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Insight in Incense

My Travel Writing Scholarship 2011 entry - Journey in an Unknown Culture

WORLDWIDE | Friday, 25 March 2011 | Views [767] | Scholarship Entry

Insight in Incense

I never knew well the deceased Taiwanese poet, whose framed portrait is propped high in a mammoth-sized diadem of tropical flowers—the pale purples, pinks, and whites contrasting with the traditional reds and lustrous golds of the Buddhist temple. In front of this central shrine stands a veritable feast of Asian cuisine—roasted duck, white rice, and fresh round pears. This food is an offering, prepared with the intention to never be tasted by the living.

The temple’s yellow roof tiles and hierarchal structure reflect the intricate yet balanced nature of oriental architecture. Here I’m attending a form of an event that transcends cultural boundaries by the very nature of human mortality. Friends, family, and yellow-robed monks gather in this golden place of worship for the final ceremony before the poet’s body will be cremated and interred at the family mausoleum. This is Taiwan’s take on the funeral.

The air is thick and earthy, a typical summer temperament in the near-equator island nation. The temple’s inside is open on three sides. I’m standing in an aisle, neck to ankles in a black robe, struggling in the heat to follow the ceremonial proceedings. The congregation is seated on either side of the aisle. From their shrine seats, androgynous, enlightened ceramic figures in lotus position also watch. The lead monk chants up front, his voice rhythmic yet nearly monotone, accompanied by two equally bald female monks ringing bells intermittently.

I never knew well my grandfather, whose language and culture lay in a time zone 12 hours away from my own. Yet, here, chanting and bell ringing exist to wish him passage from this world. In the aisle, in a square 3 x 4 formation of other immediate members, I follow in bowing, kneeling, and standing in time to these chants. It is the Taiwanese equivalent of requiem. Although I cannot understand the words, I understand that, in this culture, ancestry is important. Ritual is life.

Once cremated, buses take the ashes and the closest family to lay the urn to rest. The mausoleum stands on a grassy hillside, a speckle in a city of other tombs. In Feng Shui, higher is better, and so we trek a thin meandering path upwards. It is later in the day; the humidity has dropped. The higher altitude expresses itself in an omnipresent mist.

Near the top is our structure, its majestic purple roof with curled corners, a regal color complement to its shimmering, light gray marble body. Mounted on the wall is a darker gray tablet, engraved with a list of characters I cannot read but instinctively know are names of those who lay within.

I’m told to bow three times and then place a lit incense stick into the frontal shrine. As it burns, the ancient aroma stirs itself into the sky, becoming one with the al fresco mountain air. Surrounded by the centuries old veneration of generations long past, I can’t help but to close my eyes in silent supplication.

Tags: #2011writing, buddhist temple, death, funeral, funeral customs, mausoleum, taiwan, travel writing scholarship 2011

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