Several months ago, I received a pouch of beautiful travel sized “divination blocks” as a gift. I tied them to my messenger bag as soon as I got them, and started carrying the everywhere. As one of the few pieces of flare on my bag, this bright blue pouch gets a decent amount of attention, and has been a conversation starter on a few occasions. The first time, one of my very sporty co-workers was participating for a race and noticed the bag. She asked me what was in it. I opened it up and tried to explain the concept of throwing these moon shaped blocks – rather unsuccessfully.
Thankfully, I later found a really wonderful and detailed explanation on this blog to fill in a few of the gaps in my explanation.
I passed the red block to her and told her to ask it a question. She came up with one related to the race, threw the bwei, I interpreted the answer, and then we all moved on. After using it she commented that it reminded her of a “magic eight ball,” thanked me for the experience, and returned to her desk.
Her comparison stumped me for quite some time.
There are a lot of really great sites that talk about the practice of bwa bwei (擲筊), so I won’t give too much detail here. But in short, bwa bwei is a Taiwanese word (in Hoklo) which means to throw divination blocks. People looking for clarification from the gods about a particular question will typically go to the temple, light incense, and thoughtfully (prayerfully) ask the gods their question while throwing the blocks.
There are three ways that the blocks can land: both face up, both face down, and in a one up / one down combination. Each position represents a different answer: “Uncertain,” “No,” and “Yes” respectively.
There are quite a few rules that go along with the practice. But the heart and soul of it seems to be the act of asking the gods for clarification and guidance and reading the reply.
Taking the Tradition “Out of Context”
After a bit of thought, I realized why her comparison to a Magic 8 Ball was (initially) so troublesome.
It seemed like such a natural comparison to my co-worker, because the experience for her had been taken completely out of the context of the tradition – it was out of the temple, she did not know what gods she was praying to, the atmosphere was so extremely casual and this would probably be the first and only time she threw the blocks. With all of that context gone, the bwa bwei easily turned into a fortune telling toy.
The analogy now seems pretty spot on.
The practice of bwa bwei is something that people in Taiwan often introduce to non-Taiwanese foreigners. These foreigners don’t necessarily believe in the religious aspects of it. Many probably don’t even believe that in the gods they have asked to divine an answer for them. But they participate in the act nonetheless, because it’s apart of the cultural experience. So, they take in the culture, but there’s still a fair amount of distance from it. And that’s fine to some extent. That’s probably the way most cultural outsiders get to know a new culture.
However, what my co-worker and I did basically took that separation to another level. I (a non-Taiwanese foreigner) taught another non-Taiwanese foreigner how to use souvenir blocks while sitting in an office in the United States. The experience was very divorced from the actual meanings, atmosphere, and symbolism. It felt trite. I had basically reduced this meditative cultural/ religious practice and eliminated pretty much everything except for its similarities to a mid-90s children’s toy.
For me, my blue pouch is still a really awesome gift that reminds me of a new friend. So, it stays on the messenger bag. I just hope that I’ll learn how to explain the practice in a way that doesn’t seem so trivial next time.