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The Dog Temple
When I first arrived in Taiwan, I had a position as an assistant professor at Tamsui Oxford University College. I was given a Chinese name by the head of my department: Chi Ai Ya, which means "Pray Love Asia". I had a little wooden stamp with my Chinese name carved into it, called a chop. Every time I had to fill out a form -- and believe me, there were many forms to fill out -- instead of signing it, I would stamp my name in red, using my little wooden chop. The first few weeks were spent going from government office to government office, in search of all the required documents that would allow me to live and work as a resident alien. Tamsui is in Taipei County, but some of the government offices I had to visit were in other cities besides Tamsui and Taipei. You might say that just getting to the point where I could be allowed to stay in one spot required extensive travel. In fact, I even had to fly to Hong Kong in order to make a proper entry into the country, once I did have some of these papers.
The day before I left for Hong Kong, some of my colleagues took me to a temple called Shi Ba Wang Gong (18 Lords Temple). The impression that this temple made on me is stamped in my mind in bright red, as if made by a tiny wooden chop.
Shi Ba Wang Gong is located on the northern coast of Taiwan. The temple's exterior isn't all that impressive, as it is in an area full of shops and stands. We were taken there by the Taiwanese girl friend of one of the English professors in our department, and she swore by the place. She confided to me that women, especially, find solace in this temple. When we went in, I was captivated by the imposing bronze statue of the Dog who is the chief deity of the Temple. Our hostess purchased some incense to burn, and she gave each of us a red napkin to rub inside the dog statue's mouth for good luck. We saw many couples who came in to ask blessings of the dog upon their unions.
The temple was a busy, noisy, happy spot, where many activities were taking place at once. We went up to a little attic room, where many smaller dog statues, made of clay and colored black, were smoking cigarettes. The cigarettes were real and were left there as offerings by worshipers.
In one alcove one could read one's own fortune by drawing numbers. The numbers indexed little printed fortunes that, once read, were returned to their spot. Our hostess very solicitously interpreted our fortunes. You could tell when someone had drawn a bad fortune, by the way she tried to minimize its importance. If the fortune was good, she was truly happy for us.
I have heard several different stories about the origin of the temple. According to one story, seventeen lords and a dog went sailing together and were shipwrecked. The dog saved the lives of all the people, but lost his own. He was deified, and now he watches out for all people. A different story has it that all the seventeen drowned, and the dog, who survived, stayed on the shore mourning them, until he died of loneliness. Either way, the number 18 (shi ba) that appears in the name of the temple counts the dog and the seventeen humans together as the eighteen lords in the story. I like the feeling of inclusiveness that this implies.
If you are ever in Taiwan, I recommend visiting the Temple of the Eighteen Lords.
(c) 2008 Aya Katz