Religion in Taiwan: 4. The Chinese Pantheon (part 1)

Posted: 2014 年 03 月 05 日 in Religion in Taiwan
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The Chinese Pantheon

    A huge pantheon of gods and goddesses colors traditional Chinese religion. Most are the heroes and worthies of Chinese myth, legend and history, deified either by imperial order or popular choice. Some can even be equated with the saints of Christianity. Some of these deities are so well known that their images are found in many or most temples; others are unique to a single temple. Some communities have cult followings that have grown up around a particular historical figure believed to have protected or guided the town, or to have worked a miracle there. The best-known deities have proven their reputed powers to generations of Chinese over the centuries.

    Dozens of identical images may be lined up on altars beside the statues of some deities. These represent the god’s armies complete with infantry and cavalry. Such supernatural soldiers command offerings of food from temple worshipers. In return, they protect their territory from the hungry ghosts and demons which threaten with such calamities as floods, drought, accidents, sickness, and crop failure.

    The fascinating origins and legends that surround these deities go deep into Chinese history. They reach devotees through street-opera themes, tales related by professional storytellers in tea houses, or at mother’s or grandmother’s knee in much the same way as the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood have survived in the West.

    It is generally believed that the altar images of deities are temporary residences for those gods, and that the spirit is only present in the image when required. Many devotees consider incense to be a lure to entice a spirit into an image. Others maintain that a deity’s spirit is omniscient, and is contained within each and every image portraying him (or her) from the time the statue is consecrated until it is retired.

    Some devotees believe that the power of a deity in any particular statue deteriorates with increasing age and eventually loses its efficacy completely. When this happens, the temple’s following must either obtain a new image or have the old one recharged at another temple whose deity is still powerful. The Chinese, being pragmatists, will only pray to those deities whose supernatural power has been proven by answered petitions.

 Local Heroes Deified

There are hundreds of additional deities. Among them are unique local heroes, like the Japanese policeman who saved members of one local Chinese community, and earned deification. Another temple is dedicated to the spirit of a buffalo.

There are some extremely popular deities. One of them is the so-called Monkey God—Sun, the Great Saint (齊天大聖孫悟空)—about whom legends abound and whose mischievous acts are retold with great glee. Another is Chi Kung (濟公), Buddhist monk well known to folk religion, whose ribald exploits were said to include frolics in nunneries and a love for dog meat despite his vegetarian vows. There is also a small group of temples in Taiwan that contain wooden memorial tablets to the spirits of those killed while resisting bandits or who died for the common good in clan wars. With the multitude of deities to be found in Taiwan, it should perhaps not be surprising that many devotees know neither the name nor the function of the local deity to whom they pay reverence. In a majority of temples, there are individual altars dedicated to a theme—fertility, health, agriculture, crafts and trades, or the like—rather than to a particular deity. Buddhist images also occasionally turn up on the altars of folk-religion temples. In addition to Kuan Yin, these include the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni or Gautama (如來佛); the Buddha of the future, known as Milofu (彌勒佛) or Maitreya; and Northern Buddhism’s, Omitofu (阿彌陀佛). Others might include Wei To, the guardian of the Buddhist law (Dharma), and Ti Tsang Wang (地藏王), the savior of souls. The 18 Lohan (十八羅漢), disciples of the Buddha, are often represented in temple murals for convention rather than for worship.

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