George Mason University

News at Mason

Mason Senior Takes a ‘Break’ to Research Taiwanese Temple

February 27, 2012

By Erin Cushing

Ram Das Khalsa at the waterfalls in the Longshan Temple complex. Photo courtesy of Ram Das Khalsa

For most students, traveling on winter break means packing up the car to visit extended family or maybe going skiing for a weekend. But the phrase took on a whole new meaning for Mason senior Ram Das Khalsa, who spent two weeks in Taiwan during the break researching the various roles of the historic Longshan Temple in the city of Taipei.

Khalsa, a psychology major who is also pursuing a global proficiency certificate, was awarded the Taiwan Studies Research Travel Grant through Mason’s Center for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation.

The Taiwan Research Travel Grant is awarded to students in the arts, humanities and social sciences whose projects and capstone courses focus on Taiwan. Grant recipients work with faculty mentors both at Mason and in Taiwan.

“I was introduced to the scholarship by Naliyah Kaya, head of Mason’s Global Proficiency Program, and jumped at the opportunity to learn more about another culture,” says Khalsa.

The global proficiency certificate is earned through language and intercultural communication acquisition and time spent engaging global worldviews through study abroad trips, internships and extracurricular activities to prepare students to enter the global workforce.

“As someone who values intercultural experiences and independence very highly, applying for this great opportunity was something of a no-brainer,” Khalsa continues.

The courtyard in front of the temple teems with activity. Photo courtesy of Ram Das Khalsa

This trip was not the American-born Khalsa’s first experience with life abroad; for eight years, he attended the Miri Piri Academy, a boarding school in India that has a diverse international student body. This experience was influential in preparing him to think in new ways about the world around him, a skill that was critical in his research and survival in Taiwan, he says.

While in Taipei, Khalsa researched how the Longshan Temple, the oldest temple in Taipei, is both a religious and social center. The community includes Daoists, Buddhists, Confucians and believers of Chinese folklore. Khalsa was interested in how these different groups interact within the temple and in what kinds of activities each religious group engages.

His mentor in Taiwan, professor Ann Heylen of the National Taiwan Normal University, helped him reach out to colleagues who had conducted similar research. He learned how each religious group used the temple in their worship, and he saw that these different faiths did not negatively affect each other.

He notes that this might surprise those who would assume that practitioners of radically different faiths would not be able to coexist in the same religious center. Instead, he found there was almost no social or religious interaction at all between worshippers. The only people who engaged in social interaction within the temple were tourists.

Outside the temple is a station for prayer and lighting incense before offering the incense to the gods. Photo courtesy of Ram Das Khalsa

Khalsa was also interested in experiencing Taiwanese culture firsthand, and he dove into life in Taipei. He stayed in an ashram, where a community of Kundalini yoga teachers lived together. As a longtime practitioner of the art, which he learned at Miri Piri, Khalsa found that he fit right in.

From the ashram, he moved into a youth hostel popular with international tourists, where he met a group of Chinese and Malaysian students. “I had somewhat of a language barrier, so I attached myself to groups of people I met in the hostel from Hong Kong and Malaysia and went around with them (on tours),” he explains.

Some of Khalsa’s other challenges included finding food he could eat. As a vegetarian who doesn’t eat eggs or mushrooms, his choices were limited.

Khalsa made the most of the short time he was in the country. In Taipei, he visited several important and interesting sites, including the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan. Khalsa also spent New Year’s Eve in the square outside of the building, along with a crowd of Taipei residents, where an elaborate performance led up to a fireworks display at midnight.

Khalsa also visited the city of Taoyuan and the “auspicious road,” a pathway lined with booths and stalls leading into the capital built for and dedicated to the coming New Year. It was a night market, he notes, crowded with vendors selling specialty food items thought to bring good luck in the coming year.

“The best part of the trip was probably the hospitality that everyone showed,” says Khalsa.

After people learned he was a vegetarian, “Everyone I met spent all their time trying to find me something to eat!”

Khalsa is currently working on an academic paper that further explores his research and findings. Read more about his trip on his blog.