Religion in Taiwan: 9. Take-out Temple Images

Posted: 2014 年 03 月 05 日 in Religion in Taiwan

Take-out Temple Images

The images of deities are carved in specialty shops like those that line the road east of Taipei’s Lung-Shan Temple. Images brought to Taiwan from the mainland before 1949 are prized for quality workmanship, as are those fashioned by the artists of Amoy in Fukien province. In contemporary Taiwan, Lukang is generally reputed to turn out the finest master carvers.

Even with the increasing numbers of modern assembly lines on the island, the traditional carvers of temple images have an ample market for their craft. In fact, some temples stock quantities of images of their major deity. These statues line the walls or the altar table and are loaned or rented out for personal devotions. One rural temple south of Taichung, for instance, stocks about 50 small images of Shen Nung (神農), the agricultural god, standing in serried rows down the sides of the main hall. Farmers with crop problems borrow the images, and return them with an offering after the harvest season.

Communication between a devotee and a deity can take several forms. One of the most common methods involves the use of two kidney-shaped divining blocks with flat and round surfaces. Worshippers hold these in incense smoke before an image while putting their petitions to the deity. Then they drop the blocks on the ground. Depending upon how the blocks come to rest on their flat and round surfaces, the god is believed to have replied, “Yes,” “No”…or “Try again.”

Another method of getting messages from the spirit world is through the use of divining spills. Sixty to 100 of these numbered sticks stand upright in a tube. The devotee rattles the container in front of the deity while whispering his wish. Eventually, one stick works its way up and out of the container and falls to the floor. The number on the spill corresponds with a printed fortune slip—the deity’s response—kept in a rack behind the counter of the temple keeper.

Some devotees favor the use of a forked stick and sand table. Two worshippers, possessed by the deity, hold the stick while it automatically races through the sand, writing characters that can only be deciphered by the temple keeper. Each character is smoothed away after reading to make space for the next.

Spirit mediums also act as intermediaries between the living and the super-natural world. Most mediums, known as dangki (乩童), hail from southern Fukiense and Chaochow communities of Taiwan. They operate in many of the traditional temples, speaking and acting in the manner of the deities that are believed to have possessed them. In particular, the Monkey God, San Tai Tzu, and General Chao are the deities most commonly thought to provide advice and to cure ailments through human mediums.

In the case of the Monkey God, a special device known onomatopoeically as a “ping-pong bottle” indicates when the deity’s spirit is present in his image. The device consists of a long, narrow-necked bottle with a flat base that is upturned into a second bottle containing water. The base of the upturned bottle is made of paper-thin glass. Devotees believe that when the base “pings,” the spirit of the Monkey God has entered its image, regardless of whatever changes in atmospheric pressure may have caused the sound.

A spirit medium possessed by the Monkey God may actually crouch, leap, scratch and walk like a monkey before settling down in a chair to write prescriptions for worshippers’ problems.

A regular practice of entranced mediums is nicking their tongues with knives, broken pottery or skewers, and wiping the blood onto papers that are then burned by devotees. The ash is taken in water as a kind of medicine.

During festival celebration, mediums often stick skewers through their cheeks and tongues or pierce their backs with tiny fish hooks weighted down with objects that pull against the skin. The mediums appear to feel no pain in their trance—much in the same manner as Hindus in several overseas communities who endure the tortures of their faith’s Thaipusam festival.

Other than these dramatic displays of religious fervor, certain temples in Taiwan perform various rituals throughout each and every day. Temple staff members are always one call in case a devotee requires some form of ritual assistance. As many as a dozen different rituals may be performed simultaneously, in small groups each with a different member of the temple staff, and with other devotees lining the walls awaiting their turns. Usually, these are purification or exorcism rites. Staff members, who routinely oversee them, are dressed in street clothes—but they are clad also in a ceremonial red hat and carry a whip and buffalo-horn trumpet, or a handbell and sword. The practices of these “Red Heads” include spitting a fine spray of rice wine over hot coals to produce spurts of flames. These temple attendants also preside over rites that involve small wooden palanquins, carried in the temple by pairs of youths or older men. As the chair begins to shake, faster and faster, it is believed that the spirit of a deity has descended into the palanquin. The deity then uses one of the bearers’ poles to scratch messages into the ground. Such rites are aimed at strengthening the armies of the supernatural to drive off invading demons and hungry ghosts. They frequently involve talismans, magical signs chalked on benches set over trays of lighted candles, as well as food offerings. Human figures move in designated patterns amid clouds of incense smoke in the dimly lit temple halls. The extraordinary sounds of buffalo horns and the steady throb of drums can give a very eerie feeling to casual onlookers and demons alike.

Visitors are generally welcomed to temples so long as they do not intrude upon devotees engaged in prayers or rituals. It is customary to place a small monetary contribution in the large box that usually commands the center of the temple court, or on the temple keeper’s counter. This represents hsiang you (香油), an oil and incense offering for the deities. Images of the deities should not be touched.




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