Buddhism and Spirituality in Taiwan’s Anti-Nuclear, Environmental & Democracy Movement

Jonathan S. Watts

In January 2015, our JNEB International Project on Energy group consisting of Rev. Hidehito Okochi, Mika Edaki of AYUS, Tom Eskildsen, and Jonathan Watts visited Taiwan. After visiting South Korea in July of 2014, this was the second leg of building solidarity among Buddhists and other religious leaders working on anti-nuclear issues in East Asia. We made three significant visits with Ven. Chao Hwei (a patron of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists – INEB and a long time social activist), Mr. I-Hsiung Lin (one of Taiwan’s most renowned democracy activists), and the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (Taiwan’s oldest environmental NGO). These interactions led us to participating in a pilgrimage walk with Mr. Lin’s The People Rule Foundation in the city of Dalin in central Taiwan to raise awareness on democratic change.

with The People Rule Foundation at Dalin's main Taoist temple
with The People Rule Foundation at Dalin’s main Taoist temple

Learning about the early connections with Taiwan’s anti-nuclear and democracy movements was the first remarkable point of our visit. As Rev. Okochi noted in our discussion with I-Hsiung Lin, Japan has no history of gaining democracy with a people’s movement. The old student movement in the 1960s used to be strong, but as Japan developed economically the young people became compromised. Rev. Okochi with a small group of religious leaders founded the Interfaith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy in 1993 as an ethical stance against this kind of situation. However, even after the terrible events of Fukushima began in 2011, it has been hard to mobilize the Japanese people to express their opinions in the form of public protest, even more so with Buddhists and other religious leaders.

The Birth of Taiwan’s Democracy and Environmental Movements

speaking with I-Hsiung Lin and Ven. Chao Hwei at his office in Taipei
speaking with I-Hsiung Lin and Ven. Chao Hwei at his office in Taipei

I-Hsiung Lin 林義雄 spoke to us about how the progressive movement in Taiwan slowly grew after WWII. Born in 1941, he became a major leader of the democratization movement after being elected a member of the now defunct Taiwan Provincial Assembly in 1977. In the 1980s, social consciousness began to increase, especially when in 1985 the United States increased its ties with mainland China. This led the Taiwanese government to pull out of negotiations with American manufacturers for building a 4th nuclear power complex. In 1988, the Taiwanese government restarted negotiations, and this became the time that the Taiwanese environmental movement arose.

The first leaders of this environmental movement were academics and experts who had studied nuclear issues in the U.S. and brought back the latest information on the Chernobyl and 3 Mile Island incidents. One of these scientists was Mr. Shin-Min Shih, a professor of chemical engineering who helped to found the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU) in 1987. Their work raised awareness of the danger of nuclear energy and also of the monopolization of energy production and its vested interests, a system well known in Japan as the “nuclear village”. I-Hsiung Lin spoke powerfully to this situation:

In the face of such greed and widespread ignorance, we must stand up to nuclear exporters and bring up the charge that every time they export a nuclear power plant, they are placing a nuclear bomb that could be detonated at any time in another country, casting the local people perpetually under the fear of an explosion which may actually happen. There is no difference between exporting a nuclear power plant and throwing a nuclear bomb in another country. This is identical to terrorist action. If the U.S. won’t care about the safety of people in other regions of the world and exports nuclear power plants, they have no right to condemn terrorist actions that harm the American people. If Japan exports nuclear power plants, then all the activities to commemorate the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will become absurd and ridiculous.[1]

In this way, the anti-nuclear and environmental movement grew together with the people’s democracy movement in working for economic and political, structural change.

By this time, Taiwan already had three nuclear power complexes with a total of six reactors built by American manufacturers and commissioned between the 1978 and 1985. The public had already been sold on the myths of necessity (Taiwan like Japan lacks fossil fuel resources for industrial development) and safety as well as the promise of an abundant of cheap energy. However, in 1991, it was discovered by the public that the aboriginal Taiwanese living on nearby Orchid (Lanyu) Island were developing serious illnesses due to all the nuclear waste that was being stored there. Then, in 1992, the budget for the 4th nuclear complex in Lungmen was passed by the Taiwanese parliament. These events and growing distaste for the Kuomintang Party (KMT)’s authoritarian style of rule led to a series of street protests.

After 1992, major demonstrations continued along a common route from the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to the Diet building to the President’s office. The key groups behind the protests were political leaders, NGOs (especially environmental groups and human rights groups), local people affected like those on Orchid (Lanyu) Island and those living near reactors, and some religious groups. These protests have often taken place at the time budgets are ratified. In 1995, a major street demonstration of 30,000 people against the budget for nuclear power took place, and a signature campaign accumulated 100,000 signatures (out of a population of 23 million). One person also self-immolated himself at this time.

Buddhist and Religious Participation

It was in 1992 that Ven. Chao Hwei as a young nun was shocked to see these protests but decided to join the movement. Since then, she has been a leading face of the Buddhist representation in the anti-nuclear and human rights movement. She notes that in general Buddhist monks and nuns do not come out en masse for protests, because: 1) they don’t want to stand out as a single, isolated community, 2) they feel it’s not necessary to participate or mobilize since the general public is already mobilized on these issues. She says they tend to only mobilize for movements that gain no public stature, like the campaigns against gambling and building casinos.

Rev. Okochi signs the guest wall at TEPU's office in Taipei
Rev. Okochi signs the guest wall at TEPU’s office in Taipei

Prof. Shih of TEPU noted that the most politically and socially engaged religious people are Christian, specifically Presbyterians. In Taiwan, there are many local community Buddhist and Taoist temples, but they are more concerned with taking care of locals than in broader social issues. There have been some local temples near the reactors that have been active like Matsu Taoist Temple in Gongliao City, located just a few kilometers from the Lungmen plant. On the other hand, the Presbyterians have international links and a wider awareness, so have become active in more political issues, like raising the issue of Taiwanese independence since the 1970s. They have been very active in the anti-nuclear movement with some Catholics joining as well. Prof. Shih said that in the 1980s a group called the 10,000 Buddhas Association萬佛會 became active in TEPU, but they gradually dropped out of such engagement. Other Buddhists, like Ven. Chao Hwei have been active as well as the recently deceased Ven. Chuan-dao 傳道法師 of the Miao-shin temple妙心寺in Tainan. Prof. Shih noted that on the other hand Fo Guang Sha and Chung Tai Shan, two of Taiwan’s big four Buddhist groups, are close to the KMT, and the head monk of Fo Guang Sha is known as the “Monk of Politics”. Mr. Shih concluded that the religious persecution during the White Terror in the early years of Taiwan and the separation of church and state are reasons why most religious groups stay out of political issues.

The Role of Spirituality

While formal religious groups may have not had a major impact on the anti-nuclear and pro-democracy movement, I-Hsiung Lin has brought a strong ecumenical, spiritual influence into the mainstream of this movement. He says that, “Not only religious leaders have spirituality. Anyone can and will have it, like the way environmental activists have their faith. Not only religious people sacrifice for others. Anyone who does social action has to have faith.” Lin has shown an interest in teachings from various religious texts, like the section of the Hua Yen Sutra on the sixth bodhisattva practice of skillful manifestation that says to never abandon sentient beings no matter the evil they do. He also draws inspiration from the passage in the Bible: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” Corinthians 13:7. He feels that if one gets involved in socio-political affairs, selfless devotion and faith is a basic training one must have in order to put others first. Unfortunately, he notes, the dominance of the KMT over decades has oppressed the people’s spiritual development as well as progressive thinking.

Rev. Okochi speaks with a Buddhist monk on the walk in Dalin
Rev. Okochi speaks with a Buddhist monk on the walk in Dalin

In terms of protest strategies, he has learned much from Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He notes that the purpose of political engagement is to benefit the people, and thus the methods should benefit the people. In this way, “getting angry and fighting doesn’t benefit the people. Peace is attained by peaceful means. The purpose of various actions is to awaken insight in the opponent of their mistaken stance and make them willing to change.” When he meets young people in the protest movement, he reminds them to realize that the KMT is also part of society and that they cannot achieve peace by violent or adversarial means. So he maintains the motto, “If you love Taiwan, you should love the KMT” but also tries to educate them on their mistakes. “Bad things happen but people are not evil.” These words became even more profound when we learned that while Lin was in prison in 1980 for his pro-democracy activities, his mother and twin 7 year old daughters were stabbed to death after his wife notified Amnesty International of his unjust treatment.

In this way, Lin has worked to change the culture of protest in Taiwan by engaging in silent all night vigils or silent pilgrimages all over the island to raise awareness on these issues. These pilgrimage walks began in 1992, and Ven. Chao Hwei has participated. During them, everyone wears simple straw hats to protect against the sun and to create an identity of equality and no hierarchy. They have often begun and ended at the famous Buddhist-Taoist temple in Taipei called Lungshan. Eventually, all this work came to fruition when Lin became the 8th Chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from 1998 to 2000 and successfully ran a campaign for Shui-bian Chen as the 10th President of the Republic of China, ending the KMT’s stranglehold on power since the forming of the nation. In typical style, Lin retired from his post at the top of the DPP immediately following Chen’s election in May 2000. He notes that while the progressive movement peaked in the 1990s, it stagnated in the 2000s. Many of their ideals remained unrealized, and so the DPP fell out of power in 2008. He comments that the present young KMT leaders unfortunately still think in old ways, so no progress has been made since 2008, especially regarding policy with China.

The 2014 Anti-Nuclear and Sunflower Student Movements

Green Consumerism!!?? at the Kuosheng Nuclear Power Plant PR Center in northern Taiwan
Green Consumerism!!?? at the Kuosheng Nuclear Power Plant PR Center in northern Taiwan

However, yet again, the youth responded to this return of the KMT with the Sunflower Student Movement of March and April 2014, which not only included protests against the KMT’s new cross straits trade agreement with China but also the looming completion and start up of the 4th nuclear power plant at Lungmen. In 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Taiwanese environmental groups had called for a national referendum on whether to start or scrap the new complex. Lin explains that the KMT argued the majority of the people wanted the plant in order to provide cheaper and more reliable electrical sources, but he felt it was clear that up to 70% of Taiwanese were against it. So when the KMT kept pushing on with it after hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese had gone into the streets to protest in March 2014, he decided on April 22 to begin a hunger strike at Taipei’s Gikong Presbyterian Church. Earlier, Lin had articulated his wider vision for the anti-nuclear movement, which reflects a strong sense of Buddhist value and thought:

The success of the non-nuclear movements in Asia will not only free Asia from nuclear disaster, but it will also elevate the hearts and minds of Asia’s people. The movement will equip the people of Asia with right thinking and adequate strength to create a new world of peace and joy…And when people have gained rightful thinking through serious reflection, they will have attained the values and ethics suitable to our modern times. Then the people of Asia will understand rightly why people and nations have to help one another to mutual prosperity, and not only look to one’s own selfish interests. Once such worldview is attained, hostility and conflict between nations will diminish. At the same time, the people of Asia will understand that governments are to serve their peoples’ welfare, affirming the status of citizens and the responsibility of governments. Such thinking is the catalyst to harmonious interaction between the government and its people, thus greatly reducing domestic friction and disputes. It is such kind of Asians who will naturally make a significant contribution to world peace, bringing more glory to the future of humankind.[2]

Before his fast, he asked Ven. Chao Hwei and a Presbyterian leader to give him a blessing. Ven. Chao Hwei and her colleague, Chan Master Ven. Shing Kuang, also taught him how to sit properly in meditation to preserve his vital energy during the fast. Eight days later, he ended the strike when the government pledged to halt construction on the power plant. In September 2014, Taiwan Power Co. submitted its plan to the Atomic Energy Council (AEC) to mothball Unit 1 and halt construction on Unit 2 for three years beginning in 2015. However, the proposed 2014 national referendum to decide the ultimate fate of the power plant was rejected from the ballot for contradictory and confusing language, despite gathering more than 120,000 signatures.

It was then to this democratic issue that Lin turned his concerns forming The People Rule Foundation (人民作主教育基金會) on July 4, 2014. As of 2016, no national referendum in Taiwan has been carried out validly. In each of the six national referendums, “Yes” votes have won a majority over “No” votes. However, the referendum results were invalidated each time due to low turnout rate. According to the Referendum Law, a 50% turnout of qualified voters is required for the referendum to be valid. The threshold has yet to be reached, as the KMT has asked its supporters to boycott each referendum. In this way, The People Rule Foundation has further developed these national pilgrimage walks to raise awareness on this issue, and on our last day in Taiwan we took part in such a walk in the city of Dalin in central Taiwan.

Spiritually Based Political Conscientization

stopping for a moment of reflection on the march in Dalin

On a sunny Sunday morning in January 2015, Rev. Okochi and I travelled by high speed train and car from Tapei to the town Dalin, a short distance north of Chiayi City. We were immediately struck by the gathering spot for the start of the walk, a major Taoist temple in the middle of town. In meeting with I-Hsiung Lin in Taipei, we had certainly gotten a strong sense of the spirituality behind the movement, yet the use of Taoist and Buddhist temples as strategic points of gathering showed how his sentiments had become an integral part of the movement. After being welcomed by the community leader of the temple and other locals who spoke on the issues, we set out wearing our straw hats and shirts that said in Chinese characters “The People Rule 人民作主: A Non-violent Movement 非暴力行動”.

From roughly 10:00 to 15:00, we walked through the streets and environs of Dalin in two sets of single file lines, remaining silent and mindful, while passing out leaflets on the referendum issue. Every 30 minutes or so, we would stop, usually at a local Taoist temple, to meet with the members of the temple and the general community to talk issues and offer a prayer. The images of these stops remain strong: the first Taoist temple where we also met a Buddhist monk who had come down from Taipei to join the march; a Taoist shrine at an important historical site on the river on the outskirts of Dalin; another Taoist temple, one of the oldest in Taiwan, in the center of Dalin’s bustling marketplace; an old movie theatre from the WWII period that is facing demolition but which locals want to preserve and revive; and finally Zhaoqing Buddhist Temple on the outskirts of town. At the end of a day of silent walking mixed with energetic conversations at our group stops, we held a final group meeting and conversation next to the Dalin railway station. The group leaders were more than kind and generous in including Rev. Okochi and I in conversations despite the language barrier.

All throughout the day, I recalled the very similar anti-nuclear and peace pilgrimages I had done with the Nipponzan Myohoji denomination in Japan over the years. Here in Taiwan, the striking of the drums and chanting of the Lotus Sutra was replaced by silence, while the inter-faith element in Japan that usually involved Christian groups was replaced by Taoist interfaith connection. The one major difference between the two pilgrimages is the far more marginal nature of the walks in Japan. The walks in Taiwan have been led by a major, progressive political force in I-Hsiung Lin, joining with a major environmental and democracy people’s movement. Nipponzan Myohoji’s walks unfortunately are confined to a few faithful to the organization, mostly elderly political leftists, while the rest of the Buddhist world shuns such displays of political and social awareness. On a more encouraging note, Nipponzan Myohoji has been a very visible participant in the ongoing protests in front of the Japanese National Diet, starting with anti-nuclear protests in 2011 and widening into anti-war and pro-democracy protests aimed at the Shinzo Abe administration’s attempts to change the Japan’s long time pacifist constitution.

On this thought, we have come full circle from Rev. Okochi’s opening comments on Japan lacking its own people’s democracy movement. Perhaps, then, this is the time at last for Japan to have such a movement. Looking at its neighbors in South Korea and Taiwan, especially the work of I-Hsiung Lin, could provide Japan with a progressive model of blending non-violent spirituality and environmental justice into democratic political activism. Certainly this is something for Japanese Buddhists to seriously consider as they attempt to revive their roles in contemporary society.

[1] “A Non-Nuclear Asia as a Stepping Stone to World Peace”, opening speech given at the 10th No Nukes Asia Forum (NNAF), Taipei, Taiwan, September 28, 2002.

[2] “A Non-Nuclear Asia as a Stepping Stone to World Peace”.

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