Last year I briefly visited the historic Fahua Monastery 法華寺 in Tainan 台南. Like many of my explorations of temples in Taiwan this one wasn’t planned in advance. I noticed the monastery from the roadside while riding a scooter through the back streets south of the train station and decided to stop and check it out on a whim. As it turns out, Fahua Monastery has quite a long and distinguished history—going all the way back to 1684—and the interior is unusually minimalistic and serene compared to most other temples I have visited here in Taiwan 台灣.
It was completely deserted when I stepped through the gatehouse and began wandering around the complex. There were no worshippers inside, nobody lighting incense and making prayers. A calm solemnity seemed to pervade the space, isolated as it was from the busy city streets surrounding it on all sides. At that time I hadn’t realized it was more monastery than temple, though in fairness it is seldom necessary to make a clear distinction between the various kinds of religious buildings commonly found in Taiwan 台灣 e.g. gōng 宮, miào 廟, táng 堂, sì 寺, and so on. Here there seems to be strong emphasis on the monastic side of the Taiwanese spiritual experience in stark contrast to the more riotous temple culture I’m used to seeing in Tainan 台南.
To briefly summarize the history of Fahua Monastery, it was the first Buddhist temple in Taiwan 台灣 built under Qing Dynasty rule, which began in 1683. The land was formerly a hermitage by the name of Butterfly Dream Park 夢蝶園 (pinyin: Mèngdiéyuán), originally owned by Ming loyalist Lǐ Màochūn 李茂春, who passed away in 1675. Reading between the lines, it would appear that Jiǎng Yùyīng 蔣毓英, the first Qing administrator of Taiwan, procured the land for the development of a new temple, and Fahua Monastery was born.
Although the monastery continued to expand and prosper over the centuries it was almost completely destroyed by allied bombing in World War II. Apparently almost everything on site is a post-war reconstruction, which surprised me. The place already seems quite old and rundown, as these photos will attest. Perhaps they were just about to begin renovations of some kind when I made my visit?
The clock struck five and a nun materialized at my side, ending my reverie to escort me to the front gates with a thin smile. And with that, my time at the historic Fahua Monastery was over.