The origin of Taiwan’s Buddhism dates back more than 300 years, to the time when Han Chinese began immigrating to Taiwan during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties
In Taiwan, some people practice ‘pure’ Buddhism and some follow ‘pure’ Taoism. Far more, however, follow one, or both, blended with folk beliefs. For anyone who grew up in the West or the Middle East, where monotheistic faiths require exclusive loyalty, the pick-and-mix approach of many Taiwanese to religion is initially bewildering but always intriguing. The gods and goddesses revered by most Taiwanese are Chinese in origin, although a few are entirely local.
Despite Japan’s huge impact on Taiwan in fields as varied as architecture and cuisine, very few Taiwanese follow Japanese religions.
The majority of Taiwan’s temples are classed as folk shrines. In a typical house of worship you’ll see several – possibly over a hundred – effigies of Taoist, Buddhist and folk deities. Some are no bigger than dolls; others are fearsome statutes twice the size of a man. Most are elaborately carved from wood, although some are clay or even solid gold. Incense is left to burn before these icons all day, every day; offerings of fruit, cookies, joss paper and tiny cups of rice wine are frequently made.
If you spend any time in a temple, you’re sure to see someone bua buay, as one particular rite is called in the Taiwanese language. This can be translated into English as ‘casting moon blocks’ or ‘throwing divination boards’. The boards or blocks are typically battered-looking crescent-shaped blocks of wood that have been painted red. These are used to ask deities questions: The worshipper frames the question in his or her mind, and then casts a pair of blocks three times. One block coming to rest flat-side up and the other flat-side down means the answer is yes; if both land rounded-side up, the god’s response is negative; both landing rounded-side down means the deity feels the question is frivolous.