guanyin and longshan temple

taipei. humid. a final day, and with no plans, where to go and what to do? it’s an easy choice. the city (and the island for that matter) is stocked with temples: buddhist, taoist, a mix of folk traditions. big colourful, scary-looking gods guarding doorways. and goddesses, lingering in shadowy halls. like guanyin.

guanyin is the bodhisattva of compassion. sometimes male, most times female. always gazing off with a wry simper, like she knows how it all turns out, and it’s fine, and your worries are ill-advised. guanyin is one of the most popular and beloved deities in the chinese pantheon.

it’s humid and even by 10am in early march, i am that sort of uncomfortable-warm in unmentionable places and relish every moment of metro air conditioning on the three-stop ride from my capsule hotel to longshan temple.

for reasons i still can’t really explain, i started really reading about guanyin last year, at the outset of what turned out to be the most difficult year of my life.

but i’ve encountered her numerous times before. first on putuoshan, an island off of shanghai dedicated to guanyin. there’s a 100-foot-tall golden statue of her gazing out to the east china sea here, and at the age of 24, seeing this had no effect on me, or so i thought. that trip, i was concerned about visceral things: winds that blew up and stopped the ferry crossings, so how would we get home (via a slow night ferry it turned out). but guanyin stuck, and looking back over myriad years visiting chinese temples, i am now sure she got in, somewhere, sometime.

a small park fronts longshan temple, and it is full of retirees playing chess, doing taichi and sitting around gossiping. there are signs everywhere bidding you not to smoke, and because this is taiwan, no one smokes.

the temple is heaving. i step over a raised wooden slat through the threshold. a group of domestic visitors pushes up to a window to buy bundles of incense sticks, candles and bags of oranges and bundles of steamed zongzi rice dumplings to use as offerings.

the crowds are mainly taiwanese tourists, but they take temple-going seriously, lighting sticks of incense and starting at the bottom of the temple, moving clockwise, visiting each deity in a circumambulation.

i keep to the back. this isn’t a new drill to me, but i remain uncomfortable: maybe i am too foreign, too white, too uninitiated, too unlearned, too sweaty…to partake. i shouldn’t be here. i didn’t buy the incense or the oranges as offerings, i shouldn’t be here.

my heart says i should be here. i am not religious anymore, i keep telling myself. and why do i feel things in a buddhist temple that i cannot explain. put these thoughts away. move to the next deity. not sure what this one is either, and too embarrassed to try bowing or praying or whatever anyone else is doing with such ease of rote.

i go all the way around, pausing at each deity but nothing else. at the far northwest corner, students are making offerings to the god of literature – exam period is coming up and the statue of wenchang dijun with his long flowing beard is one of the few i can easily guess.

the whole east side of the temple seems to be taken up by windows where small queues have formed of people looking for guidance from fortune tellers, operating kind of like bank tellers. line up, pay your price, get some guidance. it is tempting.

but i have to get to guanyin.

it’s a tiny climb up a short set of wooden stairs painted dark red, and then you stand in front of the central hall of the temple. inside, behind a low wooden fence, is a tall seated statue of guanyin with her usual unaffected countenance – not really surveying the crowds lined up. they are bowing, waving incense up and down, and candles, and trying to say thank you to her or offer some word or prayer to her.

i am with them, and i still feel like a fraud, but whatever happens when you feel something spiritual that you can’t explain happens, and then tears run hot down my cheeks through closed eyes.

a lot of taipei, and taiwan in general, hearkens to its founding when hakka immigrants from fujian province in mainland china came to taiwan, and they brought religion with them, starting temples all over the island. longshan was one of them, founded in 1738, and it has been rebuilt a few times, surviving wars and earthquakes and typhoons and still remains a centrepiece of the capital’s religious (and touristic) life.

i stand here talking to guanyin, or to myself, for a short number of minutes. there are tears, and there are also beads of sweat inching down my spine. the year floods over me in a wave of emotion, but i don’t feel alone in this crowd. everyone loves guanyin. we are here together, we are all experiencing compassion somehow.

the tears burn less hot, then stop. against my sense of self-consciousness, i make a short bow, then move off into the crowd, darting between couples and groups of families, back out into the taipei heat. back out into the world.

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