Chung Tai Chan Monastery in Puli, Central Taiwan, won’t leave you indifferent.
The monastery is incredibly impressive. Not a few people in Taiwan think Chung Tai Chan monastery is even flashy, a show of wealth and power that is difficult to reconcile with the ideas of simplicity and non-attachment normally associated with Buddhism.
Chung Tai Chan monastic organization, of which the monastery is the headquarters, was founded by Venerable Master Wei Chueh, a monk born in China in 1928.
Around 20 years ago Chung Tai Chan was under investigation in Taiwan. The monastery ordained dozens of young nuns – mostly from wealthy families – without the prescribed period of novitiate.
Above all, Chung Tai Chan was reticent about communicating the intention of the girls to the shocked parents – who had seen the daughters vanish into thin air after they attended summer camps organized by Chung Tai Chan (China Perspectives).
Chung Tai Chan is involved in politics too. Not only the monks are pro-unification with China (as almost all the traditional religious groups in Taiwan – Buddhist and Taoist), they also openly supported KMT candidates in the presidential elections.
Despite the things mentioned above, I am not afraid to say that I like very much this impressive Zen monastery, which I truly consider a place of great beauty and allure, a place not to be missed in your travel in Taiwan.
I agree that some parts of the monastery may appear a little bit brassy, but I think this is more related to the limits of contemporary craftsmanship than to the intentions of the monks.
I believe that to better understand the philosophy behind Chung Tai Chan Monastery you have to visit its wonderful museum of Buddhist art, Chung Tai Museum.
The “manifesto” of the museum, visible just after the entrance (as I recall, since photos are not allowed inside the museum), remind us about the Buddhist art treasures that have been handed down to us through the centuries by countless benefactors and here collected and preserved for the future generations.
The museum curators also assert that art transforms the mind – so, I guess, it meant to be an aid to enlightenment.
Reading those words, all the beautiful treasures of art of the west came to my mind.
Many of them were as well created and handed down through the centuries by religious orders that certainly were not much different from Chung Tai Chan, regarding their involvement in world affairs, wealth and power games included.
These religious orders also built schools, hospitals and also monasteries and beautiful churches. Treasures that nowadays in Europe we strongly admire and preserve but, who knows why, we are no longer able to create.
I guess Chung Tai Chan monastery belongs to the same category of those Christian monastic orders that in medieval times made and unmade popes, built hospitals and libraries, produced saints and sinners, and, at the same time, they preserved the western culture from the night of the dark ages.
At least, since we are in Asia, it looks as Chung Tai Chan resemble, on a not so much smaller scale, a Potala of modern times.
I guess you have to take the whole package … or not?
Milefo, the Buddha who laugh at the world follies, maybe has the answer …
Facts about Chung Tai Chan Monastery
- Chung Tai Chan Monastery is the headquarter of Chung Tai Chan, a Zen Buddhist organization that counts several monasteries and meditation centers in Taiwan and around the world.
- The monastic complex, that includes the monastery, ancillary buildings, schools and gardens, covers about 25 hectares on a hillside on the western edge of Puli basin, in Nantou County, Central Taiwan.
- The central tower of the monastery stands for 150 meters (37 floors).
- Chung Tai Chan Monastery has been built in seven years. It was officially opened in 2001.
- The architect who designed Chung Tai Chan is the same of Taipei 101: CY Lee.
- The construction of Chung Tai Chan costed 650 million U.S. dollars.
Things to See in Chung Tai Chan Monastery
Chung Tai Chan is open to the public only from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (5:00 p.m wintertime).
The only part of the main building of the monastery that is accessible without notice are the Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings, which is connected with a staircase to the Majestic Great Hall on the second floor.
The Great Majestic Hall consists in a main hall with a large statue of Buddha Shakyamuni – Buddha as historically appeared – and two laterals halls.
In the right one Sangharama Bodhisattva sits, protector of the monastery, that, quite incredibly, is the Taoist deity Guan Di.
In the left you will find a statue of Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who founded Zen Buddhism (Zen is the japanese name for Chan, the first name being more known in the West).
With a few days notice you can have a guided tour (in English too) to various other interesting parts of the Zen monastery.
To get an idea of the different parts of the monastery, I recommend to check out the section of Chung Tai Chan official website dedicated to virtual tours.
Apart from the main building of the monastery, do not forget to have a little walk in the gardens around the monastery, adorned with rare trees and expensive boulders.
Above all, I recommend a visit to Chung Tai Museum, the beautiful museum of Buddhist art already mentioned above.
The museum is located in a building, next to the monastery, which resembles a castle (one more symbol?). Just follow the signs to get there.
Be aware: the museum is not in the building called Perfect Illumination Hall, which also houses some works of art, on the western side of the monastery. The museum is instead located on the eastern side.
Admission fee is 100 NTD
The museum is spread over 3 floors, the lowest two are reserved for the permanent exhibition, called Mind-Transforming Treasures, the third hosts temporary exhibitions.
The permanent collection consists of nearly 200 artworks, spanning from the sublime Gandhara period – when the Indian Buddhist art met the Greece of Alexander the Great – to Ming and Ching Dynasty pieces.
In the same building you will also find Cloud Blossom cafeteria and, of course, a gift shop. Anyway the gift shop is quite tasteful and not overpriced. Beside the nicely packaged holy water (?) you can buy some unusual black tea from Sun Moon Lake and authentic ink-stones from a famous Changhua master, quite honestly priced.
Where to eat and sleep
Cloud Blossom, the very nice cafeteria, close at 5 PM.
Beside sandwiches and cakes, they serve boxed lunches.
I actually recommend the vegetarian restaurant Shang Yuan, which is part of the complex but is also open for dinner. It is located just outside the main gate on the right. It is simple but neat, they serve meals at a very reasonable price.
The hotel Cloud Villa is also in the premises (tel 049-2930930).
How to get to Chung Tai Chan Monastery
The official website provides accurate information and maps on how to reach the monastery, both by car and bus.
With the new highway n.6, Chung Tai Chan is only about 40 minutes drive from Taichung. Half day is enough for a complete visit of the monastery.
While the town of Puli itself is not special at all, the surrounding area is very nice and quite interesting. The green hills that surround the plain of Puli are scattered with temples and Buddhist retreats, which can be visited.
Sun Moon Lake is only 20 minutes away, to the South. On the way (Provincial Rd. #21) there is Yuchi with its tea farms where you can try the famous black tea.
On the east the Provincial Rd. #14 climbs up the Central Range up to Hehuanshan. Plenty of places here for people interested in nature and aboriginal culture and history: Wushe, Aowanda, Cingjing Farm …