Museums have never really been my thing. I lived in Taipei for five years before I ever stepped foot in the National Palace Museum, one of the most important museums in the Chinese-speaking world. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the comparatively small Museum of World Religions Taipei (世界宗教博物館), the only one of its kind in the world.
The brainchild of a Burmese-Chinese Buddhist monk, almost every element of the museum is imbued with spiritual meaning, tied together with an overall theme of interfaith dialog and unity among religions. The museum was designed by the same firm that worked on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and a section of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
One surprising aspect of the Museum of World Religions is the stark contrast between the peaceful, contemplative interior and the comparatively chaotic streets of Yonghe district, New Taipei City, right outside the front door, while the most memorable feature for most visitors are the meticulously designed miniature versions of 10 of the world’s great religious edifices.
If you are interested in religions, need an indoor idea for a rainy day, or want to get off the beaten track in Taipei, this museum is a great option! The Museum of World Religions is on my list of the top 50 things to do in Taiwan.
History of the Museum of World Religions Taipei
(reference: Museum of World Religions official website)
The parents of Hsin Tao (心道, born 1948) were among the thousands of Chinese who were pushed into Burma during the Chinese Civil War then eventually expatriated to Taiwan along with the KMT. During his time in Burma he was a guerilla soldier for four years. (See my food tour of Little Burma in New Taipei City, where most of Taiwan’s Burmese community lives today).
In Taiwan, Hsin Tao was ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of 25 at Fo Guang Shan Monastery, after which he led a solitary life of reclusion for over a decade. Living first in the hills of Waishuanghsi (外雙溪) in Shilin, Taipei, then around Longtan Lake (龍潭湖) in Yilan and finally the hills backing Fulong Beach (福隆海水浴場) in New Taipei City, he meditated in caves for up to 20 hours per day and lived on Chinese herbs and spring water.
In 1983 Hsin Tao established the Ling Jiou Monastery (靈鷲山無生道場) on Fulong Beach, which has a distinctive round pagoda in Fulong town that is visible if you look towards the mountains from the beach, as well as stupas, statues, and other features along a walking path that goes up the side of the mountain.
With a view to promoting tolerance and understanding among religions, Hsin Tao established the Museum of World Religions New Taipei City in 2001. In stark contrast to his mountain abodes, he intentionally chose Yonghe, which has the highest population density of any district in Taiwan (and one of the highest in the world), making it accessible to the masses.
Yonghe district is nestled in a bend in the Xindian river, which divides Taipei City from New Taipei City. The museum is about a 15 minute walk from Dingxi MRT station and in the same neighborhood as Lehua Night Market, which is one of greater Taipei’s best night markets, especially if you are looking for a non-touristy night market experience.
Taiwan is a country of many religions, but it’s education system does not teach about any of them. Because most religions are divided into so many sects, many Taiwanese are left skeptical and reluctant to have anything to do with them. Hsin Tao’s goal was to teach Taiwanese and international visitors the basics of all the world’s major religions, fostering respect and understand among them.
While most major Buddhist organizations in Taiwan focus on relieving people’s physical suffering, the Museum of World Religions seeks to relieve the suffering in people’s hearts and minds. Hsin Tao strived to make the museum both educational and fun, adopting technology to appeal to youths (see below) instead of only displaying antiquated religious artifacts.
According to the museum’s website, “By lighting the lamp of each person’s heart, and by using the dissemination of religious culture to cleanse the human heart, he hopes to bring an end to the committing of sins.”
Even though Hsin Tao is a Buddhist monk, the museum gives equal coverage to 10 of the world’s major faiths, and compares the visiting experience to “entering a religious department store.”
Hsin Tao is also the founder of UN-affiliated Global Family for Love and Peace, which has organized more than 10 international Buddhist-Muslim dialogues, and he sits on the board of World Religious Leaders for the UNESCO-sponsored Elijah Interfaith Institute.
Visiting the Museum
It would be easy to miss the Museum of World Religions. The street looks like every other in the greater Taipei region, and the tall, slender building is literally sandwiched between a department store an a row of apartment blocks with banks, spas, clothing stores and so on at street level.
Looking up from street level, though, you can’t miss it. 10 colored panels ascend the exterior, leading to symbols representing each of the 10 major world religions.
The entrance lobby feels more like the check-in desk at a 3-star hotel, but everything changes once you step into a dim elevator with soothing sounds and are whisked up to main exhibit on the 7th floor.
Visitors are first greeted by the words “The doors to goodness, wisdom and compassion are opened by keys of the heart.” To reach the main exhibit, you walk through a long corridor, first passing a water curtain, symbolizing purification, as water carries such meaning is all the major religions. Next is the “Pilgrim’s Way,” with pilgrims decorating the wall and the sounds of footsteps on various surfaces and religious murmurings from different languages.
At the end of the corridor, note that you can press your hands onto the black heat sensitive wall (we didn’t notice and missed it) to leave your temporary blessing. Next, you’ll either be in awe of confusion when you enter the “Golden Lobby,” which is dominated by two golden columns and a gold-leaf covered sphere based on the human eye. Standing inside it, the floor and ceiling are covered in religious iconography. There’s no English explanation, but I later read on the museum’s website that the Cosmograph on the floor is based on one from the Chartres Cathedral in France, but modified to include motifs from all world religions.
What impressed us most, however, was the gorgeous miniature replica of Shwedagon Temple in Rangoon, foreshadowing the collecting of replicas in the next room. Adjacent to the Golden Lobby there’s also a small theater showing a 12-minute film comprising creation myths from around the world (English with Mandarin subtitles, showing times 11:20, 13:20, 14:20, 15:20 16:20).
There’s also a daily guided tour at 2 p.m. (meet in the Golden Lobby at 1:50).
The Great Hall of World Religions
What truly makes the Museum of World Religions worth visiting is the Great Hall of World Religions, which contains 10 stunning miniature replicas of some of the world’s greatest religious structures.
The 10 buildings include: Kandariya Mahadev Temple (Hinduism), Assumption Cathedral (Eastern Orthodox Church), Golden Temple (Sikhism), Altneuschl (Judaism), Borobudur (Therevada Buddhism), Luce Memorial Chapel (located in Taichung, Taiwan, Christianity), Dome of the Rock (Islam), Ise Grand Shrine (Shintosim), Buddha’s Light Temple (in China, Mahayana Buddhism), and the Chartres Cathedral (Catholicism).
Each model is either 30 or 50 times smaller than the original, and the attention to detail in each of them is mesmerizing. I can’t even imagine how many hours were spent and how much research and painstaking effort went into creating the models.
Having been to many of these buildings, I was brought back to my travel experiences. Some of the models even have miniature cameras inside so that you can get a view of the interior on digital screens. Each of the models also has a sheet which visitors can take away (English and Mandarin) explaining the structure and its religious significance.
Around the periphery of the room are 10 displays: 8 permanent ones on the world’s major religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, and Shinto) and 2 rotating ones (currently ancient Egypt and the ancient Maya). On the floor in front of each display, there are religious motifs on the floor tiles.
When we visited on a weekday, we were literally the only visitors in the museum, until a small school group of young children arrived. It was actually quite cute to observe them sitting in front of the Hinduism display and learning about Indian culture, with their guide teaching them how to put on a turban and saree.
This made me quite happy, because having taught a lot of Taiwanese (both children and adults), I know that their education system doesn’t provide them with much about the outside world, and several times students of all ages have made comments to me showing their ignorance of (and mild racism towards) other cultures, particularly Indian, Southeast Asian, and African. That’s why I think that the Museum of World Religions truly is doing something important in Taiwan, and I hope that more schools (and families) will choose to take their kids there.
When we visited, we found all the staff in the museum exceptionally friendly, except there was one lady in the Great Hall of World Religions who, humorously, watched us like a hawk the whole time and got angry at us when (almost) stepped off the main walking route.
Other Things to Know
While the Great Hall of World Religions is truly the climax of the visit, beyond it there is also Avatamsaka World, a large suspended golden ball connecting the 7th and 6th floors within which visitors can watch a video projected on the ceiling. The 6th floor houses the Hall of Life’s Journey exhibit, covering the stages of life: birth, coming of age, mid-life, old age, death and the afterlife.
As you leave, the “Wall of Gratitude” shows handprints of those who have donated to the museum, while visitors can press their hands again onto a wall to see a parting blessing & fortune on a screen.
There are also temporary exhibitions at the Museum of World Religions, as well as Love Wonderland (separate fee), a cute children’s exhibit themed on different planets representing different forms of love. It’s not very big, so if you are traveling with kids, I wouldn’t say it’s worth going out of your way for; personally I’d take my kids for the museum’s main exhibit.
Admission to the museum is 150 for adults, 100 for teachers/students (ID proof necessary) or kids, and free for 2 and under. Love Wonderland or any special exhibitions are 100/80/free.
Opening times are Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last entry 4:30). I would say you only need about an hour to visit. The museum is closed on Mondays and Lunar New Year Eve to Lunar New Year day 5.