Smok­ing out joss sticks

In Tai­wan, more tem­ples are re­strict­ing the burn­ing of re­li­gious of­fer­ings.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - By JERMYN CHOW

TO re­duce air pol­lu­tion, more tem­ples in Tai­wan are re­strict­ing the burn­ing of re­li­gious of­fer­ings.

The bearded de­ity Guan Yu, flanked by other deities who rep­re­sent right­eous­ness, broth­er­hood and vic­tory in war, pre­side over wor­ship­pers who kneel be­fore his al­tar at the Xing­tian Tem­ple.

But devo­tees at the prayer grounds in the heart of Taipei’s Zhong­shan dis­trict do not pay re­spects to the Taoist God of War in the tra­di­tional way, which is by light­ing joss sticks or burn­ing pa­per of­fer­ings. In­stead, they clasp their hands and bow their heads to pray.

Only tem­ple helpers are al­lowed to light en­vi­ron­men­tally-friendly joss sticks that emit less smoke for a daily bless­ing rit­ual.

“Peo­ple come here to pray for bet­ter lives and good health ... it would be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive for them to be breath­ing in smoke and ash that can harm their bod­ies,” said tem­ple el­der Wu Yueh-yu, who spear­headed the move to stop devo­tees from light­ing joss sticks in 2014.

The tem­ple has banned the burn­ing of pa­per of­fer­ings to re­duce air pol­lu­tion in and around the build­ing since it was built in 1967.

Other tem­ples are also go­ing green. Among them is one of Tai­wan’s old­est and most pop­u­lar tem­ples, Long­shan Tem­ple. It re­cently limited each devo­tee to one joss stick and re­duced the num­ber of joss-stick hold­ers from seven to one.

The ground-up ef­forts are ac­com­pa­nied by the gov­ern­ment’s push to re­duce the burn­ing of joss sticks and pa­per of­fer­ings to im­prove Tai­wan’s air qual­ity. From next year, it is also look­ing to tighten the in­spec­tion of im­ported in­cense prod­ucts to en­sure they do not con­tain large amounts of chem­i­cals that pro­duce harm­ful air pol­lu­tants.

But with seven in 10 Tai­wanese be­ing Taoists and Bud­dhists, the gov­ern­ment’s pro­posal to re­strict the burn­ing of joss sticks and pa­per of­fer­ings has sparked an out­cry among devo­tees and re­li­gious groups, who say the cus­tom is cru­cial. Some ac­cused the au­thor­i­ties of sup­press­ing free­dom of re­li­gion.

Stall owner Lin Chien-kai, who prays at a tem­ple near the Raohe night mar­ket ev­ery day, said: “How do you ex­pect me to talk to God without the joss stick?”

To make their voices heard, some 10,000 peo­ple who are mainly Taoists took to the streets last week­end in a rally in front of the Pres­i­den­tial Build­ing in Taipei.

But Tai­wan’s En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion (EPA) said there is an “ur­gent” need to re­duce air pol­lu­tion. In­cense prod­ucts con­tain a high den­sity of hazardous mi­cro­scopic PM2.5 par­ti­cles, ben­zene and methyl­ben­zene. These in­crease the risk of can­cer in the up­per res­pi­ra­tory tract and heart dis­eases.

With as many as 30,000 tem­ples is­land­wide, Tai­wan has the high­est den­sity of tem­ples in the world, where a tem­ple can lit­er­ally be found in ev­ery junc­tion in Taipei. If noth­ing is done, the con­se­quences will have a detri­men­tal ef­fect, said Tsai Hung-teh, di­rec­tor-gen­eral of the EPA’s air qual­ity pro­tec­tion and noise con­trol depart­ment.

The harm­ful PM2.5 lev­els in ar­eas near tem­ples are usu­ally four times the av­er­age lev­els across Taipei, he said. Dur­ing a nine-day Taoist pil­grim­age in cen­tral Tai­wan last year, gov­ern­ment mon­i­tors found lev­els of PM2.5 that reached more than 60 times the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s rec­om­mended lev­els.

“Some say it’s so bad that they have to al­ways keep their win­dows shut and spend a lot of money on air-con­di­tion­ing and see­ing the doc­tor,” said Tsai.

This year alone, res­i­dents liv­ing near tem­ples lodged about 3,000 complaints about smoke and ash, sur­pass­ing the 2,600 in 2015.

Sin­ga­pore faces sim­i­lar smoky woes. The Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Bright Hill Road banned the burn­ing of bulky boxes as of­fer­ings for the dead dur­ing this year’s Qing Ming Fes­ti­val to re­duce the amount of ash and smoke emit­ted dur­ing the burn­ing.

Hsu Wen-bao, chair­man of Tai­wan’s Gen­eral As­so­ci­a­tion of Chi­nese Tao­ism, has been in talks with tem­ples to al­lay their fears of be­ing marginalised and to spread the word on eco-friendly prac­tices.

“We also care about the en­vi­ron­ment and don’t want to harm oth­ers through our prac­tices,” he said, adding that tem­ples should be al­lowed to adopt eco-friendly mea­sures “at their own time”.

The re­sponse so far has been en­cour­ag­ing, with some 1,100 tem­ples work­ing with the gov­ern­ment to limit the burn­ing of joss sticks and pa­per of­fer­ings. Last year, 195,000 tonnes of pa­per of­fer­ings was burned, down from 210,000 in 2015.

Some devo­tees, like sales man­ager Ker Shao-min, 37, are happy to wor­ship in places free of smoke and ash.

“I can spend more time to pray rather than rush through the rit­ual just to en­sure I don’t choke or my eyes don’t sting,” he said.

Devo­tees at Xing­tian Tem­ple in Taipei clasp their hands and bow their heads to pray, in­stead of light­ing joss sticks. — ANN

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