Sunday, October 28, 2012

Community dinner at a Taoist temple

The temple: The building is transient; the people are constant
You may remember that a few weeks ago, I went to a wine and mooncake pairing event in Chinatown. While I was there, I met a number of people from the community, including a local public relations firm.  Two of the firm members, Cheah and Victor, extended an invitation for me to attend a community dinner in honor of a Taoist temple. Naturally, I accepted!

I know very little about Taoism, but was sure to read up on this ancient Eastern religion and philosophy before the event.  My hosts also explained many things to me during my stay. Here are my impressions.

Traditional alter awash in LED light
The first thing to strike me was a visual explosion of light and color. The temple itself is more of a term for a people with a belief system that renders them a community, rather than an actual building. Following this tradition of community dinners, the temple is constructed for one day. Followers flock from miles away - sometimes as far away as neighboring countries - to worship, dine and socialize together. There is a startling combination of ancient and modern, as this picture illustrates: the traditional alter is replete with offerings to the gods including rice, fruit and incense and it is bathed in the glow of blue LED lights. In the background, you can see the back of an enormous speaker and flat screen system, broadcasting music, dances and rituals including body piercing.

If colors could become animate, then the colors of this place were alive. Red was the most present of the colors, being one of the most religiously significant. Four enormous dragons seemed to float in the air above me, each one of a color and orientation to represent one of the four directions and corresponding elements.

The second thing to strike my senses was the density of the air. The air was thick with incense and candle smoke. Another aroma was on the air, though - that of food! I was about to learn exactly how important food was to the community. I was shown the kitchen area of the temple - a huge outdoor cooking station - and saw plates of food lined up for distribution to the tables. I was awed by the sheer quantity of food on these plates, to be served family-style to each table. Then, I learned that there were seven more courses in equal size, as eight is an auspicious number. Eight courses?! I was beginning to fill up after Course 2! 

My third impression was of the incredibly open and friendly atmosphere. To be perfectly honest, I was not sure what to expect for a community dinner at a temple. I brought a shawl and sweater with me, with the expectation that I may be asked to cover my shoulders or head. However, everyone "came as they were," dressed from their days of work or study. The overall revelry was also of a very open nature. Beer flowed like water, smoking was openly permitted and as the night wore on, conversations and laughter became even more vivacious and merry than had already been! I felt overwhelmingly welcomed, with people I had only just met taking it upon themselves to explain to me, one of the only non-locals among hundreds of attendees, the significance of this dish, the meaning of that symbol, the importance of that rite ...or the reason that bag of rice just sold at auction for over $8,000?

Incense and offerings to deities, marked with red bands
to avoid confusion with the rest of the bounty of food.
For one of the main entertainments of the evening was an auction to benefit the temple. Gifts were given in exchange for items merely token in nature, like the aforementioned bag of rice. Some items were more significant, such as carved statues and paintings. These were loaned to temple members, who would keep them in their homes for a year. At the end of the year, they would return the items, along with a large sum of money that was their gift to the temple.

I finally left the event around 10:30pm, knowing that I had work to be done the next day. Cheah informed me that the dinner would go well into the evening, possibly not ending until midnight or later. This was a truly wonderful experience for me, and one I felt privileged to be invited to. Certainly one of my most memorable nights in Singapore!


Sandie Lohiser said...

What a great experience! I am sure that the pictures do not begin to show the enormity of the structure. They are beautiful! I am so pleased that you are meeting new friends and experiencing all that life has to offer you in this exciting chapter in your life!

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