Long before I settled into my new position as general manager of the Grand Hyatt Taipei, I’d seen an illustration of a temple in this city that’s stayed with me. It was in a National Geographic Traveler guidebook and pictured a wonderful drawing of Longshan Temple. I’m not sure what appealed to me about this image. It was expertly done, of course. This was National Geographic, afterall. But moreover, the image fulfilled that half-formed dream of East Asia that exists within so many of us, as a place where the possibility of enlightenment is more accessible than it is elsewhere — in my native Germany, for example, or in New York where I launched my career as a hotelier.
Eventually, and despite the renovations that have absorbed me since I transitioned here from my most recent post in Hanoi, I got to Longshan. I stopped in on a weekend afternoon. It was late, and the temple was crowded. Shortly after I showed up, a quiet chant built into an arresting repetitive loop, a Buddhist chant known as the Namo Amituofo.
The devotees stood and kneeled in the courtyard, some reading from books, others reciting from memory. Inside the temple proper, brown-robed Buddhists kneeled in rows, leading the incantation. One woman kept time with a red baton on a giant, carved gourd while another punctuated the chant with clangs off a brass bell.
A middle-aged man in a yellow vest lit incense of jasmine and camphor from a huge golden cauldron, working industriously to get the sticks lit and into the clasped hands of the devoted. Red candles inside the entrance gate sputtered in the late afternoon breeze.
The chanters were exclusively Asian, and there were few if any European faces in the crowd as long as I was there. This is one of the things about Taipei. In some ways, the city feels more essentially Asian than Bangkok or Phnom Penh, than Singapore certainly.
The chanters ranged all over the map from men who look like they’d just come off the golf course to others who looked slightly deranged, capable of wild flight, to women with hair teased up into helmets of immovable coifs and others who seemed to carry the weight of immeasurable grief.
The longer I listened, the more it seemed this chant was rising toward something. This would not be in vain. And my guide emphasized as much.
“This calms the soul,” she told me. “They believes this helps them to empty out all desire. In the repetition, there is release.”
It went on and on, a great emptying out on a Saturday afternoon. Enlightening.