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Yesterday, the gods went for a walk through our neighborhood. This is done after Chinese New Years, and other times to rid the homes in the neighborhood of evil spirits. It is an interesting and noisy process.
Beginning early in the morning we began to hear the retorts of firecrackers. Not just a few individual bangs. Do you remember those times where you would light the fuse of an entire package of Black Cat Firecrackers and thirty-two firecrackers would blast one after another in rapid-fire succession? B-r-r-r-r-aaap. Take that sound and multiply by about three thousand blasts every two hours beginning at midnight.
Then we started hearing the music. It sounds eerie, like bagpipes with drums and cymbals. The group begins to walk through the neighborhood. The firecrackers serve two purposes the first is to arouse the evil spirits and the second is to let the neighborhood know that this is taking place.
The neighbors began to bring incense burners, and small incinerators out to the street. These are used to make offerings to their dead ancestors. They burn money purchased from the temple, small paper clothing and other things that their ancestors would need as they wait in hell to be reincarnated. I’m not using hell in a derogatory way here. The belief is that everyone dies and unless they have become an ascended master who has arrived at nirvana, they go to hell to await reincarnation.
But while they are in hell they have the same material needs that they would have on earth. This is why when they are buried there are the stacks of beers, or offerings of a favorite food. They have a need for money, clothing and food and they believe that the incinerator is the portal or doorway to their ancestor’s soul. So the items are burned and the smoke carries the essence of the thing to the ancestor. In fact, every year there is a month called Ghost Month where the people believe that their ancestor’s ghost is released from hell to wander the earth. So they prepare meals for the ghosts and place them outside the door of the house for them to eat.
Because of these beliefs it is important to teach the children to “provide for the ghosts” of their ancestors. The worst thing that can happen to a person is that they become a “hungry ghost” doomed to wander the spirit realm without provision. So children are taught respect for ancestors and threatened with curses and evil spirits if they don’t provide for them. People are deathly afraid of ghosts in Taiwan. The problem for them is that they are always afraid that they haven’t been faithful enough in providing for the ancestors.
Which brings us back to the walking of the gods. The purpose of the walk is to free the neighborhood homes of evil spirits. So as the gods stroll through the neighborhood, every home where there is an incense burner or incinerator the parade stops there and the lions go into that house and frighten away the evil spirits.
In the parade are lions, walking characterizations of the gods of hell. Musicians, drummers, an ark carried by four men and a singer. The musicians and singer provide a background of worship and honor for the gods.
At the head of the parade are firecrackers and fireworks; these are lit to frighten the evil spirits. After the fireworks come the horn players and the singer. Then come the lions, these are sent into the homes to chase out the evil spirits to the gods waiting in the streets.
The ark follows all of this. The ark is a portable altar. It is used to hold offerings to the gods and perhaps as a holding facility for the evil spirits. The parade is ends with people following the ark and burning incense.
The music sounds like ancient Chinese music or the music of India. Buddhism has its roots in India as the founder of Buddhism, the Buddha himself, was an East Indian man named Siddhartha Guatama who lived in 598 BC.
When your home is rid of spirits it is expected that you will give the temple a Hong Bao (red packet). A donation placed in a red packet is offered to the temple for this service.
Other posts you may be interested in:
Local Color: The Temples of Taoyuan City
Taiwanese Traditions: Ghost Month