Japanese prayer tree; totally appropriate to be grateful for moisture if you are a tree.

I recently substitute taught Relief Society in our Singapore ward.  The lesson was from the Lorenzo Snow manual, and it was called “Come Into the Temples.”  Probably half the women in the room had not been endowed, and 4-5 of the 15-20 women were investigators.  How do we talk about the temple when we aren’t supposed to talk about the temple and when so few of the women in the room had personal experience with LDS temples?

I just finished a two and a half year assignment living in Asia.  During our time here, we have traveled all over the region to various countries:  India, China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Nepal, Indonesia (Bali), Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, and the Maldives.  We have visited the temples of many religions:  Buddhist (including Thai, Indian, Chinese, Nepalese and Japanese Buddhist temples and shrines), Hindu (Indian, Nepalese, Balinese, and Cambodian ruins), CaoDai (a Vietnamese faith founded in 1926 with over 7 million adherents and some striking similarities to LDS temple worship), Daoist (popular in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Singapore), Confucian (another Chinese variety), Vietnamese ancestral shrines (in family homes), and Mosques (India, Singapore, and Malaysia primarily, although Indonesia is also Muslim except for Bali).  We only missed out on the Jain temples in India which are supposed to be breathtakingly beautiful, covered in intricate carvings.  We have in previous travels visited many Cathedrals (throughout Europe and in the Vatican), a reconstructed Israelite Tabernacle (in my native central Pennsylvania of all places), and of course, we’ve almost all been to the mountains which were considered temples in the Old Testament when there was no alternative.

Heads I win, tails you lose.

As a class, we discussed the commonalities all these temples have:

  • Restricted Access.  All temples have some restrictions on who can enter which areas and under what conditions.  In many, knee length shorts, short sleeves or even uncovered heads are considered immodest and must be covered.  Ritual clothing like sarongs or robes may be provided to permit entry.  In Balinese Hinduism, menstruating females may not enter.  In Thai Buddhism, no “hot pants” (booty shorts) are allowed.  Moses was told to remove his shoes because he was standing on holy ground, and likewise, most of the temples in Asia also require removal of footwear.
  • Purification Rites.  In some Hindu temples, patrons are asked to wash their feet once their footwear is removed.  In the Cambodian temples in the Angkor Wat temple complex (comprising over 400 sites, mostly 1100-800 years old), temples are surrounded by some sort of water feature as part of the cleansing process to prepare to enter the temple.  In Shinto Buddhist temples, pure water is fed to a small cistern at the entry where patrons can use a bamboo-handled dipper to drink or to wash hands.  In the Senso-ji Temple in Japan (Buddhist), a cauldron of smoking incense is placed at the entry, and patrons wave the smoke onto themselves to prepare to enter the temple.
  • Ritual Prayer.  Temples are universally a place of prayer and meditation.  Many rituals are associated with prayers to deity or in Balinese Hinduism bribes offered to demons to keep them away.  In Japan, prayers were written on strips of paper and tied to rods or trees.  In Thai Buddhism, small pieces of gold leaf are applied to Buddha’s statue at the shrine.  In Nepal, prayer wheels surround the Buddhist Stupa and patrons repeat a mantra as they circle the stupa, running their hand along the wheels.  In Buddhist temples, incense sticks are lit and waved three times toward the altar before being placed in a sand box.
  • Deity.  All temples and Cathedrals have at the heart of them a shrine or altar, often housing the relic of the deity (e.g. one of Buddha’s teeth, a bone fragment, a piece of the crown of thorns or the cross) or a statue.  Muslims and Mormons do not use symbols or relics to represent deity, and yet in both our faiths, the focus within the worship building is still on God.
  • Purpose.  No matter what faith, those who go to the temple seems to do so for one of the following reasons:
    • Blessings.  People go to seek blessings for themselves or for others, including as part of a ritual associated with the rites of passage of life:  marriage, births, deaths, coming of age.
    • Divine Guidance.  People seek answers to prayers in temples.  I have often thought about the inflammatory scene in Big Love when Jean Tripplehorn’s character goes to the LDS temple for guidance (blue apron instead of green).  Even though we all know she would have had to lie to get a temple recommend, still her purpose in going was essentially the same reason most people go.  People want to know how to handle a parenting crisis, marriage problems, or make an important life decision.  In many of the temples we visited there are rituals associated with obtaining answers to petitions from deity, such as horoscopes, divining blocks (which are thrown on the ground – the position they land indicates the answer), or wishing sticks.
    • Connect with the Dead.  In Cathedrals, patrons often light a candle for the dead to help them progress from purgatory.  In Vietnam, we visited a man in his home where he had a large shrine built for his ancestors and an entire wall full of the names of the preceding generations.  He very reverently talked about these people and their relationship to him and what kind of people they were, including his polygamous grandfather who had four wives.
    • Seek the Divine.  People go to worship, but also to touch base with God.  To find peace in a space set apart, and to allow symbols to turn their attention to God.
Do I smell like smoke?

If you really want to understand another culture, there are three places you need to go:  into their homes (to see how they live, what they hang on the walls, how they interact in a casual setting), their public toilets (to see what they are willing to put up with, but also to understand how communal they are and how important comfort is to them), and their temples or houses of worship (to understand the symbolism and rituals that frame the important events of their lives).

Lorenzo Snow said:

“Those who [enter the] Temple with a pure heart and a contrite spirit [will] not come out of it without receiving peculiar blessings, although these in some, or possibly many, instances might be different from what some might expect. …The Lord knows what is best for every individual, and will adapt His gifts for the production of the greatest good to those who receive them. It may be safely anticipated that every faithful Saint who enters that House will receive a blessing that will give much satisfaction to the recipient. Before those who would enter the Temple [leave] it, something [will] arise in their hearts and understanding which [will] be serviceable to them in their future lives. To this, as true Latter-day Saints, they [are] entitled.”

I like that he chose the word peculiar which has a double meaning; it can mean personal or individually suited to one’s unique needs, but it can also mean unexpected and surprising.  Although he was referring to the blessings to which we are entitled as Latter-day Saints, it occurred to me that our peculiar (unique) forms of worship are also giving peculiar (unique) blessings to people.  I know I have seen some surprising and unexpected things as I’ve witnessed these other forms of worship, but they have all taught me more about human nature and how people view the universe and their place in it.  Perhaps it’s time to go back and read Hugh Nibley’s Temple and Cosmos again.

Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia. Angelina Jolie is worshiped here.

I have sometimes been shocked by those who have said they had no interest in visiting the worship places of others because they are “wrong” or their temples are Satan’s version of the truth or some other dismissive perspective.  I couldn’t disagree more!  I have found these temples to be pretty much the same as ours in purpose and in the hopes and dreams people bring to them.  I have learned more about our own temples by visiting those of other faiths, seeing their rites and symbols, and revisiting our own in light of that new knowledge.  If anything they help make sense of our temples which otherwise are uniquely ritualistic within a faith that is so unadorned and business-like.

  • How has exposure to other religions changed your views?
  • Do you see LDS temples as distinct from all the other aspects of our faith?
  • What other temples have you visited?