Humanistic Buddhism

For the teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh, see Engaged Buddhism.

"Humanistic" (human-realm) Buddhism (Chinese: 人間佛教; pinyin: rénjiān fójiào) is a modern philosophy practiced by new religious movements originating from Chinese Buddhism. Humanistic Buddhism places an emphasis on integrating Buddhist practices into everyday life, and shifting the focus of ritual from the dead to the living.


Taixu, a Buddhist modernist, activist and thinker who advocated the reform and renewal of Chinese Buddhism, used the term "Buddhism for Human Life" (Chinese: 人生佛教; pinyin: rénshēng fójiào). The first two characters, "human" and "life", indicating his criticism of several aspects of late Ming dynasty and early Republican Chinese Buddhism that he wished to correct, namely, an emphasis on spirits and ghosts ("human"), and funeral services and rites ("life"). His disciples continued this emphasis.[1]

Taixu also used the term "Buddhism for the Human World", or popularly "Humanistic Buddhism" (Chinese: 人間佛教; pinyin: rénjiān fójiào). It appears that at first the two terms were largely interchangeable. One of Taixu's disciples, Yin Shun, used the term "Humanistic Buddhism" to indicate a criticism against the "deification" of Buddhism, which was another common feature of much of Chinese Buddhism, in his articles and books. It was Yin Shun, and other disciples of Taixu, who brought both of these two terms to Taiwan in the wake of the Republican's defeat during the civil war against the Communist Party of China. It was in Taiwan that the term "Humanistic Buddhism" became the most commonly used term, particularly amongst the religious leaders who originally hailed from China.[1]

The Temple Nan Tien Definition of Humanistic Buddhism

Temple Nan Tien outlines the principles of humanistic Buddhism as integrating Buddhist practices into everyday life based on the nature of Sakyamuni Buddha achieving Buddhahood while bound in an earthly form. Humanistic Buddhism is based on 6 core concepts: humanism, altruism, spiritual practices as part of daily life, joyfulness, timeliness, and the universality of saving all beings. From these principles, the aim of humanistic Buddhism is to reconnect Buddhist practice with the ordinary and places emphasis on caring for the material world, not solely concerned with achieving delivery from it.[2]

Buddhism and new religious movements in Taiwan

Main article: Buddhism in Taiwan

Yin Shun was the key figure in the doctrinal exposition of Buddhism, and thus Humanistic Buddhism, in Taiwan. However, he was not particularly active in the social or political spheres of life. This was to be carried out by a younger generation: Hsing Yun, Sheng-yen, Wei Chueh and Cheng Yen. These four figures, collectively known as the "Four Heavenly Kings of Taiwanese Buddhism", head the "Four Great Mountains", or monasteries, of Taiwanese Buddhism and Buddhist new religious movements: Fo Guang Shan, Dharma Drum Mountain, Chung Tai Shan, and Tzu Chi.[1]

History of Chinese Buddhist Ritual Practice

Humanistic Buddhism originated in China at the beginning of the twentieth century. The movement emerged as a collective attempt to emphasize the importance of serving the living in Buddhist practice, rather than placing focus on the traditional Buddhist rituals for the dead. After the Ming Dynasty, penance for the dead had become more widespread, replacing rituals focused on meditation. A possible cause for this was Emperor Zhu Yuanzhan’s Buddhist Orders, issued in 1391. These created three categories of the sangha, or monastic class: meditation monks, teaching monks, and yoga monks. These yoga monks were responsible for performing rituals for the dead. This led to certain monks taking on the roles of ‘monks on call’, who performed rituals to earn their livelihood. These ‘monks on call’ made up a majority of the sangha by the end of the Qing Dynasty. Another possible cause of the increased rituals for the dead was the spread of Tantric Buddhism following the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), which promoted ritual practice.[3]

Fo Guang Shan

Fo Guang Shan is one of the most popular Humanistic Buddhist organizations in present-day China. They have done work to reform and re-invent more traditional ritual practices. They strive to highlight Dharmic aspects of ritual, and tailor their practices and worship to benefit the living, rather than the dead. Fo Guang Shan are known for their Recitation Teams, which they send to hospitals and hospice care facilities to assist the dying and their loved ones in performing Humanistic Buddhist ritual practice. Humanistic Buddhists believe that death is not an end so much as the beginning of a new life, and therefore rituals at the end of life should comfort and pacify the dying individual. They also hold ceremonies that celebrate marriage and the happiness of married couples, which are popular worldwide.[3]

Master Hsing Yun

Master Hsing Yun, born in 1927, is a leader in the Humanistic Buddhist movement in China, and was an early founder of Fo Guang Shan in the 1960s. He wrote Rites for Funerals, a work outlining the Dharmic elements of these rituals and reforming them to place emphasis on the living participants and worshipers. He also wrote The Etiquettes and Rules, which outlines the practices of traditional Buddhism from a Humanistic perspective.[3]

Gender Equality in Humanistic Buddhism

One controversy of Humanistic Buddhism is the role of women in society. Master Hsing Yun, the founder of the Fo Guang Shan humanistic Buddhist movement, holds a conservative perspective as to the position of women, and has published a variety of articles for men on how to maintain a functioning household, and for women on how to provide proper companionship and please their husbands. Despite this perception, women have earned themselves a solid position in the Chinese workforce. While Master Hsing Yun does not advocate for women being forced out of workplaces, he cautions men about the problems that might arise in a household if a woman is not at home to keep things in order. However, Buddhist nuns have been gaining a place as of 1998, in which 136 women from a variety of Buddhist traditions were ordained into the Fo Guang Shan tradition in China. Taiwan has also had ordination available to Buddhist nuns for centuries.[4]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Bingenheimer, Marcus (2007). "Some Remarks on the Usage of Renjian Fojiao 人間佛教 and the Contribution of Venerable Yinshun to Chinese Buddhist Modernism". In Hsu, Mutsu; Chen, Jinhua; Meeks, Lori. Development and Practice of Humanitarian Buddhism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (PDF). Hua-lien (Taiwan): Tzuchi University Press. pp. 141–161. ISBN 978-986-7625-08-3.
  2. "What is Humanistic Buddhism? | Nan Tien Temple". Retrieved 2016-02-22.
  3. 1 2 3 Yu, Xue (2013). "Re-Creation of Rituals in Humanistic Buddhism: A Case Study of Fo Guang Shan". Asian Philosophy.
  4. Chandler, Stuart (2004). Establishing A Pure Land On Earth. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 85–91.

Further reading

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