Vietnamese - Religion and Expressive Culture



The official ideology of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is basically atheistic, and the state is committed by its constitution to combat "backward life styles and superstitions." While official policy guarantees freedom of religion, secular activities of religious groups are severely circumscribed, and activist religious leaders have been jailed.

Religious Beliefs. Popular Vietnamese religion is a mixture of ritual and belief derived from animist, Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist sources. Veneration of ancestors is a very important part of this syncretic system, as are many elements of Mahayana Buddhist practice and belief. But only a minority of Vietnamese could properly be called Confucianists or Buddhists. Beliefs in astrology, geomancy, and the intervention of spirits in human life are all widespread. Traditional villages had cults to a village guardian spirit. There are perhaps over 5 million Roman Catholics in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese are nominally Buddhists, but active members of organized Buddhist churches probably number only 3 or 4 million, mostly in and around Ho Chi Minh City and Hue. The Cao Dai, numbering between 1 and 2 million and limited to the south and south-central regions, combine folk religion and Christian beliefs. The Hoa Hao, limited to one portion of the western Mekong Delta, with about 2 million adherents, are a puritanical, poor, peasant-based sect committed to a simplified and austere Buddhist doctrine. There are also a small number of Protestant Christians and other small sects built around prophets or charismatic leaders. For some Vietnamese, Marxism seems to function as a secular religion and appears to have acquired some sacred aspects. Ho Chi Minh, "the father of independence," is to some a cult figure similar to traditional heroes worshiped as powerful spirits after their death.

Village guardian spirits were once important cult figures, but now less so. Some spirits are believed to provide assistance if venerated, or illness and misfortune if ignored. People who die violent deaths are thought to linger as angry spirits and bring misfortune if not propitiated. There are many categories of malevolent or potentially malevolent spirits, among them ghosts ( ma ), and demons ( guy ). There are numerous minor deities who may intervene in human life for good or ill, and a generally benevolent category of supernatural, tien, a "fairy" or "genie."

Religious Practitioners. Buddhist monks are to be found in many villages. They do not automatically enjoy high respect or exert influence in village affairs, although some may achieve these things. Catholic priests and many Cao Dai and Hoa Hao leaders are respected leaders in their communities. Shamans, fortune-tellers, and a variety of other specialists in dealing with the supernatural may build up a group of clients or followers.

Ceremonies. The most widespread and important ceremonies involve the ancestors. Death-anniversary celebrations, New Year's festivities, and other events bring the ancestors back to visit the family, where they must be ritually greeted. The Midyear (Wandering Souls) festival is widely observed. Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter. Many households have, in addition to altars for the ancestors, small shrines to various spirits (the earth god, Shakyamuni, the goddess of mercy, the god of wealth, etc.) and present ritual offerings once or twice a month.

Arts. Literary arts, especially poetry, are highly prized. A wide variety of musical forms and instruments is popular. Many southerners enjoy reformed opera, musical dramas with humorous elements. Some people like Western music, everything from classical to rock and roll. While guitars and pianos are popular, some people still play traditional stringed instruments with great skill. Fine arts and architecture reveal both Western and Chinese influence. Skits and impromptu musical performances or recitations of verse are popular at many kinds of gatherings.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to many causes: it may be organic or owing to germs, but it also may be caused by fright or hardship, heartbreak, an imbalance of elements, a curse, or spirit possession. Picking the right kind of treatment is essential. There are many specialists in the supernatural who diagnose and treat illness in a variety of ways, often sharing clients with modern medical centers and with Vietnamese or Chinese herbalists. Vitamin injections, tonics and elixirs of many kinds, and special dietary regimens are also used. Sometimes women feel called to worship a particular spirit or deity, and illness is the penalty for failure to make offerings. Protective talismans and amulets and ritual support for protector spirits are used to ward off illness.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals (and sometimes reburials) were elaborate and costly affairs, especially for the well-to-do, but they are now less so. Ritual support for the deceased is most crucial. Those not honored by a cult become errant spirits, unhappy and harmful. A series of rituals elevates the deceased into the ranks of the ancestors. Ancestors return to visit the family on death-anniversary celebrations and special family occasions. Major life events are reported to the ancestors.


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