Religion in Taiwan: 3. Offerings & Hungry Ghosts

Posted: 2014 年 03 月 05 日 in Religion in Taiwan
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Incense and Other Offerings

    There are always five items on the table before a temple’s main altar. A large incense pot is flanked by two decorative vases and two candlesticks. The incense pot itself is a primary religious object—in some temples it is regarded as the most sacred. It is filled with ash accumulated by years of worship, and is the repository for the spirit of the venerated Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝). Ash is taken from one existing temple to start the main pot in a new temple. In some temples, the main incense pot is situated just outside or inside the main entrance; it is here that devotees begin their round of prayers and offerings. They place one or three sticks of incense in each pot throughout the temple, depending upon the seniority of the deity before whom the pot stands.

    In addition to incense, offerings include food and drink, oil and objects made of paper. They type of food provided depends upon the season, the appetite of the particular deity, and the pocketbook of the devotee. Food is normally left at the temple only long enough for the deity to partake of its aroma, a period often defined as the length of time it takes for an incense stick to burn down. Afterwards, the food is taken home to the dinner table of the devotee and his or her family. Any leftovers are later “disposed of” by the temple keepers.

    In some temples, only fruit and vegetables are offered to the gods. One particular cult prohibits offerings of duck. In season, boxes of mooncakes—baked pastries stuffed with sweet bean paste—are placed on temple altars. Bowls of cold cooked rice are often left before minor deities, including underworld gods. Tea or wine, in rows of three or five small cups, is occasionally offered. Nothing is ever presented in groups of four that is regarded as the number of death.

    Another form of offering is paper money, tied in bundles and placed under the image or on the altar table. This “hell money” represents either large sums of cash drawn on the “Bank of the Underworld,” or else lumps of gold or silver taels, the currency used in Chinese imperial times.

 Hungry Ghosts

    In addition to the gods, ancestors are also commonly at the receiving end of offerings and tokens of respect in temples. Traditionally, ancestral tablets were kept in family homes, and respects were paid at a living-room altar (神明廳). Increasingly, however, families have paid temples to house the ancestral tablets (神主牌) on a special altar and asumer the responsibility for offering and prayers, especially if there is a possibility of neglect at home. These tablets bear the ancestors’ names and (in recent times) photographs. It is important that they be given regular offerings, lest they become “hungry ghosts.” (孤魂野鬼)

    According to Chinese folk religion, a soul upon death is hastened through the various courts and punishments of purgatory in order to be reborn again. At the same time, there is the contradictory belief that the underworld is remarkably similar to the human world, and that its inhabitants require food, money, clothes, and a house. Thus, when a family member dies, the living relatives do their best to see that the spirit of the deceased enters the underworld in comfort. They provide food offerings in the hope that the aroma will give sustenance. They offer spirit money and paper artifacts—elaborately designed like the real things—to represent houses, cars, clthes, and often servants. These “substitutes” are transported to the underworld by burning. Relative who fail to care for the spirit of a deceased family member set another “hungry ghost” loose in the world.

Once every year, in the seventh lunar month (August and/or September), the needs of these ghosts are met in the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. At this time, when hungry souls are released form the underworld to roam the human world in search of sustenance. Chinese families take steps to propitiate these spirits. Fearing the depradation, this rampaging band of ghosts might inflict, they burn paper money and leave food on the edges of streets just outside their homes.

Most towns in Taiwan, also hold a large parage. Images of the tutelary City God (城隍爺) and his two generals are carried around the streets, patrolling to monitor the ghosts’ behavior. At the end of the festival period, local tmeples hold banquets for the ghosts. Temporarily appeased and gratified, the spirits return to the underworld for another year.

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