Before I came to Hong Kong I set out a few aims. One of them was to encounter and explore the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Taoism. Quite how I was going to do that was something I hadn’t thought through very much, but one contact led to another and to another and to another and after just a few days I am brimming over with new experiences and embryonic reflections.
Yesterday I spent a few hours at the Wong Tai Sin Temple in New Kowloon. This is definitely on the tourist route and features in all the guides as a ‘must see’. But my experience was not that of a tourist as my newly found contacts and friends had made arrangements in advance, and on arrival I was ushered into the administrative heart of the place to meet with the Abbot.
We drank endlessly refilled cups of tea in a wonderfully large and beautifully furnished space. ‘Palatial’ doesn’t overstate it. He, a former policeman, was dressed informally, but I also saw some of the beautiful ceremonial robes – including his – the only purple ones.
The temple has at its core a painting Wong Tai Sin – who is variously described as a ‘god’ or ‘master’. It came to Hong Kong in 1915 and is unusual as a centrepiece – not being a sculpture.
In recent years the whole place has been renovated, expanded and developed in such a way as to create a huge capacity for people to practice Taoist rituals. But the Temple isn’t simply Taoist, there are two others main ‘altars’ – one is Confucian and the other Buddhist – and they seem very happy together.
As I left, the Abbot, Mr Lee, gave me a copy of a massive, richly illustrated hardback book which describes the new Temple and the work of development. One of the principles was to make it more ecologically friendly. To quote the title of one of the sections of the book – which is called ‘metamorphosis’ by the way: ‘Civilised Worshipping and Environmentally Friendly Burning of Incense’. Clearly, it can be done.
On a floor below the main altars is the Tai Sui Yuenchen Hall – for which there is an admission charge of 100HKD (about £9) and where two robed and hatted volunteer priests wait in solemn stillness for the next visitor to arrive. I was taken there by the ‘Corporate Communications Officer’ who was dressed as a business executive.
The overall design is based on Taoist architecture and incorporates a shrine of the goddess of the Great Dipper – who has many arms and is pulled on a chariot by seven pigs. Much of the hall depicts of reflects aspects of the Chinese zodiac. I discovered that i was born in the year the dog and – for instance – will probably find it difficult to get along with people born in the year of the buffalo. That is, people who are six years – or multiples of six years – younger or older.
What is also clear is that the Temple is part and parcel of a larger organisation ‘Sik Sik Yuen’ – of which Mr Lee has served as chair for the maximum six year period, which has benevolence as its main aim. This is all integrated under the presiding genius of Master Wong Tai Sin and his principle ‘to act benevolently and to teach benevolence’.
The catalogue of good works and generous donations is impressive indeed (I was given the annual report too) and puts the opulence of the Temple into perspective.
Quite what to make of it all I am not sure. The visit gave me so much to absorb and reflect on. But I did find it an impressive place, but no, more than that, I found it an astonishing place. I hadn’t expected to see – nor have I ever previously seen – such a thoroughgoing encounter between traditional, ancient, unmodernised religion and modern social and ecological ambition, or between lavish use of art and materials and commitment to benevolence and welfare.
I don’t think the visit got me to the heart of Taoist thinking – but it certainly got me thinking.