Taking on Taiwan: UP KRC research assistant shares experience as a TEEP student

| Written by Raymond Barreno, UP KRC

Raymond Barreno of the UP Korea Research Center shared his experience as a TEEP Student at Nanhua University, Taiwan. The TEEP Program explored the unique features of various Taiwanese religions, particularly Buddhism in Taiwan. In the photo above, Mr. Barreno (2nd from left) stands with Prof. Chue Ming Shih, Mr. Li Chen Yi and other TEEP Students. (Photo from Raymond Barreno, UP KRC)

The past and the present meet seamlessly in Taiwan, which is a popular tourist destination due to its advanced technologies and efficient public transportation, as well as its rich cultural heritage and picturesque natural environment. However, the Heart of Asia is also known for the quality of its globally competitive higher education system, which is on par with other leading Asian universities.

In 2015, the Ministry of Education (MOE) Taiwan launched the Taiwan Experience Education Program (TEEP). This program allows international students and graduates to participate in short-term professional programs under the supervision of Taiwanese universities and colleges. It aims to provide an in-depth educational experience in Taiwan and to make the participants competitive in the professional world. The TEEP program has numerous fields of interest ranging from Science and Technology and Humanities and Social Sciences to Agriculture and E-learning.

On November 08, 2023, I participated in the TEEP Program offered by Nanhua University under the Graduate Institute of Religious Studies TEEP Program. Cross-field Tour and Record Research on Taiwan鈥檚 religion, Culture, and Art Sustainability. Nanhua University is a private university located in Dalin Township, Chiayi, Taiwan, four to five hours away from Taipei via local train, and one to two hours via High Speed Rail (HSR). Chiayi County is located in the south-central part of Taiwan. The county is known for its numerous tourist attractions outside of Taipei, such as the Alishan Recreation Park. As a Filipino who witnessed the cultural impact of Meteor Garden in the early 2000s, I couldn鈥檛 resist dropping by the National Chung Cheng University, where the famous Taiwanese drama was filmed.

The TEEP Program at Nanhua University was under the guidance of the program adviser, Professor Chue Ming Shih and the program coordinator, Mr. Li Chen Yi. After arriving in Taipei, I was able to join my first historical tour of Taipei City together with other TEEP students. We explored the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, 228 Peace Park, National Taiwan Museum, and Jishou Park. The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall and 228 Peace Park are just some of the edifices in Taiwan that house memorabilia and share information regarding the fight for democracy and freedom of the Taiwanese against dictatorial rule.

In addition, the Taiwanese government has made efforts to push for the de-authoritarianism of Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall from being a sanctuary honoring the dictatorial rule of Chiang Kai Shek to a hub of freedom of speech in Taiwan, by expanding the sections and collections highlighting the human rights abuses in the country. It is fascinating to uncover how the Taiwanese people value democracy and freedom of speech. I believe that it could serve as a good model for countries such as the Philippines that struggle to maintain democracy and freedom of speech.

I was also given the opportunity to serve as an international volunteer at Fo Guang Shan Monastery, for which I received a certificate of completion for my service. Fo Guang Shan is one of the biggest Buddhist groups in Taiwan. This monastery is not the usual traditional monastery that I often see on television or social media. The complex is situated between three mountains and it has many interactive museums with very advanced technologies and virtual realities.

Photo of Nanhua University Gate. (Photo from Raymond Barreno, UP KRC)

A typical day inside a Buddhist monastery starts as early as 5:00 AM with attending the morning chant in the main hall. Devotees and volunteers are strictly prohibited to wear revealing clothes while inside the monastery. The main hall was full of lighted candles that shone brightly on the three statues of Buddha at the center of the hall. Before entering the premises of the man hall, the devotees and monks need to fall in line and move silently. After finding a seat inside the hall, they then start to chant Buddhist incantations written on Chinese Buddhist sutras.

After the chanting, the devotees and the monks will again silently fall in line to go out of the main hall and proceed to another building where the dining hall for breakfast is located. There, the monks are seated in front while the devotees and volunteers sit at the back. Once everyone is seated, the monks begin their prayers, and volunteer cooks will then one by one serve the food. A typical meal is composed of rice or a congee-like dish and a combination of freshly steamed vegetables such as cabbage and carrots. Everyone is expected to finish their meal before leaving the dining hall. After everyone is finished eating, the monks begin to chant prayers thanking Buddha for the meal. The volunteer cooks then collect each and every plate and utensil.

In the afternoon, we either went to the Interactive Museum to discover their collections or interact with fellow volunteers with whom we shared our experiences. During dinner, a free vegan buffet meal that adheres to Buddhist standards (no onions, garlic, and other spices that trigger desire, according to Buddhist beliefs) was provided. Unlike the breakfast meal, the dinner was not as meticulous and devotees prayed on their own. The day inside the monastery could end early with the students going back to the dormitory, or devotees could participate in the night meditation in the main hall where Buddhist monks usually spent the night.

Living in a Buddhist monastery is indeed a life-changing experience. I learned more about the teachings of humanistic Buddhism, which is to serve and help the people in need. In addition, it was fascinating to know that Buddhists in Taiwan have adapted to modern technologies. The museums and galleries inside Fo Guang Shan are very interactive and advanced. I also conducted an interview with Master Hui Zi and learned from him that helping others is one of the most important teachings of Buddhism.

I also participated in the historical tours of various Buddhist temples around Chiayi. Frequently, small Buddhist temples and shrines around the towns in Taiwan exhibit syncretism of the three Chinese religions: Daoism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion. Shrines and temples commonly have the statues of Taoist deities and some Buddhist elements such as the White Elephant and Tigers. Most of the time, Taiwanese people can identify the difference between Buddhist and Taoist practices. Many devotees bow in-front of the statues, light incense, and give offerings inside the shrine. On the other hand, pure Buddhist Temples often have the statue of Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy.

Overall, the TEEP Program is a great opportunity for Filipino students and recent graduates who want to experience international exchange or pursue short-term studies or internships in Taiwan. Students who want to explore the PH-ROC relations may consider applying to this program so as to have a deeper understanding and to gain more experiential knowledge of Taiwan. TEEP students may also receive an allowance of up to NTD 15,000 per month (PhP25,000-27,000) and host universities may also provide free accommodations. Aside from the learning experience and financial benefits, TEEP also creates exciting memories that will last a lifetime.



Photo with Master Hui Zi upon completing my volunteering service at Fo Guang Shan as part of the TEEP Program. (Photo from Raymond Barreno, UP KRC)