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  • Qistina Hatta

Questions I’ve Always Wanted To Ask, Especially During Hungry Ghost Month

Many friends and neighbours come from different backgrounds and religions. For the longest time, I only knew that Taoism had a lot to do with respecting and worshipping their ancestors - thus the burning of paper.

Born and raised in Singapore, I only knew the burning of paper was meant as a way to give money to those who have passed and to stick a paper talisman on a Jiangshi (Chinese hopping vampire) if I were to encounter one.

Meeting Masters Neo and Ben at Haw Par Villa for The Whitehatters’ Ask Me Anything on Taoism, I finally got to understand the philosophical side and even the religious side of Taoism.

Question: Why are there so many deities?

Different deities offer different blessings.

Like praying to the earth deity is with the purpose to seek blessing based on things to do with the land, such as renovations, constructions or for crops.

Often, people who work in the sea pray to the sea deity to pray for smooth-sailing journeys.

People, even within the same communities, pray to different deities based on what they wish for more. Even different dialects and different professions pray to different deities too! (Like how Taoist police pray to the god of war and loyalty).

Doing more research, The Taoist Federation in Singapore says that: “The main text of Taoism establishes that one can attain immortality through self-cultivation”.

Walking through Haw Par Villa too, you’ll realise the different deities will be introduced and the common gods that many read and learn about.

Finding out that most of the statues are brought in from China, there’s a lot of history to the religion and the traditions that have been carried down for centuries.

Question: Why do Taoists burn paper money?

Taoism isn’t just about the burning of paper, but also the chanting.

The masters and Taoists I met shared that burning paper is not at all beneficial for Earth, and even so, only a cultural tradition the Chinese does for those who have passed.

Master Ben explains that burning paper money is to seek blessings and to show gratitude to deities or spirits.

Burning a house is like providing a place to live on the other side. Even more so, some papers have incantations written to ward off evil.

The means of how much to be burnt depends on the individual. Burning excessively for the deities and spirits is to one’s preferences; albeit not necessary.

“In Taoism, we believe in the heart and sincerity,” says Master Ben.

Burning makes a person feel better, like they are doing something for someone. If you do burn, burn with your heart with the purest of intentions for those who have passed.

As a kid, I was always trying not to step on the papers that flew away before being burnt. Honestly, I always thought that burning papers only polluted the environment and my Muslim family would always complain about the ashes flying into our rooms.

“Chanting is the way. You study scriptures and you chant,” says Master Neo.

Now in this climate emergency, both masters do not encourage burning paper. They encourage people to consider their impacts on the environment and instead, chant.

Taoists believe in things taking its natural course; if we do good for others, it would be the same not to spoil the ecosystem.

Human beings tend to take advantage of the nature that was here before us. Spoiling the ecosystem meant spoiling the livelihoods of our own existence. I get to understand their cultural side more - but I also understand that they also want change.

As Master Ben says: “Teach us to be like water.” We ought to be calm and at peace.

Question: Why do we see make-shift altars in common areas?

According to the Masters, back in the kampung days, a Taoist household would take care of their own altars - but outside the space of their house.

Having an altar at home could also potentially invite spirits into the house. Now, we live in HDBs - our living spaces are confined to the flat.

Altars being in public spaces is more convenient and open to all to use. While some Taoists prefer to place altars in their homes, most would pray in altars in common areas - especially during important months for the Taoists (like Hungry Ghost Festival!)

Joss sticks are commonly seen in these altars, and altars are like ‘a gathering for spirits and deities to be worshipped’. These altars are around during that month to pray.

Personally, I always get so spooked to pass by one… What if I accidentally see ‘someone’ eating something from one of the altars during Hungry Ghost Festival…? Spooky! But I understand, it’s their offerings to the spirits. The least we could do is respect and not disrupt any altars in public space!

Then when the month is over, everything is more or less removed from the space - not to be around everyday! Only specially set up during special months.

Question: What is the significance of Yin & Yang?

Simply put, yin and yang is about balance. When there’s day, there’s night. In good, there will always be bad. In bad, there is still good.

Yin and Yang cannot exist without the other; they are never meant to be separated.

Yin & Yang determines all things in life are in harmony. Nothing is meant to be perfect, there’s imbalance in everything. But together, it will balance each other out.

Another master I met at Haw Par Villa, Master Chin Kwee Yong says that: “Philosophical Taoism places great emphasis on balancing the extreme opposite and stresses the importance of balance and the ever-changing phenomenon of nature.”

Can also be used to harmonise the body, mind, emotions, and energy (like qi). Many use yin & yang in their everyday lives as well as the three virtues: Humility, Frugality and Compassion.

As the masters summarise the three virtues: Humility is staying out of the line of fire. Compassion is living in coexistence with everybody. Frugality is to help people only with what we have.

When a system fails, the imbalance will strike - there only has to be a balance of the imbalance.

Thus, comes Taiji - taiji highlights the importance of balance in our everyday lives, that there is always the opposite side to anything.

Born and raised in a Muslim family, we also believe in everything to be in moderation. Perhaps even, Islam and Taoism may have the same values of maintaining the peace.

Master Chin explains the black dot in the white portion, and the white in black, of the yin and yang - there will always be an opposite in nature.

Like how during the day where the sun shines, but there will always be a dark corner. And during the night when it’s dark, the moonlight shines as a light source sometimes.

There should be balance in my life – I am not perfect and neither am I too imperfect. I have my own perfections and imperfections - and that just makes me to be me. There’s always more to a religion and especially more to a person than we think. Participating in The Whitehatters Ask Me Anything events has always made me learn something and understand more about somebody.

Just like the yin & yang, we live in harmony as ourselves and with one another.

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