In the context of modern life, one rarely considers folk religion a prominent facet. While modern religion is changing and the rituals they boast shifting with them, Taiwan sees a peppering of traditional temples through each county, with enormous variation in grandeur and size, but no changes in the incredible intricacies they boast.
A disclaimer here is that this interpretation is based on my own limited experiences within Taiwan, and should be taken as one of many experiences of living among folk religions. Folk religion itself, just as many subsets of religion in Taiwan, can be difficult to differentiate and define. Just like with any religion, many of the relationships people have with rituals and deities are personal to themselves, their families, or their specific communities.
When I first came to Taiwan, my employer told me she thought I must have been the answer to her prayers; sent by god herself. This was my introduction to religion here, overzealous and far more pronounced than I was used to, but also disorganized. I found later that she was not a Christian, nor a Buddhist or any other organized religion. She just claimed she was “religious” and it didn’t seem to matter which one. This is one of the great things about the rampant folk religions here: they seem often indistinguishable in the intricacies of their roots. The 2005 census of Taiwan shows about ⅓ of people defining themselves as Buddhist with another ⅓ defining themselves as Taoist (folk religion), some mixture of the two intertwined to create the majority of religious ceremonies.
Despite the murkiness of definition in religion and beliefs, one thing is certain: religion is a very important part of Taiwan. It’s clear here in the Chiayi County countryside in which I live in the juxtaposition of dilapidated shacks and poultry farms just across the street from temples within which someone must have dedicated so much time and upkeep in the intricate carvings and paintings.
One of many small temples dotted among the area across from a dilapidated building.
This is not to say anything of the upkeep in Taiwan, as every place sees decomposition to some extent, especially in such rural areas. It is instead to make a note of how even the smallest of shrines remain so detailed alongside it all. It’s a remarkable sight not only to enter a small temple and find that there is no space without wooden carvings, brilliant paintings, or symbolic imagery but to also find that in stepping just outside there is a shoddy poultry farm and a few crumbling shacks that may or may not still be in use. This stark coexistence is a testament to the priority of religion.
Historically, this may be due, in part, to the idea that temples were a place for the community to join together, often becoming the central space in a city or town. Here, many, if not all temples are equipped with tea sets and tables for any passers-by to take a rest.
Upon entering a temple, one should enter on the right side and continue from right to left, as there are usually three openings except for in the cases of very small temples which may only have one. I have heard both that the central door is reserved as an entrance for the gods themselves as well as that it is acceptable to use the middle door to offer incense to the censer outside and return with. Outside of this, each temple has its own set of rules posted inside. While in larger cities, these rules may be posted in both Mandarin, English, and Japanese, there is no such luxury in remote areas such as the ones we have explored for the sake of this article.
Most temples expect an offering to the gods in the form of incense and prayer to each of the statues or representations within. Upon entrance of a temple on the right side, incense typically is stacked alongside paper money, often with an offering box. The general consensus I have seen is that while no donation is required for incense, taking paper money for the ritual of burning to send to the afterlife of your ancestors should be compensated to the temple. This paper money is usually packaged in a small bundle of paper wrapping, and 100 or 50 NT is what I’m told is a suitable donation in order to take one (as there is often a decorated furnace in which to burn it just outside). Although most of the ones we visited were unmanned, it does take great dedication to upkeep these places as well as great patience to watch as unfamiliar cultures fumble before the gods, so we encourage it.
Another general rule is to take three sticks of incense for the censer outside and another for each of the deities housed within. There may also be food or flower offerings in the temple, and if you were worried about waste, after the gods “spiritually” feast on the food, it is eaten by the needy or those heading the temple.
Once the incense you’ve taken is lit, fan or wave it rather than blowing it out, and offer prayer to each god in a counter-clockwise pattern throughout the temple (though admittedly I’ve chosen to come to my favorite gods first and work outward). To offer incense, state in your mind your name and address and perhaps what you’re praying for to the gods and bow three times in succession while holding the incense to your head or upwards. The incense is said to both gain the attention of those in the spirit world as well as be cleansing to us here in this one.
You may also spot divination stones (often made of wood and painted red) which are crescent moon-shaped fortune tellers. To use these, one should stand before the god of their choice, ask a yes or no question, raise the stones outwards and then drop, not throw them. There are variations we are aware of, but both stones resting on either the flat or curved side means “no” while one landing each way means “yes” to whatever question you have posed. When finished, please place them together and replace them where they were found.
If you can read Traditional Mandarin (or know someone willing to help you), it might interest you to ask the gods about your fortune. You may do this by taking a stick from the pot. There will be a number on the pot which you will then find on a large traditional medicine-style box. The drawer with the number you picked contains your fortune in the form of a pink paper slip that you can take with you.
We may be missing a fair bit of context just as I might have missed some of the plethora of detail in these things, but I feel that so long as you practice respect the best way you know how then most people will be appreciative of that.