When I got my ticket to Taipei, I wasn’t aware that I’d have the most amazing guide to take me around the city. My friend, Pengshian, lives there and she’s a real, 100% Taipei lady. When she said that she’d take me around the place, I was happy. But when she added I could stay at her parents’ house, I was completely psyched.
Pengshian’s parents live on the 13th floor. I arrived at night and the first thing I did after my friend set me up in her old bedroom, was to roll the window blind up. I opened my mouth in wonder… I was stunned by the view outside. I was looking at a vibrant square brightened by city lights, with a sparkling skyline looming in the background. This was the bedroom Pengshian had been missing when we had met in London, and I instantly understood why.
Pengshian didn’t share only this view with me. She let me in on a few Taipei’s more or less known secrets.
One of them was the Longshan Temple.
The temple is squeezed between modern residential and office buildings. Surrounded by concrete and glass, the temple’s traditional design seems to be a time travelling portal. You cross the gate and, just as well, you could have crossed to a parallel reality.
The contrast between the architecture styles is stark and photogenic and completely surreal. The temple was founded in 1738 but its current design carries marks of wars and earthquakes when the structure had to be fixed and rebuild.
There are so many attention-grabbing, unfamiliar and beautiful elements here, that I don’t know where to focus my appreciation and I spend the first half an hour running around in excitement to Pengshian’s patient gaze.
There are so many mind-blowing things to see at the temple!
When you enter the premises, you’re welcomed by a hushed hum of a waterfall where you can do your spiritual cleansing. That itself is enough to distract me. Then all the fish. Then the architecture. The tourists taking pictures. The surroundings, the office buildings, the praying people, the smell of incense, different altars with different deities, the display of wealth, the souvenirs!
I must have looked like an ADHD kid.
Once I got my wits back, I was able to slow down.
I stopped and inhaled. I looked around.
And then it hit me: people were praying here…
Well, then I shall pray with them!
The religion in Taiwan is a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism with minority of Christianity, Mormonism, the Unification Church, Islam, and Hinduism. During the Japanese occupation (1895 – 1945), there was a strong persecution of Taoism, which was associated with Chinese culture. Because of this, Taoists had to secretly worship their Gods in Buddhist temples.
This eventually gave birth to a specific blend of beliefs, which merged under the roof of one temple.
The praying ritual.
Three faiths converging in one place of worship seemed like a perfect environment to add my own beliefs.
Pengshian, I want to pray, I whispered. Show me how.
You want to pray…? Pengshien raised her eyebrows but seeing the eager nodding of my head she just said, Alright. Let’s get the incense sticks.
If you decide to pray at the Longshan Temple, know that there’s a ritual involved.
First, you take three sticks of incense. You light them at the entrance altar, bow your head slightly and hold the burning sticks up to your forehead. Bow three times.
Now is time you introduce yourself. Let the Gods know who is standing in front of them. Tell them your name, where you come from, where you live. Make sure the address is correct.
This part is completely up to you. Reveal your deepest wishes and requests and send them upward. The smoke of the burning incense will take your prayers to the Gods.
As I stood in the crowd of people, some of them focused and silent, some of them sitting by the walls running praying beads between their fingers, some of them chanting their prayers aloud, the power of the temple sank into me and I let it carry me forward.
Go to the next altar. Repeat.
You start with three incense sticks and you leave them at three different altars. In this fashion, you go around the temple (walk counterclockwise) and you finish the praying at the place where you started your journey.
But this is not it.
The best part is actually to come.
Now, you’ve got a chance to ask the Gods a question. If they permit it, of course. In order to find out if today is your lucky day, take two small blocks of wood that resemble half-moons. These are your YES and NO answers.
The half-moons have two sides: one flat and one rounded concave. Ask the Gods if you may ask them a question and toss the half-moons onto the floor. There are three possible combinations of the objects falling: if both of them land on the concave side, the answer is NO. If they both end up on their flat side, the answer is also NO. If one lands on the concave side and the other on the flat side, the answer is YES.
I prayed and I asked for the permission and got two straight NOs. In your face. Oh Gods, please, I’m here just for a moment, I won’t be able to come back to the temple. Please, let me ask the question. YES. Yes! You only get three chances, so I was relived.
Hold the half-moons and pray asking your question.
Then go to a basket with all with the answers. The answers come in the form of long flat wooden sticks with numbers from 1 to 100 etched in them. When you ready, pick one. Read the number. Then ask the Gods, Is this the real answer? And toss the half-moons onto the floor. 78. Is it the real answer? NO. Alright. Let’s do it again.
You also have three goes at this, so you better focus or otherwise, you’ll have to come back the next day and go through the same process. Not ideal if you’re leaving Taipei the next day…
36. Is this the real answer? NO.
OK, Gods. Please, don’t play tricks on me now…
One last try. I pick a new number and I focus my will and energy so much that I can almost levitate. Half-moons to the floor. Is it the real answer? YES. Thank you, Gods.
Now Pengshian leads me to a large cabinet with one hundred drawers. We go to the drawer with my number, open it and take a fragile piece of paper. And we read, trying to make sense of ancient Chinese.
The whole experience is highly spiritual.
My mind stays for a while longer in that realm of Gods, burning incense and prayers, even though we’re already half-way through Taipei’s traffic, hurrying for a family lunch to which I was fortunate to be invited.
It’s so amazing that there are religions that allow you this direct connection with the divine.
In Catholicism, we often pray for an answer, we pray for a sign. Here you have it straight. Written on a piece of paper. Ready to take it with you. Ready to remind you the due course every time you’re in the need of guidance.