There is no shortage of gods, or temples, idols and icons in Taiwan. As in many other destinations in Asia, the Taiwanese pantheon is wide and deep. But unlike some other parts of Asia, the temples here have a daily vibrancy. The rich culture and history of the Taiwanese people and of the region are accessible through the temples, and the mythology and rituals that are part of temple life.
As the vast portion of Taiwan’s almost 25-million people have as their ancestors those who emigrated from south China’s Fujian and Quangdong provinces, it is not surprising that the Taiwanese pantheon includes the structure and fundamentals of Chinese mythology.
The Jade Emperor is the Heavenly Grandfather, one of the primordial emanations of the Tao. The San Kaun trinity are the rulers of heaven, earth and the waters and protectors from evil and calamity; they are usually depicted as three bearded mandarins often sitting adjacent to each other. Hsuan Tien is a fierce soldier, slayer of dragons who may be accompanied by his generals or troops and, interestingly, is the patron of those starting businesses. Pao Sheng is the god of medicine, a legendary physician deified after curing an ailing empress in the 10th century. He is the principal deity in over 100 Taiwanese temples. And perhaps most popular in Taiwan, Ma Tsu, the deified daughter of a Fujian fisherman who saved her brothers and father when they were caught in a typhoon, is now the patron of sailors. She is the principal deity in almost 400 Taiwanese temples. She is often depicted with a flat crown and a bead screen reminiscent of the Jade Emperor, and is usually accompanied by two demons she vanquished now her servants, Chein Li Yen, (“Thousand Mile Eyes ”), and red faced Shun Feng Erh (“Ears of Favorable Winds ”). There are many, many other gods, spirits and local folk heroes also resident in Taiwanese temples.
Local mythology places familiar effigies in many temples throughout Taiwan. Ears of Favorable Winds and Thousand Miles Eyes are well known guardians of the island’s fishermen and servants of the goddess Ma Tsu.
For the Taiwanese, gods and spirits are living things, and as such, require food, clothing, daily necessities and, of course, a home. The temples are their homes, or for some, their palaces or courts. Not all gods depicted may actually “reside” in a single temple simultaneously; in belief, the god’s presence may be a function of need of its supplicant, who often seeks to connect with the relevant spirit by making an offering of burning incense. Frequently, worshipers bring food or flowers to temple when seeking guidance on day-to- day problems. However, for festivals, the offerings are more extravagant. Such offerings may well include goats, pigs and dressy clothing—all traditional, not Westernized, as would be appropriate for gods of one’s ancestors. And money, of course. Not real money—that would be insulting—but ghost money, usually made from bamboo or rice paper and printed with designs or sometimes decorated with gold or silver threads. Ghost money is often specially folded, sometimes shaped into forms, say of an ingot. It is believed to bring luck and to be an appropriate provision of necessary resources for the gods or ancestors departed but whose spirit continues to dwell in the natural world. Ghost money is burned every fifteen days in braziers at temples, at businesses and outside of homes, increasingly creating a head butt between traditionalists and ecologically minded Taiwanese.
Many religious or spiritual traditions exist in Taiwan, anchored by Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, with some missionary-driven Christianity and a bit of Islam. But traditional gods and spirits are the dominant culture of the island, with heavenly beings’ lives anthropomorphized to allow the spirit world and the material world to coexist in daily life. Thus it is that birthdays of gods and spirits are celebrated almost daily throughout the year (given the large number of occupants of the Taiwanese pantheon), for example, Ma Tsu, the deified daughter of the fisherman, whose birthday is celebrated on the 23rd day of the third month of the lunar year.
In Taipei, we took an afternoon to visit the Longshan Temple, where for three plus centuries Taiwan’s meek and powerful have come to pray and work out solutions for life’s troubles. The temple is dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist representation of compassion, but its statues and icons mix most Chinese traditions. From the street in Wanhua, an original district in Taipei, it presented a quiet, unremarkable exterior that hid (briefly) the vibrant beauty of the temple and worship services inside. The temple’s internal design is traditional siheyuan, a four-building courtyard, with a roof of mosaic dragons, phoenixes and other mythical creatures, a distinctive high-point of Taiwanese art. That afternoon the temple courtyard was jammed with worshippers, offerings, and choked with incense. “Services” seemed chaotic, or perhaps individualized and random, with many participants chanting from texts, others bowing with incense sticks, some fingering beads. Monks attended a Buddhist image at an inside chapel. It seemed akin to Brownian motion, but within the chaos, provided a meditative environment to focus the mind and leave the crush of daily activities behind.
Two hours from Taipei by fast train is Tainan City, the oldest city in Taiwan. Blessed with wonderful local cuisine and an engaging history (including the Dutch East India Company and Fort Zeelania), it is also the site of some of the most interesting temples in Taiwan. The Datianhou Gong or Grand Ma Tsu Temple is a Taoist shine, the original home of King Ningjing of the Tungning Kingdom, dating from the late 1600s. It was the first temple dedicated to Ma Tsu in Taiwan, a blatant attempt of the then ruling generals to curry favor with the locals by honoring the Heavenly Goddess. Here Ma Tsu is depicted as a large golden presence in the center of the temple. She is flanked right and left by her monster servants Qianli Yuan (Thousand Mile Eyes) and Xufong Er (Ears of Favorable Winds) who together with Ma Tsu patrol the seas and the Formosa Straight for sailors in distress.
Tainan is also home to one of the oldest Confucian Temples, Kong Miao. This temple has grounds. The designs here are simpler, almost minimalist by comparison to the glitz of the tiny Grand Ma Tsu temple. Statues are replaced by inscribed tablets. Among the people we met here was a poet working with traditional brushes and inks. It was easy to envision monastic life and serious scholarship.
From Tainan, we set out for Sun Moon Lake and the across the central mountains to Tarako National Park. East of Tainan, we stopped to visit the temple of the Sunglasses Buddha. To us, this seemed at first a bit like a Margaritaville tourist stop, but be careful of contempt prior to investigation. This east facing temple, high on a plateau south of the Alishan forest, greets a brilliant sunrise each morning; the sunglasses protect the Buddha from the sun’s harshest light. Seriously. Here we were greeted by locals—our guide was a welcome intermediary—enjoyed fresh fruit and joined morning worshipers to cast our moon blocks (bwah bwey) to make sure we could make it through the forest and over the mountains on the tiny back roads that cross the island’s mountainous divide. And while the temple here was not as packed as the Longshan temple in Taipei, it was clear that serious temple life and connecting with local spirits remains an important part of daily living in Taiwan, both for city dwellers and country folk.
Northwest of the Sunglasses Buddha temple, our guide took us to the Chung Tai Chan (“Zen”) Monastery outside of Puli. Here ancient tradition meets contemporary teaching in an unexpectedly moving, but exceedingly lavish setting. Our temple guide–a novitiate—took us through the Hall of Heavenly Kings with its happy Buddha and guardian pillars, through the Great Majesty Hall with its red granite Sakyamuni (historical) Buddha, and finally to the stunning white jade Rocana Buddha in the appropriately named Great Magnificence Hall. What a very long way from reading Siddhartha so many years ago, and what a humbling, empowering experience this side trip was.
Taiwan is an extraordinary way to explore Pacific Rim culture. From its high mountain tea gardens, to its cultural sites and its National Palace Museum, it is a perfect and easily accessible counterbalance to walking the Great Wall, looking at Xi’an’s terracotta warriors and traveling to ponder the Yangtze and the Three Gorges Dam. Its people are warm and easy to meet. But it is in its temples that we found the soul and raison d’ être of our time in Taiwan. In their silent majesty, these temples had so much to say.