The burning charm

It seems, I’m fighting a losing battle with the ghosts of Taiwan.  I wrote an account a while back about  visiting a temple to get rid of bad chi.  Well, the spirits have since taken personal affront to my rejection of their chi.  The Mrs. recently informed me that my chi was giving the aroma of mouldy cheese again.  Well, I like mouldy cheese, but since she doesn’t, counter measures needed to be taken.

My beliefs haven’t changed.  I still find it difficult to incorporate ghosts in my paradigm of the world, but I’m always curious to learn more about the  religious rituals and beliefs of my hosts and neighbours.  So I asked how we can up the ante and get my chi back to normal.  Here’s what we did.

The “temple” that we went to didn’t really have the typical appearance of a temple.  Instead of gracefully arcing roofs, ornamental statues and richly decorated walls, this one looked no different than all the other shops on the street – small, shabby and worn down.  It was located between a Chinese medicine shop and some sort of hardware/electronics shop.  Absolutely nothing that would indicate that it was a temple , at least to my foreign eye.  I later found out that it’s one of the more auspscious ones in the city, having been around for 50 years or so.

We went into the room.  It looked pretty grungy, and was not exactly well lit.  As my gf explained what was going on, I got the sense that the man (priest?) she was talking to was skeptical.  He babbled something in Mandarin and turned away.  Apparently we were to come back in an hour because they were closing for lunch.  I guess he needed some xiao long bao (kind of dumpling) before embarking on the fight for my chi.

When we returned an hour later, I was ushered back into the room and asked for some details about my life.  Name (I have a Chinese one), D.O.B (converted into the lunar calender), address (I have no idea why they needed this – maybe ghosts differ according to area code?) and so forth.  After compiling all the information, the head priest wrote a bunch of stuff on a piece of what looked like parchment (or maybe just very aged paper) and handed it to his assistant.  It was a charm or protection spell of some sort.  Now, the really fun part began.

The assistant motioned me outside, and made it clear that I was to stand in a certain spot.  He then sparked up a lighter and lit a piece of paper on fire (might have been the charm, it all happened very fast) and immediately put it out, so that there were just smoking embers on the edge that he lit.  Rolling it up with incense, he came over and stood next to me.  He suddenly started chanting a mantra and gyrating, waving the smoking charm all over my body – front and back.  It wasn’t uncomfortable, just unexpected.  This continued for about 30 – 40 seconds (the guy seemed to have awesome lung capacity – I don’t think I heard him pause for breath even once).

After the waving and chanting was done, I went back inside.  We were handed a pouch of ashes (the charm was burnt), and I was instructed to purchase some kind of Chinese medicinal herb (very cheap) and mix the ashes, herb and water.  I had to drink this concoction within the next 24 hrs. to complete the ritual.

Curiousity only goes so far – I wasn’t about to drink ash (although in retrospect, I don’t know why…I’ve put much more harmful stuff in my body before – maybe just a knee jerk reaction to drinking ash), so they said I could use a towel and bathe myself in the mixture instead.  That would work as well.  Smiling and thanking them, we paid the fee (nominal) and left.

Later that evening, I washed myself with the herb/ash mixture and concluded the ritual.  Needless to say, I didn’t feel any different.

This whole experience really gave me a clear definition of just how important religion is in the life of Taiwanese.  It’s not on open display all over the place, but internally, a large majority of Taiwanese hold on dearly to these customs.  The temple isn’t a money making racket – they don’t charge enough to be.  People actually believe this stuff works and continue to go there.  And unlike a church – where I see mostly older people – there were people from all ages and walks of life at this place.

I’d heard stories of business men going to temples to make important decisions and sick people visiting shrines to get better.  I thought that these were highly exaggerated stories – practiced by a few, but spread by many to keep up the perception of “eastern mysticism”, but the more I learn about it, the more it seems to be a very real part of daily life.

As for me, I’m just happy that I have sweet smelling chi now.  Be it real or not, if rituals like these keep my life good, then I’m all for them.

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