Aside from Christmas and the odd Easter dinner at so and so’s house, we really didn’t do anything else remotely religious. At least not in America.
|Rene Magritte Golconde ,1953 Oil on Canvas. Houston, Texas, The Menil Collection|
In Taiwan, we are religiously, a different family. This came to head when my grandfather passed away and suddenly all of us Ho’s became almost monkish in our devotion to the temple where our name plate was displayed. “Name plate” is a rough translation – a more direct one would be “ancestral name placeholder.” Basically it’s a small, standing plaque with our family name on it. You pay “rent” (actually I don’t know why I put that in quotes. It is actual rent) to the nuns at a temple to have it displayed (either prominently, which means more rent, or less so) and it represents the souls of your ancestors. I think it’s a convenience thing, as going to a local temple to worship the plaque is a lot more convenient than driving to the actual grave site, normally located in the countryside.
Apparently you have more than one plaque, because families, as you know, can be quite complicated. We had one for my grandma and her aunt, an old woman with no teeth who came to Taipei from Shanghai and helped raise my dad and uncles. They called her, in Shanghainese, “Nn’na.” I think their plaque is under “Hu,” my grandmother’s maiden name (some day my parents will read this and tell me, ashamedly, that I got everything wrong). For many years their plaque was displayed at a temple that wasn’t very good about the upkeep. As happens with limited storage space, more nameplates kept on crowding in because other people in other families kept dying and pretty soon the “Hu” plaque was pushed back to a dark, dusty corner of the display case. Also, people weren’t too good about paying their rent – either that or the nuns at that temple were just lazy jerks and just let things fall to the wayside. Whatever it was, my grandma’s spirit was getting really sick of it. My grandma wasn’t a flashy woman, but she had been the proud matriarch – mother to three well-to-do sons and the third wife of a well-to-do customs’ agent who, even if he didn’t bring home too much bacon, made enough so that she could invest it in property. The property passed down to her sons, who built things on it and sold the things to people who needed such things (namely, housing and office space) and yeah, she was kind of proud of all that.
It made perfect sense that a woman who had built a small fortune around property should be in want of good real estate, even long after she’d left earth. She was disappointed with the set up her sons had left her in and decided to do something about it.
This is where things get weird. In Chinese numerology people born on certain days at certain times are said to be “lighter” in spirit than others. Their spiritual “weight” is lighter than average, meaning they can, if they’re not careful, drift to and fro between realms. I’m not explaining it too well, but I’ll quantify it with two stark examples. If 1 were extremely light and 10 was extremely heavy, my father, the man who doesn’t need religion but isn’t quite an atheist, would weigh in, spiritually, at around 7 or 8. Oddly enough, he studied numerology on a whim in his late twenties and, when my brother was born, predicted his son’s future physical attributes and certain personality traits quite accurately. By the time I came around he’d lost the instruction booklet.
|Rene Magritte The Beyond, 1938 L’au-dela Oil on Canvas Private collection|
But with children and the responsibility that comes with, my father more or less planted his already firm feet more firmly into the present, earthly life. When his father passed away, he worshiped at his grave out of respect to the rest of the family, still living, not because he actually felt my grandfather could hear what he was saying. (Indeed during a particularly long chanting session – I’ll more into detail about that later – my father fell asleep while kneeling and almost keeled over until a nun came to nudge him awake. My family was embarrassed. My father said, “What? What?”). My mother on the other hand, despite her relative poopooing of western churches, is extremely open minded to religious practices and other matters of the heart and spirit. She is not only receptive to Buddhist teachings, but also, on the whole, a spiritual person. She is the one that first brought to my attention the idea of Kharma – that what you do in this life could very well affect your next life – and while I know some people who resign themselves to this idea that their life now sucks because they’re paying for something bad in their past life, I don’t buy it – or at least try very hard not to. But on the spiritual weight scale, my mother is probably a 2 or 3.
If a spirit floated into the room where my mother and father sat watching television, the spirit would have a better chance getting my mother’s attention because a.) my mother doesn’t really watch too much television and b.) my father would, should the spirit successfully make faint contact, just turn up the volume. Even if the spirit happened to be his own mother.