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Passing the Light

The Incense Light Community and Buddhist Nuns in Contemporary Taiwan

Chun-fang Yu

Publication Year: 2013

The term “revival” has been used to describe the resurgent vitality of Buddhism in Taiwan. Particularly impressive is the quality and size of the nun’s order: Taiwanese nuns today are highly educated and greatly outnumber monks. Both characteristics are unprecedented in the history of Chinese Buddhism and are evident in the Incense Light community (Xiangguang). Passing the Light is the first in-depth case study of the community, which was founded in 1974 and remains a small but influential order of highly educated nuns who dedicate themselves to teaching Buddhism to lay adults.

The work begins with a historical survey of Buddhist nuns in China, based primarily on the sixth-century biographical collection Lives of the Nuns and stories of nuns in subsequent centuries. This is followed by discussions on the early history of the Incense Light community; the life of Wuyin, one of its most prominent leaders; and the crucial role played by Buddhist studies societies on college campuses, where many nuns were first introduced to Incense Light. Later chapters look at the curriculum and innovative teaching methods at the Incense Light seminary and the nuns’ efforts to teach Buddhism to adults. The work ends with portraits of individual nuns, providing details on their backgrounds, motivations for becoming nuns, and the problems or setbacks they have encountered both within and without the Incense Light community.

This engaging study enriches the literature on the history of Buddhist nuns, seminaries, and education, and will find an appreciative audience among scholars and students of Chinese religion, especially Buddhism, as well as those interested in questions of religion and modernity and women and religion.

12 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Series: Topics in Contemporary Buddhism


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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Series Editor’s Preface

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pp. vii-viii

The large number of educated young women becoming Buddhist nuns in Taiwan is a striking phenomenon that has attracted the attention of several scholars. Historically, women became nuns to gain refuge from personal and social problems, but such a step was always drastic, requiring them to renounce not only their families but their own ordinary domestic lives as well. In modern Taiwan, becoming a...

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pp. ix-xii

Xiangguang, or Incense Light, is a community of nuns in Taiwan founded in the 1980s. Neither as large nor as famous as certain longstanding Buddhist organizations, Incense Light is distinguished by two things. First, unlike most Buddhist communities, which include both monks and nuns, this is a single-sex community. Second, every member of the community is required to dedicate several...

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1. Introduction: Why Study Nuns?

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pp. 1-29

In recent years there has been a general surge of interest in Taiwanese Buddhism. Books on Ciji (Compassionate Relief ) (Huang 2009), Foguang (Buddha Light) (Chandler 2004), the history of Taiwanese Buddhism (Jones 1999), and Buddhism in Taiwanese society (Laliberté 2004, Madsen 2007) are representative. Scholars have also been impressed by the quality and size of nuns’ orders: ...

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2. The Beginning of the Incense Light Community

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pp. 30-48

The home temple of the Incense Light Bhikşuņiī Sangha is Incense Light Temple (Xiangguang Si), located in the village of Neipu in Zhuji County, Chiayi District, in central Taiwan. This is where the community got its start. Although subtemples came to be established in different cities as the community grew, Incense Light Temple has remained the spiritual home and administrative center. When I...

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3. Wuyin, the Guiding Light of the Community

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pp. 49-70

Taiwanese nuns have had to contend with a misunderstanding that nuns on the mainland have not. In colonial Taiwan nuns were derisively referred to as zhaigu (vegetarian hall auntie) or caigu (vegetarian auntie) by the common people. Although these two were seen as essentially the same, there is emically a distinction: only the caigu lived at a Buddhist temple, though without taking tonsure or...

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4. College Buddhist Studies Societies

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pp. 71-104

The Incense Light community experienced its most rapid growth in the 1980s. This reflected broader changes on the Taiwanese religious scene. Scholars have spoken of a “religious renaissance” in Taiwan since the 1980s (Madsen 2007). New Buddhist organizations sprang up such as Foguang, Ciji, Fagu, and Zhongtai, and the activities of folk religions such as the Unity Sect (Yiguan Dao) and...

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5. Incense Light Buddhist Seminary for Nuns

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pp. 105-149

Wuyin was installed as the abbess of Incense Light Temple on January 5, 1980, and in less than two months, on March 3, the Incense Light Bhikşuņī Sangha Buddhist Seminary admitted its first class. Among the other Buddhist leaders, Baisheng, Shengyan, and Weijue, founder of the Zhongtai Shan, attended the opening ceremony as honored guests. Years later, Wuyin recalled those earliest days...

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6. Buddhist Adult Classes

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pp. 150-185

The Incense Light nuns, like their leader Wuyin, identify themselves as religious teachers. Although they publish the magazine Xiangguan zhuangyan, manage a publishing outfit, offer a Buddhist information service, and do other socially engaged activities, their main mission is running a program of Buddhist adult classes, which constitutes the economic base of the community. These programs...

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7. Profiles of Individual Nuns

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pp. 186-208

The Incense Light community is distinguished by its members’ high level of education. The rapid rise and success of the community was due in large part to the sudden influx of fifty-three young nuns in the 1980s, many of whom had graduated from either a four-year liberal arts college or a two-year technical college, which is similar to junior college in the United States. In my interviews with...

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pp. 209-214

Incense Light, like Taiwanese Buddhism in general, is undergoing constant changes. The rise of this community was intimately connected with the social and economic conditions of Taiwan in the 1980s. Similarly, its present situation and its future prospects cannot be separated from what is happening in society at large. Economic prosperity led to both the flourishing of new Buddhist organizations...


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pp. 215-220


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pp. 221-224


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pp. 225-236


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pp. 237-243

About the Author, Production Notes, Back Cover

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pp. 258-266

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837983
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824836580

Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Topics in Contemporary Buddhism
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OCLC Number: 855694861
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Passing the Light

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Buddhist nuns -- Taiwan.
  • Buddhist sanghas -- Taiwan.
  • Buddhist monasticism and religious orders for women -- Taiwan.
  • Wuyin, Shi.
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