Tue, Aug 01, 2017 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Temple traditions versus environmental concerns

By Elizabeth Hsu  /  CNA

Environmental Protection Administration Minister Lee Ying-yuan fields questions yesterday morning at Taipei radio station HitFM on a false rumor that the government would ban incense burning.

Photo: CNA

For centuries, burning incense has been synonymous with praying at temples, but in recent years the government has been trying to encourage an end to, or at least a reduction of, the practice. However, it has met with strong resistance.

When rumors spread that the government might ban the burning of incense, thousands of temple representatives and worshipers took to the streets surrounding the Presidential Office Building in Taipei on July 23 to vent their dissatisfaction with the government for singling out temples while turning a blind eye to industrial pollution in its efforts to improve air quality.

The “Gods on Ketagalan” parade, initiated by a group of temple representatives from Beigang Township (北港) in Yunlin County, was meant to be a protest, but the designation was later changed to a “religious carnival,” after Cabinet officials and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) members made efforts to explain that the government’s policy is aimed at preventing air pollution by reducing, not banning, the burning of incense.

In a radio interview yesterday, Environmental Protection Administration Minister Lee Ying-yuan (李應元) put his position on the line by reiterating that he never spoke of “banning incense burning,” and he would step down if proven otherwise.

Banning incense is seen as a threat by the thousands of temples in Taiwan.

Lin Mao-hsien (林茂賢), an associate professor of Taiwanese languages and literature at National Taichung University of Education who specializes in folklore research, says that burning incense and ghost money, also called gold paper, has been a custom in Chinese societies for a long time.

In China, there are records of the custom in the Wei, Jin and South-North dynasties (from 220 AD to 589 AD), Lin said.

The commencement of the practice could be far earlier, even back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD), when Buddhism was introduced to China, along with the rituals of burning incense and ghost money, he said.

Then, people believing in Taoism or other religious beliefs adopted the practice, which gradually developed into a common custom. On the first and 15th day of every lunar month, or on the birthday of a god, people will burn incense and ghost money for the gods.

“Through the rituals, people pray for good fortune and inner peace,” Lin says, describing the practice as “spiritual sustenance.”

“Without doing so, people will feel unable to connect with the gods,” he says.

Many temples earn money by selling incense and ghost money, so it would be better to just seek the reduction of incense and ghost money burning, while keeping their prices at a certain level to allow temples to maintain their income, Lin said.

Improving the quality of incense and ghost money so that they can be sold for better prices could be one solution to keeping the temple culture alive while promoting environmental protection. It has been several years since the government began encouraging people to adopt environmental friendly ways in religious worship.

Two temples have been at the forefront of change. Three years ago, Xingtian Temple (行天宮), one of Taipei’s most popular, removed incense burners and tables where worshipers would place offerings of food for the deities in order to reduce pollution and waste.

It was the first temples in Taiwan dedicated to Chinese deities to do so.

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