American in Taiwan: ghosts, smoke and incense.
Taiwan is, well, lit.
All over the island this month, you can smell the sweet scent of incense rising up in thin streams of smoke in and around various temples, and even at stands on the sides of the street (I don’t say sidewalks for a reason — they don’t exist in Taiwan. But more on that in a later post). You will also likely encounter the smoky smell of burning paper, which is more likely than not to be emanating from what looks, to a foreigner, like a trash can on fire.
I was alarmed, the first time I saw this — and confused. Why wasn’t anyone else concerned about a fire in the middle of the street? Turns out, the fire was hardly a threat to anyone here. Quite the contrary, it was, in a sense, a saving grace — a way to please the ghosts currently circling around the city.
This month (the seventh month of the Lunar calendar) is ghost month in Taiwan. For many Taiwanese, this means that the ghosts of their ancestors — some nice, some not so nice — are present, if still unseen. With this festival crops up a new list of taboos (one shouldn’t stay out too late, etc,) and a new list of to-do’s (including burning paper money, going to temples to pray, and leaving food and gifts out for the Gods to enjoy.)
I was fortunate enough to experience this festival twice — both by day and by night — at two different temples in Kaohsiung. My first stop was to Sanfeng Temple in the Sanmin District, which is just on the other side of one of the elementary schools I’ll be teaching at this year. My co-teachers, Tony and Annie, brought me to Sanfeng after concluding teacher training on Friday.
What struck me the most about this visit was the fluidity of the deities represented. On the first floor, after passing a beautiful courtyard complete with paper lanterns floating above us, we came face to face with idols of three Daoist gods. It being ghost month, there was plenty of food set out before them, and several temple-goers had come to pray and burn incense (I later learned from Tony that the incense is seen as a conduit: the smoke rising up into the sky is seen as bringing your hopes and prayers up to the heavens for the Gods to hear).
We proceeded to the following floor. Much to my surprise, awaiting us there was a statue of the Buddha. “Is this a Buddhist or a Daoist temple?” I asked my co-teachers. They seemed perplexed at my question. The deities from the floor below were Daoist gods, they told me. But this section was for the Buddha. It wasn’t really one or the other.
I thought I understood — some people were Daoists, and they came for the Daoist gods; others were Buddhist, and they came for the Buddha. But then I saw a woman and a young man, who had been praying to the Gods below, make their way up to the second floor — and continue their prayers beside us, this time, to the Buddha. Now I was confused.
Coming from a Judeo-Christian background, this fluidity was difficult for me to comprehend. Despite the fact that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are, by definition, branches of the same tree (emanating from a belief in and a love of the same God) I couldn’t imagine many Christians walking into a mosque, or Jews walking into a Church, to pray.
My father, for the record, probably makes one notable exception to this rule. But his story is atypical, and I don’t know many like him. His religious “fluidity” is mainly a product of his unique religious journey: a Jew by birth, he married my mother (who was born Episcopalian but converted to Judaism to marry him), and ultimately, much later and entirely on his own — following a spiritual experience — he became a born again Christian, expressing that faith initially through Messianic Judaism, then Catholicism, and ultimately through a more non-denominational, scripture-alone perspective. He now reads the Bible daily, attends church weekly, and also still runs our grandparents’ Passover Seder annually, each spring.
As I said though, this kind of fluidity is not the norm in Judeo-Christian religions, and despite my personal experience with a mixture of Judaism and Christianity growing up, this established and unquestioned harmony between the two religions took me by surprise.
My second temple experience was a truly unforgettable one. What I do know is that I was taken to the biggest temple in Kaohsiung, which is dedicated to the City God, whose job it is — you guess it — to watch over the city. What I don’t know, however, is the name of said temple. And I could definitely not tell you where, on a map, it is located.
I arrived at this temple grâce à Joanne and Sunny, the sister and friend of the mother of my new host family (bear with me). After meeting them that morning (my new family happened to be in Taipei for a wedding), they picked me up from my apartment and drove me to this magnificent temple, led me on a truly backstage tour of the place (Sunny’s mother is good friends with the temple’s volunteer watchperson), and finished off the evening with a decadent vegetarian family-style meal, where I did my best to piece together bits of Mandarin and Taiwanese, but mostly smiled, nodded, chewed, swallowed, laughed, and accepted hugs and greetings.
Is Ghost Festival like a Chinese Halloween?
Interestingly, the Taiwanese like to draw this comparison. But to my understanding, the two “holidays” share little in common, other than the use of a single term — “ghost” — which in itself also changes drastically in meaning from one context to the other. Halloween in the U.S. is (nowadays, at least) centered on fantasy and fun, with the dress-up piece kind of featured as the main event. There is trick-or-treating for the kids and a slew of magic-themed TV shows and Disney Channel specials. It is (correct me if I’m wrong) entirely detached from religious significance for the vast majority of Americans.
Ghost Festival, on the other hand, is distinctly spiritual (even if the Taiwanese don’t see it as a “religious” festival, per se — another interesting point which I’ll come back to in a new post later on). It is common practice to leave food out for the ghosts to smell, and to burn incense and paper on their behalf. And it is not just the temples that partake in these traditions. Elementary schools, storefronts, and even entire apartment buildings rally together to present tables of offerings to the ghosts. The festival really does not discriminate based upon religion. It is at once undeniably spiritual in nature, and yet entirely inclusive.
I’ll leave it at that for now. Check back in a week or so for more on Taiwanese religion and spirituality, surviving as a vegan in Taiwan, night market excursions, host family updates, etc. 再見!