- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

TAIPEI, Taiwan — If you ever think that sitting in a cave staring at a wall for two years is a bad way to start a business, think again.The merit, social prestige and credit you accumulate during your withdrawal from the world will act like flypaper on wealthy donors, whose very hard cash you can use to spread the important messages of peace and love, as well as build a state-of-the-art Museum of World Religions for $66 million.That is what Dharma Master Hsin Tao Shin has done, and the result is an ultramodern museum that encompasses such a collision of ideas, theories and cultural trends that it would take a lucid semiotician to untangle the web.As one ascends to the museum’s entrance on the seventh floor, the light in the elevator’s glass walls grows stronger. A long corridor settles senses overheated by the urban bustle on the street below, while existential questions flashing on pillars set the tone for the experience:”What is the meaning of life?”“Who created the universe?”Don’t forget to note the texture of the 23-layer floor: As you approach the entrance, rough pebbles give way to a surface as smooth as marble.In the past few decades, Taiwan’s economic miracle has provided for some well-endowed Buddhist societies on the island.The largest and richest — the Foguang Shan Society, which hosted the infamous fund-raising lunch for Al Gore — has its own daily newspaper and since 1996 has operated Hsilai University in Rosemead, Calif. Others run hospitals and charities.With its Museum of World Religions, the Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society, founded by Dharma Master Hsin, has created its own special niche in this cutthroat, lucrative, burgeoning marketplace for spiritual solace and enlightenment.”It’s like a department store: You can choose your own religion,” said Evelyn Kuo, media supervisor at the museum. Designed by the architect Ralph Appelbaum, who also planned the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Museum of World Religions, located on top of a Sogo department store in Yonghe, a suburb of Taipei, is much more than an old-fashioned depository for rare artifacts.It is the latest in museum fashion: a “conceptual museum” that aims to provide a “total experience” and draws inspiration from such different pioneers as the Museum of Horror in London and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.In the Awakening Hall, celebrities such as Ravi Shankar relate their moments of insight. Visitors who see the light may sit in front of a camera and record their own epiphanies, which are posted promptly on the museum’s Web site.A multimedia presentation walks visitors through the stages of life as viewed through the prisms of the world’s major religions. Even the wooden benches at the different stages have something to say: The birth station’s bench is made of fast-growing birch wood. The last stop’s bench is elm.”The best coffins are made of elm,” explained Hong Chih Shih, the museum’s director.On the floor above, ancient objects from the world’s largest religions are displayed sleekly amid the latest digital technology and guarded by a chubby clay figure, the Lord of the Lands, a Taiwanese deity.The showcase for Hinduism houses a collection of stone statues.In the window for Islam is section of the Kiswah — the black, gold-embroidered curtain that hangs around the Kaba in Mecca — the only such gift presented by the Muslim World League to a non-Muslim organization. Two of the showcases house rotating temporary exhibitions highlighting the ancient Mayan and Egyptian religions.”My next project is a University of World Religions,” said Venerable Dharma Master Hsin, seated on his throne in the museum’s reception room.It has been a regular, busy day for the master. By 4 p.m., he already has ticked off seven items on his schedule. With some 100,000 devotees and monthly donors around the island longing to see and hear him, not much time is left for the solitary meditation of a monk.Having built such an impressive museum dedicated to tearing down the barriers among faiths, would the Buddhist master steer a seeker toward his own religion?The master deflects the question politely. “Choosing a religion is like choosing a wife,” he replied.

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