Taiwan's temples smoke out joss sticks

To reduce air pollution, more temples are restricting the burning of religious offerings

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Temples in Taiwan are cutting back on the burning of joss sticks and incense paper to reduce air pollution.
Instead of lighting joss sticks and burning incense paper, devotees at the Xingtian Temple in Taipei's Zhongshan district clasp their hands when praying to the temple's principal deity Guan Yu, the Taoist God of War. Temple helpers light environmenta
Instead of lighting joss sticks and burning incense paper, devotees at the Xingtian Temple in Taipei's Zhongshan district clasp their hands when praying to the temple's principal deity Guan Yu, the Taoist God of War. Temple helpers light environmentally friendly joss sticks for a daily blessing ritual. ST PHOTO: JERMYN CHOW

The bearded deity Guan Yu, flanked by other deities who represent righteousness, brotherhood and victory in war, presides 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 PM 2.5 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 Mr 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 Mr 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.

Mr 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.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2017, with the headline Taiwan's temples smoke out joss sticks. Subscribe