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Worshiping the Ancestors

A. Religion in Vietnam: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Catholicism

1. Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion in Vietnam, and Vietnam is usually said to be a Buddhist country. It is, but not completely or exclusively. Many people are not Buddhist, and many who are combine Buddhist beliefs with other religious beliefs and activities. The type of Buddhism most commonly practiced in Vietnam is called Mahayana Buddhism (as compared with Theravada Buddhism). In English, this translates as Great Vehicle Buddhism, while Theravada translates as Little Vehicle. No hierarchy is implied. It is simply easier to attain salvation (nirvana) in Mahayana Buddhism, because this strain emphasizes the virtue of compassion, and followers believe that all humans have within them the Buddha potential, i.e., any person can achieve enlightenment. One practical consequence of this belief is that the Buddhist priesthood is generally less powerful, because less set apart from society.

2. Taoism, like Buddhism and Confucianism, came to Vietnam from China. It appealed in part because, like the animistic indigenous religions of Vietnam, it emphasized the spirit world, magic, and mysticism. When elements such as water, sun, rain, tigers, etc. could make the difference between a good harvest and easy life, or bad harvest and possible end to life, it made sense to worship them. Taoism provided systematic ways of appealing to or appeasing these spirits, and so continues to exert influence in Vietnam. The veneration of ancestors takes some elements of Taoism.

3. Confucianism also came from China, and historically influenced only the educated, ruling class in Vietnam. Its influence stemmed primarily from the fact that Vietnam, like China, held national examinations to determine who would become government officials, popularly known as mandarins. This practice continued until the early 20th century. The examinations tested people's knowledge of Chinese classics, often Confucian. Confucianism teaches that people should follow a consistent system of ethics in family, political, and social life. In practice, since government officials were all trained in Confucianism, this meant that social and family life bowed to the needs of the state. The lingering influence of Confucianism can be seen in the extreme reverence for education in Vietnam.

4. Catholicism was brought by French missionary priests to Vietnam in the 17th century, but at most 10% of the population are Catholics. Many Vietnamese Catholics supported the Government of South Vietnam, and so left the country after 1975. Even when practicing Catholicism, few Vietnamese abandon all elements of traditional religion, and combine often find a way to reconcile ancestor worship with Christian beliefs (i.e., they have masses said for their ancestors instead of performing traditional rites, but often maintain altars which look remarkably traditional.)

5. Cao Dai: Cao Dai was founded in Vietnam in 1926. It is among the most eclectic of religions in the world, combining elements of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity as well as claiming that people such as Sun Yat-sen (a nationalist figure in Chinese history) and William Shakespeare. Followers of Cao Dai do believe in a Supreme Being, but otherwise the religion is quite flexible and adaptable. The buildings of the Cao Dai religion are often quite impressive, and some are modeled after the Catholic cathedrals. Interior decorations are so bright as to almost be gaudy, and include murals.

6. Hoa Hao: Hoa Hao was founded in Vietnam in 1939 by Huynh Phu So. He claimed that the end of the world would come within a few years, and his ability to gain followers was probably helped greatly when World War II spread to Asia. Huynh Phu So claimed that religion should provide guidelines for all a person's activities, and that one's daily activities were the best method of seeking salvation. Hoa Hao arose in part to counter the excessively expensive and elaborate rituals which had grown up in Vietnam over the years, and adherents advocated a simpler approach to worship. The religion also arose in part as a response to the Confucian ideal of subordinating religion to the needs of the state. Followers of Hoa Hao claimed religion and politics were not only compatible, but naturally intertwined. Hoa Hao was opposed to the Viet Minh, and most members fought against the communists throughout the war.

 

B. Family Altars and Cult of the Ancestors

1. As eclectic as religious practice is in Vietnam, virtually all Vietnamese have a family altar in their home, and practice at least some of the rituals in the Cult of Ancestors. Families are incredibly important in Vietnam, and traditionally people were judged by their neighbors according to the degree of filial piety they showed among living family members, and were believed to "earn" luck in part based on the sincerity and degree of veneration of their ancestors. Naturally, traditions have broken down, particularly as people have left the villages where their families lived for centuries. Family altars remain critically important, and their centrality will be apparent in the video clips we see.

2. Altars generally contain a prescribed set of things. There is almost always a cloth of some kind, preferably in red and gold. Red is the color of happiness and fortune. For example, bride's dresses in Vietnam (and China) are red, not white. (White is the color of mourning in both those countries.) There is always an incense burner, and incense is an important component of all rituals. Generally, the incense is said to make the spirits feel welcome to return to their home, and therefore serves as an invitation to the ancestors. Religious altars will usually have statues of religious figures, like the Buddha but family altars have photographs of ancestors, or if a photo is unavailable, a tablet (wood or stone, preferably) with the ancestor's name written or carved on it. This marks the concrete representation of the ancestor, since his or her name can never be spoken by the family after death. Some altars also have candles on them, which serve much the same purpose as the incense. And families place offerings of food and sometimes flowers on the altar to show that they provide for the sustenance their ancestors need. The food offerings are generally placed on the altar only for symbolic purposes, and remain there only briefly before being eaten by the family. All elements of the family altar are supposed to demonstrate that the family wishes to care for the spirits of their ancestors, to welcome them into what is still their home, and to pray for the continued well-being of the extended family of past, current and future generations.

3. After a family member's death, the family must follow certain rituals of veneration. These include kowtowing, lighting incense (also called joss sticks), offering food and fake paper money at the grave and altar, etc. If the family fails to carry out these rites, the spirit is believed to be unable to find its "home," and so wanders endlessly and aimlessly. Errant spirits are believed to bring bad luck everywhere, and are blamed when children drown, for example. They bring bad luck particularly to their own families. The fact that so many Vietnamese remain MIAs from the Vietnam War is therefore doubly disturbing to many Vietnamese, since they cannot properly perform these rituals when they don't know whether family members are dead, or where they might be buried. Those families who had to relocate also often struggle to find a way to settle the spirits of their ancestors. A Vietnamese proverb sums up the importance of a "place" for the Vietnamese: "When alive, one must have a house; when dead, one must have tomb."

4. The cult of ancestors traditionally strengthened Vietnamese families, and provided an important sense of belonging and purpose. It is harder to maintain, and harder to justify in present-day Vietnam. People often move from their villages. Generations of families don't often live in the same village or house. People have a sense more of making own luck, than of having a fate based in part on ancestors' lives. So far, however, most Vietnamese still have family altars in their homes even if they don't necessarily believe those homes need be in the place where their ancestors lived. Connections to the past remain important.