A cove south of Hualien on Taiwan's eastern coast, where Tzu Chi Foundation is locatedA cove south of Hualien on Taiwan's eastern coast, where Tzu Chi Foundation is located Credit: Photo by Bonnie TaiAn Island Return

I now have two passports. The newest one is forest green with gold letters stamped in English and traditional Chinese. Except for these facts, it looks very much like a United States passport, although the characters say Republic of China on top, with Taiwan Passport on the bottom. In possession of these and a minute portion of farmland inherited from my paternal grandmother, I feel immeasurably privileged. Many decades, and a lifetime from a childhood as an immigrant learning to speak English at the same time I learned to read, a new perception of self awakens even as I contemplate anatta, the Buddhist concept of no-self.

Buddhism is not my mother faith, as English is not my mother tongue. For seven weeks of a ten-week sabbatical in 2015, I lived on the earthquake-prone central eastern coast of predominantly Buddhist Taiwan. Hualien is about a two-hour train ride from Taipei, where I was born. I was relearning and learning Chinese beyond a four-year old’s vocabulary and my college Chinese classes, a foreigner in my fatherland. Often I was asked, 你從哪裡回來了? From where are you coming back? I knew I was on familiar ground the first time I returned in my twenties and bit into a fresh guava, my tropical version of Proust’s madeleine.

Taiwan’s physical and social landscape matches my inner landscape more perfectly than any of the countries on the four continents where I have lived. Sandwiched between mountains over ten thousand feet high on one side and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean on the other, Hualien evokes a sense of possibility, spaciousness, extreme and rugged beauty, and danger that concretizes paradox and challenges dualism.

Buddhism, particularly its non-theistic, question-authority emphasis on the experiential learning of the nature of our minds, also transcends dualistic perceptions of reality. I have been studying the dharma since being introduced to the work of Pema Chödrön, US-born teacher, author, and Buddhist nun. I am also a feminist. The alchemy of these two commitments creates a heady draft: Buddhism teaches equanimity and non-attachment to my embodied ego, whereas feminism affirms my personal, embodied experience of this world. I was in Taiwan in part to restore an “accurate and usable past,” in the words of Rita Gross, a Buddhist feminist theologian. Studying Taiwanese Buddhist nuns and laywomen is part of a larger feminist project. I want to help clear a trail created by girls and women who liberated themselves in spite of two generations of Japanese colonization, wartime traumas, and nearly four decades of martial law. The trail has been difficult to find, obscured by the debris of chauvinism, institutional sexism, and misogyny.

Jing Si Hall, the main hall of Tzu Chi University, where faculty member Bonnie Tai spent seven weeks relearning Chinese during a sabbatical.Jing Si Hall, the main hall of Tzu Chi University, where faculty member Bonnie Tai spent seven weeks relearning Chinese during a sabbatical. Credit: Photo by Bonnie TaiThe word for a monastic in Chinese is chujiaren, literally, people who leave their family and home. Historically, young women who joined the “vegetarian cult” were often perceived as uneducable, unmarriageable. Today, Taiwanese Buddhist nuns, bhiksunis, are some of the most well-educated women in the country. They choose to leave family and home to dedicate their lives to higher learning and service to all living things. In two institutions I visited, bhiksunis have chosen a path relinquishing the self in service of humanity and the planet while challenging traditional limits on women’s freedom, autonomy, and agency.

Master Cheng Yan, a globally renowned bhiksuni, led a group of nuns to establish Tzu Chi (Compassion Relief) Foundation, or TCF. Its university, where I studied Chinese, is part of an early-childhood to post-graduate educational enterprise that includes a teaching hospital. Although TCF is considered one of the world’s largest Buddhist charities, the nuns grow their own food and generate income through candle-, incense-, and pottery-making. Cheng Yan, one of Time magazine’s hundred most influential people in 2011, blends Buddhist precepts with Confucian values to encourage Taiwanese laypeople and TCF global members to better steward the environment, “spinning gold from trash” through the recycling of plastic waste into emergency blankets distributed to disaster victims. Walking between abundant rows of fresh greens and fields of cosmos, I marveled at the scope of an organization that started out barely two generations ago during a tumultuous era in Taiwanese history.

Where TCF takes a multi-pronged approach to ending suffering by providing access to quality healthcare through its hospital and medical school, K–16 education guided by Buddhist and Confucian ethics, environmental education, and humanitarian aid to disaster victims, the nuns of the Luminary Buddhist Institute (LBI or  Xiangguang Si), focus their efforts on educating each individual. I arrived at the steps of the temple on the back of a small scooter driven by an elderly man wearing a yellow hardhat, who cut the rope tying the large plastic crate to the back of his scooter to give me a lift. Over a delicate cup of green tea, Master Wu Yin, the founding president of LBI, explained that Buddhism is Buddha’s education, outlining what the monastic should do. “The temple is an educational institution,” she told me. LBI provides nuns with Buddha’s education in preparation to teach laypeople the skills to live harmoniously. As a result, many older women students, some of whom never completed a primary education, gain literacy in addition to inner peace.

Pema Chödrön often quotes Zen Master Dogen: “To study the self is to forget the self.” I am inspired by the example of these women who reappropriate the tired trope of the self-sacrificing daughter, wife, and mother to transcend their gender and to redefine self-sacrifice in terms that make obsolete the self at the same time that they embrace their solidarity with all of humanity.

Returning to my fatherland and relearning my mother tongue, this taste of studying and forgetting the self inspires a dispassionate passion for trail work—moving a twig here, an armload of branches there, whole downed trees, roots and all. Two sets of passports and my grandmother’s land just might help me remember to forget.


A cove south of Hualien on Taiwan’s eastern coast, where Tzu Chi Foundation is located.

Jing Si Hall, the main hall of Tzu Chi University, where faculty member Bonnie Tai  spent seven weeks relearning Chinese during a sabbatical. Photos by Bonnie Tai.