At the top of the stairs leading to the temple built into the side of the mountain, a cute little old man sits quietly at a table. This is his office, located in the shade of an old tree, and he’s assigned the important task of setting off fireworks when the God flag is raised in the distance. He sits in silence, listening to the sounds of the distant gong and the Buddhist chanting. He keeps a close eye on his box of fireworks and waits for a glimpse of that flag.
He’s quiet – until he sees the rare sight of a foreign visitor coming up the stairs to his temple.
“Welcome to the temple!” he calls out. “Follow me this way. I’ll give you a tour!”
He escorts his guests into a hidden door along the right side of the temple, first showing the Dragon God Temple and offering a drink of cool water pumped directly from a fresh mountain spring. Next, he leads his guests into the hidden Cave Temple and through the tunnel leading back to the main temple entrance.
This is “Uncle Jim”, a temple tour guide for the past two years. Uncle Jim is a tiny man, slightly stooped and under 5 feet tall, but his personality is big. He speaks enough English to be a teacher of religion and of Taiwan history. Many years ago he was a real teacher – of math at nearby Hsinchu High School.
I met Uncle Jim briefly last year on my first visit to this truly breathtaking temple built into the side of Lion’s Head Mountain.
On a recent sunny day, I returned to the temple to get the full Uncle Jim tour and spend some time getting to know this quirky, interesting man a little better. He invited me to sit at his table in the shade and entertained me with temple stories, Taiwan history and his own equally fascinating personal history.
Uncle Jim lives at this temple in a dorm provided for the workers. When I ask about his family, he mentions his now-deceased wife. “She was a teacher, a primary school master”. His children, a son and a daughter, are also teachers. We laugh at how teaching runs in his family just as it does in mine.
Every morning he rises early and sweeps the temple area before visitors arrive. Once his duties are done, it’s time for Tai Chi in the courtyard of his temple.
“I do Tai Chi every morning”, he says proudly. “For good health, good spirit, and healthy brain.”
“Wow! Can you show me a little?” I ask. Tai Chi is something I’ve been hoping to study.
Uncle Jim rises from his small table to demonstrate some Tai Chi moves and knocks over his chair. He throws his head back and laughs at his clumsiness, his dentures slipping just a little. Once he regains his focus, the years of Tai Chi practice allow him to move slowly and smoothly despite his age.
Uncle Jim sits back down and our talk continues. He tells me that his service at this temple is just one chapter in his long history of volunteer work through a Taiwanese Buddhist relief organization Tzu Chi Foundation.
His initial Tzu Chi volunteer service required two years of training in disaster relief and it was put to good use – he was one of the first responders after the massive earthquake known in Taiwan as “9/21”. The 7.6 earthquake struck back in 1999 and Uncle Jim spent weeks in the hard hit Nantou area assisting in recovery and providing relief to the victims. His eyes darken a little at the memory of those bleak days in Taiwan when more than 2,400 people died.
“You Americans have your 9/11 and we have 9/21″, he tells me.
Mention of the Tzu Chi Organization turns the talk to our mutual interest in humanitarian work and he rattles off the “Ten Commandments of Tzu Chi” from memory, including things like “engage in international relief”, “community service”, and “focus on culture and human spirit”. His monthly community service also includes volunteer work at the hospital in Hualien.
Uncle Jim is a devout Buddhist and this spirit of giving and his love for teaching are obvious as he sits at his table in the shade and gives me an education on the temples dotting this side of Lion’s Head Mountain.
This side of the mountain contains five temples, but the main three are:
Futian Temple – This is an ornately carved wooden temple dedicated to Dao ancestor worship. Delicious vegetarian meals are served in a community dining room next door to the temple.
Quan Hua Tang – The “middle child” of the three, this temple honors Confucius, Buddha, and various Dao Gods. Uncle Jim also pointed out the Door Gods and Earth God as we passed through this temple. (Basic overnight accommodation is available for $1000NTD per night.)
Yuanguang Temple – Built into the side of the mountain back in 1897, it’s the oldest temple in the area and is where Uncle Jim’s “office” is located. He refers to this temple as “Mother God” temple which gave birth to other Dao temples in the area.
As morning creeps into noon, a distant gong sounds signalling lunch time and the end of today’s temple lesson. Uncle Jim invites me to join him for lunch in the dining room but I decline his kind offer telling him I have plans for a scooter trip deeper into the mountains east of Nanzhuang.
Wandering together down the stairs to the lower temples, he points out the gods that were part of today’s lesson – the Door God, Earth God, Confucius, Buddha, and various Dao Gods. We pause a moment at the stairway to enjoy the incredible views of the distant mountains and the amazing rooftops.
On the second level, he points to a small gazebo.
“This area has live music every Sunday morning”, he says pointing to a small, round, brightly decorated gazebo. “My sister plays with the band. You should come sometime.”
We arrive at the dining room near Futian Temple and we say our goodbyes as the cute little man shuffles off to get his lunch and I wander slowly down the stairs to the parking lot. The day is young, the weather perfect, and the mountains are calling me.
Early one morning very soon, I’ll be back for a Tai Chi lesson from this little old man on the mountain.
Getting there – Lion’s Head Mountain shuttle buses run from most nearby train stations and the HSR station in Jubei. (Quan Hua Temple bus stop). By scooter or car from Hsinchu/Beipu, take highway 3 then turn east on 41/Shishan Road. At the T intersection near the bottom of the mountain, turn right. English signs point to Quan Hua Tang Temple.
Room reservations: phone 037 822 020/063 (Double room $1000 NTD per night)