Taiwanese monk who met three Chinese presidents and championed reunification dies

Taiwan's top Buddhist monk Hsing Yun, a champion for reunification died on Feb 5, 2023. - The Straits Times/ANN

BEIJING, Feb 6 (The Straits Times/ANN): China lost one of its greatest champions for reunification when Taiwan’s top Buddhist monk Hsing Yun died on Sunday.

Hsing Yun, 95, died at about 5pm at Fo Guang Shan Temple in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan a day after undergoing dialysis.

He was one of a handful of people respected by and influential with the political elite in both the mainland and Taiwan.

It is rare for religious leaders to meet a Chinese president, but Hsing Yun met three: incumbent President Xi Jinping, his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin who preceded Mr Hu and died last year.

For die-hard advocates of Taiwan independence, Hsing Yun, whose Dharma name means “star cloud”, was more of a politician than a religious leader and known for embracing Beijing’s reunification overtures. He sought to prevent renewed conflict between China and Taiwan through religious exchanges.

In February 2002, China gave its blessing for a purported finger relic of Buddha to be flown from a temple in Xi’an to Taiwan, where Hsing Yun and millions of Taiwanese and believers from overseas lined the streets to welcome the relic. Beijing’s message: Taiwan and the mainland share the same roots and religion.

In 2008, after riots broke out in Tibet months before Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, Hsing Yun said in an interview that China should reach out to the Dalai Lama, the Himalayan region’s exiled spiritual leader, and “turn a foe into a friend”.

During the second World Buddhist Forum in Wuxi near Shanghai in 2009, Hsing Yun controversially declared that “all Taiwanese are Chinese”.

His relationship with the officially atheist Communist Party of China was not always rosy.

He was blacklisted and banned from setting foot in China for four years and missed his mother’s 90th birthday in their home province of Jiangsu in 1991. The move came in response to the monk providing sanctuary for Mr Xu Jiatun in 1990 at a temple, named Hsi Lai, which he set up in suburban Los Angeles.

Mr Xu, once China’s top official in Hong Kong, had fled China after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, the most senior Chinese official to do so.

The two men, both natives of Jiangsu, first met in Hong Kong in April 1989, two months before the Chinese military crushed the pro-democracy protests. Mr Xu feted Hsing Yun, who out of courtesy extended an invitation to Mr Xu to visit Taiwan or his temple in the United States.

After Mr Xu was forced to retire as director of state news agency Xinhua in Hong Kong for sympathising with Tiananmen student protesters, he feared arrest and phoned Hsing Yun through an intermediary, asking for help to go to the US. Hsing Yun agreed and gave refuge to Mr Xu in May 1990.

Beijing tried to pressure Hsing Yun not to host Mr Xu, but the monk refused, saying it was a Buddhist tradition to help those in trouble.

“Some people say I’m a political monk. If I did not give refuge to Xu Jiatun, that would be (a) political (decision)“ to avoid incurring Beijing’s wrath, Hsing Yun said in a 2009 interview.

“Giving sanctuary to Xu Jiatun was (out of) Buddhist compassion. I did nothing wrong,” the abbot added.

Born Lee Kuo-shen in 1927, Hsing Yun was introduced to Buddhism by his maternal grandmother, a devout practitioner, and ordained a monk at the age of 12.

The charismatic monk founded Fo Guang Shan Temple in 1967. With public donations, he went on to open about 200 temples worldwide, including an eponymous temple in Singapore, Nan Tien Temple in Australia, Nan Hua Temple in South Africa and Zu Lai Temple in Brazil. The group also runs orphanages, homes for the elderly and drug rehabilitation programmes in prisons.

He established dozens of universities and Buddhist colleges worldwide, vocational schools, high schools and kindergartens as well as libraries, art galleries, publishing houses, bookstores and a media group in Taiwan that included a daily newspaper, a magazine, a cable network, a radio station and a website.

After he suffered strokes in 2011 and 2016, he was confined to a wheelchair and largely stayed out of the limelight. - The Straits Times/ANN

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