“What’s the most soulful place in Taipei?” I asked a Taiwanese woman whose English name is Norma.
“Come with me,” she said, and she led me to the much-beloved Longshan Temple in the Manka district of Taiwan’s multifaceted and fascinating capital city.
We wandered through a maze of brilliantly hued and carved architecture, past a haze of smoke from incense burners and altars laden with floral and fruit offerings, past the central shrine, where Quan Yin, the goddess of mercy, dwells.
“There was an earthquake in 1815,” Norma said. “The area was destroyed but Quan Yin survived. In World War II, the Allied bombs hit the temple, but she was not damaged at all. This shows how effective the temple is. It is a special place to us.”
“So it’s a temple to Quan Yin?” I asked.
“She’s the central goddess, but there are many other Buddhist and Taoist gods here.”
Norma then led me to a rear hall where a smorgasbord of gods had separate altars. There was the god of medicine (before there were hospitals and good medical care, people prayed to him and even got prescriptions from him); the god of literature (he’s a favorite with civil servants, students taking exams, and parents of students taking exams); the god of money (always popular); the baby god (for fertility); the god of the sea (for protection during marine voyages); and the god of war (who defends people against injustice and evil spirits). Each of the gods had a cluster of worshippers — most dressed in shorts and sandals, jeans, and T-shirts — who very casually and intimately visited with their favorite deities.
More Gods, More Protection
“Can you only pray to one god at a time?” I asked Norma.
“You are free to pick and choose,” she replied. “The more gods you pray to, the more protection you have.”
“Are all the people who come here religious?”
“Not necessarily,” Norma explained. “In Taipei they say that every three steps you see a small temple, and every five steps you see a large temple. People make offerings and ask the gods for help. You can’t have too much protection.”
As we spoke, we came to the last deity in the rear hall; the god of matchmaking, where singles come to ask for a red string that will help them to meet their beloveds.
Norma hesitated for a moment in front of the last god, sighed, and then walked on. I could understand her feelings. Her husband passed away in 1997, and she had to raise her son alone. She had not had a significant other since that time.
“Have you ever prayed to the matchmaker god?” I asked Norma, who is a Buddhist.
“No,” she said. “I don’t believe love will come to me. I’m too old for romance.”
The Power of Red String
I went up to the Chinese cupid god, whispered a few words about Norma, and took a red string. I gave it to Norma, who blushed, protested, and then tied it around her wrist. We never discussed it again, and I returned home to Santa Fe.
But a year later, I was back in Taipei and, with Norma, visited the Longshan Temple. Once again, I was dazzled by the colorful dragons, figures from Chinese mythology, the prayers, the smoke, and the heaps of offerings. As we passed by the matchmaking god, Norma touched my arm.
“I have something to tell you,” she said. “As a Taiwanese Buddhist, I passed by this temple so many times, but I never prayed to the god of matchmaking until I visited with you and got the red thread. Guess what happened? I reunited with David, a classmate of mine from elementary school; we had been out of touch for 38 years. He got divorced four years ago, my son went off to college last year, and the timing was perfect for both of us. Now, David is my boyfriend. We feel we are like lovers who were separated for years but finally connected again.”
“And do you think the matchmaking god and the red string worked?”
Norma smiled. “I have to say I believe so,” she answered. And then, silently, she gave thanks to the god who had helped her.
I looked around me. Students, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and teachers were gathered around their favorite gods, offering incense, food, and flowers and praying from the heart.
A young professional man, who held several incense sticks, heard Norma and me conversing in English.
“I’m a Buddhist,” he said, “but sometimes I pray to the Taoist gods, too. We young people don’t understand all the rules here. But we still come. In my case, I pray for love, work, and money. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Whenever my life isn’t easy or something is wrong, I come here. All I can tell you is that I enter the temple and I choose a god — or more than one god. I pray, and then I feel better.”
It felt good to be in a temple of such tolerance, where there was room for many beliefs and for many gods. Maybe it was that simple: you pick a god, and if that doesn’t work, you pick another god. I can see why Norma thinks Longshan Temple is the most soulful spot in Taipei. It’s a place where people open up their hearts to the divine and feel better for it.
If You Go:
To learn more about Taiwan: eng.taiwan.net.tw
For more about Longshan (also written as Lungshan) Temple: www.lungshan.org.tw
When you go to Taiwan, try the airline the Asians fly: EVA (evaair.com). It’s dependable, affordable, and the food is good. You might want to spring for economy plus, which they call “elite.”