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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, August 21, 2004

Taoism helps retain culture

 •  Death rituals, the taoist way

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

Upstairs in the Taoist temple in Kalihi, incense burned and priests chanted while Chinese-Americans arrived to celebrate the summer solstice festival of Tuan Wu.

The Revs. Duane Pang and Cheng-Yun Xing pray during the Dragon Boat Festival. On Aug. 29 and 30, the Taoist temple in Kalihi will observe the Hungry Ghost Festival, including the offering of a whole duck.

Photos by Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Downstairs, two boys, 15 and 18, were passing the time until they would be put to work. They sat admiring the hundreds of golden "dragon boats" and "gold bricks" made from folded ornate paper, trading quips in pidgin.

What connects the two worlds, the upstairs and the downstairs of this temple, is a respect for a culture that some in Hawai'i's Taoist community fear may be lost forever: the traditions and customs of China.

The two teenagers, both of them lion dancers, acutely feel the responsibility to learn the ways of their ancestors and preserve them for their progeny.

"Chinese culture is gonna slowly die," said Russell Young, who just graduated from McKinley High School, "but someday I'm gonna explain (to my children) as much as I can."

"Lion dance is changing. ... Nobody's gung-ho to learn anymore," added Cody Hua, who attends Farrington High School. "They're not committed."

But the Rev. Duane Pang is.

"I'm trying to pass it on to the young people," Pang said yesterday. "Not just the religion. We we need (to perpetuate) the culture, like lion dancing, Chinese language schools and kung fu classes."

Over the summer, Taoist master Pang led a free workshop with St. Francis Hospice on "Chinese Religious Death and Dying Traditions and Customs in Hawai'i" at Borthwick Mortuary. Nearly 200 people heard Pang discuss the integration of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism in Chinese culture and explain local Taoist practices that differ from those in China.

Chinese-Americans accept death and prepare for it from the age of 61, Pang explained, and family plays a prominent role in rituals.

Lion dancer Russell Young, 18, thinks Chinese culture is fading in America but says that when he has children, he'll pass it on to them.
Felicia Marquez-Wong, the bereavement coordinator at the hospice, said the workshop was a good first step at understanding the diversity of cultures in Hawai'i. And the participants were mostly people in the community rather than professionals in the hospice field. "I was amazed there were so many non-Chinese there," she said.

Pang's workshop went over so well that "a lot of people wanted more ... they asked him to tell us where we can find his books," Marquez-Wong said.

Pang laughed when asked if he'd write a book on the subject. "When you commit it to paper, across the river, they might be doing it so different from you," he said. "You might have arguments."

For example, with the Hungry Ghost Festival on Aug. 29 and 30 (the Chinese equivalent to the Japanese O-Bon), he uses a whole duck as an offering, as you're supposed to do.

"In the olden days, you couldn't get a duck with a head," so they'd substitute chickens, he said. Now he finds that his authentic use of a duck is questioned by other Taoists who never saw a duck being used before.

He paused.

"That's why I won't ever write a book."

With certain Chinese religious traditions being assimilated into American culture, it's interesting to note that Taoism itself seems to be doing just fine — in its heartland, especially.

"Taoism fares pretty well in China," explained Poul Andersen, professor of religion at the University of Hawai'iiManoa, "and is recovering after political changes."

As for Taoism in the United States, it's in a relatively "in-authentic, New Age form."

"(It's) constructed not by Chinese-Americans, but most definitely by white Americans, and with little relation to what Taoism is in China — for the Chinese," he wrote in an e-mail. "The elements of Taoism that are preserved by Chinese-Americans seem to be gradually fading away."

Cody Hua holds a "gold brick," made of folding paper, that is part of the Dragon Boat Festival. In Hawai'i, many Taoist practices have departed from Chinese tradition; others remain authentic.
As he sees it, Taoism "is totally integrated in Chinese culture. ... It becomes something else when you apply it within another culture, such as that of the present-day United States."

He compared it to Hinduism, which follows an Indian way of life. But he also said observers may find Taoist rituals performed at temples in Hawai'i that are "pretty authentic."

And the authenticity will continue, as long as Pang can perpetuate it, though, he notes, his form is more the "pre-World War II" Taoism.

Marquez-Wong was fascinated to learn that Pang feels very comfortable doing funerals combining other faiths, though some faiths aren't as open about having a Taoist priest involved in their rites.

"The history was that (after World War II) a lot of Chinese families sent children to private schools, mostly Christian schools; a lot of them ended up becoming Christians and going away from traditions," she said. "Then, as the older people are dying, they request traditional things; and now (the next generations) want to find out more.

"It's a neat turnaround."

Reach Mary Kaye Ritz at mritz@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8035.

• • •

Death rituals, the taoist way

Professor Poul Andersen at the University of Hawai'i's religion department specializes in Taoism. He explained a few of the traditional Taoist death rituals:

• Three-day funerals aren't unusual, with many rituals leading the soul through purgatory and up to heaven.

• Rites filled with symbolism are performed on behalf of the deceased person to impart immortality.

• Taoist priests will recite special scriptures to accumulate merit on behalf of the deceased, which will make up for sins of the deceased.

• In-laws will wear white to a funeral, but direct descendants of the deceased may put on special garments made of sackcloth.