Thoughts from a Syncretic Temple

Upon walking into the temple, the first thing I noticed was the overpowering incense that filled the room. To call it just a scent in the air would be too tame, the incense WAS the air. It made the room about 10 degrees hotter and filled everyone’s lungs until it became difficult to breathe.

Incense coils covering the entire ceiling, many of them burning at the same time

At home, I always yell at my brother for lighting up so much incense during pujas (Hindu worship rituals). I complain about how bad it is for health. Now, the incense was much more than I could handle, yet I stayed in it, inhaling a familiar scent. It reminded me of home and the religious culture which I have spent too much time fighting against. Thinking about it closely, my biggest grievance with religion centers around rituals and worship.They are often supposed to be concrete representations of something intangible. Instead, they often feel very out of touch in this day and age.

That scent was hardly the only familiar thing in the temple. As I walked around, I realized so many of the rituals, the idols, even the way the temple was designed were familiar to me. For example, stepping over the temple doorstep and not blocking the center path (directly in front of the gods) were things I had grown up doing. I couldn’t help but reminisce about the days when I used to visit Hindu temples with my parents.

This goddess idol definitely looks similar to Hindu goddesses with multiple limbs.

As my professor explained, many of the practices in such traditional Chinese temples are a mix of Buddhist, Hindu, Daoist and folk religion. In this way they are syncretic, blending many different, sometimes contradictory religious beliefs into one temple.

It is fascinating to see how cultures have interacted over the course of time and how they come together and share space in the temple.

My professor told us a story about a particular monkey king, which he said was influenced by a Hindu story. In this tradition, the monkey king travels to India to acquire Buddhist teachings and bring them back to China. He did not know what Hindu story it was based on, but I immediately recognized parallels to Hanuman in the Ramayana.

When it started out, Buddhism was a non-theistic religion, a reaction to Hinduism. Somewhere along the way, Buddhist traditions in China started to include deities of their own, like the Guanyin goddess (who is based on a Hindu god).

Left: Guanyin, Buddhist goddess of mercy, Right: Tien Hau, Taoist goddess of the heavens

Side by side Guanyin in this temple sits the Taoist goddess Tien Hau, the empress of the heavens.

The ties between Buddhism and Taoism are extremely deep; it is hard to truly differentiate which gods and traditions have which origins. From talking to some Chinese students in my class, it seems like the traditional Chinese religion that people follow today includes a mixture of both as well as philosophy from Confucianism. According to some theories, temples adopted gods from multiple origins in order to attract more people to worship. In addition to those mentioned, there are ties to other religions, like many folk religions and even Christianity.

What is the point of me going into all this detail? Simply to describe the fluidity with which religion was adapted in the old times and to contrast it with some of the rigidity surrounding religion today. Today, a lot of aspects of culture have changed, all over the world. But in some cases people (of many faiths and cultures), have become more conservative about their traditions and values. Perhaps it is because times are changing very quickly and people don’t want this aspect of culture to change too?

Following rituals exactly as they have been since they were started is only one way of doing things. But another way could be to adapt them to the times, to think critically about what is and is not appealing and relevant to the people who will practice them.

In a way, adapting religion IS following a tradition of sorts, a tradition of influence and change.

But what about for those like me, who don’t necessarily follow religion nor practice any rituals? For us, temples like this may not necessarily serve their intended (religious) purpose, but they do give us something else.

As I stood there in the temple, I wondered about why I was getting so sentimental, almost overly emotional. Was I missing home already? Was that enough to make me long for something I had never enjoyed in all of my years of experiencing it?

For me, this temple was a reminder of the culture I had come from, and it was teaching me how to compare it to the one I was in. It was teaching me how to observe every detail, with an anthropologist’s eye, and to try to understand it better. Despite the fact that I don’t enjoy prescribed rituals myself, I find myself eager to learn about other people’s, as a window into their culture. This kind of understanding is one of the most important things to me in life. In that sense, I am getting more of a personal benefit than I could ever have imagined.

And so, I stepped out into the courtyard, content with what I had received from this temple, and eager to breathe some fresh air.

Tien Hau Temple in Sap Pat Heung, Yuen Long, New Territories, HK