Monday, June 24, 2013

Tempo house

When I think of the word 'temple' now I think of it as said by the man at Ounalom Temple, who pronounced it roughly: tempo. In this post I want to think out what it is that I like so much about temples, particularly Buddhist and Taoist ones. It's the Taoist aesthetic that I like, but my beliefs are closer to Buddhism, and that makes a difference. I feel less strange in a Buddhist temple. I was about to add "but it's the strangeness that appeals," but that isn't true. What appeals is strange, but it isn't the strangeness. It's the vitality.



Actually these pictures don't quite make the point, but I'll try to put it in words below. The kind of church I grew up with tends towards minimalism, like Apple products and much else that is revered in our culture. Perhaps rightly so. But minimalism has to do with silence, and silence does not speak the ineffable. It might be tasteful, very tasteful indeed even, but it says nothing. A contemporary church (and I'm no expert, but I suspect there is little difference in this regard between Protestant, Catholic, and even Orthodox churches being built now) might be "the product of a decidedly sensitive ear and good manners, an expression of great understanding (of cultures, etc.). But primordial life, wild life striving to erupt into the open—that is lacking." Wittgenstein (in the same passage I've just quoted) links wild life striving to erupt (a very Schopenhauerian image, to my mind) with health. And I think what I like, or one thing that I like at least, about Taoist (and some Buddhist) temples is this sense of health and of life. 

They are full of gods and life. Spiral incense sticks hang slowly burning from the ceiling, drooping into cones that drop brown ash below. Shorter, straight incense sticks poke out from urns of sand as offerings to the gods. There is a large bell and a large drum that are occasionally sounded, after an offering has been made. Every part of the ceiling is painted brightly or carved elaborately. There are ranks of lanterns and prayer flags hanging down, banks of memorials to the dead line the walls (possibly with the ashes of the deceased behind each one--I don't know). There are large statues of armed gods standing near the back of the temple, and paintings of similar figures on the doors as you enter. Entrance is through a gateway blocked by a step to keep out ghosts, which have no knees and so cannot bend their legs to get over it. The main gods are presented (or represented) at the very back, with lesser ones along the walls, sometimes in glass cases. Before them are offerings, usually of fruit but also expensive treats (Ferrero Rocher and Toblerone, for instance, but I also saw Guinness). And of course people praying and giving incense, robed and performing ceremonies, selling incense and paper goods to burn (it is all about fire as well as smells and color, and there must be sacrifice), or just waiting in attendance while eating lunch or having a smoke. Life is here, even if this life revolves around death. I don't know, but my sense is that most of the prayers are either for the dead or the dying, or at least sick. One of the most popular temples in Hong Kong is dedicated to Wong Tai Sin, who is believed to have been able to cure all illnesses and to help with other troubles too. Outside one temple two elderly people offered pieces of paper supposed to bring luck by their red color and propitious symbols (they wanted money in return). Temples are places for the grieving and the unfortunate to grieve and indulge in superstition. But the grief, the sacrifice, and the respect for forces not of this world are all real. (How do I know? Partly because people go there alone and at any time of the day to make their offerings and say their prayers. This isn't a performance, as some church attendance is.) All day every day people come and pray, and the temples are right there among the businesses, each of which (as well as each home) typically contains its own spirit house. Merely for luck, perhaps, but this isn't the luck it takes to win the lottery. It's luck that's linked to heaven or the Buddha, and to one's ancestors. I don't mean to deny or even downplay the superstition in all this, but it isn't all superstition, and even the superstition itself (give me money and I'll give you luck) is not pure superstition. It's a corruption, a corrupt form, of something much better. Or so it seems to me. 

Larkin's "Church Going" is relevant to these temples:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in
If only that so many dead lie round.
But the question of obsolescence that runs through Larkin's meditation just isn't there in Hong Kong and Cambodia (or it didn't seem to be there to me). The temple next to the Mercedes dealership feels like a necessity, not a relic.

I don't know that I really have a point here, or if I do I'm not sure exactly what it is. Something about the pre-modern age has tremendous appeal, for me and for others. And religion, or perhaps religion of a certain kind, strikes me as essentially, perhaps definitively, pre-modern. It also seems closed off though. I can just about imagine becoming a Buddhist (of a very minimal kind), but not a Taoist. Probably all I mean is: death of God/disenchantment of the world/the good old days/the exotic Orient/etc. etc. But I mean it as the expression of a real experience. The best temples in Hong Kong felt like oxygen to me, in a way that works of art sometimes, and wild animals always, do. 

Here's an otherwise irrelevant video to explain the post's title:



  2. I might be missing the connection you have in mind, but it's nice to see truth, beauty, and goodness defended, if only indirectly.