January 21, 2008
The World of Taiwan's Temple Heroes
Step between the dragon pillars of any large Taiwan temple, ride the scent of sandalwood to the inner courtyard, and you will enter a world of Chinese gods and heroes.? Meet the red-faced God of War, Guan Gong (關公) and the ethereal Goddess of Mercy (觀音) ?See San Tai-tz (三太子), patron deity of taxi drivers, with one foot on his “fire wheel”.? Perhaps you will find yourself before the God of Longevity (壽仙), who is offering you the Peach of Immortality.? You need not be a card-carrying polytheist to appreciate the rich mythology of temple worship. ?
Monotheistic religions – such as Christianity, Islam and the Jewish faith – emphasize worship of a single God, who has total control over the affairs of Earth and the lives of every individual.? Polytheistic Taiwanese do not “worship” in this sense.? They praise and petition a variety of gods, whose individual authority extends to such limited departments as rain, childbirth, medicine, and scholarly success.? They approach these authorities much as one might communicate with the Minister of Education or a UN High Commissioner: humbly but in a businesslike way.
The Celestial Kingdom, in religious Taoism, is considered a realm much like the bureaucracy of imperial China, with Taoist priests occupying the lowest rung of the hierarchy, uniting the human with the celestial realms.? A Taoist priest may write mystic letters on special paper, and burn it on the end of a sword to communicate the needs of the faithful.? As an official of the Celestial Kingdom, he is paid for this intercession.?
In practice, few of Taiwan’s temples are strictly Taoist, and most local temples mix Confucian wisdom with both Buddhism and Taoism. ?Temple worship in these
could be described as “congregational” (as opposed to hierarchic). Temple officials have various credentials and various methods of assisting their fellow worshipers, but
the clergy are often completely absent from day-to-day temple worship.? Quite a good deal of temple activity is organized and executed by the worshipers themselves.?
What Goes on in Taiwan Temples?
At various common times during the year – at the Mid-autumn Festival, for instance, and during the weeks before college-entrance examinations – families will come at their own convenience, light sticks of incense, bow three times and speak silently to the statue of their chosen deity.? They may ask a favor, thank the god for past help, or else further their own relationship with the god in some other way.? Then they will plant the incense in an immense urn, bow again and step aside for others to approach.
On a large table near the altar, the faithful will place offerings to the deity. ?Different methods are used to propitiate different gods.? While sandalwood incense is more usual, lit cigarettes are commonly left on the altar of the “Dog Temple” (十八王公),
on Taiwan’s North Coast.? Matsu and Guan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy) accept only vegetarian food offerings, while whole pigs are splayed before the Hakka ancestors at Yi Min Temple in Hsinchu.? Some gods like a little wine, and tea may be offered to almost any deity.?
Food offerings are left a little while before the altar, allowing the deity to absorb the spiritual value of the offering; then the items are carried home by the worshipers, who eat them, feeling that they have been blessed by the gods.?
It is generally felt that long and faithful attention by a worshiper entitles that one to special favor.? Sometimes, in lieu of longtime service, the worshiper will make a dramatic promise, such as to make a large donation to the temple if a wish is granted.? The Chinese are, above all, a practical people, and temples must be maintained. ?It is felt that the gods respond favorably to improvements in their temples, so cash donations are considered efficacious offerings.
What is expected in return for these offerings? ?Essentially, good government.? Just as one might petition an earthly government for better bus service or a new school gymnasium, the faithful remind their gods of needed services, and believe that these will be forthcoming if they have worshipped properly.? Should problems continue, a meeting may be held at the temple to discuss changing the feng shui (geomantic arrangement) of buildings or gardens, or erecting more impressive buildings. Worship, in this sense, is a living compact between the celestial governors and the terrestrial governed.
More Than Museums
Although we can learn a great deal from Taiwan worship, these temples are not mere displays of history or mythology.? They are living temples, the very core of local communities, and the people in them are quite serious about their business there.? While it may appear to Western visitors that a very casual atmosphere prevails, there is actually a strong sense of propriety in Taiwan temples that may not meet the eye. ?The loud conversations, spontaneous greetings and an apparent lack of organization among the worshipers are actually all part of temple activity, and not at all inconsistent with piety and devotion.
Look closely at the Taiwanese circulating about these temples, and you will find people not so unlike the worshipers at Western churches. ?They want to improve themselves and their lives. ?They are praying to the highest entities they know, for things all humans crave. ?And they are taking care to respect and enjoy their neighbors, at a place dedicated to the decency of their community.
Precisely because important community activities are taking place, however informally, an aggressive foreign photographer may not be appreciated.? Pictures may be taken inside the temples, but one should not come between the worshipers and their altars, nor plague them with incessant flashes or distracting dialogue.? Outside, the people are less intent on their temple business, and may be inclined to start up a conversation or pose for a photo.
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