The most important religions in Taiwan are Buddhism and Daoism, which are practiced by the majority of the population. While only half of the population identified themselves as Buddhist or Daoist in the official census, many of those who don’t indicate any religious belief follow some of the tenets or participate in some of the rituals and practices associated with Buddhism and/or Daoism. Neither Buddhism nor Daoism is an exclusive religion and thus most people practice elements of both of them along with engaging in certain practices or ceremonies connected with folk religion. In fact, it is common to see Buddhist deities (especially Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy) enshrined in Daoist temples, and Daoist gods (especially Mazu, the goddess of fishermen) are often found in Buddhist temples. As is common in other Buddhist countries, Buddhist monks and priest are often called upon to conduct funeral ceremonies, even for non-Buddhists, and many of the temples have mortuary rooms in which the ashes and spirit plaques of deceased persons are kept.
In addition to the mainstream Buddhist and Daoist organizations, Taiwan is home to a number of smaller sects which have developed out of these two religions, sometimes with contribution made by other traditions. The most common of these are Yi Guan Dao with almost a million adherents, the Lord of the Universe Church, Tian de Jiao, Li-ism and Syuan Yuan Jiao, each with between 150,000 and 260,000 members. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945) members of two Japanese “new religions,” Tenrikyo and Mahaikarikyo, established themselves on the island but today they have less than 40,000 members each. Together, Christian groups number almost a million adherents (the Protestant churches have about 605,000 and the Catholics another 300,000). In addition, Taiwan has a small (53,00 member) Islamic community, and a number of other religions (Bahai, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, other Buddhist and Daoist sects) are also represented.
The Constitution of the Republic of China (Taiwan) guarantees freedom of religion to all recognized religions. However, all religious organizations must register with the Ministry of the Interior and must provide the ministry with the number of members, financial operations, and organizations connected with the religion. According to the Ministry statistics, 19 religions are officially recognized by the government. The Ministry of the Interior has taken several steps to oversee the operations of religious organizations. These include registering educational programs put on by religious groups, establishing a Religious Affairs Counseling Committee with representatives from all 19 established religions, and the drafting of the Law Governing Religious Groups in 2001. This Law provided regulation of religious organizations by requiring secular management of finances and set out statutes regarding tax exemption, and property ownership. The government also provides (as of 1999) an alternative to the compulsory military service required of all males in Taiwan for those whose religion forbids violence. As of 2001, 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 4 Buddhists had served this alternative service, which is 11 months longer than required military service.
Folk religion permeates Taiwan and is seen wherever one goes; it is often so intermingled with Buddhist and Daoist practices that it is difficult to distinguish. As it is also only locally organized, it varies greatly throughout the island. Essentially, folk religion derives from the ancient Chinese animist concepts and includes a host of deities and practices designed to give people a sense of control over life events which can be dangerous, threatening or uncertain. These include medical practices, particularly the control of epidemics; magical rituals designed to control everything from weather to the presence of fish in the sea; a variety of spirits and gods whose concern is the wellbeing of the people who pray to them. The most popular folk deity is Mazu (Ma Tzu) the goddess of the sea and protector of fishermen. She is also widely worshipped in Hong Kong and along the South coast of China. Her worshipped is based on the tale of a young girl who saves her fishermen father and brothers from drowning in a typhoon by going into a trance and, while in the trance, flying to the site of their boat and rescuing them. She is also known as Tian Hou (Empress of Heaven) a title bestowed upon her by an Emperor of China for her efficacy in rescuing sailors.
The most popular religion is Mahayana Buddhism, introduced from the mainland in the 16th century with Chinese settlers to Taiwan. As is the case of Buddhism in China, the organization is regulated by the government which registers all Buddhist monasteries and temples, and oversees the ordination of monks and nuns. Many different sects of Buddhism co-exist peacefully on Taiwan and, in recent years, they have reestablished relations with similar Buddhist sect groups in China. Two of the most popular, in Taiwan as in Japan and in mainland China, are the Chan (Zen) meditation sect and the Pure Land Sect which worships Amitabha, the Lord of the Western Paradise. In addition to over 4,000 temples, the Buddhist have established seminaries for the training of monks and nuns, as well as secular colleges, high schools, kindergartens, nurseries, orphanages, a center for the mentally challenged, medical clinics, libraries and publishing houses. All of these organizations help to fulfill the Buddhist creed of selfless compassion for others. In recent years, due to visits by the Dalai Lama and the presence of a small group of exiled Tibetan monks, Tibetan Tantric Buddhism has become popular.
If you would like more information about Buddhism in general, including its history, beliefs and selections from the scriptures, please click on An Introduction to Buddhism, written by a University professor for his class:
Daoism is the second most popular religion in Taiwan with a thriving community of monks, nuns and lay people. Loosely based on the philosophical ideas of the 6th century BC philosopher, Laozi (Lao Tzu), the religion has come to embrace a variety of practices including a search for immortality, and a host of deities organized into a heavenly pantheon, which has the ability to assist individuals in seeking protection from dangers and in the attainment of the good things of life. Daoist priests and nuns engage in a variety of practices ranging from medical help, expelling of ghosts and demons, providing horoscopes, amulets, rituals and contacts with spirits. There are many different sects of Daoists in Taiwan and, like their Buddhist counterparts, in recent years they have begun returning to the mainland China to seek the roots of their sects. They have also helped to re-establish Daoist practices on the mainland. Today, there are over 8,500 Daoist temples on the island and over 33,000 clergy. In addition to temples, the Daoists run seminaries, colleges, kindergartens, retirement homes, hospitals, libraries, and publishing houses.
For a site on the history and practices of Daoism please click on the following:
Taoism and the Philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan
The next most popular religion in Taiwan is the syncretistic faith called Yi Guan Dao. This roughly translates as the Religion of the One Unity and the religion seeks to unify and identify commonalities among the world’s major religions, including Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Members of the religion take a vow to uphold the precepts of no adultery, lying, or drinking alcohol and to follow the virtues of benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom and faith. Adherents vow to lead a life of personal sacrifice and to work for the common good; thus they are involved in many social work activities, including kindergartens, orphanages, retirement homes, clinics, libraries, and nurseries. Members follow a vegetarian diet and run many vegetarian restaurants. Following the tradition’s belief in “the oneness of the universe and in contributing one’s life to humanity” the tradition actively proselytizes and seeks new members. Adherents feel that, by doing good works, and by recruiting new members, they are helping to create the Buddhist “Western Paradise” on earth and creating a world of brotherhood and benevolence as envisioned by Confucius.
Christian missions are active in Taiwan and both Catholic and many Protestant denominations flourish. Christianity in all forms was tightly controlled during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan but has flourished since 1949. Today, both mainstream and evangelical churches are active in the country as are various international Christian organizations, which provide welfare services. These include World Vision which provides eye exams, surgeries and glasses for aboriginal peoples and for children; the Garden of Hope halfway houses for teenage prostitutes, and the Cathwel Service which gives assistance to unwed mothers. In addition, both Catholic and Protestant denominations run universities, schools, retirement homes, orphanages, centers for the mentally challenged, and hospitals.
For a good website with pictures and descriptions of temples and religious establishments in Taiwan, visit City God Temples