School of Thought- Humanistic Buddhism

Humanistic Buddhism is a growing, contemporary movement. In Taiwan, several major Buddhist orders, such as the Dharma Drum Mountain, Fo Guang Shan and Tzu Chi Foundation promote this form of Buddhism. Fo Guang Shan’s founder, Hsing Yun (b. 1927), is among its strongest advocates.

The heyday of Buddhism in Chinese history occurred during the Sui-Tang Dynasties (Wright 2011, p. 63) (581 – 907 CE), when emperors, aristocrats and the literati supported and studied Buddhism. During this time, Buddhism was integrated into the Chinese language, art, music and customs of the day.

However, Buddhism declined during the Ming-Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1911), when neo-Confucianists adopted an anti-Buddhist bias (Zürcher 2014, p. 350). After centuries when the average Chinese drew no distinction among Buddhism, Daoism, and folk religion, many Buddhist monks in the early twentieth century were poorly educated, and earned their keep by performing rituals (Jones 1999, p. 63). Buddhism was regarded as a religion that had lost touch with the current world and was reserved for the elderly and funerary rites.

In the radical modernization of 20th century China, Hsing Yun was able to present Buddhism as a way which matched modern Chinese people’s new world view and changing needs. For over sixty years, Hsing Yun has dedicated himself to reviving Buddhism with the vision of encouraging devotees’ passion, as well as enhancing social and personal wellbeing. As Chinese people immigrated to foreign lands, Humanistic Buddhism globalised to include the needs of immigrants and their children, as well as non-Chinese in these lands.


Hsing Yun (2012, p. 1-3) lists the characteristics of Humanistic Buddhism as the Buddha’s teachings that relate to humanity, with an emphasis on everyday application; and that which is altruistic, joyful, relevant and universal.

Humanistic Buddhism was founded on the affirmation that Śākyamuni Buddha was born, cultivated, attained enlightenment and taught in the human world. Hence, Humanistic Buddhism, according to Hsing Yun, is what the Buddha taught, and that which meets the needs of people, purifies their minds, and is wholesome. To be relevant to human needs, Humanistic Buddhism has to have a universal appeal.

Emulating Buddha’s compassion for all living beings, Hsing Yun advocates that every action, word and thought should carry a deep care and concern for others. Hence, Humanistic Buddhism practitioners translate the Buddha’s teachings into the Three Acts of Goodness to “do good deeds, say good words and think good thoughts.” Further strengthening this practice is the exercise of altruism, whereby one seeks ways to give others confidence, joy, hope, and convenience (Hsing Yun 2010, p. 107).


The preceding ideas have been translated into enterprises and activities in culture, education, charity and spiritual cultivation through Dharma propagation methods that fit the needs of modern society.

Today, Taiwan’s major Buddhist associations have their own television channels, publishers, news agencies, hospitals and universities to carry out their work (Sui 2014). Monastics and laity work together to produce Buddhist dictionaries, annotated canonical texts, encyclopaedias and multimedia programmes, to name just a few.
Worldwide, Humanistic Buddhism has focused on using the Dharma to address issues in the world now rather than on leaving the world behind, on benefiting others rather than oneself, and on liberating all beings rather than self-cultivation (Hsing Yun, p. 9). For example, Nan Tien Temple in Australia, one of the 200 branch temples founded by Hsing Yun, conducts school visits, meditation retreats, baby blessings and youth camps, amongst many other community programs. In addition, annual Buddha’s Birthday Festivals in Darling Harbour, Federation Square and South Bank in Australia bring relevant Buddhist messages to the public.


As a result of Humanistic Buddhism, the population of Buddhists has increased manifold in Taiwan and China as well as in the countries where immigration have taken place. The status of Buddhist monastics and laity, as well as their work, are recognised by the mass media, politicians, educators, artists and businesses. From baby and student blessings through weddings to funerals, Buddhists can incorporate their faith into every aspect of their lives. Chinese Buddhism has been revitalised not only in China and Taiwan, but also in parts of the world where Chinese people reside.

For his contribution, innovation and entrepreneurship, Hsing Yun was awarded the 2013 Glories of China Award from China, and the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from Taiwan.


The worldwide resurgence of Chinese Buddhism can be credited to Humanistic Buddhism. The Buddha’s teachings are translated through innovative entrepreneurship to solve today’s problems. Hsing Yun, an active proponent, has worked tirelessly in education, culture, charity and spiritual cultivation to meet people’s universal need for happiness.

Within one generation, Humanistic Buddhism has turned around centuries of decline in Chinese Buddhism, and is now in a position to be relevant to an even broader community of Buddhists worldwide.

Juewei Shi, Stacey Weng

Humanistic Buddhism Centre, Nan Tien Institute

18 February 2015

Works Cited

Fo Guang Shan, 2014 Fo Guang Shan: our report, Life News Agency, Kaohsiung.

Hsing Yun, 2010, Understanding the Buddha’s Light Philosophy, Buddha’s Light Publishing, California.

Hsing Yun, 2012, Buddhism in Every Step: The Fundamentals of Humanistic Buddhism, vol. 2, Buddha’s Light Publishing, California.

Jones, C.B 1999, Buddhism in Taiwan: religion and the state 1660-1990, University of University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.

Silk, J (ed.) 2013, Buddhism in China: Collected Papers of Erik Zürcher, Brill, Leiden.

Sui, C 2014, ‘Meeting Taiwan’s new-age Buddhists’, BBC News Asia, 29 January, viewed 10 February 2015,

Wright, D 2011, The History of China, 2nd edn, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara.