I have been studying the Tao for more than 15 years (off and on) and I thought it was time I spoke to someone who might know more than what I can gather from books. Since I am living in Vancouver, BC, and since Vancouver has a large Chinese population, and since Taoism originated in China, I thought I might be able to find some guidance here.
It also didn’t hurt that I work close to Chinatown, one of a few concentrations of Chinese businesses, people and potentially temples in the Vancouver area.
Looking up “Taoist Temple” on the internet doesn’t get you very far if you limit it to Vancouver. Unlike the Buddhists, with their fancy Hollywood spokespeople and their pope-like Dalai Lama, Taoism doesn’t have any marquee spokespeople. Therefore, not much visibility.
I did find three apparent temples, one in Richmond, one in Chinatown and one in Japantown (an area just north of Chinatown in Vancouver). So I decided the following day to go in search of the Tao in Chinatown.
The Evergreen Taoist Church of Canada was my objective. Google maps indicated it was located at the foot of Powell Street, just outside the Chinatown train station. Since that is close to my office, I set off, bundled against the unseasonably cool and rainy weather with my fedora and my trenchcoat, looking every inch the foreigner goofball.
You can access Chinatown in Vancouver a number of ways, but all the main ways from downtown into Chinatown are ceremonial in one sense or another. Whether through giant gates, a change in streetsigns from English to Chinese, or a change in elevation, there is a distinct border between the business district and Chinatown.
Entry via the trainstation is one of my favorite ways to go as a pedestrian. You arrive at the top of a steep flight of stairs and descend into Powell Street’s terminus, a roundabout cul-de-sac. Once at the bottom, you are definitely “not in Kansas anymore”. From the aromas coming from the T&T Grocery, to the words overheard on the street and the signs in the windows, you are surrounded by evidence that you are in an enclave.
I love Chinatown. Everything is just enough off kilter to be interesting and just seedy enough to be exciting. My first order of business was to find the temple. It became clear that it was not where the google maps had placed it. I wondered if perhaps it has closed or relocated, a victim of an aging first generation immigrant community or flight to the suburbs of Richmond, where a huge Chinese population now resides.
One of my touchstones in Chinatown is the Sun Yat Sen Gardens. Just outside the gates there is a sort of Chinatown visitor or information centre. In my typical arrogant fashion, I can’t remember what it is and insist on treating it as if it was what I wanted it to be – my information centre.
It was clear when talking to the man behind the counter that I was close, but no cigar, when it came to the temple. In my non-existent Chinese (neither Mandarin nor Cantonese) I tried to explain I was looking for the Taoist temple. My helper frowned and told me no, they were not here anymore, but then after a little more prodding, he indicated that there was a temple of some sort (I was not clear) one block over and one block up.
I walked up to the corner where the venerable Foo’s Ho Ho Chinese restaurant sits and cut down the side street back over to Powell to start my search anew. It’s clear that some gentrification is creeping into Chinatown, with a trendy condo and a really nice little Brasserie now sporting fancy new faces on Powell. But certainly no temple was here.
I pressed on further, reminded that Chinatown is a three story neighborhood. Storefronts at street level are merely the first stage of commerce in Chinatown. Two and three floors above are entirely unrelated businesses, existing side-by-side as they have for years. Scanning the street and three floors on either side of the street while dodging pedestrians, dogs, merchants hawking wares to native speakers (clearly not me), and keeping an eye out for possible threats from the addicted or deranged that drift in from the neighborhood next door worked up a good steam.
Glasses fogging up and nostrils seared with the smell of fish, spices and humanity, I took a pause at the Lee Family Association offices. Dedicated, it seems, to both benevolence for the Lee family and athletics, this sort of family and athletic association is familiar to me from my Irish neighborhood roots. Where I came from these were the sort of places that the old guys hung out in, the young guys went to get hooked up with jobs both on the books and off, and where, if you had paid your dues either on the books or off, you could always turn to for help. Mr. Lee, I knew, was the president of one of the two Taoist Temples and I figured as a last resort I could try my luck here. But not yet.
Working my way back down to the Sun Yat Sen Gardens, I tried my luck at the back door, the heritage centre, figuring they might know the nooks and crannies of the neighborhood better than anyone. The attendant immediatley started in on her rote welcome while I patiently waited for her to take a breath. I then asked if I could get some help finding the temple, which she clearly didn’t have any ideas about. Moreover, she was not entirely comfortable with either her English or my looks, so she quickly retreated to the inner offices for help.
Out came my first break in the form of a 20 something one-and-a-half or second gen girl, wearing neither a nametag nor a hint of hesitation to help. Quickly establishing what I was looking for, she explained that yes, it was on Powell St. but that it was hard to find and I probably had just missed it the first time through.
She was right.
The Evergreen Taoist Church of Canada sits in the 200 block of Powell Street smashed between a book store and a spice merchant. There is a sign in both English and Chinese hidden in the doorway, but like the wisdom the temple holds, it is neither flashy nor immediately apparent to the casual explorer.
A three floor set up, the Temple’s ground floor looks more like an office building housing my childhood orthodontist than a temple. An old elevator stood at one end of the humid entryway, with large hand lettered signs in Chinese above the buttons. Deciding today was perhaps not the day to learn the Chinese words for “Use at your own risk” I decided to take the stairs to the “Ancestors Hall” and the “Main Hall”.
With the not overpowering but everpresent smell of incense infusing my pores, I climbed the three flights up to where I found Sam sitting behind a desk covered in paperwork, minding a small storefront sized, but thoroughly decorated temple. Dripping with sweat, I removed my hat and told Sam what I sought.
With a smile, he told me it was quite impossible. This was no place for lectures or teachers or speeches. This was a place to pray, sing, and make offerings/show respect. Obviously disappointed, I asked what I should do to learn more about the Tao. Sam assumed I had read all I had read in English, to which I replied yes. He asked “Do you speak Cantonese?” to which I replied “No.” He smiled at that and said that all the learning, prayers, and teachings were in Cantonese here at Evergreen, as were all the teachings in the books.
In typical fashion, I quickly said “Fine, I’ll learn Cantonese” to which Sam replied incredulously, “Really, do you have time for that? Don’t you have a job?” He was very kind, let me walk off with some pamplets written in Chinese, and wished me well. I didn’t feel unwelcome, but I was not misled to believe that this was any place for a foreigner interested in dabbling in something simply thought to be exotic.
It wasn’t until I had walked back past the grocers and vendors, the fish mongers, electronics hawkers, hole in the wall eateries, trendy restaurants and condos, the oasis of the gardens and back to the base of the steps up out of Chinatown that I realized that my search had finished as it must. I chuckled to myself as I climbed back up the steps to the wider world of Vancouver and remembered a Taoist saying:
“If you think you can speak about the Tao,
it is clear you don’t know what you’re talking about”
There was no other answer Sam could have given me. You can’t learn the Tao like you learn Cantonese. There is no memorization, no classes to take, no dogma to be drilled. There is only the Tao to be lived and experienced.
You can’t see it because it has no form.
You can’t hear it because it makes no noise.
You can’t touch it because it has no substance.
It cannot be known in these ways,
because it is the all-embracing Oneness.
~ Lao Tzu