Turning Away From Religion: Of Shrines, Temples, and Paying Respects

Ordinarily, every year in celebration of the Lunar New Year, my family hies off to a temple to pray before carrying on with other festivities. This would mean a lot of standing around whilst one or two family members got joss sticks, lit them, and brought it back to the others who would usually be waiting outside the temple, so they could pray without actually venturing into the smokey air. 

My mother raised me on regular worship of the Goddess of Mercy, although this was usually framed as asking the goddess to bless us so we would get good grades in the school year. Her religiousity is the practical kind which only bugs the gods when she really needs something answered.

When I joined the school's Buddhist Association, my main religion was Theravadan Buddhism. I was pretty good at being Buddhist, it seemed: I attended the weekly meetings and never missed one except once or twice a year; I sang the hymns well; I memorized the chants. Every Wesak Day was spent at the temple, helping with selling flowers or joss sticks and taking donations. (We used coupons when I was a kid. When the temple moved from being house-based to being an actual structure of its own, we just switched to actual money.)

I grew away from Theravadan Buddhism. I found flaws in the stories. I disliked the fact that Gautama Buddha, who was supposed to be so wise and perfect and had already achieved enlightenment, still had to have Ananda persuade him to allow women become nuns. Not only that, but the philosophy of detachment rang false to me, because I was so wracked with pain from depression that already detached me from the world and made me feel no happier.

I tried other religions, even if I didn't become part of the religious communities. When I returned home to Malaysia, it was never around a time when my family would go to the temple, unless my mother wanted to consult the sam sai shuui, an astrologer of sorts. (On one memorable occasion, my mother demanded to know if there was something wrong she had done in a past life that I was so callous towards her to the extent of unrepentently moving across the world just to be away from her. She didn't want to end up like her mother-in-law, who was so estranged from my younger aunt, the latter didn't bother attending the funeral. I sometimes think she forgot that I could understand Cantonese, which is a nicer assumption that she purposefully wanted me to feel rotten.)

However, even as I can't buy into purposefully organized religions, there is something I can't help but do everytime I pass a shrine, or temple: pause and pay my respects.

There isn't anything particularly religious about this gesture on my part that I'm aware of. Partly because I also have these brief moments where I stop before a giant tree, or natural landscape I'm in awe of, and contemplate it. Animism runs really strongly in Malaysia, or at least, it used to, and my father taught me, as he took me on various treks, that before we relieved ourselves in the forests, we had to ask permission first. It's a matter of showing respect for the spirits that have been there in the forest for far longer than we have been around.

However, I also do this in places of worship, and some very old buildings, so it's not just nature which elicits this sort of reaction from me. As irrational as it seems, and I like to think I have a scientific mind, because romantic minds are so tiresome at times, I find such gestures satisfy some code of honour in me, even as the act of acknowledging something I don't understand occasionally makes me feel frightened. I'm afraid of the dark and certain places for this same reason.

The thing about it is that I don't find this to be a bad thing. In fact, I rather think that it's healthy to have such respect for certain spaces that we refrain from doing whatever we want to it, which in turn, prevents us from exploiting a place. Unfortunately, it very easily translates into fear, and we know fear is one of the main causes for overreactionary bullshit.

When I returned home to Malaysia this year, I found myself bowing at various shrines I saw, even ones that are now defunct. It was both instinctual and purposeful. I never quite get how long to bow, or when to bow, or how to hold my hands together, and sometimes I think it even depends on who and what I'm bowing to. I don't know all the idols I bow to (the only one I'm familiar with, after all, is the Goddess of Mercy.)

It's comforting and it's something I have done only in Malaysia so far, perhaps because I find it to be a cultural expression, rather than a religious expression. I find a spiritual connection, even, when I have done it on a regular basis. But I don't do it in Canada, because Canada has few shrines, and even the old places don't have auras that I'm familiar with.

When I was younger, I had a very strange question asked of me: who do you pray to? Because different Chinese folks, we pray to different gods. I always said Kuan Yin, but now that I think about it, I don't actually pray so much as I pay my respects to her, acknowledge her presence. Is that what the concept of prayer is? In my understanding, prayer tends to involve a direct line to the gods, talking to deities, sometimes even requests. It doesn't quite wash with me.

As time goes by, the religiousity of my family dips. It means we don't go to the temple as often, when once, going to Old Town Petaling Jaya and praying at a little temple there was a Sunday thing (followed by lunch at our favourite chicken rice store). The temple is now doubling as a chiropractor's, which is a sign of the times that the old sifu cannot afford to look after the house on his own anymore.

And although I'm not religious, and I don't have much faith in deities, I find that... sad. 


  1. Perhaps going to temples and shrines mean a lot more than being religious per se. It's about doing something as a family and for the family together. Perhaps this sadness mask some feelings of nostalgia, and if you like, feelings of "lost innocence" in the days when you were younger and in the past when things were not so complicated i.e. before you started thinking really deeply about your religious identity as an adult.

    My family has never been religious. It's probably a good thing now because I am completely at home with my not-so-religious identity. When I was younger, I really wished they were so as not to embarrass me when they seem oblivious about prayer times in front of other people, friends particularly. Had they been religious, I would have had a crisis.

  2. Oh, it most certainly does mean more than being religious for me - it's a cultural thing, and I feel it's very much a part of what I do to express myself as Malaysian-Chinese.

    My family is terribly unreligious too... but we are a LITTLE superstitious (my dad comes from a family full of ghosts). It keeps me uncomfy in certain places, but like I said, I don't think that's a bad thing. And I really like the fact that we don't have any serious clashes of faith in the family.


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