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As with the rest of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples, the Tsou (鄒族) of Alishan have had difficulty maintaining their distinct culture and language under the Japanese and Chinese regimes of the 20th century. As with other tribes, most of the 7,000 Tsou are Christian, but they are more committed than most to the continued practice of pre-Christian religious ceremonies. The Tsou have a number of significant annual rituals, such as the Mayasvi (瑪雅士比) ‘Victory Ceremony,’ but it is the Homeyaya (小米收穫祭) or millet harvest festival is that calls all Tsou back to their home villages every summer.

Held sometime after the annual harvest, Homeyaya does not have a fixed date. Major festivals like Mayasvi or Homeyaya can only be held in the kuba, or ritual pavilion, of a village with a traditional chief—conditions which today are only met by the villages of Tapangu 達邦 (Dabang) and Tfuya (特富野). These larger communities known as ‘Hosa’ are the center of Tsou tradition, and many of the wealthier families have traditional bamboo rooms attached to their modern Taiwanese style houses. The private religious ceremony is held at night, finishing before dawn, which marks the beginning of the festival component, both more celebratory and more public. Guests visit the home of every friend and relative that has one of those traditional rooms, eating and drinking at long, low tables stocked with Taiwan Beer and rice wine (米酒) and local foods like wild boar, deer, or chicken. The Homeyaya concludes with a convocation of the village elders.

While Tsou settlements such as Laiji Village (來吉) were devastated by Typhoon Morakot in 1999, Tapangu survived.

 

 

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The entrance to the Tapangu Hosa

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The ceremonial rooms are constructed out of bamboo in the traditional style, and decorated with hunting tools and trophies

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Locally raised and hunted meat is served along with soup in a bamboo pipe bowl.

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A Tsou elder and his wife

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The kaba or ritual pavilion

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The kaba or ritual pavilion. The signs read ‘No admittance except for ritual personnel’ and ‘No women allowed’

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Homeyaya ends with a council of Hosa elders

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Cultivation of Alishan tea is a major industry for the village


For more information on the Tsou traditional ceremonies please browse the following links:

Mazu_witek_nick

For over a century devotees of the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu (媽祖 lit. Mother Ancestor), from the Gongtian Temple in Baishatun, Miaoli County have flocked to Beigang’s Chaotian Temple in Yunlin County for an annual 400-plus km pilgrimage in the 2nd Lunar month of the year. They participate for the blessings, protection and fortune afforded by Mother Mazu, who was said to protect the fisherman and sailors on the high seas when she was a living human, known as Lin Moniang. As I lived by the seaside growing up myself I was moved by this significance. This year, as I tracked my way back from my Chinese New Year holiday to urban life in Taipei, I decided to join the devotees on the return leg of their 9-day journey, hoping to find in the ritual space, time and an opportunity for reflection.

The Mazu Pilgrimage (媽祖進香), which literally means an offering of incense, involved more than one thousand pilgrims following by foot Mazu’s jiao(轎)or palanquin, on her journey to the sacred first Mazu temple in Taiwan. While not shunning modern technology - A GPS informs followers of where Mazu is at any point in time – the deity nonetheless has an erratic and unpredictable personality in deciding her path. No one knows which route the unpredictable goddess will take and what locations or occurrences will draw her attention along the way, in fact, the only certainty is that the goddess will arrive at the ancestral temple and will find her way back to her hometown temple. One year Mazu even guided her followers through the cold currents of the Zhuoshui River rather than taking the rather more practical Xiluo Bridge. Mazu indicates the direction she wants to go by leaning and putting more weight on a particular corner of her palanquin, which is held aloft by devotees on their shoulders. The Baishatun Mazu is also fiercely incorruptible by modern politics and etiquette. She is a chaotic force for good, oblivious to any rules that would be imposed upon her. While politics often plagues other religious processions such as the most famous Dajia Mazu, the Baishatun Mazu avoids many of these problems with her anarchical mode of existence. Mazu’s uncontrollable free spirit, nonetheless, seems to give respect to local knowledge, with considerations of geography, the cultural map and mythology of the people and prevailing conditions during the journey.

The Council of Cultural Affairs is now promoting the Baishatun pilgrimage as a distinctive peculiarity of the island's native culture and identity; arguably this may be a strategy to bring this religious activity more closely in line with the needs of the state. But this tradition and community cannot be defined and imposed upon by state ideology. This Mazu pilgrimage is a grassroots, bottom up culture which develops spontaneously in dialogue with the local land and people. It has a thousand different interpretations, and a thousand different truths.

mazu_witek_nick2

With her sometimes cruel sense of humour Mazu mocks state control and rules implemented by faraway experts and institutions. In this festival of passionate religious expression, all the repressions that normally apply to earthly beings are broken or sidestepped. The police seem more like spectators, sighing as Mazu decides to divert troublesomely on to the motorway, or guide her followers through private property bumbling, or a movement I could only describe as 'bianging', aggressively through whatever stands in her path. Throughout the pilgrimage local residents light a barrage of fireworks on the roads, in theory an illegal activity, leaving the pilgrims engulfed in a constant cloud of smoke and the police look on impotently as the palanquin barges on through. This freedom of religious expression and creativity is severely lacking in Mazu’s homeland of southern China, where the government’s tight policy of control of religion leaves little space for such crowd-inducing rituals which are viewed with great suspicion, cutting the local populations off from these potentially de-alienating rituals and connection with the land. What I saw on this pilgrimage showed me that a lack of central control on the body and mind stimulates colour, contrasts and distinctive flavours whilst opening the doors for creative problem solving.

What sets the incorruptible Baishatun Mazu apart from other Mazu pilgrimages is the lack of shackles placed upon the followers forcing them to follow a strict temple doctrine; the space allowed for creativity, is inspiring to its followers without being repressive. Those in good health will follow the whole journey on foot as suixiangtuan, but for those who can’t walk long distances they will follow as jinxiangtuan in their car or a coach, stopping off to pray as Mazu sets off in the early morning. By throwing divination blocks, temple representatives will ask Mazu at what time they will set off in the morning which in my experience ranged from 2am to the early afternoon. This disorganized state allows for diverse interpretations and truths and encourages creativity and innovation. All along the journey individual worshippers happily spend their time and money practically, forcing upon you endless cups of green, red and ginger tea, sports drinks, and cans of Mr Brown coffee, also rarely did an hour pass by without being served lashings of thick soup, sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaf or mantou steamed bread. Many people even go extra lengths to create their own special dishes, such as one man who had been raising fish eggs which he combined with a delicious salmon sauce; each passer-by was treated to one deluxe mouth-watering bite served on a lone potato chip. Almost every house along the way seemed delighted to provide free accommodation to the pilgrims and discuss past stories and inquire as to how Mazu’s mood had been this year. Also known as the Silent Maiden, her mood could only be guessed by each devotee based on observing her interactions with the land and the people.

Each devotee’s belief in Mazu’s powers seems to stem from a different story based on their own personal experience and enlightenment, merely taking part in this year’s walk I encountered a host of different stories which is why I thoroughly recommend readers take part in the procession themselves.

I first heard about this Mazu pilgrimage due to my explorations into the world of performance arts and theatre, more specifically in the year I spent with Sannyas Meditation Theatre, which gets its inspiration from the Butoh tradition and the late Kazuo Ohno. The works of experimental theatre pioneer Jerzy Grotowski inspired a generation of performers to take part in local rituals, in order to make their performance more seamlessly connected to their inner self and local conditions, parenthesizing the alienating performance training they had received, thus making their performance more natural, truer. For me, asides from unfettered curiosity, taking part in the pilgrimage was a chance to enter a very pure state stemming directly from the connection between body and land and to explore how I would develop naturally on from this.

I kicked off my journey in a characteristically inauspicious way. As I was waiting to meet up with a fellow member of the Sannyas Theatre in the sacred Chaotiangong temple in Beigang, I was found to be leaning unawares on Mazu’s palanquin and was quickly exhorted and shuffled away by her stewards. I commenced the walk over-relishing the physical challenge and was perhaps even a little bit competitive. Jogging sections and even giving a friend a piggy back ride, left my knees and ankles suffering heavily over the last few days. I also found myself slightly overindulging in the free food offerings. Perhaps Mazu sensed that I had not yet entered a pure mind while following her as a couple of nights later Mazu appeared twice in my dreams, staring at me sternly and leaving me waking up damp and sweaty. It was not until later that I realised I had started the pilgrimage more as an observer, outsider than a full participant and seamless member of the community. I had heard a thousand different truths and meanings of peoples own experiences of the Mazu procession but I was still in the process of discovering my own, truthful only if based on the personal experience of my body and soul in dialogue with the community.

Photos by Witek Chudy

See the complete photostory by Witek

An Italian translation of this article appeared in the December 2010 edition of popoli and is a continuation of some ideas raised in eRenlai's October 2010 Focus on religious innovation in East Asia.

To recap, the term 'new religious movement' was originally coined as a less loaded alternative to 'cult'.  It represents an attempt to classify new religious groups that are either a brand new conception of reality, a reinterpretation of an existing belief system or transplanted beliefs in a foreign land. Such groups are continuously evolving all over the world, and China is no exception.

Bendu_shengren

The shengren is the most important concept in Chinese tradition.

Since the Europeans never had anything like it, but refused to hold the candle to China; instead they omitted the shengren and talked about some lesser versions of Greek "philosophers" or Christian "holy men".

The English soon found a slightly better translation; they called the shengren "sages", from Latin sapientia –being wise.

The Germans however, the descendants of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, never had a concept for sages or sagehood. In their effort to christen China, the Germans called the shengren "Heilige" (saints), from Germanic hailaz –being holy.

“And who is that foreigner?”

Sometime around Chinese New Year 2004, I was offered an invitation to a concert. The venue was the auditorium of the World Trade Center and instead of featuring a specific artist; it enlisted the performances of different religious organizations. These two facts triggered my attention: In one go, I would be given a glimpse at the whole religious worldview of Taiwan. I hence waited for the day.

There were many memorable things that evening: speeches, dance and music performances, all executed in an orderly and solemn mood, particular to religious events. To that should be added an imposing and memorable image, namely that of two widely open arms, as if they were ready to embrace the whole world. They particularly gestured at each time a new guest march in. Those arms showed an amount of warmth, of friendship, respect which without disturbing the solemnity of the event complemented it. From their attire, it was clear that the VIP guests came from different religious backgrounds and denominations. And the gestures of those arms and the responses they received showed beyond any doubt that these were old acquaintances. Their interaction contributed to the beauty of the event. Yet, those arms belonged to a foreigner. That triggered my curiosity even more. I could not refrain from inquiring on that delighted, and well accepted foreign presence. Who was that foreigner, what was he doing, which wind has led him to where he stood? I had plenty of questions to which my informant could only say: “He is a Jesuit. His name is 馬神父(Father Ma). He works in interreligious dialogue.”

A landing concerned with the possibility of another take off

poulet_mathis_baolinFew days after this interreligious concert, I visited 馬神父in his office at Tien Educational Center. In this encounter, the list of my questions was to be quenched at the horse mouth. But more than a curiosity, I looked forward to a wider view of the religious picture of Taiwan, to an understanding of the challenges and opportunities for a commitment in the field of interreligious dialogue. Father Albert welcomed me with cordiality. He spoke of the forty years of commitment in that field. He insisted on his conversion as led by the spirit of Vatican II, specifically as stipulated in Nostra Aetate. Because of NA, he had dealt with all students, respecting their religious convictions. Humbly acknowledging, his own limitations, he accepted to learn from different masters (Buddhist and founders of other religious movements). As executive secretary of the FABC commission for Interreligious Dialogue and member of the Pontifical Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, he not only persuaded Asian bishops on the necessity of the mission; he unceasingly knocked at doors of prominent religious leaders, inviting them to open up so they could enjoy the freedom of the mutual respect, mutual enrichment achieved through dialogue. He co-founded organizations aiming at promoting interactions and cooperation among religious groups. Using his contacts, he had acted as a bridge among religious people and offered a neutral platform fostering a respectful dialogue among their leaders. The atmosphere, I had witnessed to the previous day at the inter-religious concert was a flashback at those achievements.

In this initial sharing, Fr. Albert did not hide the concern of not finding many people sharing fully in his enthusiasm. He feared being a successful lone-ranger, with no heir of the legacy he had striven to build up in a lifetime. This was the first of a series of visits, the last being on the eve of his departure. The content and mood of this first conversation colored and impacted all the succeeding encounters and plans that Fr. Albert was projecting.

A Training à la Ma Shenfu

The dialogic training which Fr. Albert proposed consisted in an exploration, an exposure to the religion of the other. He insisted on the necessity to immerse oneself in the world of the other. The live-in experience dealt opportunities to cultivate friendship, which, Fr. Albert retained, was a basic ingredient for dialogue. Fr. Albert was convinced that where friendship blossoms, there would be room for respect, tolerance, mutual understanding, cooperation etc. For this reason, his dialogic method aimed at positing the ground where friendship could grow. For this end, he had developed techniques nurturing that value: periodic visits, calls, mails, etc. In meeting a new person, he would gather all the detailed information on the host so as he or she would feel immediately close. With regards to etiquette, he would ensure that the person is addressed with his or her real title. And for this, one needed to study the relations and the position of the host; gather all possible on the person and his/her institution. He held friendship among religious leaders in high regard, convinced that it had a trickle down impact on the followers. By despising and belittling the followers of one’s master friend, one was in fact shaming and disrespecting his/her own master.

The practical implications of these convictions made the training in Albert’s steps a continuous excursion, during which he would introduce the disciple to the circle of his friends. Dialogue occurred during these meeting around the shared food, a cup of tea, a chant, an acquaintance with the visited environment, a sharing in the activities of the people visited and so forth. What imported was transcending the separation – signified by the existence of closed door.

Knocking at your door…

A visit always leads to a door, to be knocked at with the expectation that it be opened, give way to a sharing which bridles and nurtures true friendship. One observation is that Fr. Albert loaded the concepts “knocking” and “door” with specific meanings. All doors were to be knocked at and opened: those of the temples, those of churches, the Catholic Church with its various religious congregations included. But foremost, the doors to knock at and open were those giving access to the depth of human existence. For this reason, he insisted on a form of dialogue which transcended the confines of time and space, language and grammar. He spoke of “a dialogue in depth.” Albeit the limits of explanation, dialog in depth refers to a spiritual experience in which one is projected and dwells in the other, transcending subjective limits and achieving an ineffable communicability translated in an “I in You, You in Me” awareness. This communicability no longer needs an external support such as words or language, physical presence. Fr Albert recognized though the scarcity of those instances. In fact, despite his long experience, he could only name a few as partners who had reached that level of dialogue.

The figurative meaning of this knocking reminds of the challenge of dialogue, especially if it has to lead to a dialogue in depth. Fr. Albert knocked at numerous doors, many of which have lowered their threshold as a sign of their willingness to dialogue. The question is how to transform good will into a reality given that dialogue in depth starts with the first step in or across that threshold.

Against the clock time

My encounter with Fr. Albert occurred at the twilight of a life dedicated to the cause of religious dialogue in Asia. The décor of his office – a small interreligious altar, pictures of famous masters, some in their young age, inspirational sayings, books… – reflected the fruits of the toils of those bright days. It also justified a sustained enthusiasm for a bright future. But this hope has to stand against the slog of aging with its pile of health problems. It would also be sustained by a certainty that more people would cross those open doors and, made of the threaded path, a tradition. Sometimes that hope was really put at test, especially when Fr. Albert realized that his memory was fading and that his medical visits were taking up the time and attention that used to be dedicated to temples and monasteries. Pain progressively took over and dwelt in his body, making it difficult “to keep on smiling.” Hence, during the visits in the infirmary where he was sheltered for the last three years, he would ask for prayers so “that he could keep on smiling.” – Yes, smiling and strong enough to continue knocking at doors so that dialogue could be initiated. Till the end, he would surrender everything but not the idea of the urgency of dialogue.

During one of the visits in the temporary chapel where his body was laid to rest, I was moved by the comment of one of his care takers. I had noticed her for about three years but never exchanged a word with her. She inquired on my acquaintance with Fr. Albert, how I knew him, adding that “He must have been a great and a kind person.” After answering her questions, I added that for many, he had been like a wineskin containing good wine that had brought joy, meaning and insights to their lives. We then bid goodbye. I left that place with a deep sense of gratitude and awe for Bro. Jose Diez and his team for their dedicated service and companionship. What they offer is indeed a threshold conducing to a dialogue filled with the hope of another sunrise beyond the twilight of human existence.

Photo provided by the Tien Center

SWCIR_cover_47[Abstract]
East Asia is a region marked by an irreducible linguistic, cultural and religious diversity. Traditionally seen by Christianity as a practical and theological challenge, such diversity is now often considered as a treasure that needs to be assessed, appreciated and interpreted, so that Christians may enter a new understanding of the mission of “peacemakers” that the Sermon on the Mount calls them to fulfill. Peace-building is thus to be seen as a an ongoing, creative endeavor inseparable from the development of East Asian theology, for both tasks are anchored into an interpretative process through which cultures, creeds and world-views are perpetually reshaped. What defines them is never taken for granted but rather is being discovered and challenged throughout the process of exchange and interpretation. On the long run, the “translation” of traditional languages and narratives that the in-depth meeting with the Other makes possible nurtures a creative reinterpretation of one’s spiritual, dogmatic and cultural resources. This “translation” process amounts to a trespassing of boundaries, reviving and reshaping theological and peacebuilding endeavors alike.

This article is available in a recently published book entitled Asian and Oceanic Christianities in Conversation, Exploring Theological Identities at Home and in Diaspora (Studies in World Christianity and Interreligious Relations (SWCIR),Volume 47).

The old contrast between “universal” and “local” is now collapsing, but a new paradigm has yet to be defined. The contributors claim that the questions they raise will help redraw the lines of demarcation each in a unique way. Their collaborative result is a re-submission of the century-old question regarding “essence of Christianity,” and the readers will hear answers to this question resounding in polyphonic voices. The book will make a unique contribution to the scholarship by constructing a common forum connecting diasporic Asians and Oceanians who live and work in regions around the Pacific Ocean. Publication in the field of theology has been thick on the American side of the Pacific, and the agenda of discussion are shaped largely in accordance with the concerns of those living on the North-American continent and in British Isles. Theologians living on the other side of the Pacific, while in daily contact with the multi-religious realities that beg theological attention, sometimes lack means of engaging in sustained discussion with other theologians who are similarly struggling to gain insights into different cultural contexts. This book will provide a shared ground for reflection and discussion.

More info and order form with a special discount

 


Read a BV's article on Interreligious conflicts, dialogue and inventiveness in today's Asia

 

 

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As with Father Jean Lefeuvre, Father Albert Poulet-Mathis is one of the first Jesuits I met when I first came to Taiwan during summer 1982. It was difficult for me to figure out exactly what was his work was as he had an office outside the house where we were living. His work for the Federation of Asia Bishop Conferences in the field of inter-religious dialogue sounded a little mysterious to me. My stay was quite short but Father APM managed very kindly to invite me to his friend’s house on a couple of occasions. Later, after I settled down for good on the island, I realized that his work was indeed of great importance. But as the Catholic Church is really a minority in the religious world of the island, I somehow had the feeling that while his concern was for sure admired, it was also shared with reservations by other colleagues, as the care for the little Christian flock seemed always to be the priority of the priorities.

But now I realize that his contribution was a real gift not only to the Catholic Church or to all the religious groups in Taiwan, but also to the society in Taiwan as a whole.

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, what APM did in Taiwan was indeed the right thing to do for the Catholic Church in Taiwan. His initiative of inter-religious dialogue came at a time when the Catholic Church arrived somehow en masse from the mainland and had started to grow roots into Taiwanese soil. From a Catholic point of view nothing can be lost from a deeper understanding of other religious traditions and spirituality. The cheerful personality of APM, his charisma for making friends and bringing people together really did help many persons of good will and from very different backgrounds to cherish and keep the atmosphere of mutual respect among the different religious groups in Taiwan.

In this regard the work of Father APM in Taiwan has been of great importance. He has been a pioneer. Hopefully this task of promoting inter-religious dialogue will find a second breath and will bring deeper and more concrete experiences. The achievements of Father APM and his friends in this regard show that Taiwanese society is able to draw from its riches and diversity to innovate and move forward from a troubled past. The work of Father APM spanned during a period when various constituent groups of this society have been facing a new situation and also have confronted each other. May his efforts in the field of inter-religious dialogue be also a sign for the future of Taiwan!

(Photo provided by the Tien Center)

 

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