A Fusion of Spiritualities

by on February 1st, 2015
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Vietnam has a very rich and diverse spiritual life. With a tradition of open mindedness, the Vietnamese people have adopted foreign regions and integrated them into native religions and beliefs.

When western missionaries and tradesmen came to Vietnam centuries ago, they learned form Confucian scholars and Mandarins that Vietnamese people practiced three religions: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. In observing people’s behavior, however, Westerners soon came to a different conclusion. Unlike Christian people in Western countries, Vietnamese people did not belong to organized religious congregations. Westerners thus hastily concluded that Vietnamese people practiced animism, or even atheism.

Throughout its long history, Vietnam has experienced many important religions. During 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, Buddhism was considered the national official religion by the Vietnamese monarchy. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the throne adopted Confucian thought and subsequently rejected Buddhism. Despite this change, Vietnam never experienced a religious war. The Vietnamese people were generally allowed to express their own beliefs without constraints set by the state.

The Vietnamese people used to believe that every natural object had a spirit. From a big stone to a tree to a single leaf, each object had its own spirit for men and women to worship. People used to express their respect by placing incense at the foot of the tree or beside a tone. The common belief was that everything on earth shares human feelings like pain, affection, or anger, so the incense appeased these objects and protected them from harm. Rivers, lakes, and mountains also had ruling spirits, with created manes such as God of the Mountain, God of the Soil God of the River. At each of these locations, people built small temples where they could worship by placing incense at the temple altar on the first and the fifteenth days of the Lunar month. Many of these rituals are still practiced today.

The most lingering belief of the Vietnamese people is the Mother spirit, or the Mother Cult. The prevalent image of the Mother is protecting her children and guiding them through all aspects of life. The Mountain Mather (Mau Thuong Ngan) helps people to near children, the River Mother (Mau Thoai) protects travel and helps people overcome difficulties or accidents there are many other Mother spirits who exist beside people to help them in specific areas of life.

Mother spirits were worshiped in separate temples, each temple with its own worshiping calendar. Since the Mother Spirit worship normally involves witchcraft or sorcery rituals, much like shamanism in other Asian countries, ceremonies serve as communication tools between human beings and spirits. The Mother Cult was historically vilified by Confucian scholars was overly superstitious. More recently, the Mother Cult is still criticized by authorities. But many ordinary people, especially women, still keep a very strong attachment to the Mother Cult Confucianism infiltrate Vietnam along with the Chinese invasion in the first century BC. Confucianism it is not a religion, but an education and ethical system of social regulation. It values ancestor worship, which lays the foundation for the strong value in family and community that pervades Vietnam today. Confucianism also led to worshiping those who had outstanding merits in setting and guarding their villages. Thus, each village has a temple for the God of Tutelary.

Vietnamese people also worship forsaken and unfortunate spirits. Throughout the country, at a crossroad or at a gate of the village, there the villagers come for incense worship, wishing that the forsaken spirits can be reincarnated into other human lives. In some places, the crooks of the old banyan tree roots are stuffed with incense burners and bowls of the rice gruel, denoting that unfortunate spirits are being worshiped. This tradition is called “banyan-tree gruel worshipping”. All these customs reflect how Vietnamese tradition values sympathy towards others.

When Buddhism came to Vietnam in early centuries AD, the first people who adopted the intellectuals and aristocracy, who were interested in its underlying philosophies. For the masses, Buddhism was interpreted as a way of life; a religion aimed at finding life; a religion aimed at finding life’s truth through years of the spiritual cultivation. Since Buddhism doesn’t discriminate against other beliefs when Vietnamese people worship by saying “praise God and Buddha”, they place Buddha at an equal standing with their other local deities.

Some Vietnamese people accepted the Catholicism propagated by Western missionaries in the middle of 17th century. At the beginning, Catholicism was less easily accepted because it rejected other traditional beliefs, such as ancestor worship. Furthermore, missionaries’ evangelism went hand in hand with Western colonialism. The prejudice against Catholicism has since dissolved into a curious phenomenon of cultural acceptance, which is especially apparent nowadays during Christmastime, which Vietnamese often celebrate as a common festive day for everyone.

Previously, women were seen as the most religiously active, as men are rarely seen at places of worship. This is a custom that remains from long time ago, when Confucianism still dominated. During that era, men only worshiped the founders of Temple of Literature and worship to pay their families at their ancestor temple. Women, on the other hand, visited all places of the worship to pay their respects. Presently, although this custom has changed and men now play a role in the religious rituals, women still keep an important role in preparing ceremonies.

Through the varying forces that historically contributed to Vietnamese religions, spirituality has developed into a multi-faceted and rich component of contemporary life.

This article written by Lanh Nguyen from Vietnam Heritage Travel

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