left a lasting impression on Siddhartha’s heart. This encounter kindled a fervent longing within him to fathom the profound truths underlying existence, propelling him toward a momentous decision.

And so, fueled by the disillusionment of his pampered life, Siddhartha Gautama embarked on a daring quest. Determined to comprehend the nature of suffering and its cessation, he left behind his princely comforts and embarked on a journey of self-discovery that would lead him to the enlightenment he sought. This transformative journey would eventually birth the Buddha, a beacon of wisdom and compassion whose teachings would illuminate the paths of countless seekers for generations to come.

Photo of an Indian monk praying in profile.

The Buddha

For six years, Siddhartha immersed himself in ascetic practices, subjecting himself to extreme austerities in an attempt to transcend the limitations of the human condition. Yet, despite his efforts, he found himself still grappling with the same fundamental questions about suffering and its cessation.

Realizing that his self-mortification had not yielded the answers he sought, Siddhartha abandoned these extreme practices. He decided to follow a middle way, a balanced path between self-indulgence and self-mortification. With newfound determination, he settled under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India, to engage in deep meditation.

As Siddhartha meditated, he encountered the temptations of Mara, a symbolic representation of the forces that hinder enlightenment. Mara tried to distract Siddhartha with desires, doubts, and fears, but Siddhartha’s unwavering focus and inner strength allowed him to remain undeterred.

After an intense period of meditation, on the night of a full moon, Siddhartha experienced a series of profound insights. He saw the nature of suffering, its origin in attachment and craving, and the way to its cessation through the Noble Eightfold Path—a guide to ethical and mental development. As dawn broke, Siddhartha finally understood the nature of reality and experienced the state of enlightenment.

With his mind illuminated and free from the cycle of suffering, Siddhartha had become the Buddha, which means “the one who woke up.” He had reached a state of supreme wisdom, compassion, and clarity. Overwhelmed by the profundity of his experience, the Buddha sat in contemplation for several weeks, assimilating his insights.

Having achieved enlightenment, the Buddha chose to share his newfound wisdom with the world. He embarked on a mission to teach the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, guiding people toward liberation from suffering. His teachings emphasized the importance of self-awareness, ethical conduct, mental cultivation, and compassionate action.

The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment serves as an inspiration for seekers of truth and enlightenment. It highlights the transformative power of inner exploration, resilience, and the potential for individuals to awaken to their true nature and find liberation from suffering.

Painting of the Buddha meditating with moon in background.

Taiwanese Buddhism

Buddhism holds a cherished place within Taiwanese culture, drawing inspiration from its own history and the teachings of the Buddha. This spiritual tapestry is interwoven with the contributions of revered institutions like Taipei’s Dharma Drum Mountain and Hualien’s Tzu Chi Foundation, creating a harmonious blend of tradition and modernity.

Just as Siddhartha Gautama embarked on his journey to seek enlightenment, Dharma Drum Mountain and Tzu Chi Foundation exemplify this pursuit of wisdom and compassion. Dharma Drum Mountain promotes Chan (Zen) Buddhism, encouraging practitioners to integrate mindfulness and self-cultivation into their daily lives. In echoing the Buddha’s path, this organization underscores the timeless relevance of his teachings.

The Tzu Chi Foundation, guided by a vision of compassion, embodies the Buddha’s message of altruism and kindness. The foundation’s commitment to humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and charitable initiatives exemplifies the spirit of service the Buddha advocated, reflecting the deep-rooted connection between Taiwanese Buddhism and acts of compassion.

Through institutions like Dharma Drum Mountain and Tzu Chi Foundation, Taiwanese Buddhism bridges the ancient legacy of the Buddha’s journey with the present, weaving together a rich tapestry of devotion, service, and inner transformation.

Posted by:Island Folklore

An online repository of Taiwan’s folktales, history, legends, myths and traditions.