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June 23, 2017

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Yuan Tung Temple: An oasis in a big city

It's hard at first glance to see anything remotely outstanding about the Taipei suburb of Zhonghe (中和), across the Xindian River to the southwest of Taipei city center. An area of traffic-clogged roads, apartment blocks, small shops and businesses and countless tiny back alleys, Zhonghe is just another drab big city suburb like neighboring Xinzhuang or Banqiao, but without the wonderful Lin Family Garden (林家花園) which makes traipsing out to the latter so worthwhile.

Zhonghe's great salvation however lies in its proximity to the hills. A long ridge of steep, densely wooded hills rises above the suburb, offering a quick and refreshing getaway from the crowded, noisy metropolis below. The easiest access point is Jingan MRT station (on the orange, Nanshijiao line), which lies just just ten minutes from the trailhead. Perhaps a more interesting way into the hills however starts at Zhonghe's second great asset: Yuan Tung Temple (圓通寺).

It can be hard to muster up much enthusiasm for yet another Taiwanese temple after living in Taiwan for many years and visiting over a hundred, yet I never tire of visiting Yuan Tung Temple, one of the finest (and certainly among the most distinctive) temples in the Taipei area, for Yuan Tung is quite unlike most other temples around Taipei, and for that matter there are few quite the same as it elsewhere around the island, either. In contrast to the wild explosion of color that leaps out of most Taoist temples in Taiwan, Yuan Tung Temple (like most Buddhist temples in Taiwan) is a quiet but dignified construction content with the mellow, grey colors of the natural rock from which much of the building is constructed.

Yuan Tung Temple owes its uncharacteristically mellow appearance to the fact that it's a more purely Buddhist temple than many. The religious life of many Taiwanese is a fascinating and complex blend of Buddhism and Taoism blended with a generous helping of superstition, and this is reflected in most of their places of worship.

In the ubiquitous temples and shrines that liberally dot the island, both in town and country, it's common to see Buddhist and Taoist gods standing alongside each other in the same temple hall. The situation got especially complicated during the period of the Japanese occupation, when only the worship of Buddhism was allowed. Despite the ban on their religion however, Taoists continued to follow their beliefs just they had been doing, but simply 'disguised' their temples by placing a few Buddhist statues inside.

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