Doing cultural things is really normal in Taiwan, even with the locals. Maybe it was in England, but I was too poor and too car-less to be able to go far and wide at my leisure. Here in Taiwan, a day off is really rather precious so people take full advantage of it and try and so as much stuff as possible.
One such touristy spot is Fo Guang Shan. As my friend exclaimed when he checked it out on Tripadvisor, “That’s one big-ass Buddha!” It’s not actually very far from where I live out in the Kaohsiung countryside, so it wasn’t a total trek to get there. If you’re an old-timer in Taiwan and remember going years ago, it might be worth revisiting again now. But make sure you give yourself a few good hours to do so, and also time to do both old Fo Guang Shan and the new one.
We started at the old one, and I would recommend others to do the same. It’s relative peace and calm is really nice (especially if you come from the city). You’ll have a bit more time to peruse and read all the different plaques and signs. Make sure you take into account the “this is a place of worship not for sightseeing”. Be respectful of that while you walk around. With no ill will meant, but old FGS feels a bit like a Disney Park for Buddhism. There are shrines tucked in corners and on top of hills. A tea shop is hidden behind the Main Shrine. There’s the super well-kept Lumbini Garden with happy little Buddha statues lining the path as you walk along. There’s plenty to see and take in. Don’t forget to go to the Pure Land Cave, either. There’s also the cafeteria you can go to for lunch, made by the monks. We didn’t go this time (we just weren’t hungry), but be sure to ask around. Monks walking around are usually more than happy to help and offer directions.
Once you’re done here, you can go get back in your car and drive 200m down to the next parking lot (your legs will thank you later I promise). Now, the new FGS. If you want to better understand the history of the place, then I suggest that once you reach the plaza with all the pagodas, go into the ‘8th’ one and ask to watch a short, 10 minute introductory video about it (in English). In short, the new FGS was built because one of the three teeth left from the original Buddha was given to the monastery to protect. You’ll hear all about its journey and how the new FGS was built. It really does give you more appreciation of the scale, size and just how well-finished it is.
When you get to the Main Hall, make sure you run up the stairs to see the big Buddha. But there’s quite a shrine or two downstairs, too, so make sure you take a look at that. If you want to see Buddha’s tooth, you will have to pay for a guided tour that takes half an hour (it’s usually in Chinese, they didn’t tell us about any English options unfortunately). It’s called the Jade Shrine Tour, I believe.
The new FGS can feel a bit… I don’t know… huge? A bit over the top if you ask me. And the Front Hall is stuffed with shops and trinkets it doesn’t feel like people come here to worship or even admire anymore at all, but rather come here for the shopping. There’s even a Starbucks! There can also be hordes of people if you come in tourist season or at the weekend, which isn’t ideal for a peaceful feel. For that you’ll need to go to the old FGS, the ones tourists usually skip out on.
All in all, I would say one can’t really go without the other to get a full picture of what FGS means and to understand its past and present. Buddhism is clearly making its way into the 21st century with their head held high, and I have to say, for that, I applaud FGS.