Taipei’s Longshan Temple tour: Buddhism 101

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The third and final walking tour I did with Tour Me Away was their evening Longshan Temple Tour. (I’d previously been on their Old Town Taipei tour and Taipei Chill Out tour).

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Our tour route, taken from the Tour Me Away website

If you’ve had a nosey around my blog before then you’ll know I’m kind of obsessed with temples. To be honest, I’m not at all religious (although perhaps borderline ‘spiritual’ on a good day) but I just love the combination of culture, history, architecture and serenity that you find in temples all around Asia. (Of course, the serenity comes in varying degrees! I’m looking at you Wong Tai Sing temple…).

Before reaching the temple itself, we were taken down the old street of Bopiliao (剝皮寮歷史街區) which dates back to 1799 and is located in the oldest district in Taipei, Wanhua District.  Wanhua is also where Taipei city was founded!

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And old film poster billboard from Bopiliao Old Street

There is a block of small buildings/rooms in Bopiliao street which I think were used for some sort of devious military purpose. Basically, our guide alluded to the place being haunted and that someone may or may not have died there!! It was a small, dark and cold set of stone rooms! Today, the area is used to educate both locals and tourists about old Taiwan. It’s also been used as a shooting location for some period-style films in Taiwan.

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Down the road, we got the opportunity to try some traditional medicinal teas. There were four different kinds, all made with different fresh herbs/plants/flowers. Some tasted better than others and they all claim to do different things. I think the one I had (which I was told tasted similar to cranberry juice but I beg to differ) was good for your liver. Good news for frequent bar-goers.

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After our tea, it was time for the main event! In some ways, visiting Longshan temple was my favourite thing I did out of all three of the tours. Although some might say ‘it was just another temple’, it was such a unique experience and I wouldn’t have got nearly as much out of it had it not been for Sun talking us through everything!  Our guide Sun was amazing and she’d studied Traditional Chinese at university and so knew an endless amount of historical and cultural facts.

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Originally built in 1738, Longshan temple is the oldest place of worship in Taipei. Over the years, it’s been partially rebuilt after being damaged by earthquakes and typhoons. But each time the temple was the damaged the statues of the gods survived and this is why Longshan temple is considered the most revered in Taiwan and it’s deemed to be ‘looked after’ from above.

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Fun fact: all the temple roofs are made of solid wood – no nails, no glue, just wood! The most recent version of the temple took 20 carpenters 10 years to build! They use a special and highly skilled technique to carve the figures from one piece of wood. Sadly, no one around today is able to do.

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Sun first showed us how to enter a temple. Sounds simple, right? There’s a particular gate for entering and a particular gate for exiting. Don’t get them mixed up! (It think it brings bad luck). If in doubt, this part is simple – just follow other people. When you do enter the temple, step over the threshold with your left foot first. When you exit, step over with your right foot first.

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Our wonderful guide, Sun.

Next, we picked up three sticks of incense each and Sun told us how to light them. She said each stick must be lit but the flames must go out before you can continue to the prayer hall. Basically, the sticks need to be ‘smoking’. But to extinguish the flames you must not blow on them!! This is considered very disrespectful towards the gods. You basically just got to keep waving them until they extinguish (but don’t do garishly big arm waving!).

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Once your incense is ready, head to the first prayer hall. When walking with the incense, never hold them with just your right hand. (Again, it’s disrespectful). To pray to the gods, face their statues and using both hands hold all your incense sticks together up high near your forehead (any lower is considered very disrespectful towards Buddha). Then bow once, keeping your incense sticks near your forehead.

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Next, you need to tell the gods something personal about you that identifies you. Our guide Sun suggested telling them our credit card number! I initially thought she was joking! Think of this process as similar to the security questions you get when you set up online accounts. Once you’ve told the gods these personal details, they’ll know it’s you. Then you can proceed to tell them what you wish for or what problem you want helping solving.

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Once you are done bow three more times in each of the four directions (in front, behind, to your left, to your right) and then put one incense stick in the big communal pot located in that prayer hall. You then repeat the process for the remaining worship halls. Generally, the number of incense sticks you get matches the number of halls.

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If you want your fortune told you have to ask the gods for permission by dropping two wooden segments on the floor and have on land flat side up and the other round side up. Once you have ‘permission’ via the wooden segments, you get to pick a numbered stick at random and then that number corresponds to a box and in that box is your fortune written on paper.

If you really want something to come true, you might leave a food offering. (Apparently during exam season, young people will come to the temple with plenty of food offerings just before they sit an exam!)

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Needless to say, if your wish comes true/your problem is solved then you must give payment to the gods. For example, our guide Sun wanted to buy us each a small charm from the temple shop as a way of repaying her debt to the gods after they helped her with something she prayed to them about the previous week.

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My charm from Sun. This one is meant to keep you safe while travelling so I thought it was appropriate 🙂

After being gifted some adorable charms from Sun, we had a group photo outside and there finished our temple tour. I’m a sucker for learning new cultural/historical/political facts and boy did I come away with plenty that night! Possibly my favourite experience in Taiwan! Please check if out if you’re in Taipei, especially as it’s free! See Tour Me Away for all the details.

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