(Illustration: Cat Jensen)
So, for my first Go There! challenge I was sent to visit a temple.
Bet you weren’t expecting that.
Here’s the thing: I’ve always had a, shall we say, difficult relationship with religion - Christianity in particular. As a child I used to troll my Bibles-in-Schools teacher with difficult questions. As a teenager, another friend and I would argue for hours with a conservative Christian friend of ours about her homophobia, which I hold directly responsible for my obnoxious behaviour towards Christianity during my early university years. Since then, I’ve gained a lot more respect for people’s beliefs, but I still feel uncomfortable in religious settings.
Whether I’m at a wedding, my cousin’s christening, my friend’s baptism, visiting a Korean shaman to have my fortune told, or even just exploring beautiful old churches and temples that have functioned more as tourist attractions than places of worship for hundreds of years, I am always incredibly conscious of my sexuality. I can’t stop wondering what they would do if they knew there was a queer atheist in their midst. (Yes, there are queer-friendly versions of most of these things, but if I’ve ever been to one, I didn’t know about it.)
With all this in mind, it might seem strange that I was excited to spend the afternoon at the Wei-Ming Rabbit Temple. It might seem less strange when you learn that the temple is home to Tu-er Shen, the Taoist gay rabbit god. Yes, Taiwan has a gay god, and not just a gay god but a gay rabbit god, and the fact that this exists makes me so, so happy. At this temple, being queer isn’t simply ‘tolerated’ or ‘accepted’, it is celebrated as the place’s entire reason for being. At this temple, my queerness is not isolating or othering; it is a connection, to the other celebrants and to the god himself. It is amazing what a difference this makes.
Plus you get cute fans when you visit.
As the story goes, the Rabbit God, or ‘Master’ as the temple prefers him to be called (Rabbit God being somewhat demeaning), was a soldier who was in love with a provincial official. The soldier, Hu Tianbao, spied on the official through a toilet wall to see him naked. He was caught and subsequently tortured and killed, under the orders of said official. According to some versions I’ve read, he was spying with the permission of the official, who had him killed in order to save face. I’m going to go with that version, because the other ones are way too close to the disappointing ‘predatory gay’ trope.
After his death, the soldier appeared in the dream of a village elder in the form of a young hare. He demanded that the local men build a temple for him and burn incense in the interest of the ‘affairs of men’. These days, he watches over all of us in the queer community.
The Wei-Ming Rabbit Temple, named after the founder Lu Wei-Ming, was established in 2006 to give queer people a place where they could feel welcomed, and pray for affairs of the heart that are related to homosexuality. It supports the marriage equality movement and often sponsors the pride parade. It also successfully welcomes around 3,000-4,000 visitors per year. Although some have protested its existence (largely conservative Christians - one of whom once tried to perform an exorcism outside the building), the majority of people seem unfazed by the temple’s presence. The temple actually shares a floor with a Christian church, and when we were trying to find the temple my friend had no hesitation in asking for directions at a nearby shop. After my experiences in more conservative countries, I have to say that blew my mind a little.
We have [attached directions and opening hours] so that you don’t have to ask, however.
Thanks to the friendly shopkeepers we found the temple, which also has shrines to the Lords of the Three Mountains, the Monkey God, the Dragon God, the Tiger God, and the ‘Soil-Ground’ God. (Taoist gods are confusing so apologies if I have made a mistake).
The shrines. The Lords of the Three Mountains are the main Taoist gods and are in the middle.
The shrine to Tu-Er Shen is in the alcove just visible to the left.
To make a request of Tu-er Shen I wrote my wish on a stack of ‘spirit money’, which was placed on his shrine and later burned. I also gave the Lords of the Three Mountains a stack of money, sans wishes. I was then given four sticks of incense to place in front of each altar. I only prayed to Tu-er Shen when placing the incense, but I did take the time to thank the Lords of the Three Mountains for being part of the temple, because who doesn’t love an ally?
Yeah, like I’m going to tell you what I wished for.
Following the prayer, I was asked if I wanted to wish for a ‘marriage partner’, which involved a more complicated ritual. The ritual was helpfully explained on the pamphlets they provide, and I will attach the pamphlets and translated versions at the bottom. The ritual involves using Jiaobei (moon blocks) and, if successful, receiving a talisman that will help you find love. Lucky for me, I was successful and I have the talisman in my wallet as I type. You can also bring in perfumes, skin creams, alcohol, and so on, and leave them on the altar to be blessed.
Lighting incense and praying.
And that’s my visit to the rabbit temple, as far as it goes. The main memories of my visit do not centre around what I did, however, but on how I felt. It is the only time in my life that I have visited a religious space and felt a part of the community. It is the only time I have visited a religious space and felt peace.
Having a quiet chat to Tu-er Shen. You can see the offerings to be blessed on the table, and the stack of wishes in front.
So, am I going to go back? Much to my surprise, the answer is yes. The atmosphere at the temple was very welcoming, and it is a good place to sit and reflect. Whether or not you believe, there is something to be said for visiting a religious space that, for once, celebrates every single part of you.
(Editing: Ryan Drillsma)