Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Burn Baby, Burn.

As I stepped outside my apartment building onto streets of Kaohsiung on my way to school last week, I  was stopped by this in the center of my usual walkway.  The contents of this metal barrel was on fire, smoke billowing into the atmosphere.  (The photo was obviously taken on my walk home after the fire was scorched.)

Life seemed to be carrying on normally around the fire, so I continued down the street still feeling confused that a bustling Wednesday morning was apparently an appropriate time to build a bonfire in the middle of the street.  As I continued down the road I noticed barrel after barrel lining the streets, each contributing to the light scent of sulfur that blanketed the city that morning.  A large majority of these barrels were left unattended as my students ranging in age from five to twelve scurried toward the elementary school to begin Wednesday's educational journey.  My inner junior high teacher wanted to stand patrol beside the scalding hot barrels to ward off hormonal teenagers, unable to foresee the long term effects of their actions, and prevent this law suit waiting to happen!  As I looked around, it was very evident that I was alone in my concerns... it was as if I was the only one that felt the heat radiating off the barrel and burning my ankles as I walked past.  My curiosity was piqued.  After a chat with my new found Taiwanese friends and a bit of research, I learned the following...

33% of the Taiwanese population follow a religion called Taoism (or Daoism).  There are innumerable Tao temples scattered around the city.  The temple pictured below is about a fifteen minute walk from my flat along the Love River that flows through Central Kaohsiung.

The Taoist belief is based on the idea that there is a natural order or a "way of heaven" that one can come to know by living in harmony with nature.  Through an understanding of natural laws, an individual can gain eternal life.  Ancestor worship, a very important aspect of Taoism, is a religious practice based on the belief that deceased family members have continued existence, that the spirits of deceased ancestors will look after the family, take an interest in the affairs of the world, and possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living.  In order to ensure that ancestors have proper items in the afterlife, their relatives send them paper and paper-mache presents through a ceremonial burning.  Money, credit cards, houses, servants, passports, jewelry, cell phones, cars, clothing... all is transferred to specific ancestors and materialize in the afterlife.  These gifts keep the ancestors happy in the spiritual world, who, in return, will bless the family.  (To read more, visit http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/Chinese_Customs/joss_paper.htm)

I found this completely fascinating.  There are so many ancient religious customs still practiced today... there is evidence of this type of ritual dating back to 1000 BC!  I think for many Americans these types of customs are so far outside of our realm that it feels slightly uncomfortable, which is compensated for by labeling the rituals as odd or crazy.  No matter your religious views... Chritsian, Islam, Hinduism, Buddism, Sikhism, Atheism... there is one notion that I will stand by until the bitter end, being that there is something incredibly healthy about opening your eyes and mind to look at the way another lives.  What you'll see is pretty amazing.

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