Outer gate of Seitenkyu, the largest Taoist temple in Japan
There are times in life when, for various reasons, one is more open to certain experiences and ideas than others. Last week, the time was ripe for my own exposure to something I had never before realized was a religion: Taoism. I’d always thought of Taoism as a philosophy, and had even once read Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching–without remembering it well enough, sadly. When I realized that the term “Taoism” can also refer to a religion, I became quite intrigued. I am not a religious person–as should be obvious to anyone who reads my Nietzsche journals–but I do have a very healthy respect for good religious art and architecture.
In the case of Taoism, it appears I have a sudden and unusual case of affection; doing a cursory bit of research on the web turned up much in Taoism that is healthy, including a “live and let live” common-sense approach to life–something very much in contrast to other religions I could mention. So it seems to me at first glance that Taoism is a very enlightened religion indeed. If I were the converting sort, I might convert to to it. I’m not, of course, so I’ll settle for appreciation and more learning. This post is probably a record of mine for having the largest number of pictures in it. Please make sure you scroll down and see them all. (Image use: Please feel free to use any of these images for non-commercial, and non-institutional use, provided you maintain a link to this website with the pictures you use.)
Incidentally, I visited Seitenkyu Taoist Temple in the Saitama Prefecture of Japan twice in seven days and would like to go back again–that’s how much I like it. My second visit to this Taiwanese temple was made memorable by an English-speaking temple staff member there. The next few photographs show Seitenkyu’s outer gate, but first, an initial view of the temple complex from the sidewalk as one approaches:
The phoenix overlooking the outer courtyard is one of dozens that decorate the temple walls and roofs. On my first visit there, I was told by a friend that the phoenix is associated with the Empress in Chinese art. Subsequently, I came to realize that it also represents the principle of yin. The stone lion below stands by the outer gates:
The next photograph shows what I’ve tentatively decided to call the inner gate. It is, however, a room complete with statues of gods, and a very unusual object that appears to be wood, and seems to be made in the shape of a mountain. I have not posted a close-up picture of this object, but the inner gate–or outer hall–is below:
A detail of the roof of Seitenkyu’s inner gate/outer hall is below:
The inner courtyard between the inner gate/outer prayer hall and the inner prayer hall is a feast for the eyes, with brilliant colours, intricate designs, and intriguing details everywhere. The next several photographs show what can be seen from the inner courtyard:
The yang dragon sign from the hallway ceiling panel above has its correspondence below, with the yin phoenix bird design:
The next picture shows an area close to the inner prayer hall:
Close by the inner prayer hall there is a beautiful bonsai tree:
Below, you can see a detail of the inner prayer hall roof:
Just in front of the inner prayer hall is a very impressive, intricate, and deeply-carved stone dragon design:
The inner prayer hall of this Taoist temple is shown below. I find that I enjoyed looking at it very much indeed:
On my first visit to Seitenkyu, there was an older gentleman who advised against taking pictures of the sanctuary. I refrained, but on my second visit, a different member of the temple staff–one who spoke English–indicated that it was permissible if I stepped back a few steps. I felt very fortunate to get these next few photographs, then–they show the temple in all its glory:
I found the three gods in the central area particularly fascinating, especially their high cheekbones and straighter angles than what exist on the rounder cheeks of much Buddhist sculpture. The four large statues, by the way, represent the gods of the four directions, according to my contact at the temple.
The ceiling of the temple contains a dome with a gorgeous spiral-design of whirling colours:
If one stands directly in front of Seitenkyu’s main prayer hall and turns around to face the corridor, a large incense stand can be seen. I liked the view through the stand:
There are two towers with very steep stairs that are adjacent to the inner gate/outer prayer hall. The first tower I went in housed this collection of candles, in addition to a large drum:
In the other tower, there is a bell which, together with the drum, mark the time at three o’clock each day. By a happy coincidence, both my visits to the temple allowed me to hear and enjoy the bell and the drum, though I was not able to ascertain their meaning: The bell, and a display of papers which I think are termed talismans by a BBC article that I will reference a bit later in this post, are shown below:
The temple is incredibly visually dense in design and in the component parts of designs:
I found the decorated section shown above very interesting because of the varieties of colour, material, and depth of carving evident in it.
Since I’m a naturally curious fellow, all of this made me very interested in learning more about Taoism. I left my Oxford World Religions volumes back in Canada, but I did visit this BBC News profile of Taoism. The profile, which is laid out rather badly because of the collapsed information, provides a schematic overview of various facets of Taoism. I actually do have several criticisms of the text of the BBC News profile, but overall it is at least a good place for someone who wants to begin to understand Taoism as a religion.
Well, that’s the end. Taoism lost many adherents in the twentieth century in mainland China, and for that reason nowadays many people think of Taiwan when they think of Taoism. My own new-found interest in Taoism relates very much to my experience of this temple, what I’ve read, and an art theme that I discovered the other day. The theme is called “The vinegar tasters.” Those interested can follow this link for more information.
I don’t really feel that any religion is particularly congruent with modernity, but for its apparent (and perhaps incorrectly-perceived) view that the world is fundamentally good, and that one should put oneself in harmony with it, rather than, say, creating religious wars or make rules regarding personal behavior that are destructive to humanity, I respect Taoism. The final picture shows the juxtaposition of the wall of the religion of the Tao with the way of the modern road, and both are existing in the Saitama prefecture of Japan together.
Directions: even a foreigner can find this temple easily. Get on the Tobu-Tojo line at Ikebukuro station in Tokyo. Get out at Wakaba Station. Leave the station via the main exit and cross the overpass above the road. Come down a set of stairs onto the street across from the shopping mall. Continue on this same road for about 30 minutes and the temple will be on the left. (Note: the photograph below shows the road going away from the station.)