094: Asia: Timeless Search for Spiritual Hope Reshapes Asian Culture, Yet Again

ASIA SERIES: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.


    Like countless 20-Somethings around the world, Taiwanese TV-news anchor Jenny Luo had little use for her family’s religious traditions — until problems began to pile up in her life.
    A close relationship with a man had fallen apart, leaving her anxious about her appearance and self worth. She had doubts about her career choices and concerns about graduate school. And, coming from a close-knit family, she wondered if she would ever find a husband, have children and establish a home like the one in which she grew up.
    “Finally, I went to Longshan Temple. But, before I went to the temple, I decided to see a fortune teller,” Jenny told me as we visited the famous temple in Taipei, Taiwan. In English, its name means Dragon Mountain Temple, even though the ornately decorated sacred site is now nearly swallowed up by rapid commercial development in this burgeoning capital city of this largely ethnic-Chinese island-nation.
    Longshan is a popular tourist destination in Taiwan, but it’s in no danger of becoming a relic of the past like so many European churches are today. The temple frequently is jammed with local residents and remains among the most popular of Taiwan’s many temples. It was built by immigrants from mainland China in 1738 — five years before Thomas Jefferson was born in Virginia and the same year that, in England, an Anglican clergyman, the Rev. John Wesley, was surprised to find his heart so strangely warmed.

CLICK BELOW to watch a brief video from our visit to Longshan, showing some of the activity near the main shrine in the temple as worshipers carry gifts of incense with their prayers — similar to the idea behind spreading incense in the midst of Catholic and Orthodox liturgies. (If you have trouble viewing this video, please Email me to let us know, because we plan to post more videos like this in coming months.)


     So, what’s most amazing for American visitors to Longshan, beyond the stunning architecture?
    It’s the age of the crowds. The thousands who flock to Longshan are far younger than the vast majority of American congregations. (The photo at right shows some of the young people, looking over food offerings brought by worshipers to one of the temple’s many altar areas on the day we visited.)
    Something is drawing youth and 20-Somethings to worship here at a rate that would make most American clergy jealous. Perhaps it lies in the broad mix of religious traditions that converge here.
    Longshan originally was conceived as a Buddhist temple, devoted to Guan Yin, the sacred spirit of compassion in Buddhist tradition — a spirit that usually is embodied in temples in the form of a beautiful goddess. But, over the nearly three centuries since this temple was established, Taoist traditions also have found a home within the temple’s various halls. Among the added shrines within the sprawling temple is a popular area devoted to Mazu, a Taoist goddess who many believe helps protect seafarers and other travelers.

    Plus, there’s also a vigorous practice in the temple of traditional Chinese practices of spiritual divination. 

    In more than two weeks of traveling and reporting in Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore on a fellowship with The East-West Center in January, I found that Jenny’s story was typical of dozens of young people I met. That includes talking to students at universities in Taiwan and Singapore. There are powerful social and political movements unfolding in Asia that are fueling a new kind of spiritual globalization.
    What do I mean by “spiritual globalization”? I’m not talking about a move toward complete religious unity. That’s not going to happen. Rather, I’m talking about a widespread spiritual yearning, especially among young people around the world, searching for connections to timeless values that can fuel their hope and sense of security and give their lives a transcendent meaning.

    For instance, a college student in Singapore told me that he worries that he will be swallowed alive by the almost obsessive attention to work in his island-nation. Singapore is famous around the world as an economic “tiger.” Over lunch, this young man told me that he looks at commuters on the Singapore subway, wearily jostling their way homeward after a long day at work, barely making eye contact with other men and women. “And, when they do look up, I am not kidding when I say that it looks like I can see ‘death’ written in their eyes.”

    He’s not alone, of course. In Taiwan, which is in the midst of a turbulent series of national elections, the ruling party suffered a crushing defeat in mid-January parliamentary elections that may be related to this same restless wave of spiritual globalization.
    For nearly eight years, Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party has been provocatively needling mainland China about Taiwan’s quest to be recognized around the world as an independent nation. (There hasn’t been much headway in that longstanding quest. In 1978, for example, the U.S. officially moved our embassy from Taipei to Beijing, an enormous blow to Taiwan’s hopes for independence.)
    Taiwan’s ruling party had assumed that this fresh needling of China would stir up a positive response from its grassroots supporters. One of these provocative actions by the ruling party was the decision to pour millions of dollars into a complete renovation of another major Taiwanese shrine — an enormous civic memorial in Taipei that is roughly akin to the presidential memorials along the Mall in Washington D.C.
    However, this proved to be a tragic miscalculation by the rulers, leading to their loss of control in parliament in the January elections — and presumably a loss of the rest of the government’s top offices in the final round of voting scheduled in March.

    (If you’re intrigued by these global trends, click on the cover of Annping Chin’s “The Authentic Confucius” to jump to some of our reviews of books about religious trends around the world.)

    Jenny Luo told me that many young Taiwanese were angered by the extravagant expenditures by the ruling party on revamping the national memorial. She has a keen sense of social justice and Jenny certainly was not alone among Taiwanese I talked with who called this multi-million-dollar renovation an unconscionable waste of public funds. After all, they argued, the provocative expenditures came at a time when China is squeezing Taiwan economically, families across the island are struggling to make ends meet — and Taiwanese newspapers are reporting that suicide rates among poor families are soaring.
    “How could they waste so much of our money on this pointless renovation, when people literally are killing themselves because they see no hope in their lives,” Jenny said. “Can you believe that? People are committing suicide and they spend millions to play politics like this.”
    There’s no question that there are deep-seeded political groups in Taiwan that still are motivated by pro-independence and anti-independence political appeals — but there are strong signs that millions of young people across southeast Asia see themselves much like many young people all around the world: as global citizens.
    All of the instability surrounding these young Asians — including dangerous political movements in many countries and vice-like economic pressures pushing on their communities and their families — are pushing many of them, just like Jenny, to search for spiritual solace.

    Jenny told me: “My grandfather was a mainlander. He came from mainland China, but he was dead when my father was 8 years old, so my father was put into an orphanage. He was very poor at the time, but he made his way through hard work to become a civil servant, so we have a stable family life now.
    “But it was a struggle for him. It’s a struggle for me, too, and I keep wondering: What is my identity in this world? I really feel challenged by these questions. I wonder about my own identity: Am I a Chinese or a Taiwanese? Who am I? I was born and raised here in Taiwan. If I was born in the United States, I would call myself an American, right? So, I call myself a Taiwanese because I was born and raised here. But I have Chinese blood, so it is complex for me.
    “And then, in addition to these complex questions of who I am in this world, I wonder what my future will be. Will I be able to find a good husband? Will I have a marriage that will last? And, will I have children and a good home?
    “This was all in my mind when I consulted the fortune teller.”

    Jenny’s parents had given her a Chinese name at birth but, in English, she had called herself Hedy Luo. Hedy was an exotic foreign name she had read in a book when she was a little girl and adopted as her English first name.
    But the fortune teller, who examined the shape and brush strokes in Jenny’s original Chinese name, plus astrological issues concerning her birth date, told Jenny that she needed to make a dramatic change in both her Chinese and English names — to select a more auspicious name for herself.
    “He told me that my original Chinese name was making me fat,” Jenny said. “I would remain fat with that name. And I had always had trouble with my weight, so I believed him. I worried a lot about that.
    “My new first name is made up of two Chinese characters that sound like the name Jenny in English. The Jeh- sound is a Chinese character that refers to a woman who follows a good husband. That means I will get married with a good husband and I will stick with him and we will have good luck in our marriage and with our family.
    “The -ny sound, the second part of the Jenny name, is a character that means I will have serenity. And I certainly need serenity.”

    Jenny felt far from serene, early last year, when her relationship broke up and she was feeling deeply anxious about her life on so many levels. In her effort to restructure her whole life, she eventually managed to lose 20 pounds and she changed her name to Jenny.
    But, she had not yet learned the good news that she would be chosen for an entry-level job as a TV-news anchor.

     That’s about the time that she went to Longshan and anxiously prayed for help before the shrine to Guan Yin, burning incense sticks and waving them above her head as she bowed repeatedly.
    Then, she followed one other traditional method of divination — drawing from the huge bundle of long wooden sticks held in a bronze sheaf at the temple. This practice, called Kau Cim, follows an especially elaborate set of rituals at Longshan. In addition to randomly selecting from the bundle of long wooden sticks, which are marked with various Chinese characters, visitors to Longshan seek to further confirm this random choice.
    They do so by choosing a pair of crescent-shaped wooden blocks from a brass box poised near the sheaf of sticks. Then, they toss this pair of wooden crescents onto the temple floor three times. If the blocks fall in a specified pattern three times in a row, then this confirms that the correct wooden stick was chosen from the bronze sheaf. At that point, with the selection of the stick confirmed by the three tosses, the worshiper takes the Chinese character written on the stick to another part of the temple to find the appropriate message in a huge chart of such messages. (In the photo at left, that’s Jenny’s hands holding a couple of the crescent-shaped wooden blocks.)

    Wracked with worries, Jenny followed these rituals over and over again at Longshan.
    “And do you know what happened on the final time that I did this?” Jenny asked me.
    “It was a complete surprise to me, but I knew that the message finally was true. I knew that I had the right wooden stick. I had seen the pattern three times on the floor. So, I took the character from the wooden stick and went to the answer charts.
    “Do you know what the answer said? It said, ‘Please don’t worry so much!’ That’s what it said: ‘Don’t worry. You’ve already got a life much better than a lot of people in the world, so be thankful for that.’
    “And then I did begin to feel better. I am an anchor now. My life is getting better and I know that. But, can you imagine me standing in the temple that day, looking at the answer from my wooden stick? I was speechless when I consulted the charts and the answer came back to me: ‘Be thankful. Don’t worry.’ It was like the gods were telling me: ‘Hey, don’t bother us so much with these worries. There are people worse off.’”
    Jenny laughed and shook her head at this memory.
    Then, she said to me, “Isn’t that a good spiritual story to share with people? I think it is. I hope you’ll share my story.”
    And so I have.

    CLICK BELOW to watch a video in which Jenny tries to narrate — over the almost overwhelming noise of the temple devotions — as we watched a woman toss the wooden crescents and select a wooden stick, just as Jenny had done in her search for answers at Longshan.



 NOTE: This series was published in early 2008 and continues to draw readers, years later. ReadTheSpirit online magazine has moved through several redesigns and expansions, in those years. Some of the typography and page design of this series may appear slightly askew, due to changes in online templates. However, the entire text of the series remains as published. Please email us at [email protected] with questions or comments.

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