Thursday, January 05, 2006

Part 2: Dragon Mountain Temple (Longshansi)

If you've arrived here from a google search on "dragon" and you choose to read on after realizing there is nothing in this post pertaining to dragons, then you might want to first read the previous post, of which this is a continuation. You might also want to see this. No, it doesn't have anything to do with what I will write or what I have written (in the previous post, at least), but come now, you have to admit, it is funny.

Now, where was I. Oh...yes...I was walking away from that modern memorial to imperial China and the man who single handedly brought many of its treasures to Taiwan. I was descending into the depths of the MRT station; people were walking everywhere; I contemplated buying an ice tea in a box at the Seven Eleven in front of me (There are Seven Elevens all over the place in Taipei); I heard a clicking sound and knew the train was approaching; my heart started pounding harder and faster; I shifted gears and about faced. Then...I started to run with the crowd--dodging people everywhere. Sorry, sorry, sorry, going down the escalator. Just as I get down the stairs, the doors are closing, and it is off, galloping away into the darkened tunnel. No need to worry, because another train arrives in about 5 minutes. After another 5 minutes I am at my destination, my favorite destination in Taipei: Longshan Temple.

Longshan Temple is the complete opposite of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. Where the latter is defined by imperial order, even though it was built in post-imperial times, disorder abounds at the former, though it was built while there still was a far away emperor, whose reach did not stretch as far as that of his celestial relatives, of whom he was only an apparition, anyway. Oh yes, he had his officialdom who held posts on the frontier island, but their authority was not nearly as effective as the numinous powers that infiltrated and animated peoples' imaginations, and to whom they made their offerings of animals, fruit, and incense smoke.

Ascending from the depths of the MRT, this is what you see in the not so far distance:

What I love about this site is not so much the architecture, though that is certainly part of the effect, but the life that flows in and out and all around it--the lifeflow of the temple. You could come on any day and bear witness to a fascinating scene. Do you remember that scene in the movie, Smoke, where the guy explains how he takes a picture every day from the same spot, with the camera alway pointing in the same direction, at the same place? An album full of pictures of the same location from the same perspective. Well, this would be a brilliant place to perform such an excercise.

People talking, people praying, people with incense sticks, people making offerings, people chatting, people taking pictures, people playing cards, people out on a date, people laughing, people crying, people reading sutras, people alone in thoughtfulness, people standing around the urn, the incense smoke enveloping them with fortunate qi.

I must have been fortunate the last time I visited Longshan Temple because the offering tables were out. What was the occasion? It is not everyday that the offering tables are displayed, and the residents of Taipei--that is, those who still believe in the orthopraxic (or even heteropraxic) efficacy of their ancestral rites--come out in full force to make their presence known and present fruitful (and that is a pun) offerings to their gods and ancestors:

As you can see, fruit is the most common item on display. However, it is not the only food to be offered. I have seen cooked food, but also more modern delicacies, such as cans of sour cream and onion pringles. Better offer something that you like to eat yourself because nothing will be wasted. It is as if there is an agreement made between those making the offering and those receiving it: "You can have the subtlest essence; we will eat the rest."

Nothing re-presents that essence better than the incense smoke that fills the air (and your lungs) as you float about the grounds of Longshan Temple. Even when their are no offering tables in sight or on site, you will always catch a glimpse of waves of bodies carrying incense sticks. If the central ceremony of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial is the marionette soldiers wielding their rifles and folding the flag, then the main attraction of Longshan Temple is the worshipping residents bearing their incense sticks and making the rounds, visiting their favorite deities--most likely all of them, just to be sure all of the bases are covered:

And there I was...running about...madly...with camera in hand--capturing the moment, lest it get away. Nobody seemed to mind, for they were too involved in the moment, in their communication with divinity. For instance, look at this woman, so involved in her recitation of the sutras:

Do you think she took heed of me?

That, by the way, is another activity you will see at Longshan Temple: sutra recitation, either by individuals in their personal nooks, or communally inside and in front of the central worship hall (the Buddhist one) in the complex:

What is different about this congregation--if it really can be called a congregation--is that it is not led by professional monks, but by lay practitioners. There are those in the hall, mostly women, who are dressed in black. They perhaps belong to a club or society, but are not, as far as I can tell and as I have been told, ordained, and certainly are not, as on the Mainland, registered with the government, as all monks and priests there are. What is more, during recitation time, anyone can join in.

If you want to become a participant-observer to this righteous display, you must arrive at 7:30 in the evening; that is when the party gets started. For six months, I went almost every night. Printed copies of sutras in Chinese were passed around and we would chant--Namo A-Mi-Tuo-Fo--for about half an hour to 45 minutes. One time, as I opened the sutra handed out that night, and began to read, I recognized the words of the Diamond Sutra (See also here for a translation) and was ecstatic, for I had recently read the Diamond Sutra in a course on reading Chinese Buddhist scriptures, which I had attended at Berkeley.

The first time I attended one of these miraculous events, something amazing happened. After we finished our chanting, guess what took place. The women inside, dressed in black, smiling, were handing out something. What was it? Manna? Before I knew it, one of the women looked at me and placed it in my hands. What was it? Nothing out of this world--it was a cookie purchased at a convenience store, probably in the area. A cookie. It was beautiful and it made me so happy. I really can't explain the feeling, why something so small and so simple and so ordinary filled me with such joy. I soon discovered that every evening they handed out something like that, and every evening I looked at them expectantly. Some days they noticed me and some days they did not. In the end, it didn't matter, but on those nights when one of them made eye contact with me, smiled, and reached out her hand from the holy hall, with a little gift in it, a very very special feeling would well up in my heart. Was it some kind of embodiment of the sutra itself?
If you really want to experience Longshan Temple, you just have to go there after the sun goes down, when it is dark; that is when it lights up. Sorry, I don't have any pictures, so you will just have to close your eyes, and: visualize it. Every one of your senses is attacked--sight, sound, smell, touch, and so on and so on and so on. The wild building itself and the colorful lights and plaques that represent donors to the temple, the countless faces, and of course, the incense smoke, are all a feast for the eyes. The nose inhales the fragrant scent of the vanishing haze. In your ears manifests the intermingling of human voice and Buddhist chant. You feel bodies bumping up against your own, as well as the faint but noticeable touch of the breeze sweeping in from on high.

On one occasion, walking away from the sutra reading, I looked up at the sky and watched the smoke in the air, appearing and disappearing and then re-appearing, and then I likened it to my thoughts, doing the same: "There they go." Just as the Buddha says to Subhuti in the Diamond Sutra:
All composed things are like a dream, a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning. That is how to meditate on them, that is how to observe them....


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