Same planet, different worlds

Everyone lives a combination of stories. We embody these “world-stories” to various degrees through the way we navigate life as individuals-together. We are being written into these stories, and in/with/through them we interpret our existence: our identity, place, and meaning in the world. We shape and are shaped by the world-stories in which we live.

What you’re seeing in this picture from our hike on our day off is an upperclass family in Taiwan burning spirit money to a deity on top of a mountain in Taipei county. Bundles of money are wrapped in colourful paper that looks like it came from a child’s birthday party (cute dinosaurs and that kind of thing). Their shiny SUV was parked close by. The stack of packages in the foreground was one of two that this family was offering. Given how fast they were burning it, we assume this was an all-day affair. Were it not for the smoke and the haze in the distance, you’d see Jhonghe and Yonghe cities forming the distant horizon in the background. The yellow sign on the left does not say “Please do not swim in the baptistry,” but rather something about if you want to drink the water you have to say a certain prayer three times. We don’t have enough Mandarin or cultural savvy to ask about their business politely, but we assume something big was happening in their lives (crucial business deal? grave illness?). We hope one day to have the language and culture skills to hear, understand, and enter the stories of people like this.

3 thoughts on “Same planet, different worlds”

  1. The juxiposition of the currency conflagration and the statue of Mary is quite striking. Interesting concept of sacred spaces.

    I’ve started thinking about doing a PhD in history focussing on the intersection of religion and the “public square”. This photo would provide ample fodder for a dissertation.

  2. Darren & Ryan – there’s enough camera fodder here to illustrate an entire dissertation. We’re still just beginning to learn the ropes of what is and isn’t culturally appropriate for us re: being present at people’s public religious events/spaces. It’s obvious that the rules are a little different from what we’re used to. In one photo from that trip, taken of the scene right beside the family in the photo above: two guys play Chinese chess and another snoozes with his feet up on the table while a woman in the background takes a break from offering money at another altar to talk on her cell-phone. Even in the cheesiest of contemporary or emergent churches, I have yet to see that happen during Communion. Many altars have a combination of meticulously placed items and old junk laying around (dirty tipped-over buckets and stuff).

    I suppose you could say that that particular deity is like Mary… to whatever degree Mary functions as a bodhisattva! But in this case the deity is functionally more like an animistic god/spirit rather than a bodhisattva (they’re relating to her through folk Buddhism rather than ‘high’ philosophical Buddhism). The statue is of ???????, or Guanyin, the Chinese version of Avalokitesvara, the Indian male bodhisattva. English translations call her the goddess of mercy or goddess of ‘heaven’ (in an ultimate/universal/all-encompassing/everything-and-nothing Buddhist sense). She’s apparently the most popular bodhisattva for the Chinese.

    This photo is making a great conversation piece for our cultural informants… I sat in the fish soup shop for an hour this afternoon, chatting about it (one of them has good English). Oh, the conversations we could have if we had the language skills! They had great difficulty explaining the address ??, which from what I gathered is sort of a pantheistic version of “Ultimate/all-encompassing/Almighty” – this address is very selectively applied. The next three characters are the name (???), and the last two (??) mean ‘bodhisattva.’

    … and those African Jesus paintings aren’t crazy!

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