Situated in the heart of Taipei, Longshan Temple, for me, represents the reverence for tradition, as well as the compassionate nature of the Taiwanese people. The outer walls of the temple do nothing to convey the beauty that lies within. The first view you get upon entering the outer gate are two different water installations. On the left hand side, a dragon and a coy fish shoot water into the air. They are surrounded by lush greenery, creating a tropical paradise. On the right, water cascades down a faux waterfall into a pond filled with massive coy fish. All at once, you feel as though you have left the city grind and entered a sanctuary. Your senses are both heightened and relaxed, as you smell the incense floating through the air, gaze upon the many incarnations of the Buddha, and hear the rush of water and the tinkling of bells.
Upon first entering the temple, we felt a bit overwhelmed. People fill the first inner courtyard, drifting from place to place in what seems to be a loosely organized ritual. As tourists, we seemed to stick out like sore thumbs, obviously strangers to the traditional customs of the temple. As we sat off to the side and people-watched, we remained in the dark as to what the steady streams of people were doing. Luckily, the consideration of the Taiwanese people emerged once again, and a local woman sitting next to us took the time to enlighten us to the process.
According to her, you enter through the Dragon Door, and leave through the Tiger Door, two very important symbols in Buddhism. Directly after entering, people purchase their incense, seven large sticks, and light them at one of several flames near the entrance. The next step is to pray in front of the three Buddhas. They are three smaller statues of different Buddhas, each one representing a different aspect of life. Here, people allow the Buddhas to cleanse their minds, letting peace and tranquility wash over them as they prepare themselves for the next stages of the journey.
People then continue along to the main Buddha of the temple: Guanyin, the god of Mercy. As in many other religions, Buddhists believe in miracles, and this statue was the recipient of a supposed miracle in the past. According to locals, Japanese-occupied Taipei was an important stronghold in WWII, so when aiming for the Presidential Palace, Allied forces accidentally dropped bombs on the only light source in the city: Longshan Temple. Normally, the temple would have been filled with people, as they felt as though the gods would keep harm away in a tumultuous time, but for some reason, that night the area was plagued by mosquitoes, keeping locals away. The entire temple was burned to the ground, save for the statue of Guanyin. She alone remained standing after the bombing. To this day, people flock to Guanyin, asking her guidance and mercy for many of life’s problems.
After praying to Guanyin, people may move to the rear courtyard if they choose to, although all of the gods in the rear courtyard are Confucian and Taoist. Here, there are a variety of deities (or historical figures as the difference between the two begins to blur here) that people can pray to, depending on their needs. They range from a god of business to a god of childbirth. There is even a god for matchmaking! Flocks of young women stood in front of this god while we were there, asking to help them find a mate. If you asked nicely, the god would allow you to take a red string home with you, which you could tie around the wrist of your future husband, bonding them to you forever, whether they liked it or not!
In front of each god there is a table where people can leave their food offerings while they pray. After they are finished, they can take their now-blessed food home with them to eat with family and loved ones. While the Buddhist gods are strictly vegetarian, the other gods are less discerning and have their own personal preferences. For example, students wishing to do well on tests leave an onion in front of the Confucius god of wisdom because the words in Chinese for “onion” and “smart” are extremely similar. Additionally, if a couple prays to the god of childbirth for a child, and she answers their prayers, the couple will return with either chicken or eggs, depending on the sex of the baby. I just wonder if she prefers her chicken live or fried!
Unlike western religions, the worshipers don’t have a direct line of communication with their gods through figures like priests. Instead, they talk with their gods through signs. Throughout the temple, we saw people throwing two wooden pieces shaped like orange slices on the ground repeatedly. These are like a telephone to Buddha. Before every question, the person must state their name and address, just to make sure the Buddha knows who he/she is. The first question they must ask is, “Are you here?” because the Buddha might be busy with other people’s many problems. The way the pieces fall tells you the answer. If one piece is up and one is down, the answer is yes. Two pieces down is no, and two pieces up is not clear. If the Buddha is not at home, you must wait for five minutes. If he/she (our new local friend preferred to think of Buddha as a female) is there, you may continue asking yes or no questions. If you wish to get a more in-depth answer, you can pull a stick out of a bucket close to the altar. Each stick has a number, and each number corresponds to a Chinese character or saying in a large book. If you choose a number, you must ask the Buddha if it is the right number. You need three consecutive yes answers in order to accept that number. After three yes answers, you can get your Chinese character interpreted by a member of the staff at the temple. The woman we talked to gave the example of asking the Buddha for guidance, and receiving a symbol for the sun and the moon, which solidified her decision to work at DreamWorks Studios, whose logo is a crescent moon.
Overall, Longshan Temple started as a confusing example of Eastern religion, but progressed into a moving experience for all of us. Once we began to understand the intricacies of the holy place, the power of the temple became palpable. Yet again, the sincere kindness of the Taiwanese people allowed us to experience something out of our comfort zones, and they welcomed us into their community. We didn’t just walk away with pictures of a temple, but rather with an experience and sense of understanding. It just goes to show, if you have questions, all you’ve got to do is ask.
Take the blue MRT line to Longshan Temple Station. Head of exit one and turn to your right. You’ll walk one block and see the temple across the street on your right. We actually walked from the Ximen shopping district and it took us no longer than fifteen minutes.