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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Curmudgeonly Birthday Rants

Another year, another birthday. I’m reaching the stage in life where I’m actually beginning to forget how far I’m come, and I need to do some calculating when asked how old I am. It would be nice to have one’s birthday fall on a weekend, and thus not have to work, but today was actually the next best thing, as I usually only have to work in the mornings on Tuesdays, leaving the rest of the day free to hit the mountain trails. On my way out to Tà​k'ēng 大坑 this afternoon, I paid a visit to the T'ái​chūng Shèngshòu Temple 台中聖壽宮 to have a quick look around.

Inside the Main Hall

Now you may assume the reason for visiting a house of worship on this particular afternoon was so that I may pause on this day of birth, and reflect on my current station in life, in the presence of the gods. A reasonable assumption, but when it comes to Taoism (t'ào​chiào) 道教, I can’t be bothered. Taoism may have begun as a worthy philosophy concerned with the state of Nature, and of Man’s relationship with the Universe, but over the centuries it has aimed at the lowest common denominator, to the point it is now smothered in mysticism, superstition, the occult and esoteric (and completely unnecessary) rituals. To be fair, most of the world’s major religions have followed similar paths. One thing that stands out about Taoism, however, is its almost complete lack of idealism. Whereas most of the world’s major faiths (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and so on) in theory, at least, aim to educate their believers into becoming more ethical beings (even if they do fail miserably much of the time – people are people, after all), Taoism seems to exist mainly to satisfy its adherents’ most selfish desires in this world, and to give its followers the means to bribe their way into the next one. In this regard, Taoism is arguably the world’s most refreshingly honest faith! (And again, in all fairness, Taoist temples frequently engage in activities to benefit people in their surrounding communities, even if that means having local gangsters getting involved).

The view from the second floor, with the T'ái​chūng 臺中 "skyline" off in the distance

What’s also annoying about Taoism is its unapologetic ethnocentrism. Taoism exists for Chinese/Taiwanese people, and Chinese/Taiwanese people only – you don’t find the universality that most of the world’s great religions profess to have in common. One would think that the sheer irrationality underlying the concept of there being only Chinese gods for Chinese people would be glaringly obvious, but when it comes to religion (any religion), faith triumphs every time over logic and reason. On the bright side, this means we don’t have to put up with Taoist proselytizers knocking on our doors, harassing us on the streets or beaming themselves into our living rooms.

A lone worshiper seeks the gods' blessings. I may not agree with the religions and their dogmas, but I respect the believers, and when visiting churches, shrines or temples, I always try not to disturb those who may be meditating or praying.

So why did I bother visiting a Taoist temple this afternoon? The simple answer is for the architecture and the atmosphere. Shèngshòu Temple is one of the more interesting temples in this area, and commands a prime location in T'ái​chūng’s eastern hills. The temple is very welcoming of visitors (something Christian churches generally aren’t very good at doing), and there’s a very informative sign near the front entrance explaining in both Chinese and English the different gods, and their location within the buildings. I wasn’t the only one there this afternoon having a look around, as several of the worshipers were also taking pictures. It was a nice break before tackling the trails of Tà​k'ēng.

As for today’s hike, I had plenty of insects and lizards to keep me company. My camera, unfortunately, isn’t very good at close-up photographs, and the pictures I took of the golden beetle that crossed my path at one point were very disappointing. However, I did manage to get this short video of a walking stick:

Despite my crotchetiness, perhaps the Taoist gods took pity on me (it was my birthday today, after all). I was blessed with sunny weather while I was out on the trails, and it was only when I was riding the scooter on the way back home that I turned around and saw heavy rain falling in the distance:

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